Lighthill on Evolving Technologies and Efficiency on Set

Stephen Lighthill, ASC, poses with AFI's cinematography class of 2015 in Hollywood.
Stephen Lighthill, ASC, poses with AFI's cinematography class of 2015 in Hollywood.

I connected with Stephen Lighthill, ASC, just after it was announced that American Film Institute alumni had won all three spots in the narrative category of the 42nd Student Academy Awards competition, an unprecedented sweep. Stephen is the chairman of the cinematography department at AFI. Our conversation centered on the impact of the technological evolution in the real world of production as well as in the world of education.

“Technology is changing the way we work and behave on set, and therefore it’s changing, inadvertently, the way we make films, and the nature of the films that result,” says Stephen. “Recently there was quite a long thread on the Cinematography Mailing List about why we still use slates, when we have time code on the camera and in the sound recorder. Apart from the technical issues, clapping the slate shuts down the gabfest on set and communicates that it’s time to be serious. I think that moment of collective inhaling is really important.

“Here at AFI, our dean is Jan Schuette. He is from Germany, and I think it’s hard for him to get used to the fact that some people cannot control their use of their phones,” says Stephen. “They use them at inappropriate times — when someone is speaking directly to them, for example. Or they pretend to go to the bathroom, but they’re really standing in the hall looking at their phones. I think cinematographers will tell you that on most professional sets, cellphones are banned, and you can get fired for using one at the wrong time. While that rule is not always strictly enforced, the threat is real.

“What’s interesting to me is the research that’s being done on what’s happening to our brains. All these convenient electronic devices enable us to multi-task, which actually means we’re training our brains to think more shallowly. I tell my students that there has to be a time when they put everything away and concentrate; you have to consciously tell yourself that you will not allow interruptions, and allow your brain to get into that deep place where you’re really putting together a comprehensive approach to the subject you’re studying. I think people of all generations have to get on top of this and have to protect the mind’s ability to do deep thinking.”

Stephen also referred to a recent New York Times article in which a reporter, Adam Davidson, was stunned to witness the efficiency with which a film crew executed the first scene of a project. “Why was this process so smooth?” Davidson asks in the article. “The team had never worked together before, and the scenes they were shooting that day required many different complex tasks to happen in harmony: lighting, makeup, hair, costumes, sets, props, acting. And yet there was no transition time; everybody worked together seamlessly, instantly …. They didn’t need to tell one another. They just got to work, and somehow it all fit together.”

Stephen says, “Davidson noted that many companies are now building short-term project-specific staffs, as opposed to offering long-term open-ended employment. The amazing thing about film production is how it’s freelance-based, with contract workers, and it’s astoundingly efficient. But I think that efficiency is threatened by distracted filmmaking. You open your laptop to read some script pages, and suddenly you’re checking your Facebook page. And now you’re distracted.”

Of course, the impact of technological evolution on filmmakers is felt strongly when a technology changes the actual filmmaking apparatus.

“There’s a general conception that it doesn’t cost anything to shoot many takes in digital, but that’s erroneous,” Stephen says. “There’s no expense to recording, it’s true. But in fact, you create tremendous inefficiency in the edit room if you give editors way more material than you actually want or need. So the idea that a director doesn’t want to stop for slates — just take the dolly back to the start and keep rolling — means an editor has to look through that footage and doesn’t have the slate to find it. Then you can’t use just one editor and two assistants, you have to use two editors and four assistants. It costs money and takes manpower to transport, back up and organize all that data. There really are cases where people say, ‘I know we shot that, but I can’t find it.’ And you’re not only ruining the editor’s efficiency, you’re also wasting the energy of your crew.

“To some outsiders, film production can seem inefficient, but it has evolved to a place where a group of professionals doing it is actually very efficient. We would be foolish to let that slip away.”

Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC, poses with Lighthill after a recent ASC event at AFI. (Credit: John Simmons, ASC)
Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC, poses with Lighthill after a recent ASC event at AFI. (Credit: John Simmons, ASC)

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