Sunday, July 13, 2008

Trick of the Light

Many, many years ago, when I was making first tentative assays into lighting as a career, I'd arranged to meet my mentor, Howard King, at the BBC Rehearsal Rooms at North Acton. He waited until I had sunk my teeth into a jam doughnut before appearing and, without a word, beckoned me to join him at the lifts. We descended several levels and entered one of the large rehearsal spaces on the third floor. It was empty, except for a number of props, such as tables, chairs, beds, etc, which could be used to populate the marked-up set outlines on the floor.

'What do you see?' he said, words which instantly filled me with dread; he was always putting me on the spot and the doughnut's sugar rush had not had time to kick in. I looked around. The room was filled with light from the sun coming through large south-facing windows and casting bright patches onto the linoleum floor. I could feel the tension. Just as I imagine he was about to give up on me, I spot what this little jaunt was all about. Against one of the walls was an old-fashioned coat stand. Its shadow was going up the wall rather than down, thrown by light from a patch of sun on the floor. This would be quite natural for rooms at night when a table lamp might produce that effect but we are conditioned to see shadows cast downward in daylight. It looked strange and Howard's point was that, although it was perfectly natural, it would not appear realistic if reproduced in an image, be it a painting, photograph or television picture, unless it was obvious to the viewer how it was being generated.

And my point is, I can hear you chanting in exasperation, assuming you've got this far? Well there isn't one really except to stress the importance to anyone in the image-making business of constant observation. I never stop looking at what the light is up to because it's fickle stuff and not to be trusted. So when I was standing in a stairwell in Sheffield a few days ago, waiting for an art gallery to open, history repeated itself. There, in a corner of this lovely art-deco building, the sun came romping in through the window and struck off up hill.

Nature doesn't do that (unless there's some water about). But a glass roof outside the building does. Unfortunately the BBC would never allow me to put up sub-titles explaining why I'd lit a scene in a particularly obtuse way so if I'd reproduced this image in a televison studio, it would have just looked odd. And an unwarranted strain on the viewer's suspension of disbelief.