The Cinematography Jury President on learning to authentically film Black skin tones
Motheo Moeng takes us along on a personal journey of developing his craft to better represent Black and brown skin tones on camera
Motheo Moeng is a South African cinematographer who was born in Cape Town and raised in Gugulethu. He has worked on ten feature films, including Africa’s first Netflix original series about a South African spy Queen Sono, which earned him a place in the South African Society of Cinematographers (SASC). Moeng has always had a deep interest in creating powerful images, and his love for photography expanded into a career in lighting. Here, the D&AD Jury President for Cinematography explains how the way he grew up and the films he watched helped shape his knowledge of how to do justice to Black and brown skin tones on camera.
This is a pretty sensitive topic and one that I hope can start conversations and enlighten people. As a cinematographer, lighting is something I am intrigued by and very passionate about. Historically, people didn’t know how to light Black and brown skin tones for camera — it’s only recently that we’ve become more aware of how to film darker skin tones, and properly represent people of colour. In an industry that is over a hundred years old, only in maybe the last twenty years have we been in a situation where Black people have been able to consistently make films about themselves; or even commercials about themselves, and represent themselves in a manner that they can be proud of and can relate to.
“Only in maybe the last twenty years have we been in a situation where Black people have been able to consistently make films about themselves”
I grew up being exposed to films where Black people were the minority and even when they were on screen, they were often filmed or lit in a way that did not compliment their features or their skin tones. Subconsciously, or consciously because of history, people with darker skin tones were always viewed as ‘black’ and for that reason the assumption was that in order to expose us on film you would need to bring a big strong light close to our faces. But this method would tend to just flatten and diminish our features. Since my references for films and commercials had always been from what I was watching, I often made that mistake too.
It’s only recently — after watching the works of cinematographers like Bradford Young in the Nigerian film Mother of George, Chayse Irvin in the 35-minute short film Sampha: Process and Tommy Maddox-Upshaw in the TV series Snowfall about the 1980s drug epidemic in LA — that I have become used to seeing the beauty in lighting black skin tones with love and caution.
“Since my references for films and commercials had always been from what I was watching, I often made that mistake too”
Black skin tones have a natural sheen to them that reflects light in the most beautiful way. I have now come to realise that soft and warm lighting looks absolutely stunning on our skin tones. Obviously this can be tweaked and treated differently depending on each project but I am aware now that practical lights, or lights that exist within a frame, are sufficient to illuminate these skin tones. We no longer need to rely on big unflattering external light sources to change a person’s natural sheen or facial features.
“I have now come to realise that soft and warm lighting looks absolutely stunning on our skin tones”
I think cinematography is also influenced by a person’s background — this was at least true in my case. I grew up in a township called Gugulethu in Cape town where we didn’t have the luxury of artificial light everywhere, so our eyes got used to seeing each other in minimal light. We found beauty in the glow of candles and other small sources of luminosity and were accustomed to seeing each other like that.
I have found that the removal of light is often the best lighting tool, and this is true for all skin tones. Often in cinematography, we assume that we need to add light but we are now aware that using things like flags and blackout curtains contribute so much to shaping faces and shaping light. I, for one, walk onto most sets and first figure out how to control and block light before I start lighting the scene. Again, that stems from the realisation that I don’t need a lot of light to expose for darker skin tones and that, cinematically, contrast and shadows are also ways of communicating visually. Darkness is not a bad thing at all.
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