The announcement last year that Los Angeles would be replacing its high-pressure sodium streetlights — known for their distinctive yellow hue — with new, blue-tinted LEDs might have a profound effect on at least one local industry. All of those LEDs, with their new urban colour scheme, will dramatically change how the city appears on camera, thus giving Los Angeles a brand new look in the age of digital filmmaking. As Dave Kendricken writes for No Film School, “Hollywood will never look the same.”
Kendricken specifically uses Michael Mann’s 2004 film Collateral as his example of a movie that relied heavily on a depiction of Los Angeles at night. Mann deliberately set the film in L.A. — actually relocating it to L.A. from NYC, where it was originally going to be filmed — not only due to the narrative mechanics of the screenplay but because of the particular colour tones of the city’s nocturnal streetscape and how they would appear when shot with digital cameras.
Mann’s well-known urban aesthetic, and his propensity for shooting films digitally, thus came together in Los Angeles under the unlikely banner of the city’s antiquated streetlight infrastructure.
Surely, though, nothing is really being lost? Filmmakers and photographers can simply fake the old colour scheme in post-production — after all, that’s what Photoshop is for. Not so fast, Kendricken warns.
As he points out, the effects of the LEDs are not, in fact, easy to mask. “The interesting thing about non-tungsten artificial light sources,” he writes, “is that they often produce a non-continuous or incomplete spectral output. This can affect the appearance of certain colours under that output. More simply, you can’t really put colours back in that weren’t there to begin with, even by gelling such a light source or colour correcting in post.”
As such, he says, the switch to LED really is a historic change for the visual definition of Los Angeles — so much so (and this is my comment, not Kendricken’s) that we might someday find ourselves seriously arguing over whether a city’s artificial lights, due to their unique colour scheme, could be justifiably subject to historic preservation laws. After all, Kendricken adds, “In a sense, every night exterior L.A.-shot film previous to this change is rendered a sort of anthropological artifact, an historical document of obsolete urban infrastructure.”
The implication is that every shot of Los Angeles prior to the LED turnover will soon be a valuable historic document, capturing the city in a light that will now be lost forever, its electrical signature seen in the colour schemes of every old film and photograph.
Of course, this transition to LED streetlights is also happening in New York City, and other major cities around the world (where there are already intriguing mis-matches between urban lighting and personal photography equipment) will soon begin using LEDs for their environmental impact and cost.
In other words, the cinematic effects of LEDs will be seen elsewhere — meaning that, if we want to change the film industry, then ironically one of the fastest and most all-encompassing ways to do so is to change how our cities are lit.
Briefly, though, one more issue — something not raised by Kendricken but nonetheless interesting to mention — is the effect that various artificial lighting schemes and colours have on human neurology. Think of recent research, for example, into how blue-tinted light sources like computer screens and handheld devices can lead to insomnia and disrupt circadian rhythms; this is the premise of f.lux, for example, an app for automatically redshifting, so to speak, the hue of your computer monitor.
I mention this simply because the specter of an all-LED urban lighting screen raises the horror-movie-like possibility of a kind of city-wide neurological accident as the wrong colour choice is inadvertently installed across the city, leading to sleeplessness, shortness of attention span, and irritability, its citizens wandering around at night, sullen, introverted, and plagued with insomnia, being slowly driven insane by the street lights casting blue-tinted shadows all around them…
In any case, Kendricken has a more realistic take on what this means for filmmakers, and his write-up shouldn’t be missed. [No Film School]
Lead image and all other comparative Los Angeles street shots courtesy of the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting; film stills from Michael Mann’s Collateral courtesy of Paramount Pictures.