Film people: outdoor lighting's different in the West vs East Coast?
September 6, 2016 6:48 PM   Subscribe

In this interview with Julia Louis Dreyfus, she talks about how the TV show Veep moved its filming location from Baltimore to Los Angeles. Halfway through, she says, "We never shot anything exterior during the day in California to stand in for the East Coast because the light is so different there." Having recently moved from Baltimore to Los Angeles myself, I'm curious - what does she mean?
posted by facehugger to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This is a completely non-scientific answer from a non film person but I find the light at higher latitudes to be quite different from closer to the equator. More silvery vs golden. LI'm from Sydney, Australia which i think is at a similar latitude to Los Angeles and I think LA light is very much the same as here, LA always feels very familiar to me. Very bright and sharper. Neither location gets much twilight - it'll be sunny and them bamm, the sunk sinks and it's dark. Northern North America and Northern Europe are quite different from Sydney/LA and even within Australia I notice it when I go far south to southern Tasmania.
posted by kitten magic at 6:56 PM on September 6, 2016 [5 favorites]

I don't know if there's a technical term for it, but as an east coast transplant, the light in LA during the day is completely unrelenting and (almost always) cloudless before fading into a slinking, lingering golden hour. The Mid-Atlantic is rife with clouds and humidity; you rarely see that haze around street lights on really humid nights where I live in So-Cal, because there are very few nights that qualify as humid. NCIS is a classic example of this for me; it's inconceivable that you could confuse most of the scenes outside with anything in the greater DMV area vs. Southern California. Even besides the red curbs, the light is just harsh, even in "winter" scenes.
posted by jetlagaddict at 6:59 PM on September 6, 2016 [6 favorites]

Best answer: It's bright as hell here in LA with a clear sky 300+ days a year and very little humidity, so the light is always crisp and undiffused. Even on a bad air quality day when you can see low haze in the distance you don't get much actual diffusion in the main part of the day if you stay very close to sea level. Cameras are even more sensitive to that diffusion than the eye, and it changes even the artificial lighting you use for exterior shots, which means that the way a lit exterior shot looks on the East Coast is different.

Even on shows I know shoot here, you can see a distinct difference between "outdoors" shot on a sound stage versus outside because of the face shadows. You'd have to blast someone with an extremely bright extremely diffused light to compete with the sunshine and still get the baseline "evenly lit face" you get elsewhere, or indoors.

The glare off walls and inanimate objects here is no joke too. If you happen to be on the road between 10am-3/4pm, you're getting your retinas burned from the sunflare off all the other cars. I don't even know what shows here do about that, except avoid shooting at or near anything shiny.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:30 PM on September 6, 2016 [5 favorites]

It's certainly true that the light is different in NYC. I can't explain exactly how, but I can see it instantly in a show shot on location here. For example, I knew for certain that The Night Of was shot in the city even though I didn't actually recognize most of the locations in Jackson Heights where I live. You can always tell immediately if a show that's supposed to be taking place in NYC was actually shot here; the light, specifically, just looks wrong if it's a different city standing in for NYC.
posted by holborne at 7:43 PM on September 6, 2016

It's the difference between a Wyeth Pennsylvania landscape and a Hockney LA poolside acrylic, approximately.

The light in NYC is very different-- colder, bluer, glassier-- than the warm, yellow, thick light in SoCal. Light in SF has the same quality as LA but tends grayer and doesn't get the fantastic pink and red sunsets that you get in much of the southwest more than a couple times a month in the summer. NYC sunsets are mostly like a nickel yellow, edging into gamboge. You'd have to go to a lot of trouble with lighting to get the same effect on the east coast.
posted by blnkfrnk at 8:22 PM on September 6, 2016 [5 favorites]

Don't confuse geography with climate, latitude and time of year is my advice. The coasts are much more varied than NYC vs LA.
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:23 PM on September 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

The light is bright, crisp, and warm-toned in LA and a bit more dim, diffuse and cool-toned when you go further north to places that experience winter. Here is an explanation of how lighting colour temperature affects film lighting.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 8:25 PM on September 6, 2016 [6 favorites]

I've lived in LA and DC. In my mind, the former is yellow and orange, and the latter is blue and grey. (pseudostrabismus' links do a better job of explaining than I do, I fear. (If you just moved recently, maybe there's been so much else to look at that you haven't noticed yet? The tones of both areas quickly hit me with an odd nostalgia.)
posted by kmennie at 8:30 PM on September 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

David Hockney talked about LA light, and the way it struck him even as a child in Bradford (54 North with flat matte close skies): "one of the things I noticed right away . . . was how Stan and Ollie, bundled in their winter coats, were casting these wonderfully strong, crisp shadows. We never got shadows of any sort in winter. And already I knew that someday I wanted to settle in a place with winter shadows like that."

(If you have a New Yorker subscription, there's a piece from 1998 by Lawrence Weschler called "L.A. Glows" that goes into a lot of detail about it: still air, the relationship between the desert and the ocean. It's great for astronomers.)

It's similar to how many impressionist painters moved to Provence and the Mediterranean coast (which is further north than Baltimore!) for the light and the sharp shadows and the sense of hyper-saturated colour.
posted by holgate at 8:35 PM on September 6, 2016 [9 favorites]

The sunshine is much brighter in Los Angeles (well, really in Southern California, and I'm guessing in the Southwest and parts of the South as well) than it is in the Northeast, and there are far fewer clouds. Not to mention that low-rise sprawly development almost everywhere doesn't block the sunshine at all, and tall trees are almost invariably landscaped and non-native.

This is something I noticed upon moving here. I now own 4-5 pairs of sunglasses I wear year round, whereas in New York I had one pair which was reserved strictly for sometimes in the summer. It's also something that is apparent if you watch film and television closely. The exterior lighting on Mad Men (shot in L.A., takes place in NYC) never looked right, for example.

If you moved here in the spring or summer, I'm guessing this is something you'll start noticing in a few months, when it doesn't become grey and dreary like you're used to. Summer light is relatively similar to the Northeast aside from what I mentioned about the lack of tall/foliage-bearing trees and dense vertical architecture.
posted by Sara C. at 8:57 PM on September 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

A lot of shows, Bones, Justified etc take place in the mid-atlantic but are shot in LA and environs and it's very obvious I think having lived both places. LA is gold and warm, the East coast is blue green and cool. Watch the pilot of Justified and then watch a later episode (mostly filmed inland) and it'll jump out at you.

Also wild tall grass and thick green weeds and bushy trees. Don't exist on LA. Whereas live oaks and savannna aren't so common in NY state. The background is all wrong.
posted by fshgrl at 9:44 PM on September 6, 2016

I'm not a film person, but I am from Boston and now live in Seattle. Pretty similar latitudes, but when I moved here in the middle of the summer, it was pretty shocking how much brighter the sun seems. Insert joke about sun in Seattle here - but really, the sunny days here are so much brighter than the sunny days in Boston. I feel like I'm constantly squinting here in July and August.
posted by lunasol at 10:07 PM on September 6, 2016

Lots of midcentury Mitteleuropa escapees wound up in SoCal, and one of the draws was the light:
Thomas Mann was the exile who loved Los Angeles best — so much that he became an American citizen and planned to live out his years there (disgust with McCarthyism impelled him to leave for Switzerland in 1952). Mann had always adored the Mediterranean, and to him Los Angeles was the next best thing. “I was enchanted by the light,” he rhapsodized, “by the special fragrance of the air, by the blue of the sky, the sun, the exhilarating ocean breeze. ...”
posted by notyou at 10:15 PM on September 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This is also a noted phenomenon in France, where you've got generations of painters who noticed that French Riviera light is very different from Parisian light. As someone who is regularly in both places (though not at the same time ;) ), it's very much A Thing. LA is a lot like Nice – awash in sun, striking blue skies, saturated sunrises and sunsets, never any fog, and once the sun's gone, bam, it's night, as another commenter so aptly put it. Monet and the Mediterranean goes into this and has some beautiful paintings linked. Monet lived just outside of Paris, then fell in love with Riviera light on a visit with Renoir. Parisian light is very much like Oregon light (I hesitate to say like NYC since I've never been there): more diffuse, mysterious, all sorts of fog densities. Impressionist paintings very much reflect that.
posted by fraula at 12:56 AM on September 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

I grew up in the Midwest and I remember the first time I was in Southern California on business. Specifically Palm Springs. I was stunned by how bright the sun was. I couldn't not wear sunglasses.
posted by LoveHam at 4:38 AM on September 7, 2016

I just wanted to piggyback on the comments relating southern France with LA by linking this Wikipedia page about Humid continental climate because I think it's neat and shows in a physical way what's going on between the interaction of sea, mountains and air across a great expanse of land. Also, I like to try to imagine back through time and begin to understand what kind of environment was informing the mindset of history's spiritual and national leaders and creators of art and culture- literally how they perceived reality could be affected by the climate they were in.
posted by Queen of Spreadable Fats at 7:19 AM on September 7, 2016

The light here in LA is just stronger than that I grew up with in Chicago. I go back east, especially in the winter, and the sun seems anemic.

The movie Drive captures LA light well.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:58 AM on September 8, 2016

That Da Da Da VW commercial gets the light pretty well, especially when they pull up in front of the easy chair. Maybe a little ... whatever the opposite of over-saturated is ... in the way the light washes out all the color.

Jackie Brown captured it too, I thought.
posted by notyou at 12:28 PM on September 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

That reminded me of Pharrell's 24 Hours of "Happy", which definitely captures the changing light during the day, and the "bam, it's night" at sunset.
posted by holgate at 12:48 PM on September 8, 2016

I really noticed this when The X-Files moved from rainy, overcast, moody Vancouver down to LA for its last season. Mulder in the bright sunshine? No thanks
posted by drinkmaildave at 5:57 PM on September 10, 2016

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