Virtual Illumination: Lighting across live-action and computer-generated moving images.

(Installation Documentation)

(Single Channel Version)

(Video Essay)

Author: Alexander Nevill
Format: Installation
Duration: Continuous Loop
Published: February 2017

Shortlisted for the British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies Practice Research Award 2017.

Research Statement

Effective cross fertilization of moving image lighting techniques between distinct production and exhibition environments.
Engagement, embodiment and reflection upon ideas surrounding the orchestration of light on screen as evidenced through conceptual installation and single channel practical works.

Viewing Conditions
The viewing context for this project is not fixed and subsumes several distinct conditions. Initially the work was conceived and exhibited as a two channel video installation in a gallery environment. At the request of film festivals, a single channel version was created allowing exhibition in a cinema/theatrical setting. Video documentation of this installation along with the single channel version are included in this portfolio to offer the panel a suggestion of possible interactions with this practice. Additionally, a summative video essay documenting my process was created and performed live for an academic conference and a refined version of this is also included as a route-map of the project.

Research Questions
This project explores the problem of lighting moving images in the context of an increasing confluence of technologies through which this practice now occurs. Specifically, I’ve been investigating how the tools a practitioner chooses during the creation of screen-based content impact their resulting creative lighting decisions.

On one level light is fundamental in allowing audiences to perceive and interact with the screen – it affords the exposure, recording and projection of images through equipment that is designed to take advantage of flaws in our visual apparatus to evoke an illusion of movement. On another level light can be creatively controlled and orchestrated alongside mise-en-scène through the use of specifically designed lamps, filters or modifiers to enhance an audience’s experience of a film.

In recent decades however the technologies employed in moving image production and upon which lighting practices are predicated have undergone a revolutionary shift resulting in a myriad of screen media that now require an attentive orchestration of illumination in the vein of the cinematographer. This rapid change has been extensively discussed in academica with scholars such as Hadjioannou (2012) and Cubit (2014) theoretically charting implications of the application of digital technologies in moving image production. While Richard P. Crudo (2014, p.12) a former president of the American Society of Cinematographers gives an apt summary of the situation from a filmmaker’s perspective in declaring: “Technological progress has forced us to accept a new context for what we do, but it’s an imperfect and unfinished one, and therein lies our chance for continuing relevance.”

If the orchestration of illumination can have such a powerful impact on the way audiences experience a film its surprising that amongst this recognition there’s little attempt to investigate ways in which these new digital technologies impact lighting processes. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that digitally driven content is so prolific and far reaching with games development, augmented reality and other arenas now employing cinematic artists to contribute toward creative lighting processes. As Bourriaud (2002) argues; digital light encompasses a diversity of forms, from surfaces that arrest light to interfaces upon which information is written, all of which we address under the ‘screen’ moniker. This blurring of technologies amidst moving image practice requires attentive first hand investigation in order to understand relationships between cinematographic paradigms and advance creative uses of light. Flickers and Van den Oever (2014, p.274) highlight the value such insight could offer this field:

  1. “The re-sensitization of expert observers is needed to construct the epistemic object; to define what a “medium” is; and to create consensus in the field with regard to it… Providing a workable definition of its object is nevertheless crucial to any field of studies and perhaps even more so for the field of media studies as it aims at understanding cultural practices which constantly and rapidly change… inevitably conceal[ing] the traces media technologies initially create in users in terms of sense responses and awareness.”

Utilizing a practice based approach to these (new) media materialist problems allows my study to directly investigate influences of varying technological variables and in so doing explore the impact a current confluence of moving image practices is having on the creative processes of lighting. This project focuses on just one comparison amidst this range of technologies – the distinction between CGI and live-action lighting work.

Following this, I’ve been guided by several research questions; When a moving image work is largely, or entirely, created in a computer generated environment is the functionality and goal of lighting ultimately similar to live-action work or driven by distinct purposes? What can be learned from a comparison and cross-fertilization between computer-generated and live-action lighting practices? How if at all does the creative process of lighting in new digital environments differ from that of cinematographer as traditionally understood?


Few cinematographers have attempted to provide thorough first hand insight into the creative lighting considerations of their work. Among those that have Storaro’s (2001) writing mixes bold allegorical claims with more pragmatic and physically inspired insight to distinguish two fundamental principles in the control of illumination – punctiform lighting and multiform lighting. His spiritual approach often draws inspiration from figurative arts to outline the symbolic connotations that might be read into an arrangement of light sources. Calahan (1996) is another important practitioner contributing to this sub-field and writes specifically about illumination for what she terms ‘synthetic cinema’, referring to computer generated images. Calahan takes a more psychological approach than spiritual, citing Gestalt theory’s emphasis on organization and patterning enabling the viewer to perceive a whole stimulus rather than discerning it as discrete parts to suggest that lighting directs the viewers eye and is fundamentally related to the geometric design of an image.

Between these two contemporary cinematographers and others in the field there remains a significant gap however. Storaro’s writing was published a few years before digital tools began to dominate the industry and as a passionate advocate of photochemical processes undertook his first digital production in 2016 so has yet to write about this in any detail. On the other hand, Calahan has little to no experience with live-action moving image production, as the first member of the American Society of Cinematographers to have exclusively worked in CGI animation. This polarized focus tends to be the case for other creatively oriented texts on screen lighting; they either address computer animation in isolation such as Bern (2006) and Wisslar (2013) or were first published many years ago, prior to mainstream digital technological upheavals such as Alton (1949) and the aforementioned Lowell (1992).

My investigation responds to this problem as well as the inadequate consideration toward lighting found in contemporary technical studies of digital moving image practices which have haphazardly remediated approaches used for photochemical processes into digital methodologies without giving proper attention to how the developing capture and display parameters of moving images might afford new ways to think about and work with illumination. (In example: Brown (2007), Landau (2014), Viera and Viera, (2004), Wheeler (2001)). These texts are also limited to considering narrative-driven Hollywood feature films which now only represent one narrow area of moving image lighting practices and are largely governed by commercial decisions.

Video Art & Experimental Film
This project draws upon a wide range of art works that offer understandings of mediated light in practice. Initially my practice looks to a lineage of video art – from playful critique of broadcast across Hall’s 7 TV Pieces (1971) which visually disturbs the stream of images on a television channel to a reflexive intervention of the artist in Partridge’s Monitor (1974), video art has been greatly influential for its subversive approach to the functionality and technology of audio-visual content. Nam June-Paik is prominent figure in this field and perhaps one of the most important video pioneers. His installations Zen for TV (1963) and Magnet TV (1965) both exploit the magnetism of cathode ray tube television sets in an iconic demonstration of the plasticity of video imagery. More recently, Leckey’s Dream English Kid 1964-1999AD (2015) furthers this attitude by combining images sourced from a multitude of online digital content while reworking this material though rapid cutting, visual effects work and animation to resemble the artists deeply personal memories in a way which again foregrounds the malleability of video.

Equally, my practice exists in dialogue with the tradition of structural materialist filmmaking. These works often emphasize awareness of the components that construct a cinematic experience rather than engaging in representational imagery as evidenced by the strobing repetitive colour loops of Sharits’ Shutter Interface (1975) which orchestrates four 16mm projectors to create rainbow imagery or Rhodes’ Light Music (1975) an immersive twin projector installation that transforms strips of light imprinted on celluloid into sound. McCall’s Line Describing Cone (1971) is a key work as the artist attempts to transform cinematic projection into sculpture, filling his exhibition space with haze to give form to the shaft of light emitted from a projector and in so doing inviting an audience to turn their back on the screen. This expanded approach to cinema, the notion of reconfiguring relationships between audience and screen along with exploration of video malleability present a vibrant artistic context that my practice draws upon and furthers.

Aesthetic Influences
Furthermore, lighting is steeped in a rich history across centuries of painting with notable chiaroscuro works depicting dynamic contrast such as Caravaggio’s Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600) or LaTour’s Joseph the Carpenter (1642) through to softer depictions of light in Vermeer’s The Milkmaid (1658) or the golden hour sun of Turner’s The Scarlet Sunset (1830–40). For this project specifically I studied Hammershoi’s paintings which are notable for exploiting window structures to create haunting, hazy and mysterious interiors as seen in Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams (1900) and Moonlight, Strandgrade 30 (1900-1906). I also examined Hopper’s evocation of windows and light in which he depicts sharper more defined illumination than Hammershoi, lending a feeling of levity to the imagery of Rooms By The Sea (1951) and Morning Sun (1952).

I also visited and took inspiration from Blue Blood (1998), one of Turrell’s sky-space structures. Turrell tackles the modulation of light with form in a more direct manner than the aforementioned mediated examples. This work is comprised of small meditative room with a square cut hole in the ceiling that acts as a window onto the sky, engulfing visitors in the daily movement of light and shadow as they watch from below. This work in particular ties in with architectural writing around the modulation of light through physical form with notable theorist Kahn (1968, p.231) professing “structure is the maker of light.” These ideas as well as others toward the relationship between architecture and light had significant influence during the design and creation of the work.

My practice involves combining the use of light and camera technology to create moving images for a variety of screen contexts. This process draws heavily on the discipline of cinematography practiced in a commercial film production context. As suggested in the previous section, my work fuses these cinematic sensibilities with exhibition strategies of structural materialist filmmaking and video art influenced medium interrogation.

Auto-ethnographic notation was a significant research method in this investigation. To ensure my account of the process would be as close to the experience as possible I made audio recordings at frequent intervals during practical endeavours describing the work in great detail to try and capture what has been termed ‘knowing in action’ or ‘tacit knowledge’. I later developed these recordings into several narrativized written passages that reflect upon lighting decisions and challenges while attempting to chart this practical journey. These were used extensively during the conference dissemination of this work and inform my accompanying video essay.

This project offers a comparison of lighting techniques across production environments, the relevance of which is threefold;

Firstly, addressing a practitioner’s process of exposure: at first glance the layout and graphic design of software such as Maya seems to be based on physical moving image production tools but on inspection relationships between materials and lighting during exposure processes for CGI are far more intricate than a real world environment. A practitioner has the ability to define how the various surfaces in a scene interact with light in a process known as texturing. I’d argue that learning to set a surface’s specular highlights independently of its reflectance level along with other extremely intricate adjustments possible in this environment, help to hone lighting sensibilities and could present opportunities for new ways of considering live-action cinematography.

Secondly, around the placement of light sources: a common problem faced when learning live-action lighting is how to hide the placement of lamps, flags, diffusion and other equipment so they aren’t visible in the final frame. A computer-generated environment does away with this challenge completely as lamps and flags can be placed anywhere in scene without interrupting the virtual camera or subjects while the way a light source impacts specific subjects can be controlled independently and the quality of a light can be altered despite distance and size for example. These controls make a world of operations possible that due to physical limitations simply cannot be accomplished during a live-action shoot, an area I’m keen to investigate in more depth.

Finally, with regards to CGI rendering: I would argue a stronger parallel exists between computer-generated animation and photochemical processes rather than the current field of digital cinematography. Both of CGI and celluloid development feature a similar stage in which a latent image is ‘brought forth’ or realized from a virtual state into a resulting visual impression. (Which of course still exists with digital cameras but the speed and design of contemporary systems makes this almost instant and therefore negligible in practice). Is the CGI environment is simply behind current live-action production tools then? Would improving this require more processing power or do we need to rethink the ‘workflow’ of animation lighting? Perhaps we’ve not yet developed the most intuitive way of corresponding to light through animation software.

Further to this there’s a great deal to learn from the comparative approach of this study – exploring lighting or other production processes across technological environments. This could lead to potentially new ways of examining the work of artists like Calahan and Storaro in relation to one another. It could generate new teaching methods that enable students to understand lighting as a practice independent of their equipment, hence preparing them for an increasing confluence of technologies. It could also develop new understandings of the application of technologies, arising from a cross fertilization between environments – as I hope this practice demonstrates.

This exploration of CGI and live-action lighting is only the beginning and arguably an easy comparison to make due to the similar modes of dissemination these formats share. As further technological areas arise which entail a creative orchestration of lighting I feel this experiment shows the potential in approaching them as not as separate or desperate fields but instead as areas that can all be studied, considered and practiced under the umbrella of cinematography due to inherent similarities and potential avenues to build on the strengths of one another toward more versatile lighting approaches.

This work was supported by the University of West England and created during my practice-led PhD for which I received a scholarship through the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s 3d3 Consortium. As suggested earlier the dissemination of this project has taken multiple practical forms allowing communication of ideas concerning the practice of moving image lighting to occur in practice across a variety of exhibition contexts.

Initially the work featured as an installation during the “Process and Space: The Political Turn of Design Research” exhibition and symposium at UWE Bristol in May 2016.

A single channel version was included in the Video Social Club’s “Post-Everything” programme which screened at Sea Change Festival in Totnes during August 2016 and then during the Plymouth Art Weekender in September 2016.

A single channel version featured as part of the Royal West of England Academy 164th Open Exhibition in Bristol during October and November 2016.

The work was installed in underground catacombs as part of the End(less) Contemporary Video Art Festival at Museum Romeinse Katakomben in Valkenburg, Netherlands during October 2016.

A single channel version screened at the Arctic Moving Image and Film Festival in Harstad, Norway in October 2016.

The work was installed during the “Moving Image Art: Three” exhibition at Centrespace Gallery in Bristol during February 2017.

I presented a conference paper on this project in the “Seventh International Conference On The Image” at Liverpool John Moores University in September 2016.

This work has been selected for exhibition in several film festival and gallery events. I’ve attended and engaged these audiences at all possible occasions, ranging from a formal Q&A session following a theatrical screening to informal discussion during an installation of the work. Feedback from curators and audiences suggests the work elicits a strong response amongst some viewers, typically provoking reflection toward the ephemeral nature of moving imagery with one commentator referring to the screening as an ‘embodied experience’ while another claimed it led them to consider the apparatus projecting the work which began a useful discussion of compression artefacts in the depiction of light on screen. An aim of the work was to stimulate consideration along these lines so to an extent there has been an effective impact amongst these creative communities.

Bourriaud, N. (2002) Relational Aesthetics. Paris: Les Presses Du Réel.

Brown, B. (2007) Motion Picture and Video Lighting. 2nd ed. USA: Focal Press.

Calahan, S. (1996) Story Telling Through Lighting: A Computer Graphics Perspective. In: Khars, J. ed. Pixel Cinematography: A Lighting Approach for Computer Graphics, Course #30, SIGGRAPH 96. New Orleans, 4-9 August, 1996. Available from: [Accessed 20th May 2016].

Caravaggio, M. (1500-1600) Calling of St. Matthew [Painting]. At: Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Italy.

Crudo, R.P. (2014) Presidents Desk. American Cinematographer Magazine. November Issue.

Cubbit, S. (2014) The Practice of Light. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Flickers, A. and Van Den Over, A. (2014) Techné/Technology: Researching Cinema and Media Technologies, Their Use and Impact. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Hadjioannou, M. (2012) From Light to Byte: Toward an Ethics of Digital Cinema. 1st ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Hall, D. (1971) 7 TV Pieces [B&W Video]. At: LUX Collection, UK.

Hammershøi, V. (1900) Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams. [Oil on Canvas]. At: Ordrupgaard Museum, Copenhagen.

Hammershøi, V. (1909) Moonlight, Strandgade 30. [Oil on Canvas]. At: The Met Fifth Avenue, New York.

Hopper, E. (1951) Rooms by the Sea. [Oil Painting]. At: Yale University Art Gallery, USA.

Hopper, E. (1952) Morning Sun. [Oil Painting]. At: Columbus Museum, USA.

June-Paik, N. (1963) Zen for TV [Altered TV Set]. At: Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA.

June-Paik N. (1965) Magnet TV [Altered TV Set]. At: Whitney Museum of Modern Art, USA.

Khan, L. (1968) Silence and Light. In: Twombly, R. ed. (2003) Louis Kahn: Essential Texts. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, pp.228-251.

Landau, D. (2014) Lighting for Cinematography. London, UK: A&C Black.

LaTour, G. (1642) Joseph the Carpenter [Painting]. At: Louvre Museum, France.

Leckey, M. (2015) Dream English Kid 1964-1999AD [High Definition Video]. At: 59th BFI London Film Festival.

Lowell, R. (1992) Matters of light & depth. Philadelphia: Broad Street Books.

McCall, A. (1971) Line Describing Cone [Film Installation]. At: LUX Collection, UK.

Partridge, S. (1974) Monitor [B&W Video]. At: National Fine Art Education Digital Collection, UK.

Rhodes, L. (1975) Light Music [Film Installation]. At: LUX Collection, UK.

Sharits, P. (1975) Shutter Interface [Film Installation]. At: Smithsonian Institution, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Collection, USA.

Storaro, V. (2001) Writing With Light. Italy: Electa Publishing.

Turner, JM. (1830–40) The Scarlet Sunset [Painting]. At: Tate, UK.

Turrell, J. (1998). Blue Blood. [Installation]. At: Santa Fe Centre for Contemporary Arts, USA.

Vermeer, J. (1658) The Milkmaid [Painting]. At: Rijksmuseum, Netherlands.

Viera, D. and Viera, M. (2004) Lighting for Film and Digital Cinematography. 2nd ed. USA: Wadsworth Publishing.

Wheeler, B. (2001) Digital Cinematography. USA: Focal Press.

Peer Reviews

The peer reviews that follow were part of the BAFTSS Practice Research Awards shortlisting process as this volume is published in association with the British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies.

Review 1: Shortlist
The research statement provided for the film summarises the aims of the project, and its disciplinary location, very well. It aims to provide a ‘cross fertilization of moving image lighting techniques between distinct production and exhibition environments’ and an ‘engagement, embodiment and reflection upon ideas surrounding the orchestration of light on screen as evidenced through conceptual installation and single channel practical works.’

Along these lines, this is a very well-conceived and executed conceptual project, produced as part of a PhD by practice project at UWE.

There are in fact 3 submissions as part of the package which help to give a broader sense of the project:

– video essay – 15 min conference presentation at LJMU

– single channel film

– installation documentation [this turned out to be my preferred way of experiencing the piece]

The research questions demonstrate commitment to originality, rigour and high level scholarship, with a very interesting enquiry into the relationship between computer-generated and live-action lighting practices, and into the creative process of lighting in new digital environments.

Review 2: Shortlist
Together, the project’s component parts really succeeded in saying something new about “the problem of lighting moving images in the context of an increasing confluence of technologies through which this practice now occurs.” I felt in particular that this practice research very clearly and valuably illuminated (apologies for the pun) the research questions that originally guided the work:

  • When a moving image work is largely, or entirely, created in a computer generated environment is the functionality and goal of lighting ultimately similar to live-action work or driven by distinct purposes?
  • What can be learned from a comparison and cross-fertilization between computer-generated and live-action lighting practices?
  • How if at all does the creative process of lighting in new digital environments differ from that of cinematographer as traditionally understood?

In so doing it worked extremely well as experimental audiovisual research not only in an artistic sense but also in a straightforwardly scientific/scholarly sense. The installation work was the experimental aspect and the video essay (really a kind of illustrated lecture) documented the project and the results/findings. In some ways, the work did not need a written statement, with its three component parts combining to generate standalone and self-explanatory research. This was one of the aspects which most excited me about it. The scope or significance of the findings are not earth-shattering – they are very specifically of relevance to three quite tightly defined fields: cinematography studies, CGI studies and experimental film and video (studies) but the fact that such a coherent and cogent contribution is made at once to these separate fields is extremely impressive.

A few glitches in the written statement (which did otherwise locate the work very successfully), and a slightly rough edge to the quality of the video essay should be noted, but overall this was a very exciting project to me – and very original indeed in the field of film and moving image studies.


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