Innovation good? Innovation bad? Or is endlessly coming up with new ways to do the same old thing just and exercise in futility?

Portrait of Anna. Old camera. Same old lighting. 
At lest I took the time to use some lights...

I've got a bone to pick with CBS. Yes, the broadcast company that distributes television programming. That's the one. For about eight years now they've produced a show called, "The Big Bang Theory." I don't care if you like it or hate it (but I'll question your taste if you truly hate the show....) but for all its years as one of the top ranked shows on network television they've shot it in the accepted situation comedy format. Bright and ample lighting that's well designed and unambiguous, simple sets and conventional camera shots with nice reaction shots. I would't swear to it in a court of law but I'd bet the style was set in the first season by a DP who shot film.

The show never varied its formula until they slipped, tripped and pissed me off last night. In one foul/fell swoop they ditched their lighting formula and replaced it with the dreariest light imaginable. I can just see the meeting where this happened. It was probably a network executive's nephew, right out of film school on the West Coast, who started the meeting with something along the lines of: "Why are we still lighting the shit out of this show? With all the superb low light cameras on the market right now we could be shooting this almost available light and it would be really cool." The selling implication being that they could lay off most of the lighting crew, sell off the fixtures and shoot the whole thing at ISO 10,000 on a Sony A7S2  and not lose a single audience member. It's the same argument I hear over and over again from photographers who are afraid to light and don't understand the value of creating a lighting design. 

So what started out as lazy practice (not learning how to light) which was then made "acceptable" by the introduction of cameras that could make noisy-less photos at really high sensitivities. Never mind that the light was orange on one side of the face and green on the other, or that the lighting was ugly or misrepresented the acting talents. It didn't require work or knowledge or good taste and nearly all of those things cost money. 

But the director or producer of the Big Bang Theory took the whole imbroglio one step further and presented the flattest, darkest footage I've seen on TV. Even worse than House of Cards!!!  It was like the whole episode was shot in S-Log something and never color graded. Heads merged into underlit backgrounds arms merged, tonally, with furniture and the whole thing looked like a turgid mess. 

Much as I love the writing on the show, and the character of Sheldon Cooper (whom I seem to have met over and over again while attending the University of Texas College of Electrical Engineering) I was ready to turn the show off entirely. Instead, in a state of quasi surrender, I just closed my eyes and listened to the dialog (which was also comparatively overcooked --- probably by the same film school wizard...). 

If anyone who reads this knows anyone at CBS, please send them this blog post so they will know that doing away with good lighting is like doing away with oxygen, ketchup for french fries, cream for coffee, music in cars, five pocket jeans, and icing on cake. They should wake up from their stupor, walk down the hall and have the young snot that perpetrated this disaster caned in the traditional Singaporean style. Then they should make him watch his own dreck-y concoctions over and over again (ala A Clockwork Orange)  until he (or she) understands the flattened and undifferentiated nastiness of their parsimonious decision making and repent. 

When laziness becomes a codified style it's time for a nasty little revolution. 

Funny, today I heard a story from a film maker whose client took them to task for delivering noisy night time footage. I asked why it was noisy and, with no sense of irony or absurdity, my storyteller mentioned that the particular footage in question was shot at 5,000 ISO. Didn't anyone think to rent some god damned lights? You don't need stuff to "look" lit in order to raise the lux levels. But since you are already doing some work would it kill you to give your light a little direction? Aid with some nice modeling? Create some texture? Etc. I didn't think so. 

Something does not become "art" just because you've become too lazy to do your job right. Grab that little snot at CBS and rap him on the knuckles with a mean nun's ruler ----- because he's doing the same thing to your tender eyeballs. 

Sometimes it's just fun to rant.


Anonymous said...

It's real simple. Network TV is all about money. People who produce network series have degrees in law or finance. No-one goes to film school, that's for the would be artists who want to work in features.

Bottomline is more important than creativity. Back when most series were still being shot on film, a series at Universal went to TV camera pedestals and video style zoom lenses. The camera-operator did his own moves and pulled his own focus. This allowed the producer to save the wages of a focus-puller and a dolly grip.

BTW i'm retired IATSE, and saw a lot of Hollywood foolishness up-close.

Kepano said...

I don't watch the show, so I won't comment on the lighting you found problematic, but I won't hesitate to sing the virtues of high sensitivity cameras - not to eliminate the need for lights, but for shrinking of the lighting package. I have a stack of biax fluorescent fixtures that haven't seen a gig in about a year. Small, high CRI Aputure LEDs and their attendant smaller light stands have essentially replaced the flos for interviews. I do want to add some harder LEDs (the Dedo LEDs look interesting) to the kit, and the new Westcott Flex Lights look promising, too. I don't need 10,000 ISO, but 3200 or 6400 so I can stop down my lens to ensure a sharp outline to ease keying in post is nothing to complain about. Lighting is one of my favorite parts of shooting, and I'm so happy I can get great results from smaller, lighter and less power hungry gear.

mikepeters said...

I wonder if your story tellers client had a budget for the lighting rental and the extra crew that this additional element would require. Often we are hamstrung by parameters of the client, not always by laziness or an unwillingness to do more, but by the axiom to do it all, for and with less.

Or maybe he is just lazy and/or doesn't really have the right gear to be shooting at night without lights. Maybe he should have said no to the job if he wasn't given the resources to do it right.

Kirk Tuck said...

Guys... It's the top rated sit com on TV and has been for the last five years. Believe me, they HAVE the budget to do it correctly.

Anonymous said...

Yes, yes, yes!

Ok, you can't really take my comments seriously because I despise that show and never watch it.

But I've been ranting for years about funereal 'available light photography' at weddings and other active events. The absence of noise does not a good photo make.

And I'm someone who knows very little about lighting myself. Doesn't stop me from knowing that dark, flat, ugly photos from a wedding reception do not convey joy and optimism like well lit, bright and lively photos do.

That lack of knowledge is the foundation for new 'standards' in the film/photography industry is similar to what has already happened in the music industry.

mikepeters said...

I was commenting on the guy with noisy images, I should have made that clear. I don't watch Big Bang, but they have no excuse.

Mark Davidson said...

One of the first things I noticed when I first watched BBT was the lighting. It was saturated, bright and with enough snap to move the scene into the area of camp. It was a great decision IMO to use this lighting to heighten the sense of poppy sitcom humor.

As for lighting in general, I was recently asked why my van has so many camera cases in it. (It has between 7 and 10 depending on the job). I answered that only one case had cameras, the rest were lighting cases and stands. They noted that the photographers they saw usually didn't use lights beyond a flash on the camera.

I guess they pushed my button because I responded, " A professional photographer will have lighting. They may not use it on some occasions but in most situations they will. That is what professionals do, they use lights and their creativity to make striking images that sell. If you never use lights you are no better than a snap shooter that may get lucky but will never consistently deliver images that sell and cause the client to call again." They edged away form me as they assumed that I need my medication.