Video & Filmmaking

How DP and Lighting Designer Rick Siegel Creates Naturalism without Natural Light

February 26, 2018

By Aimee Baldridge

© Jonathon D. Moll

Rick Siegel. © Jonathon D. Moll

If Rick Siegel’s approach to lighting were a musical genre, it would be jazz. Drawing on his more than 30 years of experience as a DP and lighting designer, he works by listening, responding, and weaving disparate parts together to create a compelling whole. His lighting work includes an unusually broad range of productions, from live concerts with elaborate light shows to feature and documentary films to television series like the Barbara Walters specials.

Siegel is often called upon to apply his talent for creating naturalistic lighting that allows viewers to experience a scene as if it were lit with only available light. His naturalism isn’t necessarily about using natural light. As he puts it, “There’s natural light, and then there’s making it look natural to the scene.” In fact, shooting a naturalistic scene often involves minimizing the effect of real natural light, which can be changeable and harder to subtly manipulate than set lighting.

He frequently shoots interior scenes with windows that appear to be filling the room with sunlight, but in fact are providing very little illumination. He uses neutral density film to lower the amount of light coming in so he has a free hand to sculpt the lighting on his characters in the foreground, retaining just enough light in the windows to show the exterior as a deep background.

In the short film “The Shovel,” he applied ND film to the windows in a kitchen set for a daytime scene that looks as if it’s lit by window light and a few small lamps and lights. In reality, Siegel used eight Kino Flos to light the space and the two characters in a way that subtly underscores the increasing tension in the film.

Why eight? “I did not have a lighting plan. I didn’t draw a plot out for that,” he says. “It was nothing more than: I know I’m either looking at windows or I’m looking away from windows. And I need stage lighting. I need things that are in the background to be lit, and I know I need my talent to be lit. And that equates to five to eight lights. It just generally does.” But that doesn’t mean he considers those numbers a rule of thumb. “I hate to say there’s a formula,” he insists. “The formula is what’s right for that character in that context in that project with the time and money you have.”

Siegel’s approach is also not about adhering to a lighting scheme in which every light source matches the position of a practical. In one nighttime scene he lit for “The Shovel” two men have a conversation near a barn with a bare lightbulb hanging in it, the only light source shown (briefly) in the scene. One of the men is the main character; the other is digging a hole with a shovel, and has his back to the barn.

“The conceit bubble I’m floating everything in is that one bulb is lighting everything you’re seeing,” he says. But the actual setup involved more than 20 strategically placed lights, including tungsten fresnels and ellipsoidals for distance throws. Anyone who stops to dissect the lighting will realize that it would be impossible for the single bulb to light the two men facing each other, the trees in the background, and all of the other elements shown in the scene. While he was striving for a “naturalistic” look, Siegel says, “I call it enhanced reality or enhanced naturalism, because there are no lights in the woods at night.”

It all comes together so plausibly that it looks natural to viewers, while also shaping their perception of the characters. The way he lit the face of the man with the shovel conveyed a sense of mystery. “I wanted to make it feel like his identity was hardly there and basically filled it with as little as I thought I could possibly do without giving away too much,” says Siegel, “just so you could see his eyes and feel his soul.”

© Nick Childs

For his work on the short ”The Shovel,” directed by Nick Childs, Rick Siegel lit scenes to suggest—but not mimic—natural lighting. An outdoor night scene used more than 20 lights to suggest the effect of a single bulb. © Nick Childs

To light the scene, Siegel started with the actor David Strathairn, who plays the central figure of the film and enters the scene facing the practical. “David’s got a hot hit on his cheek,” says Siegel. “The trees in the back were lit from that same side. So my shovel man can actually have a bit of something coming up from that direction as well. And that’s how I think every scene out: How do I make do with that bright spot in the background? Why is it there? What is it doing? How bright should it be? What color should it be? It’s all in that Cuisinart of context, and my process says that there’s the logic behind it.”

By placing a light at the most plausible spot, he can make it seem natural—even when the light comes from an imaginary source outside the frame. “I’m looking for that practical, and if it isn’t there, I’ll think about what it might be,” he says. And the same kind of process can work when the budget doesn’t allow for 20 lights or crew to manage them.

He shot the feature-length film Bomber using only one bar light, a 125 watt HMI,  throughout a production that took place over the course of a 30-day road trip in vehicles, outdoors and in interior locations. Most of the shots were done with sunlight and bounce boards, with the single bar light providing fill or a touch of heightened lighting as needed. When Siegel required a little extra illumination for indoor scenes, he picked up strings of LEDs and other small household lights at home improvement stores along the way.

For Siegel, coming up with lighting setups for a film doesn’t start with standard schemes or diagrams. “I think a lot of people are very caught up in dictates,” he says. Instead, his process begins with getting a handle on what the film is trying to communicate. “The way I work my way into it is I read the script, and then I read the script again and again, have a chat, talk, and get a vibe on it. I realize the context of the scenes, hopefully see a location, then start thinking about the lighting and the budget and making sure that I don’t have too much equipment, even though that’s an abundance of riches which rarely happens. But I have to also make sure I’ve got exactly the minimum I know I need to get away with it.” Siegel selects crew members and finalizes his equipment list when he gets close to the shoot date. “That’s when I start going, ‘All right, now I’ve got four of these and six of those and two of those. Where will all these work?’”

But he says the process of envisioning and shaping each scene with light continues throughout the preproduction and production phases. “It keeps evolving until we’ve cut camera,” he says. “My best answers come from knowing my story, my script, my limitations, my non-limitations, and what it is I want to get my audience to understand when they see each scene that we shoot.” He sees that preparation as both a necessity and a source of inspiration. “When I’ve done my homework and prepped, my best answers come to me when I’m not thinking hard about it,” he says.

It’s a blend of knowledge and inspiration that tells him what will ultimately look—and more importantly, feel—natural to viewers. “I have enough decades of experience to know and trust that that voice will always come through,” says Siegel. “It takes time to get to that place.” For Siegel, there’s no substitute for preparation and careful attention. “And then there’s the famous ‘You’ve got to do it 10,000 times,’” he says. “Because once you’ve done it 10,000 times you go, ‘Oh, I can do this.’ And you can.”

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