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Forums Cinematography Achieving a Dim Look with Proper Exposure and Little Noise

  • Achieving a Dim Look with Proper Exposure and Little Noise

     Mark Suszko updated 8 months, 1 week ago 2 Members · 2 Posts
  • Jason Pierce

    November 14, 2020 at 11:11 pm

    Hello everyone. I recently came across an Under Armour spot from Luminary Visuals, a Miami video production company. The spot is beautifully shot, but what particularly caught my attention was how their team was able to capture several scenes in a bar with a very low key/dim look while still keeping the actors well-exposed and grain/noise to a minimum, kind of like how David Fincher does in many of his films.

    Here’s a link to the spot, so you can all see what I’m referring to:

    The specific portions in the bar that I’m referring to are the 0:09-0:11, 0:19-0:21, 0:25-0:28 and 1:03-1:09 marks.

    You can also see more examples of similar “dim”-looking work on their site:

    Can anyone here tell me how to best achieve that look, on set and in post? Any help would be much appreciated! Thanks!

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  • Mark Suszko

    November 16, 2020 at 3:29 pm

    Well, this is what I see in your “dim” shots;

    The contrast ratio you’re used to seeing in conventional shots is reversed, so that the background is much brighter than the subject.

    Background is washed or detailed with blue lighting, which traditionally suggests night.

    Depth of field is kept short so the background detail is blurrier.

    Subject’s key light is “reversed”; that is, instead of the key light coming in from the traditional same side as the camera lens, it is bounced off the opposite, far side of the face and body. This gives a rim light to outline the overall head and body, giving separation, dimension, and a sense of depth to the shot, and makes for interesting planes of brightness in the face, that help define shape of the face and head, but without brightening the overall head shot.

    On a semiotic or psychological level, reversed keys can wordlessly communicate a lot about the environment and emotional state of the subject: reversed keys can suggest an unplanned, spontaneous and “natural” setting, one lacking artifice or grace, where what’s happening is unstructured and anything could happen. That’s why it’s good for bar scenes. It’s good for early morning/dawn/ getting out of bed shots, waiting in the dark “noir” type shots, It can suggest a candid situation, a private, unguarded moment, and intimacy. Read up on “Chiaroscuro lighting. On the face of an actor, it’s good for playing-up emotional scenes, grief, fear, anger, toughness, sudden realization or the reaching of conviction, scenes of characters contemplating big things, scenes that are the calm before the storm of incipient action, scenes where something is pondered and decided. The actor can “work” this lighting, turning their face into the light to, say, signify a positive choice, facing into their future, or, turning further away from the side-lighting, facing into the darkness more, retreating, to choose a darker path.

    Stuff like this is what a DP and Gaffer think about all day; how to light something to help the actor, the director, the camera op, the editor and set designer, all to wordlessly communicate, in a split second, a whole bunch of context and back-story and emotional state, just by the lighting. They are communicating the script with photons instead of words. The lighting serves the same role as a musical score, telegraphing information on an unconscious level.

    It’s also a hard-edged reverse key I see, with little or no diffusion, so perhaps it’s an open-faced scoop or panel, or fresnel lens instrument set to a hard edge, and tightly controlled with barn door flaps and other modifiers to limit spill or raising overall level. There is a little fill light on the camera side, but it is probably just a bounce card picking up and returning fragments of the reversed key light on the unlit side. That’s what I’d try first, if lighting this way.

    As to post, well, everybody these days seem to be fascinated with LUTs: “Look-Up-Tables”. Think of them as filters applied to the footage that specifically accentuate some aspects and downplay others. People sometimes buy and collect these like pogs or pokemon cards or whatever, and tend to just apply them to everything for instant gratification – especially the infamous teal/orange combo. In your bar scene, the LUT will help push the contrast ratios and adjust mid tones without making it grainier. I think it’s kind of cliche’, myself, and instead of just slapping a LUT on the footage, I’d rather take the time to adjust the grade by hand and eye as I go along. Still, LUTs are definite time-savers and can be a good starting place for further customization. If you really don’t yet know what you are doing, you can quickly try a bunch of LUTs to get in the ballpark of the look you’re after. Then I urge further experimentation to make the shot more your own. LUT’s are not magic and they can’t fix everything that was done wrong on the original shot. An old photog friend of mine used to say “Photoshop is for people that can’t get it right in-camera.” That’s perhaps a little extreme, but he had the general idea right. Work as hard as you can in lighting it right, while on location, then use tricks like LUTs and Power Windows in post to take it the last 10 percent of the way.

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