Do you ever think about how much technology shapes not just our daily lives, but also who we are? Like maybe if we didn’t have airplanes no one would have an interest in world travel, or without huge battleships and machine guns no one would’ve bothered with the First World War. In less than 10 years, LED lights have exploded on the scene in a big way. And this might sound crazy, but it looks like sometimes the latest tech is motivating our creative goals, rather than the other way around.
Take a look at what happened when color first came into cinema. There was a lot of resistance from filmmakers who were still enamored by black & white. Granted color technology was expensive at first, but those die-hard black & white fans managed to drag out the transition to color for about three decades. As passionately as some cinematographers may have loved the monochrome look, it eventually died out. Black & white became less of a creative choice and more of a relic. It seems to me that the temptation of the new technology was so strong that it changed what people wanted from cinema––not just what was possible, but what filmmakers, in their hearts, wanted.
LED technology is more than an eco-friendly way to light your house. A single lighting unit can be composed of lots of “Light Emitting Diodes” (see what they did there), which can often be controlled separately. LEDs can also be way smaller. Those changes are EVERYTHING. We can now produce a full range of colors in a single lighting unit. When I was in film school, I had to plan the exact colors I was going to light with before the shoot then go to the store and buy those exact gels. Any colors I didn’t think of ahead of time were not in the film. Those were primitive days.
Of course we’ve been able to change the color of lights all along, but there’s an effect to it being so much easier. These days a cinematographer can stand at a monitor and dial in the color of the lights on an iPad. It’s almost begging for experimentation. I think we’ve seen a lot more use of unnatural colors in lighting in recent years and it might have to do with how much more accessible it is. 10 years ago everyone was all about blue and orange. It makes sense because those are the colors of light we typically see in life, but now there’s a new color on the scene––magenta. I remember a while back, cinematographer Bradford Young said in an interview with American Cinematographer that magenta had become somewhat of a trademark for him, particularly for his films “Pariah” (2011) and “Middle of Nowhere” (2012). By 2018, post-LED revolution, magenta had become a veritable cinematic phenomenon.
The concept of “bisexual lighting” (yes, I said bisexual lighting) started trending on social media last year (click if you don’t believe me). It was a recognition of the abundant use of pink, purple, and blue colors together especially in storylines that revolve around bisexual characters. Notably the bisexual pride flag features the same colors. Films like “Neon Demon” (2016) and “Atomic Blonde,” (2017), as well as Janelle Monaé’s “Make Me Feel” video make a good case for the connection between this lighting trend and bisexual pride. There are other films like “Blade Runner 2049” (2017) and “Black Panther” (2018) that also use similar lighting. Whether those colors are connected to bisexuality (and also whether that’s a good thing or not) is probably a question for a different post. But what we do know is that cinematographers are definitely playing with color more than they were before LEDs came around.
It’s not just that magenta has finally made it out of the strip club, it’s also how often colors are changing dynamically within shots. I recently saw the latest monster flick, “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” (2019) and it’s astounding how fluently they’re articulating the lighting cues to follow the action of a scene. They’re using hundreds of units to illuminate these sets. They’re matching the mood and bioluminescence of the monsters, on top of tons of environmental lighting cues like flashes, and emergency lights. Everything has a different color and it all feels like it’s being conducted with symphonic precision. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher used a variety of LED lights to pull it off and I’m not sure how he would’ve done it without them. So much more of today’s films, especially the blockbuster types, are lighting like this.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how much the compact size and flexibility of LED lighting contributes to the modern cinematographer’s toolkit. They can fit in so many places that used to be difficult or impossible to light from. The most glaring example I can think of is the major upgrade for lightsabers in the modern era. Back in previous trilogies, lightsabers gave off pretty much no light of their own onto the environment around them. It’s a dead giveaway that they were just a post-production effect. In the latest Star Wars films you can see the light emanating off of them onto the faces of the characters wielding them. That is progress.
We can definitely say that cinematographers are changing because of LED technology. Trends always seem to develop along with new, widely available changes in the tools we use. Think about how digital cinema brought back vintage lenses, or how everyone needs aerial footage now that drones are so cheap. I think the question we have to be aware of is whether we’re making these changes in our photographic practices simply because they’re easy, or if it’s actually what’s right for the film. Maybe new tech like LED lights affects our conception of what’s “right,” but even as trends come and go, we have to find what’s important to us as artists and make it work in an evolving cinematic ecosystem.