Cinematographer Olan Collardy talks to IBC365 about his approach to lighting diverse skin tones on screen.
Filmmakers would like to believe they have empathy with their subject but the degree to which they actually do when committing stories to screen is being questioned.
Recently, IBC365 covered the work of Digital Melanin (DMC), a project that seeks to challenge the way cinema’s defacto camera and printing technology represents skin colours on screen.
For cinematographer Olan Collardy the approach is less about tools and technology and more a mindset that takes care that not everyone on screen receives the same treatment by default.
Read more DMC: A Pan Tone for cinema
“Anyone should be able to tell a story about characters from a different culture to them but the onus is on the filmmaker to do due diligence in ensuring they empathise with the culture whose story they are telling,” said Collardy.
Until recently, image making whether on film or painting has not been democratic, he contends. “It has been controlled by a small group of people who decided what stories to tell and how to tell them. It is only since digital cinematography that anyone could get their hands on a camera to take a picture of themselves and say ‘this is how I like to look’. Empathy means listening to people when they say ‘this is how I like my skin tone to look on camera’.
Collardy, an exciting British talent who shot the vibrant and playful feature rom-com Rye Lane, explained how he likes to work.
“I want to ensure that any subject looks at the image I’ve created with pride,” he said. “That means collaborating with all departments to make sure you are respectful to your characters as the script mandates.”
That might mean working with make-up artists to tone a skin tone down or apply more oil to the skin to make it more reflective.
Collardy noted that darker skin tends to be a more reflective than Caucasian skins and when light shines on it this can cause specular highlights or glaring patches.
“As a black person I know how another black person on set must feel. Everyone has vulnerabilities and insecurities and the last thing an actor needs is for a producer or director to say ‘so and so is looking a bit dark, Can we can put some light on them?’.
“An actor will feel like there’s something wrong with them. Instead, if you feel someone is lit too darkly, it’s better to finish that take and have a discussion about it sensitively.”
However, it’s a misconception that when you light a darker skinned person you need more light.
Collardy said: “It is okay to embrace shadows with dark skin as long as there is information and shape in the image. You need more shape to ensure that you’re not losing the contour of faces. That’s what makes any face look good. The last thing you do is bring a light and just blast it into actor’s faces because then the image will look washed out.”
“We all have different tones of colour,” Collardy said. “Caucasian skin tones are not the same. Some are pale, some more reddish, others peachy. Some folk with darker skin tones have redder tones or exhibit more blue in the shadows. Every filmmaker comes to a story with different ideas for how to best photograph the people in it.
“It would be a disservice to artistry in general to dictate any particularly style,” he insisted. “For example, when shooting dark skin tones there is no mandate to use warm light. That is one person’s philosophy. It always comes down to empathy. Does this lighting work for the character in the story and for the human actor? Am I doing them justice by keeping the shape of their face?
“There are many films shot by white DoPs and white directors where black people look amazing. All I’m saying is that the process should be about doing research and ensuring you have integrity in your work and that you are not shoehorning some process you have heard about somewhere into your process. It still has to be authentic.”
Collardy said he tends to get asked to shoot ‘black stories’. He said the script treatment will often call for a visual style for skin tones to either look like Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ 2016 Oscar hit photographed by James Laxton ASC, or to look like HBO comedy drama Insecure.
“There’s a danger in putting a particular way of shooting something on a pedestal,” he stated. “When Moonlight and Insecure came out everyone tried to regurgitate that look.”
One technique used on Insecure was to shape the actor’s faces using rotating polarisers which angle the light in such a way as to reduce reflections.
“It was a new and fresh look we’d not seen on TV that made black people look delicious. Then every DP started using polarisers which homogenised the process.”
On Rye Lane, Collard worked with production designer Anna Rohodes to ensure there was a certain contrast been the characters and the south London they inhabit
“If there’s a darker skin tone subject let’s make sure we don’t put them in a dark background and in a dark T-shirt. If we put them in a green jumper, against a wall which has a complimentary colour then things will start to look amazing.”
He often used extreme wide -angle lenses paired with a Bronze Glimmerglass filter. With Jack McGinity, colourist at facility Cheat, he ensured skin tones had filmic softness to them.
“Rye Lane is alive with colour,” said Collardy. “We shifted the colours around, perhaps gave one scene a green hue, just something that doesn’t feel too real or neutral.”
Lighting Genius: MLK/X
British cinematographer Trevor Forrest recently shot episodes of Genius: MLK/X, a forthcoming Disney+ dramatisation about the relationship between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
He explained that gaffer Justin Dickson was vital to his approach to lighting.
“I’m a white guy from Wells-next-the-sea who only brings privilege,” Forrest said. “Justin had grown up in the Baptist South. When you bring someone onboard with that depth of subject matter there will be a fizzing of energy.”
Dickson explained, “My roots go back to Mississippi. My uncle marched with Martin Luther King Jr. My grandfather picked cotton. My great grandmother married a slave. When you are brought up like that you understand that education is different when you have to fight for it. A bus ride feels different when you have to fight for it. You understand that somebody came before me so I could sit in this seat. So, you bring that mood and that intuition and what was instilled in you at birth to everything you do and especially a project like this.
He said he talked to his mother during the project to understand more of what her lived experience was like in order to convey that to Forrest. DP and gaffer also visited the Mississippi Museum of Art to look at prints of the period where they learned that many portraits had their subject lit by the natural light of a window.
“Skin tones are complex,” Forrest said. “Black skin has a reflection, then there are flesh tones underneath and then there’s the characteristics that any individual has. There are a huge range of skin tones in MLK/X but our motivation was to plug emotion into the lighting.”
Dickson confirmed: “With some stories it is less about the technical aspects of lighting a scene or a character so much as about feeling it. That feeling is what we are trying to translate.”