Magazine article American Cinematographer

LIGHTING Street Music

Magazine article American Cinematographer

LIGHTING Street Music

Article excerpt

The cinematographer who doesn't have to concern himself with the economics of filmmaking is a rare creature-if he exists at all. Schedules and budgets. Time and money. There's never enough.

The process, then, of lighting a film nearly always resembles a balancing act. Juggling the look you've imagined with the resources available is no mean trick; that balancing act constitutes much of the craft of cinematography. Of course, techniques and challenges vary greatly with the size of each production. And for the D.P. on a low-budget feature, juggling can become an obsession.

Statistics show that last year the average film cost $11,000,000. For every $20-30,000,000 studio blockbuster, there was a $250,000$1,500,000 independent feature to lower the average. And STREET MUSIC was one. Independently produced, shot entirely on location in San Francisco in 35mm with an Arri BL II, using Kodak 5247, STREET MUSIC'S total budget was $600,000 ... about 6% of the cost of the average film. My personal goal, as the D.P. on STREET MUSIC, was to realize the movie I imagined: I didn't want to ever use lack of money as an excuse for a "low-budget" look.

The movie, in brief, tells the story of Sadie Delaware, who sings and tapdances on the streets of San Francisco for tourist coins, and Eddie Beagle, her live-in boyfriend, who drives a tour bus. Their home is the Victory hotel, a dilapidated, but colorful place on the seedy side of town. When the landlord decides to demolish the hotel, the elderly tenants decide to fight back. Their struggle provides the backdrop for exploring the relationship between Sadie and Eddie.

Certainly a potential pitfall in a film like STREET MUSIC-dealing as it does, with old folks, poverty and eviction-is the tendency to become maudlin or depressing. Jenny Bowen, who wrote and directed the movie (and is my wife) felt strongly that with dialogue, casting, music, art direction, cutting, and certainly lighting and composition, we must work against that grim threat. This was not to be a gritty documentary; but a friendly, funny, upbeat look at some little people who were struggling to do something big. The visual style would be slick enough to ennoble the story and characters, and down-toearth enough to preserve realism (eg. well-modeled portraits, wrinkles intact.) We were after a precise look; to achieve it would require precise control. In lighting, precise control usually translates into plenty of equipment and lots of time. We had precious little of either.

The challenge, then, became to find or create at minimal cost, environments where shooting could proceed virtually uninterrupted by lighting adjustments. On exteriors, the trick is to work within areas that already have the appropriate natural light-open shade, backlight, and so on. With a flexible attitude and the right exposure, it's pretty easy to shoot effective footage outdoors without lighting equipment or set-up time.

Interior lighting is another story. It is accepted practice that control comes through individually lighting each angle. While it's common to "rough in" a set, lots of time is always spent between set-ups-and especially on reverses-resetting a myriad of lights, flags, cables, and assorted other devices to maximize the potential, but I knew going in that I had to average over 16 different set-ups each day. My only hope was to convert the entire Victory Hotel (our primary location) into a ready-to-shoot stage before the actors ever got to the set. We needed to do much more than pre-rig the first angle to be shot in a given room; we needed to rig each room so that with no visible movie equipment, it was 90% lit for any angle. We needed to create our own "natural" light.


Mildred is a lovely dingy old character, the grande dame of the hotel. Some of the happiest and saddest moments in the film take place in her roomnearly all at night. The set was 10 x 15 feet with an 8 foot high ceiling and two 6x7 foot windows with broad second-story views of the buildings across the street. …

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