The Scott Shaw Blog Be Positive

Available Light

Back when I was teaching a lot of college and university courses on filmmaking, I would always tell my students that if you can’t shoot a film with no external lighting sources you do not understand the craft. I would, in fact, pass out assignments that would cause them to go out and shoot a short using nothing but available light. Most would just go and shoot their piece outside. But, I was always so impressed when someone would do that something unique and bring back a film created with that abstract something of unexpected available lighting.  
I remember this one time when a friend of mine, who was a high school teacher up in the bay area, asked me to come and give a talk to her students about filmmaking. I did what I often did in my classes on filmmaking, I would have a camera set up through the classroom TV and I would focus on one of the student’s faces. Then, I would have another student partially turn off the lights in the classroom and everyone would be so amazed at just how different whole lights verse half lights make the person appear. Something so simple but it can change the entire mood of the scene.
Really, it is all so easy; no lights verse controlled lights. It can change everything!  
Personally, and for those of you who know my films can attest to, I’m really into colored lighting gels. I love that lighting technique in film. Let’s make life look like something different in the film than in common reality.
I was at one of those outdoor art festival things over this past weekend. You know, where sellers come to hock their wares be it art, jewelry, interesting trinkets, and the like. I really don’t like those events. But, that’s just me. I go for the sake of my lady, who loves that kind of stuff.
I got taking to this one guy I know who makes his living via creating jewelry. Good stuff, really. My lady owns tons of it. He’s also one of those rare people who’s into low and no budget cinema. When I first met him, years back now, he had actually seen Roller Blade Seven. Amazing! He always likes to talk to me about that kind of trash cinema. All good…
Out of the blue, the other day, he asked me about lighting; questioning didn’t I shoot most of my films outdoors. A Savvy viewer, he understood that the reason a lot of no budget films occur outdoors is due to the fact that no lighting is needed. He appeared quite surprised when I told him I own a lot of lighting equipment.
Since I’ve shifted my focused from the narrative to the non-narrative Zen Film, well over a decade ago now, I have become more and more in love with embracing the natural; whatever that natural may be. When there is the need or the opportunity to take control over the light, however, I most happily do so.
This is the thing about life and the thing that very few people ever take into consideration; lighting. They just turn on the lights or they just turn off the lights. In fact, most filmmakers, including many I have worked with, are so lost into making the images so well seen that they have no level of abstract continuity making the film ART as opposed to simply a lighted panorama of the seen it all before. That’s a mistake, I believe.
I mean, think about it, just like in my classes, taught in a classroom, it is so easy to change the entire mood and the feeling of everything, simply by turning off half of the lights. It makes everything that much more interesting Something.
My suggestion, for all of you is, give it a try. Your life, the lighting of your life, does not have to be the bright and the expected. It can be tailored to the uniqueness of each situation.
Try it. Get some colored lights, slap a colored gel on the lighting you have. Or, just turn off some of the lights that surround you. Even available light is controllable. The elements of the darkness can be way more interesting than the known and the expected bright lights.