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Lighting a film set

By Kavishna Wijesinghe

When it comes to the world of gaffers, Jim Plannette is a legend. With over 50 years of experience in the industry, and having worked with some of the most celebrated directors and cinematographers, he’s done it all. E.T. (1982), Young Frankenstein (1974), Legends of the Fall (1994), Braveheart (1995), and The Fisher King (1991) are a few titles in his extensive list of credits. Jim joined us a few weeks back to talk about his journey as a gaffer.

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Jim revealed that his father, Homer Plannette – also a gaffer – was his biggest inspiration. He cherishes his father’s advice: “First you have to look at light and then be able to replicate that through the image in your head.” Jim also said that he certainly assures that his work nourishes the storyline without calling attention to it individually. Although he added that his father being in the business certainly helped, Jim did not deny that it was his hard work and dedication which kept him employed for over half a century.

Initiation point 

Jim revealed that the stage he initiates his work depends on the production. The recent French project that he’s working on had only a week of prep time. However, if he senses that he needs more time, he makes sure to lobby for sufficient time because it is important to allocate the resources and time when lighting a set.

Jim took his baby steps with Warner Brothers, and I Love Lucy as an electrician walking up on the scaffolds with the gaffer’s demands. However, when he later got his chance to work on a movie or a TV show, he got his hands on the dailies; the raw, unedited footage of a movie. Using these, he could look and learn what they had done with the lighting and how it had turned out on the screen.

Jim said, compared to that, today things are vastly different, as you can see what you’re shooting in real time on a monitor, and things such as colour temperature and intensity, can be adjusted by a dial.

Lighting for black-and-white vs. lighting for colour

Even though it seems a lot different, the lighting for these two are not that contrasting. Jim explained how they shot in colour film first, just because they wanted the 500 ASA and later, how they made it black-and-white digitally, when they did The Artist (2011). To achieve their 20’s black-and-white movie look, which isn’t film noir, they used a filter on the lenses.

He also stated that he has done three black-and-white movies, including Young Frankenstein (1974) which he said was a lot of fun.

Managing with natural elements

When asked about how he uses natural light, Jim explained that in the US they have every sort of light in the Northeast and Southwest, and they are all entirely different. However, the monitors help to decide if they need to add fill or anything more.

“Sometimes you need to put light into the bounce, so I’m always prepared to do that. As long as you know where to put light it’s not that difficult,” he said.

Collaborating with directors and cinematographers

Jim divulged that the most important thing is the “plan”, but things could alter once you arrive at the location and after the rehearsal. Jim believes that they must be prepared but, in his opinion, storyboards are just a waste of time and money. 

However, Jim recalls that working with people like Mel Gibson and Steven Spielberg has been “a lot of fun”. Spielberg could finish E.T. within 55 days and $ 10.5 million without letting the crew slow-down and managed to make certain things were light-hearted on set, which resulted in everyone contributing their 100%.

On Braveheart (1995), Jim had a great experience with John Toll. He mentioned that they shot six weeks in Scotland and 16 weeks in Ireland, yet Gibson knew how to cheer people up, pulling a joke when they got frustrated and tired. Jim added that when you’re on long shoots with people, it’s imperative that they are people you can get along with well.

Technology

Jim revealed that he always prefers HD and in the movie Suffragette (2015), which was about women seeking the right to vote in Great Britain, they pulled out the day shots in film, and night shots HD. In the end they combined them beautifully, and no one could identify a difference.

He rarely uses a light meter; he could eyeball it and he added: “You don’t have to worry about the sky because you can easily change the sky or brightness in post-production now.”

Jim explained that it’s essential to know what you want exactly and utilising what you have is crucial. “If it’s a $ 50 million budget movie then think you have only $ 5 million. Because, the challenge is to do something without everything.”

Advice for young gaffers

Jim encourages young gaffers to pay attention to details and learn things by questioning. Everyone can look at the monitor and see the quality of the work. Consequently, realise what to do and what not to do. He also said that: “The only thing that is happening in a production is change, so you must be ready for it.”

The full interview with Jim Plannette is available on the Junkyard Theory YouTube channel.

Junkyard Theory is Sri Lanka’s first and only film education platform that brings on veteran filmmakers from Hollywood as guest speakers. Their webinars, hosted by Akash Sunethkumara, have been recognised on industry sites such as “No Film School”, and the team now runs film courses for upcoming filmmakers in the country.