Cinematographer Lyle Vincent had a great advantage in shooting writer/director Cory Finley’s “Thoroughbreds”: The primary location was a beautiful ’20s-era mansion outside Boston. It’s not often that a single location can supply different looks and settings, and with natural light.
“It was nice because we were there for so long — most of our shoot — so we had flexibility and could plan around the sun,” said Vincent. “I didn’t want to be too precious, or picky, and kind of letting things be natural, rather than adding a ton of light.”
For the film’s interior scenes, natural light that poured in through tall windows served as the primary light source; Vincent let the time of day reflect the mood. Recent advances in LED lighting technology made this minimal approach easier. While Vincent used ARRI Sky Panels (s30 and s60) in his commercial work, he’d never used them on a feature. Sky Panels are lightweight and draw little power; they don’t require generators or a tie-in. However, they allowed Vincent and gaffer Joshua Dreyfus to dial in exact color temperature and intensity to fill or supplement the natural sunlight.
Claire Folger / Focus Features
“I would have taken a similar lighting approach without the Sky Panels, it just might have been a little slower and more cumbersome,” said Vincent. “You just turn it on, and you have this nice soft light, and then, you just kind of control it from there, which makes things so much quicker and easier.”
Vincent, like many DPs, came up thinking of LED lights as a major compromise. “You’d have to really diffuse them down, or bounce them, because you have all these little elements that were making weird shadows,” said Vincent. “When you have HMIs, or older LEDs, you always have the skin-color problem, or the color-balance problems – green spikes, magenta spikes, lost or shifting colors.”
Vincent compares Sky Panels light to tungsten cinema lights, although Sky Panels permit a full spectrum of color that is easily controlled. Dreyfus created a wireless setup for Vincent that allowed the collaborators to make swift and subtle adjustments to intensity and color with a remote control, while watching the monitor.
Claire Folger / Focus Features
Vincent’s lighting design for “Thoroughbreds” was all about subtle shifts. He started with naturalistic lighting, but it became more stylized and noir as the characters revealed themselves.
“The whole thing about the movie was supporting the acting,” said Vincent. “We wanted that the neo-noir look, but for it to be subtle and progressive, so as things develop, as you learn more about the situation and the characters, the lighting [becomes] a little more dramatic, a little more contrast, a little more shadowy, more silhouettes, more noir-type elements. We would play with colors, and that’s where the LEDs came in.”
With Sky Panels it’s not only possible to dial in color temperature, but also to make it any color. In the film’s later scenes, Vincent complemented more dramatic camera angles and an increasingly moving camera with wilder color schemes.
“There’s one scene where she’s putting on makeup, and you start to see the Anya Taylor-Joy character more and things are becoming a little more sinister,” said Vincent. “It is also where the night stuff kicks in, too, so we were able to play with more colors. She goes down this hallway and it’s all blue light, almost like neon blue. Then she goes in to see her mom in the tanning bed, and it’s all the same neon purple. Then, from that scene, she goes to this party [that’s] decked all out with strange lighting — purple, pink, indigo and strobe light — and all of a sudden it’s theatrical, but naturalistically motivated by what happening on screen.”
On other films, Vincent used gels to play with colored light. In “gel mode,” Sky Panels have all of his favorite gels as presets that allow him to quickly experiment and test different colors. An RGB mode lets him dial in any color by adjusting hues and saturation.
“I came up shooting film, long before LEDs, so I know gels really well and the Sky Panels have a whole gel library, so it’s like, ‘I want this gel,’ and it comes up,” said Vincent. “We’re all working on good monitors, so we see it, and we’re like, ‘Oh, actually, that wasn’t right.’ And the gaffer dials in something different or we talk, “Add a little green. Add a little blue. A little magenta.’ It’s very quick, that’s really the beauty of it.”
Editor’s Note: This feature is presented in partnership with ARRI, a leading designer, manufacturer and distributor of motion picture camera, digital intermediate (DI) and lighting equipment. Founded by two filmmakers 100 years ago, ARRI and its engineers have been recognized by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for contributions to the industry with 19 Scientific and Technical Awards. Click here for more about ARRI.