(This is an excerpt from The Music Bed Blog.)
If you’ve seen anything Khalid Mohtaseb has ever done, you know that his work is consistently, mind-blowingly beautiful. The guy is practically a legend. So we were surprised to hear that his secret isn’t some obscure lighting technique or a particular piece of equipment, but rather a person — Joseph Sciacca to be specific: a production designer.
After he started working with Joseph, Khalid hardly needed to light anything at all. Because Joseph was creating such beautiful environments, Khalid just had to point the camera and start shooting. The secret, it turned out, was creating something beautiful to shoot in the first place.
Khalid and Joseph have collaborated on projects for clients like National Geographic, Everlast, and Toyota — just to name a few. But even after all these years and high-profile projects, both of them insist they are still just learning. “Every job is homework for the next job,” Joseph told us. “Life is homework.”
Check out what Khalid and Joseph have to say about production design, lighting, and how $20 of tar paper can change everything.
KM: One of the first things a cinematographer should ask themselves when they walk into a space is, “How do I create contrast?”
I learned this four or five years ago when I sat in on an interview with Jack Green, an AFC DP who’s shot for Clint Eastwood. I asked him what the most useful advice he’d ever gotten about cinematography was. He said that when you first walk into a space, the first question you have to ask yourself is, “How do I create black?”
I didn’t totally understand what he meant [at the time], but he was essentially talking about contrast. How do you create contrast? It’s the concept of negative fill: putting black into spaces. So if you’re shooting in an all-white room, find the edges of your frame and put black there so light doesn’t bounce everywhere. What a lot of beginning cinematographers don’t realize is that light is bouncing everywhere all the time, and you don’t realize it until you start trying to create black.
For this Everlast scene, we were in this all-white room, and there was no way to create black.
JS: The quickest solution for finding black in that location was to black out the floor so we didn’t have all that light bouncing off the tile. I drove to Home Depot and grabbed some roofing material. It’s like tar paper. It’s got this fantastic non-reflective surface and it’s relatively seamless. That’s where having experience with hands-on work — masonry, carpentry, things like that — really pays off for a production designer. You need to know what tools you have out there.
KM: We put this stuff on the ground, and when we looked at the scene again, it was the most drastic difference ever. We weren’t getting any bounce off the floor. It created this moodier look, and the actor’s face was almost silhouetted. The lighting was coming from one side but didn’t bounce; there was no fill whatsoever. And that was it. That’s what we ended up going with. We just put a small light through a window, which created a really interesting look. I think the whole fix cost us $20.