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Hollywood’s Invisible People

Harry Welsh investigates the racism underlying the mechanics of film.

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Deep within the mechanics of the film industry is a component so implicitly lined with racist undertones that it goes unnoticed. The problem is rooted within film stock, the medium used to record analog motion pictures, which can’t physically keep both light and dark skinned actors within the same frame.

It’s coated with a light absorbing gel emulsion on both sides that responds to the image captured by the lens. The image itself is a light reflection, which can be over exposed or under lit if the scene is not filmed correctly.

Filmmakers use light meters to control the exposure and aperture of an image, playing a major role in perfecting light levels. According to photographer Adam Broomberg, the meters are adjusted to let more light in when filming darker skin, as it absorbs 42% more light than white skin. But if more light is let in for the black actor, the white actor will become blindingly white. In conversation with The Guardian, Broomberg reflects on the use of old Polaroid IP-2 cameras, “if you exposed film for a white kid, the black kid sitting next to him would be rendered invisible except for the whites of his eyes and teeth”.

These racially coded technologies are indicative of the time in which they were created, which for light meters was around the 1930s. However, an explicitly racial agenda was first manifested in the 1950s with the introduction of ‘Shirley Cards’.

These cards depicted an image of a porcelain white model, surrounded by colourful pillows in a white studio, arranged as a point of reference for photographers and filmmakers to set light meters. They were first introduced by Kodak, whose film was once deemed ‘racist’ by French film pioneer Jean Luc Godard when filming in Mozambique. Kodak only decided to modify their colour cards after complaints from advertising companies, who said they couldn’t properly photograph chocolate and wood furniture.

So, unfortunately for black actors, light meter standards were determined by reference to paler skin tones. Rather than modifying the standards of the technology, this encouraged film-makers to find alternative means to light black bodies on screen.

This often resulted in an uncomfortable and humiliating time for dark skinned actors. Creative Director at Parallel Film Collective Montre, Aza Missouri remembers the teachings of one of her instructors: “if you found yourself in the ‘unfortunate situation’ of shooting on the ‘Dark Continent,’ and if you’re shooting dark-skinned people, then you should rub Vaseline on their skin in order to reflect light.”

Following the premiere of his film 12 Years A Slave in Toronto, Steve McQueen remembers his first experience with this inequality: “…growing up and seeing Sidney Poitier sweating next to Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night, and obviously it’s very hot in the South, but also he was sweating because he had tons of light thrown on him, because the film stock wasn’t sensitive enough for black skin.” Much of the development of celluloid film stock occurred in America off the back of slave liberation, within the tense climate of racism and inequality at the time. This resulted in technologies that favour the fairer skin, and filmmakers have long ignored the problem within their instruments and sought to alter the skin of their actors.

In the celluloid age, photochemical processing was the standard process to colour grade the images of your film. In the 1990s, certain filmmakers pushed the boundaries of digital colour editing, and inspired the creation of the digital intermediate phase—in which colour correction became possible.

Colour correction is a process where the colour of the light in a scene can be altered. In cinematography, light colour is measured on a scale of temperature, which is changed by the use of gels and filters in the correction stage. This aids the illumination of dark skin, as more subtle hues of the skin tone can be rendered on screen. Yet ultimately the temperature of an image’s colours must be brought to a matching level, so dark skin tones may be reduced to the light temperature of lighter skin depending on the choice of the editor.

Alternative to the editing phase, digital film cameras offer dynamic variations in the colours they pick up, regardless of the strong lighting set up on the scene. Cameras such as the Red One possess enhanced sensitivity controls that remove the need for professional film lights to balance out black and white.

Cinematographer Daniel Patterson notes in The Washington Post,  “I just changed the wattage of the bulb, used a dimmer, and I didn’t have to use any film lights… The camera was able to hold both of them during the scene without any issues… That kind of blew me away.”

Digital filmmaking appears more popular with younger filmmakers, as they are less attached to the traditions of the celluloid era and more open to experimentation. Cinematographers like Bradford Young have a desire to break conventions, explaining to Colorlines, “When you underexpose [dark brown skin tones], they pop and resonate and shine in a particular way that you’re not going to see when a face is lit in a conventional way.” Young is enthused by the art of picking up complexities of dark, subtle skin, which he notes is ignored by traditional filmmaking; i.e. the standard Hollywood technologies and methods. Speaking to Indiewire, cinematographer Cybel Martin, like Young, is inspired by this unrecognised art: “every shade and hue offers its own unique challenges and glorious opportunities for the cinematographer to create art.”

These young filmmakers share a passion for the cinematography of complex dark skin, which has, by and large, been ignored by the film industry. The growing application and appreciation of digital filmmaking separates contemporary ideologies from traditional, biased celluloid perspectives. As noted by Ann Hornday from The Washington Post, “The fact that audiences are seeing such a varied, nuanced spectrum of black faces isn’t just a matter of poetics, but politics—and the advent of digital filmmaking.” Despite the achievements of digital technology, the inherently racist elements of cinematography are a disturbing reminder of whitewashed Hollywood, silent on the issue until a solution is created by other means.