The Way I Look At Light

I started this journey capturing light as a profession about eighteen years ago. The following is a repost:

blog 30 jan 2012

I love movies. Love. Sometimes, a movie will be so good visually and thematically it’ll make me clap and smile or tear-up because everything just worked. I love a great story and grand (but real) lighting. That’s about all I need.  Honestly, even if the movie didn’t have a happy ending, if the lighting was amazing, I’d still remember it.  I’m drawn to the ones with the “beautiful light.” I just finished watching midnight in Paris, the woody allen film.  Beautifully lit.  (I imagine it’s difficult to find bad light in Paris.) And I realized I’d been meaning to speak about my love affair with great light.

I had to pause the movie so that I could make a few notes for this blog.

My love of that beautiful Hollywood light and still photography happily met one day on a large movie set in Kuuloa ranch.  As I’d mentioned in a previous post I was a paramedic.  For extra money, a lot of part-time paramedics would work special events: rock concerts, escorting heads of state (a crown prince, once) and feature film productions.  All of those were the “cushy” medical details.

Some BTS shots from my time as a movie medic: Windtalkers, Tears of the Sun, and 50 First Dates.

Once I went part-time as a medic, I was fortunate enough to get any of those details.  Because of my interest in film and photography working those movie productions was ideal.

On set, I’d keep my eyes on a few key people: camera, lighting, director of photography, grips and the gaffer.  The gaffer.  My hero.  The name (the first one I’d met told me this) comes from the days when a gaffer used a gaff (a long rod with a hook at one end) to move the lights, up high, around the set and point them where they need to be.  And the name is still in use.

I learned to spot the gaffer right off so that I could see how he worked and what his concerns were (at a respectable distance, of course).  Outside, when light from the sky mattered, the gaffer would be the one looking up through a small handheld piece of welder’s glass, looking for breaks in clouds and such.  Find the carts with all of the rolls of different colored film gels and large lights and you’ll find the gaffer.  If those clouds decided to stay, and the shots planned for that day called for beautiful golden late afternoon light . . . Gaffer.

At the time, for the novice eye I still had, I had little clue what they were doing but remembered nearly everything, asking one of the assistants (or best boy) about something if I couldn’t work it out in my head.  I had to remember because I needed to know how their setup affected the picture when the movie finally came out—often a year or more later.  I could recall how shots were lit, what gels they’d used and finally see the beautiful work on the screen.  Sure, there was post-processing but I could still see what made what, why that did that, and how it all came together into a beautiful visual.

And don’t forget, most feature films still shoot with film.  Good old film but that’s probably a blog that would not get written, at least not soon. Shooting film back then lead me to buy a color meter, which, like the film blog, is a story for another not-to-be written blog.

I have a stack of books on lighting that I’ve read but I think I learned the most on those movie sets. And from observing the gaffer. I skipped photography school but rather learned from so many great teachers like the gaffers, pro photographers, and grips I met in my early years.
Ultimately, I bought most of the same equipment they used on set and you’ll see it in much of my earlier work. I love the process of idea to image, especially when it involves beautiful light and telling a great story.

End Note: these shots are influenced by my time on set . . .

Nic Cha Kim.

Surf Hollywood. Jesse, Rana, and Bubba.
Shanghai 1930 1/6
The Pool Boy. Raj, Melissa, and Ying.
Pete Nelson, Treehouse Builder.