LED Lights & Changing Technology
In my post on the difference between film and video, I discussed the differences between film, the tried and true medium of the past 100 years, and digital video, the squeaky-clean, super-cheap choice of the twenty-first century. There is something uncomfortable about being part of the generation of filmmakers that will undo the technological traditions of generations past. At BU, we still offer courses that use actual film, but as more professional cinematographers make the switch to video, its dominance over the industry seems inevitable, much to the chagrin of purists. And yet, in my post, I also discuss how it is the filmmaker, not the equipment, that makes a great movie. The same holds true in the evolution of lighting technology.
On Wednesday, some fellow BU film majors and myself took a quick road trip to High Output Studios in Canton, Massachusetts, to attend a barbeque sponsored by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), followed by a presentation by BU lighting professor and Emmy Award-winner John Gates on LED Lights. LED, or light emitting diode, lights are fairly new to filmmakers. Traditionally, film lights have used incandescent bulbs, which emit light by heating a filament until it glows. LEDs, on the other hand, create light via semi-conductance. Now I don’t totally know what semi-conductance means, however I do know that, as a lighting method, it is more efficient, and has a more controlled heat output. In his presentation Professor Gates reiterated a point that I mentioned above: LED technology, while advanced, isn’t inherently better than incandescent technology; rather its the artful application of each that yields superior results.
During the presentation, I was struck by a seemingly mundane feature of most of the LED fixtures that Professor Gates was demonstrating: the ability to dim via an on-board dial. Dimming lights probably don’t seem like that amazing a feat, but in lighting for film, the ability to control and to subtract light is just as important as the ability to create it. Traditional incandescent fixtures don’t have the ability to dim right on the fixture. Instead, to cut the amount of light being cast by an incandescent fixture, we use a small metal mesh circle called a scrim. When slipped in front of an incandescent light, a scrim cuts down the amount of light by a quarter (1/2 a “stop”) or by half (a full “stop”). Scrims have been in use for decades and are given when working with lights for film. So the ability to dim on board with LED lights caught my attention during the presentation. Afterwards I approached the representative from Arri (a well known German film camera and lighting company) and asked her: “Is this the death of scrims?” She confirmed: “Yes, this is the death of scrims.”
So again, I am in this uncomfortable position of watching new technology, for better or for worse, take over the space dominated by the filmmaking equipment of the past century. During the presentation, Professor Gates and representatives from the various companies demonstrating their lights reiterated another point: LED technology is constantly changing. If you buy an LED fixture now, it could, like a computer, for instance, be obsolete in a few years. On the other hand, the Arri SR cameras we use in the BU film department are from the seventies, and yet are still relevant technology. So not only is the type of technology changing, but the rate at which it changes is changing as well.
The film industry, like almost every industry, is in an awkward transitional phase. The technology of making movies is changing just as the model of distributing them is changing. In fifty years, the way we make and watch movies might be entirely different than what it is now. But one thing will always remain true: great technology doesn’t make great films, great filmmakers make great films.