Here’s How the Woman Behind the Camera on Insecure Properly Lights Its Black Actors

On screen, actors with darker skin have notoriously struggled with being properly seen in dimly lit scenes. Here's what this HBO show does differently

This article was originally published in September 2017.

It’s no secret: Hollywood has historically lacked understanding about how to properly light Black actors’ faces. In 2014, Syreeta McFadden wrote an essay for Buzzfeed about photography’s inherited bias against dark skin and her own struggles: ”The printed results failed to accurately represent my subjects, their shades obscured, their smiles blown out,” McFadden wrote. “I understood that some of this had to do with harmonizing the basic components of great image-making from the gear: film speed, aperture, and the ghost we all chase, light.”

Anyone who has watched Issa Rae’s Insecure—if you haven’t, you better get bingeing—knows that each 30-minute episode is a legitimate cinematic experience. Every scene and every location is filmed masterfully. From Molly’s bright lawyer’s office to Issa’s iconic pep talk in the mirror to whatever bumping bar the crew is hitting that night—there is never a moment when an actor’s face seems lost in the dark.

So, how does a show like Insecure, which features an entirely Black cast and many a scene in a dimly lit bar, make the actors’ facial expressions visible when there isn’t any natural light? In a September 2017 article, Mic spoke to Ava Berkofsky, Insecure’s director of photography, about her techniques for properly lighting her actors and she makes all the magic we see on screen happen.

(photo: hbo)
(photo: hbo)

“When I was in film school, no one ever talked about lighting non-white people,” Berkofsky tells Mic. “The conventional way of doing things was that if you put the skin tones around 70 IRE, it’s going to look right.” IRE is a unit used in the measurement of composite video signals, ranging from 0 to 100. “If you’ve got black skin, [dialing it] up to 50 or 70 is just going to make the rest of the image look weird,” explains Berkofsky. This was the technique used on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which is why the images were so bright and largely without contrast.

To bring it all together, Berkofsky says a makeup artist on set uses a reflective base on the skin. Then, instead of shining light directly on the scene, Berkofsky reflects light off the actors’ faces with a whiteboard that has several little LED lights inside (a.k.a. S2 LiteMat 4s). As well, Berkofsky places a polarizer filter over the lens of the camera: “People use them when shooting glass, or cars, or any surface that intensely reflects light. The filter affects how much reflection a window, or any surface has. The same principal works with skin, and this can be a highly effective way to shape the reflected light on an actors face,” she explains.

Peep the full video explaining Berkofsky’s technique here:

Considering how often Black actors struggle to be adequately seen in dark scenes, the Twittersphere is praising Berkofsky for her work.

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