The Digital Talking Head

Despite all the revolutionary, paradigm-breaking shifts in production formats, the human face remains the pivotal element of almost every production.
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The talking head lies at the core of our craft of making television pictures, even in these dark days of reality TV, when some producers have mistaken the audience's tolerance of a few moments of low-quality pictures for permission to serve up hours of shoddy production. Despite all the revolutionary, paradigm-breaking shifts in production formats, the human face remains the pivotal element of almost every production.

As lighting practitioners, our first obligation to the picture is to provide sufficient light for an exposure, but only on those elements in the frame that we have chosen to make visible. To a substantial degree, advances in camera technology have lightened this particular burden, although at the same time, they have created greater expectations for acquiring pictures under even more difficult conditions.

The extended near infrared capabilities of current camera chip technologies has brought us to the point where there are lighting directors who specialize in the "after lights out" and "hidden camera" coverage, now mandatory in a multitude of reality program formats.

As yet, infrared lighting tends toward general-wash illumination, rather than attempting to achieve selective visibility, three-dimensional modeling or any kind of mood. However, these development are bound to occur.


Having satisfied the camera's need for light, our next duty is to enhance the appearance of depth in our two-dimensional image. Without the benefit of binocular vision, the shadows in our pictures become one of the most powerful cues from which our brains are able to interpret depth: so much so that I have been known to describe my occupation as "shadow manipulation engineer". It seemed much more exotic in a time before there were people spending days in front of graphics workstations, developing the algorithms for the shadows in computer-generated images.

The shadows cast by our talent's nose, chin and eye sockets are the major pieces of information that enable us to tell that what we are looking at is a real human face, rather than a cardboard cutout or a painting on the wall. To provide these important shadows, we need a keylight source, in the right position, at the right intensity and with the right optics, to produce the shadow quality that suits our picture style and production requirements.

Developments in camera resolution, sensitivity, colorimetry and most recently, digital transmission and an increase in image size have allowed us to introduce an increasingly broader range of light sources, with more subtle, and more naturalistic, shadow properties. The keylight, or shadow source, can actually be any type of light that suits the occasion, from a 299kW Xenon lightning strike or an 18kW HMI Fresnel, to a 60 W bulb inside a rice-paper lantern, or a four-inch-long fluorescent tube, hidden in a soda bottle. What makes it the key source is that we want to use it as our primary source for shadows.

In the conventional studio setup, incandescent Fresnel spots have long been the keylight of choice. Back in the dark ages of image orthicon camera tubes that had low resolution and even lower sensitivity, the clearly defined shadows from a Fresnel spot were ideal in helping to define the image depth. In the field, the open-faced quartz flood found in the Redhead, the Sun gun and their various descendents, produced clearly defined shadows that would help to keep the image definition as the film made its way through rapid processing and editing, to a telecine chain with the same shortcomings as the studio cameras of the time.


The subtlety now available with our present cameras, both in the studio and in the field, allows us to produce more naturalistic shadows, while at the same time extending the possible contrast range between the light and dark elements of our images. Surprisingly, the most daring experiments with extending contrast have come from the DPs of film-based series productions. Nevertheless, some television movies continue to screen with low-contrast, overlit, "safe" pictures that are lit for the telecine chains and television receivers of bygone days.

Although beautiful to look at, soft light sources have always been problematic key sources for television production because of size, weight, heat output and wild uncontrollability. The highly efficient, low-power and compact softlights now possible with full-color rendering fluorescent fixtures allow us to get softboxes closer to the talent without causing major studio obstructions and without losing the wrap-around soft shadows that are often the problem with small softlights. Accessorize these with a narrow-angle soft egg crate and you can get a subtle, well-controlled soft keylight without too much difficulty.

The tradition of strong backlighting in television can be traced to the same era as the strong keylight. Putting sharply defined edges on people helped to separate them from the slightly murky gray background. When color came along, the need for backlighting to give separation diminished substantially. Recent developments in image definition and camera sensitivity allow the backlight to return to its rightful role of providing a little hair (or scalp) highlighting and subtle outlines for the neck and shoulders, when used in pairs from the three-quarter offset position.

Better-quality and higher-resolution images all the way along the acquisition, processing and broadcast chain add up to the potential for more subtle lighting and better portraiture than was previously conceivable for television. Have a look at how far you can push the systems that you work with. You ought to be pleasantly surprised.