Monday, May 30, 2011

To direct the viewer's attention...

The filmmaker didn't tell you anything; he just showed you.

Austin – Chad Owen develops ideas and makes value judgments regarding the speed of light, and all its infinite wave lengths – on a day to day, moment to moment basis.

It's his profession.

His earliest professional experience came as a grip working for one of Chicago's major gaffers, lighting movies, commercials and documentaries in the Windy City's locations and studios.

He produces videos for websites, merchandisers, educators, and filmmakers in Austin's burgeoning film colony.

He's a young man, agile, clean cut, spare of word – with the sudden movements and actions of a craftsman who uses phrases with care, chooses terms for maximum impact, lets them sink in, then makes a sudden move to grasp a lamp, a scrim, a reflector - any of the hundreds of pieces of gear used to paint pictures – motion pictures – with light.

Sunday of a long holiday weekend finds him teaching “Lighting 101” at the Austin School of Film in a trim, low and glassy brick building crammed with computers, cameras, lights, and the actions of budding producers and directors located in the 1600 block of Cesar Chavez Blvd on Austin's east side.

The lecture doesn't last long. It begins with the succinct explanation that light is just the humanly visible mid portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. It's all energy; it's all radiation, but at the upper end are the dangerous and problematic, the invisible, the gamma rays which can pass through the planet and emerge on the other side, x-rays and ultraviolet frequencies.

At the lower end are the invisible wavelengths of infrared and below that the ultra-slow and low frequency vibrations of sound and radio, with wavelengths measured in meters.

Mr. Owen deals with the visible spectra of radiation – light.

Retinal structure being what it is, it's all about stimulating the 120 million some odd rods that overpower human perception's ability to discern colors with only 4 million cones built into man's neuro-optical array.

“I think film is really about the shadows...It's the element that lets us drop the sensation of disbelief.”

Digital technology allows the computerized correction and adjustment of light and shadow, color, and the “punch” of the various softening qualities of low frequency red and yellow indoor lights and the hard and texture revealing blue and violet outdoor wavelengths – all of it measured by “temperatures” in “Kelvins” and lumens, foot candles and the wattages of the various incandescent lamps, fluorescent tubes, and light emitting diode (LED) arrays.

The practical demonstrations begin almost immediately with students peering through the viewfinder of a digital camera to replicate various digital techniques used by such luminaries as Oliver Stone and Stanley Kubrick in fanciful color flicks like “Natural Born Killers” and “2001-A Space Odyssey,” the long focus black and white lighting tricks used by Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane” and “Casablanca,” and Sam Peckinpah's slow motion pans and interstitial cuts contrasting noon time blaze and closeup haze.

The lessons boil down to seven elements in descending order of importance – to direct the viewer's attention; to reveal shape and form, shadows and depth; to establish an environment; to characterize the subject and surroundings; to develop compositional relationships; to maintain visual continuity.

Finally, and perhaps the least important of all, according to Mr. Owen, though the most essential – to satisfy the technical requirements of the camera in use is the primary purpose of the entire array of the gaffer's methods.

When it's all been said and the job is done, “The filmmaker didn't tell you a thing; he just showed you.”

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