Greig Fraser, ASC, ACS, has been testing LED fixtures lately, and he is excited to share the results with fellow lovers of light. He is currently making use of LEDs on Garth Davis’ feature Lion, the tale of a boy who loses his family on the streets of Calcutta and tries to find them 25 years later. Greig says that there are four or five RGBW or RGBAW fixtures that he would use on a show “in a heartbeat.”
“There’s been a fundamental shift in LED lighting over the past few years,” he says. “Until early last year, I’d never really used an RGB light that I thought was suitable; they were all very green, and they were terrible with skin tones. Now it feels like the lighting companies have discovered the magic formula. The lights and the light they produce are just much higher quality.”
Greig cites the Digital Sputnik, the Arri L7, the Creamsource Sky, Paramount RGBAW tubes and the LiteGear RGBAW Ribbon as examples, noting that each is slightly different, and each would be the right choice under certain circumstances, depending on the needs of the scene and the taste of the cinematographer. “I’ve tested all these lights with film and digital, with color charts and skin tones, technically and aesthetically, and all of them were very comparable,” he says. “Each is very high quality, but they strike slightly different notes on the screen. It’s interesting to me that choosing the right LED might now be akin to choosing a film stock for a particular look.
“Of course, I’m not qualified to discuss the science behind each lamp and how it works, but what’s interesting is how the light emitted from these units is often designed specifically for either digital sensors or film emulsions. Cinematographers might choose a certain light because it works in practical fixtures, or because a large area needs to be covered. But we can make creative choices based on how the light feels, too. Some of these lights are very modular, with massive amounts of punch. The day I turned one of these on, it changed my life — it was almost like seeing light for the first time.”
Greig knows that sounds dramatic, but what cinematographer doesn’t get excited about light?
On Lion, Greig used the Digital Sputnik LED, which has three 4” heads that can be individually controlled. In tight locations, it was a boon. “That lamp can be controlled with an iPad app,” he says. “You don’t have to send it all back to the lighting desk, and you can change the color of the light by the number of degrees Kelvin required, from 1500°K to 10,000°K, with the touch of a switch. I could use one head to light the bluescreen, and we’d use the sodium-vapor effect on the other two heads. On the next shot, the heads needed to be tungsten-balanced, and we could make that change without any gel. It gives you complete and utter freedom over intensity and color.”
That control can save time and avoid compromise. “On a larger project, you might walk on the set the morning of the shoot, a set you’ve pre-lit for a week and a half,” says Greig. “For example, you wanted a certain color, and you’ve managed to get it through gelling half the spacelights blue and half of them slightly magenta. Then you realize that the actor has just been in the sun for the weekend, and you’ve got too much magenta in the light.
“Tungsten we can dim, but it goes warm. We can reduce intensity by switching them off, but the color flexibility is limited. HMIs don't have very much flexibility. Fluorescents sometimes can be dimmed, but the output isn’t very high. With LEDs, you’ve got the flexibility to alter that color at that moment. You might be responding to the actor’s skin tone, or you might be responding to the feel. You might just walk onto the set and say, ‘Wow, this feels different with all the set dressing in and I think I should make it slightly warmer, and slightly greener.’ Of course, color grading can be done in camera or in post to the overall image, but the flexibility to do it on the shoot day, to individual areas of the frame, is a gift for a cinematographer. And if you’re in a small room, with the actor, the director and a sound person, the ability to have that degree of control at your fingertips is absolutely priceless, too.
“On The Gambler, the lighting guys pre-rigged an entire strip club with RGBAW ribbon from LiteGear,” Greig continues. “I think because of crew turnarounds or whatnot, my gaffer, Michael Bauman, and I only had a half-hour pre-light before the director came in. In that half hour, Michael and I could choose the exact colors for each section of the club, and the brightness level for each area, all without a single piece of gel, and all ultimately repeatable.”
The power-saving aspect of LEDs is also important to Greig. “Most cinematographers are conscious of the Earth, and we try to minimize our impact,” he says. “But I have to say that I won’t accept B-grade quality of light just because it draws less power; I wouldn’t be doing my job if I allowed that to dictate my creative choices. LEDs mean we can use less power, which is good for a number of reasons.
“This is my subjective opinion, and cinematographers should test it for themselves, but I feel like we’re at the start of something really great. These RGBWs are becoming more prevalent. I don’t know the economics, or what it takes for studios and rental companies to decide to buy them. But I know it’s happening, and I’m sure it’s going to be even more prevalent in the future, once people see the reliability and how much time and energy they save. You get more output for a small source, along with more control.
“But it’s still the early days. The companies are working hard on this technology, and I’m sure it will continue to evolve.”