I wrote this article for the Summer 2012 Future of Moviemaking issue of MovieMaker Magazine. It appears here with their permission.

The last few years have been revolutionary times for moviemakers. New digital cameras, such as HDSLRs, have made it easier than ever for artists to capture truly cinematic imagery, regardless of their budget. And now, breakthroughs in lighting technology are further changing the way movies are made. The latest equipment offers the promise of greater portability and energy efficiency. But are these new lights truly ready to shine?

“Depending on the scene you’re trying to capture, practically any light can work for you,” says Shane Hurlbut, ASC. His blog features posts describing homemade lights he has built from items available at any hardware store. Hurlbut has used these low-tech creations to light A-list talent in major Hollywood feature films. But on the other end of the spectrum, he is also quick to try new, high-tech offerings—as long as they meet his artistic standards.

“I still don’t think most of the LED lights are quite there yet,” says Hurlbut, referring to the new breed of production lights that are quickly gaining in popularity. “But I have used some that I really like.”

LEDs or Light-Emitting Diodes were first introduced as electronic components in the 1960s. Originally, they only emitted dim red light and were often used in early calculator displays. But the technology has been improved so much that LEDs are now used as lights for TVs, laptop monitors, homes, cars and more. They deliver far more light per watt than traditional incandescent light bulbs and emit much less heat. For anyone who has ever blown a fuse at a shooting location, burned a finger on a hot lamp or just spent a long day on a scorching movie set, LEDs offer the promise of a welcome reprieve from the decades-old methods of production lighting.

However, it has been challenging for companies to realize the potential of the technology in a way that readily fits with how filmmakers are accustomed to working. Given that most single LEDs are just a fraction of the size of the bulbs in traditional production lights, many of them need to be clustered together and used simultaneously to create enough light intensity.

One of the earliest innovators and most well known brands in the LED market, Litepanels®, dealt with this challenge by creating an entirely new lighting form factor for their core product. Their 1X1 series of lights (starting at approx. $1800) house over 500 small LEDs in a one square foot panel that’s less than two inches thick. The unit produces the equivalent power of a 500-watt incandescent fixture, while only consuming 40 watts. Additionally, its “lamp life” rating is 50,000 hours, which could translate into many years of normal usage.

Litepanels 1X1s have been widely adopted by broadcast news and similar organizations. They are particularly suited for reporters who are out covering stories on the road, since the lights are far smaller and lighter than traditional fixtures. Plus, they can easily be powered by camera batteries. They are also increasingly used as fixed placement units inside TV production studios of all kinds, where their lower wattage and heat output can dramatically reduce utility bills.

Another feature that is unique to LED lights like the 1X1 is that most include a built-in dimming control that allows cinematographers to reduce the light output all the way down to zero percent, without causing a noticeable shift in the color of the light. By contrast, tungsten lamps tend to put out more orange light as they are dimmed.

Some LED fixtures even allow you to change the color temperature of the light they produce across the two standards for production lighting: daylight (the whiter light of the sun) and tungsten (the more orange light of a traditional incandescent light bulb) and anywhere in between. This can be very helpful when trying to use the unit with a mix of other lighting sources.

However, even with all of these innovations, 1X1s and other LED panel lights like them (there are many on the market today, including several brands from China), are far from perfect for some filmmakers. The lights tend to emit a very diffuse, wide beam that can be hard to shape and control. “The trouble with most (LED panel lights) is that they don’t act like a single source light,” says Hurlbut. “You can end up with all these little points of light hitting an actor’s face. And that may not look good.”

Of course, as the technology continues to develop, manufacturers are finding new ways to orient the tiny LEDs so that the light coming from the fixture is more evenly diffused. The Celeb 200 LED (approx. $3000) from fluorescent lighting innovators Kino Flo has quickly become one of Hurlbut’s favorites. “I used it on (the short film) The Ticket, and it’s a beautiful light.” says Hurlbut. Using just two of the fixtures, he was able to provide enough light on the two principle actors to craft a beautiful, intimate nighttime exterior scene that was set on a Ferris wheel—all while using less than three amps of power.

Still, given all the potential advantages of LED technology, many cinematographers have been waiting for new and improved lights that will still look and feel the same as the lights they use most often: tungsten Fresnels. These focusable round lights, such as the Arri 650 and Arri 300 are usually what even a layman would picture in their mind when they’re asked to think of a movie light. The fixtures use old fashioned or tungsten filament bulbs, are about the size of a paint can, and are as versatile as they are simple.

Nonetheless, it has taken manufacturers until just recently to be able to adapt LEDs to the Fresnel form factor and get acceptable performance from them. Litepanels now offers their Inca and Sola series in both four-inch (approx. $1,346) and six-inch (approx. $2,352) diameter sizes. These lights do look and feel like legacy Fresnel fixtures, but are significantly lighter because they can use more plastic in the housing, since heat is far less of an issue.

Perhaps one of the most significant new additions to the LED market, though, is the new Arri L7-C Fresnel, especially since the German company has long dominated the traditional lighting market. The L7-C takes aim straight at their own 650 tungsten Fresnel unit, so it was crucial to Arri that the new light live up to their high standards.

“We have spent more money in LED development than any other technology,” says John Gresch, Arri’s Vice President of Lighting Products. “…we wanted to have a fresnel unit that was LED-based, that gave very good color quality, but also had the same feel, the same light structure that people were used to from a tungsten fresnel.”

To achieve their goal, the company had to find a way to overcome one of the bigger shortcomings of LEDs—their ability to render colors properly and evenly. Simply put, LED lights generally do not provide a perfectly smooth curve of light across the color spectrum. This often causes them to put a greenish tint on skin tones, which can’t be easily taken out in a color correction process during post production.

“Aside from the sun,” says Gresch, “the best source for color rendering is the tungsten bulb.” Accordingly, Arri developed the L7-C by fine tuning its light characteristics to match the gold standard—their own Arri 650 light. “Arri has always been extremely interested in the quality of the light,” says Gresch. “We believe that we always need to provide products that can capture very good flesh tones that can be properly reproduced on camera.”

The result is that the light produced by the L7-C is virtually indistinguishable from Arri’s tungsten light, even when viewed in test footage projected on a big screen. But in addition to striving for precise accuracy, the company also took advantage of the unique possibilities that their LED “light engine” offered. The light’s color temperature, hue, saturation and intensity can all be radically changed by turning a couple of knobs at the base of the light (or even through a remote interface). So if a cinematographer needs to match to the light to anything from an old fluorescent to the red hue of a stoplight, Arri has made it easy for them.

While many of the latest LED production lights are already having a significant impact on moviemaking, their biggest drawback remains their relatively high prices. The fixtures can cost as much as three times more than their traditional counterparts. Of course, given that today’s digital cameras offer remarkable low-light performance, many artists can save money by using a smaller lighting package than they previously required.

And for those who would rather wait for the inevitable price drops that happen with all new technologies, there’s always the local hardware store.

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