Janusz Kaminski: Softlight, Flatlight, & China Balls

From American Cinematographer, Breaking Slavery's Chains by Stephen Pizzello (January 1998)

"Before we began shooting, I watched Queen Margot and Interview with a Vampire. Rousselot uses China balls a lot, and he underexposes in his color palette. All of his colors are a bit pastel, and he gets a bit of grain in the movie. Everything falls very softly into the shadows, and the actors' faces have a painterly quality. While watching his movies, David Devlin and I kept asking ourselves, 'How is he doing it?' We finally figured out that there was always a rather large distance between the object that he was photographing and the background, and that he was often using flat light. We started playing with that, using very flat, frontal lighting and moving the object that we were shooting away from the wall, so the shadows would fall away. We also underexposed by two stops. And sure enough, the magic started happening! It was like reaching another level."

- Janusz Kaminski

"We wanted to have a textural feeling in this film, and the way you'd normally achieve that is to use hard light, We were trying to do the same thing with soft light, which led us to light frontally with smaller units. That gave us patches of light, but we still had contrast in the scenes. If you start using side angles and off angles, things become a bit less painterly, because you don't see the falloff of the light wouldn't break. When you allow the intensity of the light to fall off on objects, it really brings you in form the darkness."

- David Devlin, Gaffer for Janusz on Amistad

"A long time ago I was playing with them, but I never really learned how to use them properly. On a few occasions I would grab a China Ball, look at it and say, 'Nah, I don't like it.' But on this movie we started playing with them again, and I think I've finally learned how to work with them a bit. China balls are very interesting, because you can move them up and down during a take; it becomes a very convenient way to light. But China balls are not really durable, and you still have to shape the light that you get from them. It's also problematic to attach them to C-stands, because they always sway."

- Janusz Kaminski

"If you put a normal China ball on the floor, it will just roll over and burn a hole in itself. To avoid that type of problem, our best boy, Larry Richardson, designed a new type of space light for this show."

- David Devlin, Gaffer for Janusz on Amistad

This variation of the typical paper lamp offered a light source that could be adjusted more easily, as well as a flat bottom to prevent it from rolling over. Richardson also equipped the new units with hard mounts so that they could be attached to C-stands with greater stability. He constructed 12 of these special lights, which were used in conjunction with normal China balls for many of the film's scenes.

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