Studying cinema lighting should be required in the curriculum for serious photographers. Lighting setups in movies start from scratch, melding natural, artificial, and ambient light into a scene to create something unique and specific. Watching a movie through the eyes of a photographer is often a more critical experience because we are constantly searching to see how pictures come together to yield a complete movie.
What originally attracted me to Damien Chazelle’s La La Land was its stunning attention to light. In the trailer you see snippets of L.A. landmarks cast against the bubblegum-pink skies trying to evade the thick layer of smog. Watching the movie through you can’t help but appreciate the love affair with LA’s sunsets that Swedish cinematographerLinus Sandgren shared, which played a feature role in the movie’s mood and tone.
The Classic Film Look
We’ve seen film’s comeback in photography with Lightroom Presets and Instant cameras, and cinema too has followed suite with directors like Christopher Nolan, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Quentin Tarantino delving back into the medium. ‘La La Land’ was entirely shot on 35mm anamorphic, 2.55:1 Cinemascope glory film, to give movie-goers “technicolor-like splendor” (Indiewire). Additionally, after realizing that filming on 40mm anamorphic “has restrictions in terms of how close you can get to a subject”, Sandgren requested Dan Sasaki, the VP of optical engineering at Panavision, to make a lens that was a 40mm, but had a closer focus than the regular anamorphic.
When asked ‘why film?’ Sandgren states that “shooting on film wasn’t really about being nostalgic” but rather about “capturing the richness of the color that digital video simply would not give you, unless you added to it during post production.” The common dreaded phrase ‘we’ll fix it in post’ is what urged Sandgren to get it perfect in camera.
The problem with that choice is that it requires extreme attention to detail and strategic planning to make sure everything is just as imagined. To get the perfect light and depict the fairytale romance that exudes from LA’s famous sunsets, Sandgren filmed scenes during magic hour, waiting for the colors in the sky to fill the scene.
Actors Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling committed to their musical roles and went through hours of singing and dancing rehearsals just to get through scenes like this, that amounted to just one long take of 6 minutes:
Imagine the pressure on the entire cast and crew to arrive at a perfect formula of composition, filming, and acting, as light fleets faster than ever from the skies. Now, this is an issue almost all natural-light photographers have encountered, watching golden hour sink into the deep, rich blue hues of the night, and is therefore one of the most incomparable aspects of La La Land overall – how so much of the movie’s beauty is centered around magical light.
Seeing Color in a New way
Besides the blatantly beautiful scenery, Sandgren’s real playground was with the flirtation of artificial lighting. Neon colors were seen throughout the movie and the viewer is left to guess or assume where the source comes from.
Colored gels are more commonly used in cinema to show night and day, predominantly through the use of CTO and CTB Gels. “In this film, we used a lot of blue/green street lights and you hardly see it with your eyes and the digital camera hardly sees it, but with the film, it pops as an aqua blue”(The Movable Fest). The visual language created with these distinct choices of light prods the mind to think in new and innovative ways on how to include that in our own work and to just be even more observant of the light around us.
While the movie chants the unsung woes of dreamers, the enchanting set-design and lighting sets construct a parallel message that tells the tale of an artists battle between conflict and compromise. Beyond its subject matter, La La Land is a must-see to spark a revolutionary year of artistry and innovative thinking for photographers and cinematographers alike.