Melanin and Cinematography

Looking at the Challenges of Lighting Darker Skin Tones

There can be no strong opposition to the fact that the use of cave walls serves as our first encounter with the art of self-expression using color to paint and communicate our environmental heritage. The first Shamans of indigenous cultures around the world mastered the technique of pre-visualization. These high cultured folks narrated the experiences on the walls of caves using animal blood for paint or ochre, which is a substance that produced an array of pigments ranging from yellows to browns. This level of modification of tools to produce pigments by an African people from an ancient civilization actually shows that we were very conscious about how we depicted ourselves and our surroundings in these images. The artform would continue on the temples and the tombs in ancient Kemet/Ancient Egypt.

See the Melanin Cinematography Interviews Part 1: Tommy Maddox-Upshaw

Historically the industry standard for capturing images was centered around ‘Shirley cards’ which were used to calibrate skin-tones and light and they only featured Caucasian people up until the 70s where photographers raised concerns over not being able to capture the ranges and variations of color found in wood and chocolate.

Cinema as a medium requires the use of certain tools: cameras, lenses, and light to capture and portray how our mind sees as well as experiences reality. This introduces a few technicalities and challenges in that these tools, especially camera sensors (which are essentially 2-Dimensional planes), don't exactly perceive images as we do as humans. They respond to light and color a bit differently and thus as a community, we created a specific set of standards (bias to some degree) and ways of translating how sensors and chemicals attempt to reproduce how we see and feel light and color within the visible light spectrum.

from Snowfall, Season 3

from Snowfall, Season 3

However, historically there has been an inherent bias in the reproduction of colours that fall within the reddish, brown and yellow spectrum that the first artists expressed freely on cave paintings. How is this so? Color film is made up of chemical layers that are sensitive to different colors of light and they have different chemical solutions that are used to develop them once they have been exposed to that light; a combination of all the chemical solutions creates an image color balance (an accurate reproduction of the image’s colors). Historically the industry standard for capturing images was centered around ‘Shirley cards’ which were used to calibrate skin-tones and light and they only featured Caucasian people up until the 70s where photographers raised concerns over not being able to capture the ranges and variations of color found in wood and chocolate.

Film stock manufacturers, especially Eastman Kodak, came to the realization that a lot of the chemicals that were sensitive to the reds, browns, and yellows which are crucial to melanin-rich skin were discarded, making the film experience a lot more accommodating to people of lighter skin, rendering them as more aesthetically pleasing to the eye as opposed to people of darker skin color. This inherent bias has turned film as a fabric into a political weapon in that it was never made for the non-white communities. It was expensive and not easily accessible, limiting representation and how we could portray ourselves in our own stories.

With that being said, this is where we find a gap in the existing knowledge about the tools (sensors) that we use in order to contribute to the growing body of information about how we portray skin.

During the process of film production, skin tones go through various stages of preparation to adjust it to look and feel 'appropriate' for the conditions that the film or project dictates.

In this article the first of a series we study how the appearance of skin from the people of the African and Indian diaspora is affected by a variety of different frameworks and then from that understanding we aim to create a universally accepted standard in the approach to filming or photographing melanin-rich skin.

Skin is the largest organ of our bodies, it is the outer most covering of the human body. Making it something that we're very conscious of as human beings. It provides us with important non-verbal information such as perceived ideas of age, health, and cultural background. Understanding the fabric of skin gives the study of melanin cinematography a foundation in the understanding of how pigment is created and perceived through the human experience first before translating into something that sensors can understand and reproduce accurately and beautifully.

Skin can be divided into three layers, the dermis, epidermis, and the hypodermis but for the sake of our particular study, we'll be focusing on the two main categories of skin that have an immediate impact on our visual perception and these are the epidermis and dermis.

The epidermis is the outer most layer of our skin that serves as a waterproof barrier and ultimately defines our skin-tone. It is the part of our skin that generates new skin cells and produces melanin; which is a genetically produced pigment that is responsible for our racial diversity as it gives our skin color variation. It is the reason why we have an array of different skin color ranging from dark skin (that is commonly associated with people of the African and Indian diaspora) to light or pale skin (commonly associated with Caucasian’s)

There are two different types of melanin, the first being eumelanin which is more prominent in people of darker pigment (black/brown) and the second type being pheomelanin which is a lighter pigment (red-brown/yellow).
The dermis is the thick layer of tissue below the epidermis and it contains blood capillaries and nerve endings among other structures that are responsible for the red hue in our skin due to the hemoglobin that is found in the red blood cells that circulate in our veins. Skin that is very rich in melanin is likely to have lower saturation due to the amount of light that it absorbs, making it difficult to reach the dermis layer below. This basic understanding of skin calls for new and better technological advancements that take these factors into consideration.

The development of film stock and digital sensors has come a long way in trying to capture a deeper dynamic range but to some degree, the default or bias towards lighter skin still exists. The difference in our genetic make-up as people who contain different variations of melanin calls for delicate care in how we as the filmmaking community contribute to portraying ourselves with dignity. It calls for us to further understand and develop our tools to constantly reimagine ourselves as also being proudly dark and beautiful within all our differences.

Internationally acclaimed and award winning Director, and Producer, MANDLA WALTER DUBE was born in Mabopane, North West of Tshwane. Mandla lectured cinematography at Wits Television and at Tshwane University of Technology. While lecturing, he consulted in both Cinematography and Heritage Management while having obtained a Master of Fine Arts in cinematography from American Film Institute, in Los Angeles. Mandla’s diverse body of work includes Documentaries, Shorts, Theatre and Feature Films. A docudrama, Sobukwe: A Great Soul, won SAFTA’s 2013, Kalushi, (the Stage play), at the South African State Theatre, The Rivonia Trial stage play. He also produced music videos for Sony, City of Tshwane, and the South African Post Office. Mandla’s work in feature films as a operator & camera assistant includes The Italian Job, Men in Black 2, Bio Force 1, Money Monster, Drop Squad and Umthunzi we Ntaba. Mandla’s experience in Short films includes Badger, Sunset Tuxedo, As I Am and A Single Rose.

He is in development with The Legends of Freedom (Silverton Siege, Yasuke, Pushkin, Rivonia Trial). He was instrumental in the formation of Independent Black Filmmakers Collective (IBFC) as a co founding member of the working committee. His passion is family and farming.

Ndumiso Mnguni is a young up and coming filmmaker. His multi-disciplinary approach to filmmaking brings about a new possibility into ideas.

He is steadily working up the film industry as a colourist where he is gaining critical acclaim amongst some of the countries best directors and DP’s. This channel is exposing him to a lot of different types of sensibilities and knowledge of all the main cameras and sensors that are used to shoot commercials, films and music videos.
He has an intimate understanding of how cameras feel light and colour and that understanding allows him to treat images with great value, giving them a real cinematic treatment.

Whilst gaining critical acclaim in the commercial space he is also deeply invested in shooting short films that are genuine and true.
This is where he brings all of the experience from collaborating with some of the countries best DP’s into these beautiful stories
that have real value.

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