'Arrival' and 'Selma' Cinematographer Bradford Young Discusses Using Practical Light

A few words of wisdom from one the best cinematographers working in Hollywood today.

Bradford Young is a master. While many cinematographers can create a beautiful image, very few have been able to put their visual signature onto so many styles and be able to tell so many different types of stories in such powerful ways.

I first encountered his work in Dee Rees’ 2011 film “Pariah” followed by the 2013 visual poem that is “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” directed by David Lowery. He followed that by lensing “A Most Violent Year” and “Selma” in 2014. His work on the 2016 sci-fi film “Arrival” was nominated for an Academy Award. And he even managed to dip his toe into a galaxy far far away while shooting the latest Star Wars spinoff, “Solo: A Star Wars Story.”

Needless to say, when someone that talented speaks, I listen. So I was happy to find this video from CookeOpticsTV with Bradford discussing his approach to lighting in his unique style and thought I would recommend it to all of you.

Of special notice in this video is when Bradford discusses his use of practical lighting. He often achieves a lyrical yet natural feel in his imagery and this is largely a result of his ability to build light into the very fabric of the film.

In the video, he discusses working with production designers and set decorators not only to understand where the light would come from in a scene, but often to place specific practical lights actually within frame. By doing this, it allows the audience not only to see the light, but also to see the light source. This, in turn, works subconsciously on the audience because they will register the source of light and it will then inform the rest of the scene.  

Take his famous scene in “Arrival” for example when the characters step into the dark cave to speak with the aliens. The aliens are represented as flowing black ink against a bright white background. So the practical source of light in the scene is the white screen. That informs every shot that follows. When we shoot the subjects facing the screen, we get a soft frontal light caused by the diffuse light coming off the white screen. The reverse angle from behind the subjects facing the white screen thus casts the characters into near silhouette. Yet, this works because we’ve already established the source of light within the scene, so the audience is not thrown by the darkness but rather is expecting it.

Other tidbits he shares include using those same practical lights when off camera to keep lighting consistent, creating natural interior light by pumping in light from exterior sources, and one tip I am anxious to steal is that the first thing he does when lighting an interior is to “black the ceilings.” In fact, he blacks out every wall of a room that is not seen immediately on camera allowing his to easily control both where the light shines, as well as where it doesn’t shine.

Great video featuring a great artist. Have a look and see what techniques you can adapt to your next shoot.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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There are so many tasty nuggets of information in here. We can learn so much from great cinematographers.

So good!

Very nice.

Wow, that was absolutely fascinating. That guys knows what he's talking about from a gut / instinct level at this point.

Fantastic insights- our cinema brethren can teach us a lot- lighting is lighting. Thanks to this I discovered another great video in this series- keeping it simple- https://youtu.be/jHCUdXmshbw

Great. Thanks for sharing this.

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