The technical and artistic abilities required to create beautifully lit images make lighting one of the most difficult skills to master. Lighting for the camera is sometimes bold but generally it is an art crafted to conceal its artistry. Above all we want our sources to be believable as we work in the space between striking and ordinary.

Most lighting discussions on the set center around contrast. While these decisions are helpful for technical and broad aesthetic reasons, contrast is only one piece of the puzzle. Beautifully lit images are the result of the artistic manipulation of lighting textures.
My pursuit for greater control over lighting texture led me to create LightBreak - a series of patterns silk-screened onto clear, heavy-duty, heat resistant Mylar. LightBreak is designed to be the textural equivalent of diffusion and allows you to take control of lighting texture. When LightBreak patterns are added to a lighting package, they become an essential lighting tool.

The Textural Lighting Layer

If lighting is a language that is written on images, then texture is its alphabet. Every image has a textural lighting layer written upon it. The textural lighting layer is the combination of lit and unlit areas that exist within a frame. Before we can manipulate lighting texture, we must learn to identify the shapes that comprise the textural lighting layer and how they are formed. I define a textural lighting shape within a frame as an area whose perceived brightness varies in intensity from an adjacent area (adjacent in two dimensional space; i.e., from the camera's perspective).
Until recently the creation of texture in location lighting design has been largely dependent upon set elements. A window or doorway can be used to contain raw light and create large areas of high intensity illumination - effectively large patches of texture. Hard light passing through a tree or plant produces finely texturized light with subtle variations. Lighting a three-dimensional object from an off axis angle (the axis is the line defined by the subject and the camera) will produce irregularly shaped textures in the form of highlights and shadows.

Creating lighting textures with set elements can be effective, however it also can be inconvenient and impractical. LightBreak is a tool that allows you to add texture at your discretion and provides a new level of creative control. Like the most efficient and effective tools, LightBreak works on a fundamental level and is naturally scalable. I designed LightBreak to control the three basic elements of the textural lighting layer: contrast, size and shape.

The Fundamentals of Texture
The early years of one's professional career are a struggle to define personal style. Once that path is found we work to refine it. Years ago on a corporate shoot I had a defining moment. We were shooting a dramatic piece in a hotel suite and the director wanted to see about three-quarters of the room. After eliminating every interior position for our key light as being in the shot or too boring, the gaffer suggested we put the light outside the window. I had ruled out this option because of our schedule and our budget. I looked down at the sloping ground twenty-five feet below, smiled and said "That would be great if you could do it."

The next day a tall scaffolding platform was built fifteen feet from the window and the crew carefully hauled a 4K HMI to the top of it. When the light was turned on, the room and the actors looked beautiful. Sending a light through a window is a common technique that I have used many times in my career. It is a good way to introduce a strong source from an off axis angle. The 4K created highlights and shadows that provided a great dramatic look and brought dimension to the space. However, the light had an ethereal complexity that could not be explained by merely describing its direction.

Because the light on the platform was so difficult to set I began to analyze why it looked so good. The moment we turned it on, it was visually arresting and looked perfectly natural. If that light came from the same direction but was set inside the room it would have looked overwhelming and artificial. Moving the light back fifteen feet transformed it. Discovering the reasons for this transformation changed the way I light.

When light passes through a window it picks up "character" along the way. First of all, the window frame contains the light. There are mullions or cross pieces within the frame that add shadows. Drapes or sheers help to shape the light and trees or plants, either indoors or outside, add additional texture.

Generally speaking we show up on location with lighting instruments that produce raw, hard light. Lights that match the quality and intensity of these lights are virtually nonexistent in the real world. Almost all indoor lighting we encounter in our daily lives is softened or texturized to some degree. We live in a world where light is contained and controlled. Among the challenges we face is how to produce natural looking light which is visually compelling using artificial sources.
The window had transformed our 4K from an overwhelming, raw, hard light into a beautifully texturized source that added style, drama and depth. I looked out at the light and the tall platform and wondered "Wouldn't it be easier to just bring our own window?" If the window had caused such dramatic improvements to the quality of our light, shouldn't it be one of our tools?
I pondered this question for months as I tried to imagine what this might look like. I wanted to create a tool that would add texture, control and complexity to lighting design while meeting location lighting requirements for durability, portability and ease of use. With these constraints in mind I began to develop LightBreak. Eventually I realized that we were not missing a tool from our toolbox. We were missing an entire drawer.
Controlling Texture

LightBreak is the textural equivalent of diffusion. When we set a light we reflexively consider if we want to add diffusion. Our selection is vast. We can add something as subtle as Hampshire Frost, a dense fabric like muslin, or a myriad of materials falling in-between. This range allows us creative freedom. LightBreak patterns create textures in a broad array of shapes and densities to complement the look and mood of any shot. Like diffusion they can be clipped onto the barndoors of fresnels or mounted to standard open frames. LightBreak controls the basic elements of texture: contrast, size and shape.
LightBreak patterns cover a wide contrast range. Low contrast patterns such as CLOUDS or FROZEN FEET create subtle texture while BLACK BIRDS AND LIGHTNING bring strong highlights and deep shadows. LightBreak patterns are silk-screened in order to lay down as much ink as possible. They are black because contrast is important to texture and black patterns create the highest contrast shapes. It is easy to fill in shadows to lower contrast. Black gives you complete control over tonality. However, black absorbs heat and requires tougher materials. LightBreak patterns are made of heavy-duty, heat-treated Mylar. Delicate materials do not survive location shooting. LightBreak patterns are tough.
Size within a frame is a relative term. Textural lighting shapes small enough for a tabletop setup would be unnoticeable in a wide shot. LightBreak patterns are designed to create textural shapes in a full range of sizes. Open patterns like SHARDS are complemented by the medium density BRANCHES and the finely texturized LEAVES pattern. Furthermore, patterns can be combined to create additional densities.
In order to match patterns with a wide range of fresnels, LightBreak patterns are made in three sizes: 12x18, 18x24 and 24x36. Printed designs increase proportionally as the size of the pattern increases. Small fresnels can be matched with small LightBreak patterns and larger fresnels with larger patterns. Patterns can also be taped onto windows or across doorways to texturize incoming light.
There are an infinite number of shapes that can create gobo patterns but we can easily divide them into two groups: repeated patterns and random patterns. Repeated patterns occur in man made objects like fences, netting and wrought iron. Shadows created from these patterns are visually rhythmic and believable even when sharp.
Irregular patterns are far more common in the real world. Think about the 4K on the platform and the irregular set of shapes that sculpted its light. The window, its mullions, the drapes, a tree and an indoor plant combined to form a gobo. By reducing these objects to two dimensions I created the foundation for LightBreak.
Tabletop shots represent a distillation of lighting techniques. Textural lighting shapes can measure just inches or millimeters in size. Tabletop setups can include a forest of C - Stands, shards of foamcore, and wads of tape. LightBreak dramatically changes that convention. DP's and lighting designers can now produce compelling tabletop images with a single LightBreak pattern and one light (see Working With LightBreak).
LightBreak is not about projecting pictures. This is the most simplistic form of texturizing light and ultimately the least interesting. How many times do you want to see the recognizable shadow of venetian blinds on your background? This scheme quickly becomes tiresome. The most interesting textures created in the real world are formed by an amalgam of dissimilar objects. When these combinations of shapes are reduced to two dimensions, the patterns they create are richly complex. LightBreak patterns allow you to bring this same elevated level of complexity to your lighting design, quickly and easily.
Messages Embedded Within Images

Audiences have learned to cognitively identify the textural lighting layer almost instantly. I have shown a series of fifteen second broadcast clips without sound to hundreds of beginning lighting students. Most of these students have little or no production experience. Without fail they have distinguished between sitcoms, soap operas, TV movies, B movies and other feature films within seconds. It is an eye opening exercise that demonstrates the speed at which viewers judge your show format, your creative intentions and even your budget!
The geometric arrangement of highlights and shadows that comprise the textural lighting layer defines a space and turns ethereal concepts like mood and tone into a perceptible reality. Viewers connect with abstract messages embedded within the lighting design. The effect of LightBreak patterns can be seen and appreciated but LightBreak creates impact because it communicates with viewers on a deeper level.
The power of lighting is a double-edged sword that can make an image stunningly dramatic or dull and lifeless. Lighting design is a key element in storytelling. Light attracts the eye but the brain responds to complexity. From its position of seniority over all of creation, light can influence an image more than any single variable. After all, no matter what subject we choose we always photograph the light.

- Jim Iacona   

copyright 2002 LightBreak, Inc.

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