Lighting 103: Learning From Your Couch

Abstract: Don't just look to still photos for inspiration. Great inspiration also awaits you on your TV.

We may think we are getting a good feel for color as photographers. But you know who kicks still photographers' butts every day? Cinematographers, that's who.

Today, a look at some examples from 2010-era Dr. Who, which we have talked about on this blog before. These guys are near and dear to my heart, because they are unabashedly fearless when it comes to using color to manipulate light—and their viewers.

A Lot From a Little

I love the BBC. There's something about their ethic that yields consistently great work that is built more on imagination and grit than it is huge budgets and production values.

A great example is Dr. Who, the BBC's decades-spanning SciFi series. When I first started watching the show, it almost felt like an assault on my senses in comparison to the usual stuff here in the US. These guys use vibrant color all the time, and without a second thought.

Color is often used as a bridge to allow you to sense something that is unseen—maybe even something they could not afford to show you overtly. These guys are the cimematic equivalent of gel-loving speedlight still photographers.

Take the TARDIS, Dr. Who's time- and space-traveling vehicle. (TARDIS = Time and Relative Dimension in Space.) Outwardly presenting as a simple police call box, it's famously bigger on the inside. And the physical beating heart of the TARDIS is rendered above with some modest props and a healthy dose of shock-cyan light. Your mind fills in the rest at no cost.

The light is contained within the frame. So it is a subject, (AKA, a "practical" in movie terms) but it also has to be seen as interacting with its environment.

But you can't cheat physics. If the cyan brain of the TARDIS is exposed correctly, it will be too dim to illuminate those funky vertical supports twelve feet away. So they have to be lit separately, and with cyan gels. This way they appear as being motivated by the practical, as they say in the business.

So the cyan light on the supports is coming from unseen light sources either out of frame, or hidden behind elements in the frame. Ditto the light on David Tennant's face. They just have to make it look like it is coming from the cyan column, and your brain fills in the rest.

In truth, the angles will never quite match. But your brain is very forgiving, especially in a motion environment.

Light and color are an integral part of Dr. Who's physical setting. Even the opening titles burst with color. It is relatively low budget (again, compared to Hollywood) but vibrant use of color bridges the monetary gap in our minds.

This title sequence establishes the look for the whole show. It sets the scene, literally, for the saturated hour to come.

Much more so than their American counterparts, the cinematographers who make Dr. Who are perfectly willing to blast you with saturated colors to anchor a setting. Take this computer/control room. It's closer to cinema than TV, but with less restraint and more saturation.

You may like it, or you may not. But it is a conscious design choice—and a great way to set the scene on the cheap.

Back to light sources embedded in the frame, check out the space suits above. The blue and green status lights add layers of information as they glow in the stark, uplit scene. The theatrical fog (which is used a lot) is another way to add atmosphere and separation on the cheap.

Notice how they starve the scene for color, using the white uplights. The green and blue status lights and cool flesh tones draw you toward the characters as a result.

It's like they are constantly asking themselves how they can get the biggest bang for their lighting buck. There's so much a speedlight-gelling photographer can learn here.

The folks at Dr. Who are much more daring and theatrical in their use of light than the typical TV series. Nonwhite light is so omnipresent, that the use of white light alone becomes a relative device. Kinda like with Heisler, come to think of it.

Look at the stark, gothic edge lighting in this scene from the "Blink" eipsode, which was one of the most tense, immersive hours of TV that I have ever seen. And then when you rewatch it (i.e., so you are able to breathe this time around) you realize how efficiently they pulled this off.

What Hollywood does with big budgets, Dr. Who does with creativity and inexpensive gels. Finding and studying shows like this can give you a continuous series of "a ha" moments, even as you are also being entertained.

NEXT: Developing a Framework


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