London threw the spotlight on lighting in early May, with an event illuminated by three of the craft’s top practitioners.
The panel discussed their careers, current technology and how to say “no” to directors, as well as offering advice on breaking into the industry.
As a child, cinematographer Stuart Harris spent his lunch money on Sight and Sound magazine and admission to the latest art-film releases. Following school, he became a mail boy, before working as a runner on Roger Corman’s 1964 film The Masque of the Red Death and then as a clapper loader.
Harris established himself as a cinematographer and moved between shooting commercials, music videos and films, including David Hare’s Wetherby. He is currently Acting Head of Cinematography at the National Film and Television School.
“My career hasn’t gone feature, feature, feature. I wanted to get into areas where there was more imagination. I’m not putting down feature films, but the thing about a feature is that it locks you into a style,” said Harris.
Bernie Davis has been lighting outside broadcasts since 1987, winning RTS awards for two BBC programmes: Masterworks – Six Pieces of Britain: The Tallis Fantasia in 1999 and Songs of Praise in 2005. He now lights the Proms for the BBC and National Theatre Live, the plays broadcast to cinemas around the world.
John Colley worked as an electrician in Canada until moving to the UK. Determined to make it in movies, he helped out on short films before establishing himself as a gaffer (the electrician in charge of lighting).
His films include David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. Since 2014, Colley has been General Manager at equipment supplier Arri Rental UK.
At the London event, which was chaired by digital producer Muki Kulhan (BBC One’s The Voice), Colley discussed Arri’s latest energy-efficient LED lights. “When I was working as a gaffer I didn’t believe LEDs were practical,” he said. “But the virtues of LED light are an absolute game-changer now. They’ve [mastered] a lot of the problems.”
The first casualty of the advances in LEDs, said Colley, “is going to be the smaller tungsten lights. Harris, however, argued that although “certain LEDS are fantastic, I don’t see that everything else is going to get thrown away just yet. There is a thing called ‘quality of light’. We need to spend a lot of money on LEDs to get them right.”
The lighting experts discussed how to persuade directors to accept their advice. “I nag them three times and, if three times it’s no, then it is no,” said Harris.
“You have to find a way to make [directors] think it was their idea,” suggested Colley. Davis agreed, adding that, if that fails, “Make it look good despite their lack of taste.”
The experts also offered advice on how to get a start in lighting. “Keep at it. Make short films. Watch all the films you can, but don’t think it starts with Star Wars – go way back. And don’t give in,” said Harris.
“Immerse yourselves in lighting,” added Davis. “Go to art galleries and look at paintings. [See] the way the Dutch painters used light to convey images and give depth.”
Lucky breaks, though, are important, Davis admitted, and offered a personal example. Following a wave of BBC redundancies, he recalled, “all these experienced people left outside broadcasts, leaving lot of plum jobs. I became The Proms Lighting Director.”
Looking to the future, Davis said: “I get fed up with people telling me that cameras are getting so sensitive that we won’t need lighting soon. It’s so shortsighted, because lighting gives mood and direction. If lighting was [only] about illumination, I wouldn’t bother doing it.”
“Lighting from every angle” was held at ITV London Studios on 4 May and produced by Rosemary Smith.