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Unlike most children, Shelly Johnson grew up on television sets – mingling with actors, producers, stage crews and cinematographers. Shelly’s father, Sterling, directed live news shows and television variety programs in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. From an early age, Johnson knew that working in the entertainment industry was something he wanted to do, mainly thanks to the camera crews he met as a child. “They were always the happiest people on any given set – I knew that’s where I wanted to be,” said Johnson.
After pursuing a degree at the Pasadena Art Center College for Design in Pasadena, California, his career path came to a cross roads between technical and creative innovation. “The relationship between technology and the technical aspects of cinematography and the artistic dimensions of television and film resonated with me,” said Johnson. Starting on lighting crews for small projects, Johnson worked his way up to chief lighting technician, or gaffer, for a variety of projects, each one bigger than the last, eventually earning the opportunity to work with Steven Spielberg on The Others (TV) and Jurassic Park III. Through Spielberg, Johnson met Director Joe Johnston, which led him to his biggest project and challenge yet: the motion picture Captain America.
Upon learning more about Director Joe Johnston’s plans for the motion picture, Johnson was faced with not one, but two, new challenges. Johnston, an innovative director whose visions for movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark helped him win an OSCAR® in ‘Best Effects, Visual Effects’ in 1982, told Johnson that he wanted to film the motion picture digitally and with LEDs – relatively uncharted waters for Shelly.
As a gaffer, Johnson widely used metal-halide OSRAM HMI® lamps on sets but as technology progressed, production became more complicated with more computerization, programmable colors and lights. Today, LEDs are common in today’s marketplace but are just starting to breakthrough in the entertainment lighting portfolio as a premier lighting solution.
From the get-go, Johnson was curious but cautious. “Along the way, you pick up technical tidbits and add them to your ‘bag of tricks.’ It helps you develop your own style, and lighting is a big part of that. Plus it’s a safety net – you know what works and what doesn’t,” says Johnson. To date, LEDs were not a go-to arsenal of tools in Johnson’s bag of tricks.
“My first experience with LED technology wasn’t the best. They were very small and portable, but color reliability was an issue,” recalled Johnson. “What the eye saw wasn’t translated on film.” Film was a known commodity for Johnson – LEDs however, were not. But when Johnston approached Johnson to be the cinematographer for Captain America, the unique concept and new challenge was something he could not say ‘no’ to.
As a well-known period piece, “I was hesitant about shooting [Captain America] in digital at first. Film is a great capture medium, but the advantage with digital is its immediacy – what you see is what you get,” said Johnson. “The movie is set in the 1940’s, so I wanted it to look organic, to turn digital into what it wasn’t.” Johnson explained that lighting is one of the first things he addresses when planning for a movie, and Captain America was no exception.
Johnson had the tall task of building scenes with highlights and shadows in a digitally shot movie while making it look anything but digital. “You’re creating a mood with lighting, building a theme,” he said. “How are the characters going to pop? Should we go brighter or darker? Are the shadows in the right place? We want the lighting that’s best going to accentuate the action in a scene.”
When it came to Captain America, Johnson was interested in the nature of the lighting he would be using more than the color. He needed versatile light sources that were stable and created a “glow” effect and not a spot pattern. LEDs were not the first solution Johnson thought of because, while certainly versatile, LEDs are traditionally associated with directional points of lighting. Also, LEDs have untested color reliability as it relates to the film industry: “The brightness is there, but we could never be sure about the color,” Johnson said.
Johnson received a call from Mike Parker at Mole Richardson and Dennis Knopf at OSRAM SYLVANIA; they had new LED panels using remote phosphor technology they wanted to show him called KREIOS Daylight & Tungsten LED Panels. The KREIOS Daylight LEDs have a color temperature of 5600°K, while the KREIOS Tungsten lamps have color temperatures of 3200°K. “This was a chance to improve the reputation of LEDs in entertainment applications, so I jumped at the opportunity to see what these guys could do. But I didn’t make it easy for them,” said Johnson. He wanted an LED that had no color drift, in much the same way a tungsten lamp would work, but from a small, thin source that produced diffused, unified light – not a spot pattern as is typical with LEDs.
With some hard work and creativity, OSRAM and Mole were not only able to get it right - “they nailed it,” said Johnson. The Association of Cinematographers put the KREIOS remote phosphor LED panels next to a traditional tungsten light source normally used on set and no one could tell the difference or which one was which. This reliability and performance allowed Johnson to stop thinking about KREIOS as an LED and more as a functional lighting source; a creative tool at his disposal for bringing the Captain America period piece to life.
Unlike the LEDs Johnson had previously used, KREIOS Daylight & Tungsten LED panels have excellent color stability. The MoleLED fixtures with OSRAM KREIOS panels are also fully dimmable, but unlike traditional lighting sources, “the color temperature of the light remained consistent – that level of control is great,” Johnson emphasized.
“I used the KREIOS Daylight & Tungsten LED Panels products in a variety of ways – lighting people [actors], scenes and backgrounds,” said Johnson. “These LED panels were quite versatile, very consistent and adjustable. They were the only LED systems we used that gave 100 percent response to what we wanted.” Because of the small (6”x8”) size of the KREIOS Daylight & Tungsten LED Panels products in the MoleLED fixture, Johnson could place them in almost any nook or cranny of the set to create the exact effect he was looking to achieve.
How does Shelly Johnson feel about how Captain America turned out? “It’s just a really fun movie to watch with really great performances. These projects are so massive and expensive. You’re working with incredible amounts of talented people, and the bar is set very high – I just want to be able to keep up!”
While the use of digital film and LEDs in cinematography may be in its infancy, Johnson sees this concept growing in use and application. “The complexity is only increasing with computers, programming and LED technology. Before, one light did one thing, but now, one light needs to do multiple things. The flexibility of LEDs is a clear advantage here.”
While having a reliable set of known tools is an important asset to fall back on, the advancement of cinematography is dependent on trying new solutions and technologies. “I try to constantly try new things, to get outside of my comfort zone,” said Johnson. “I want to see what these new products can do and what they can’t – that’s how my bag of tricks gets bigger, and the KREIOS Daylight & Tungsten remote phosphor LED panels in Captain America are a great example of that.”
As lighting technologies advance, with increasingly complex dimmer boards and color mixable LEDs, cinematography will continue to incorporate them and amaze movie-goers the world over. “Motion pictures will go digital – how lighting technologies will marry with the new digital standard is the question and the challenge for cinematographers,” said Johnson.
*OSCAR® is a registered trademark of Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences*HMI® is a registered trademark of OSRAM AG
Photos Courtesy of Marvel Studios. ™ & © 2011 Marvel & Subs www.marvel.com
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