Review: Birns & Sawyer “Master Series of Filmmaking” Series

Birns & Sawyer “Master Series of Filmmaking” Series
“Lighting for Emerging Filmmakers” Two DVD Set
a review by Ken Tanaka

added 28 January 2004

cover scan -- frontThis set of two DVD’s from Birns & Sawyer is a winner.

If you’ve been exploring filmmaking and videography for a while you have probably heard this many times: “Light is the paint for photographers and filmmakers”. Light paints the three-dimensional environment that your camera must convey in two dimensions. Light provides the raw data to your viewers’ brains. Without light there is no reason to use a camera.

So you’ve committed to taking the next step in your videography and have purchased, or are considering purchasing, some lighting instruments. Now what? There are certainly many good books on the subject of lighting for filmmaking and videography. But even the best books are limited on this subject. Their diagrams and example photographs are instructive but still fall short of illustrating the adaptive and iterative processes involved in lighting a scene.

Birns & Sawyer’s “Lighting for Emerging Filmmakers” offers something of a bridge between books and hands-on experience. The core of the instructional material is footage distilled from classes presented by veteran gaffer Foster Denker, presumably at Birns & Sawyer’s facility.

The two discs are organized as follows…

Chapters common to both volumes:

Introduction (3 min.)
Veteran director of photography Laszlo Kovacs, ASC, presents a few opening comments and introduces his long-time friend and colleague Foster Denker.

The Mechanics of Lighting (16 min.)

History of Birns & Sawyer (3 min.)
An interesting clip presenting the background of this 60 year Hollywood supply organization. This clip is also included on Birns & Sawyer’s other “Master Series of Filmmaking” DVD’s.

Volume 1:
Portraiture Lighting (22 min.)
This material is presented in a conventional classroom setting.

Volume 2:
Basic Set Lighting:
– Hard Key Lighting (18 min.)
– Bounce Key & Source Light (6 min.)
– Backdrops & Effects (12 min.)
This material is presented on a simple set.

I will forgo detailed descriptions of each chapter. Their titles accurately describe their contents.

The real value of these discs is not in the specific details of Mr. Denker’s presentation. Rather, it lies in their presentation of an experienced film lighting technician discussing and demonstrating the problem-solving considerations and solutions he routinely encounters in his work. Those of us who are amateurs and/or hobbyists rarely have an opportunity to see experienced lighting professionals ply their craft. Short of film schools or occasional trade show classes we are largely left with books and personal experimentation.

Mr. Denker has a very easy-going style in his presentation. He uses a very subtle and effective progressive discovery technique, particularly on the second volume. For example, he begins illustrating a particular lighting technique and then points out some of its potential consequences. He then illustrates how to mitigate those consequences and so on.

With only a few exceptions Mr. Denker uses fresnel instruments throughout his presentation. Through allusion and illustration rather than through direct statement his reasons for using fresnels become obvious. Their extreme controllability have made them a filmmaking favorite for many years. But this is not to imply that Mr. Denker seems to snub less expensive instruments. In fact, to the contrary, he emphasizes results rather than means throughout his presentation. In the “Mechanics of Lighting” chapter he also remarks that inexpensive instruments such as photofloods can be very effectively employed.

cover scan -- backUnfortunately the footage on the discs is by no means exceptional. The second volume, in particular, has some errors in coverage despite what appears to have been a 2-camera shoot. At one point, for example, Mr. Denker is discussing a device above his head. But for some reason the camera operator covering this shot refused to tilt upward to show us what he’s discussing, probably figuring that the other camera was covering it. The extemporaneous nature of the event makes most of these gaffes understandable and a bit humorous. On the whole, the coverage and editing are sufficient enough to stay just below distraction.


Birns & Sawyer’s “Lighting for Emerging Filmmakers” would be a worthwhile investment for nearly any amateur filmmaker who has not had the advantage of direct exposure to professional lighting techniques. Like the old saw, “A picture is worth 1,000 words.”, watching a master lighting technician do his magic and listening to him discuss what he is doing are probably worth 1,000 books. You will not become an instant master of lighting after watching these DVD’s. But it is very likely that you -will- have a much better understanding of the thought processes involved in lighting a scene. At the very least you will most assuredly have an answer to that nasty question, “Now what?”.

Written by Ken Tanaka.
Thrown together by Chris Hurd.

Please direct questions to the DV Info Net Community Forums.


About The Author

Ken is one of our primary moderators at the DV Info Net Community. He currently devotes much of his time to longstanding interests in filmmaking/videography and editing and is a voracious reader of nearly anything on these subjects. Ken has special interests in developing short dramas and documentaries as well as educational works, and currently shoots with both an XL1S and GL2.

Discuss this article in our forum.