DP Edgar Martin Shares Lighting Techniques and Reflects on a Career Behind the Camera
Born and raised during the eighties’ and nineties’ heyday of production in Santa Monica, California, cinematographer and director Edgar Martin grew up surrounded by television and film, so much so that he laughs when asked what first made him interested in cinematography. “I was thrown into kindergarten not knowing a lick of English,” he says, explaining that he is the first-generation American son in his family, born to immigrant parents from Mexico who only knew Spanish.
“I learned how to speak basically through tv!” he continues. “My father also loved westerns like Sergio Leone’s movies, and I would watch them with him. Seeing those beautiful landscapes, and how they were shot from really low angles, and how he used the sun, something about it all really spoke to me. I fell in love with landscape photography and that style of cinema as a young boy.” Martin adds enthusiastically that he also has a particular fondness for Mexican cinema, mentioning that the 2000 Alejandro González Iñárritu film Amores Perros was a big influence on him as a young filmmaker.
He especially loves the work of that movie’s cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, known for The Wolf of Wall Street and Brokeback Mountain, as well as another Oscar-winning DoP from Mexico, Emmanuel Lubezki, A.S.C., A.M.C., famous for his recent back-to-back-to-back Academy Awards for Gravity, Birdman, and The Revenant. Martin says what excites him the most about cinematography is that it gives him the opportunity to tell a story through his own eyes, and he loves the way in which both cinematographers use their cameras to help the narrative.
“I also have to say,” he says, “Rocky is my favorite movie of all time, also because of the underdog story of the making of Rocky. It was the first movie that actually used choreography during boxing, you know? The studio wanted Burt Reynolds to star as Rocky Balboa, not Sylvester Stallone. It was just so hard to make that movie every which way. There is so much in that movie that made me fall in love with the art of filmmaking.”
After graduating Magna Cum Laude from Columbia College Hollywood with a BA in Cinematography, Martin started in the industry as a gaffer before work as technical supervisor for several years on serials like MTV Network’s The Hills. His talents as gaffer also led to film work under blockbuster DoPs like Rachel Morrison, of the upcoming Black Panther film from Marvel Studios, as well as comedy stalwart Brian Burgoyne, who helmed the recent nationwide success, The Big Sick. The precocious DoP was nominated in 2014 for an Emmy for his cinematography work on Season 6 of The Voice, and most recently, he is incredibly humble in announcing that directorial work on The Voice also procured him membership in the highly esteemed Director’s Guild of America.
Helming cinematography for episodics on Top Gear, Car Matchmaker, and Mud, Sweat, and Gears, Marin is also a noted and capable cameraman on action and live event shows. He’s done extensive stints as camera operator during The Voice, seasons 2-9, and Top Gear, for seasons 2-6. On the other side of the spectrum, it was his reliable and yet sensitive approach to portrait cinematography during segment direction on the television show Who Do You Think You Are? that ultimately led to a position as lead DoP during their seventh season. Originally airing on NBC, the production had been sold to TLC, and the new media company recognized Martin’s talents quickly.
“They had about four to five different DPs,” explains Martin, “and there was no cohesive look to it.” He has produced several vignettes of extremely emotional scenes for high profile names like Bryan Cranston, Smokey Robinson, and Liv and Steven Tyler. During some of their most vulnerable moments, Martin covered as each star found out intimate details about their respective genetics and familial pasts. “On that show, we shoot at a lot of different locations, historical locations. Whether they’re in public libraries, or historical landmarks, and even the National Archives in Washington D.C., we’ll shoot “experientials”, where perhaps the family, generations ago, owned or visited that land, or something tragic or incredible may have occurred within that property. So I came on, changed the look a little bit. Shot nicer interviews, and made it more cinematic.”
“I had to be able to light from close quarters, so they could not take up a lot of room, and they could not take up a lot of power,” he says about the search that ultimately led him to Fiilex. “Also, we use a lot of original documentation, which we will film with, so a lot of places won’t let any hot lights in. It put me in a tough spot. I did a lot of research, literally three to four months of researching every night, all LED lights. I was just geeking out on the photometrics and everything, and I came across Fiilex. I liked the look of them, as well as just their photometrics, and went to Samy’s to test them out. I bought them right there. I bought a kit, and I never looked back; they’re amazing.”
Martin says that his work on the set always starts with the lighting, and he needed lights that could meet multiple needs. “I use the Fiilex Q1000 a lot with an umbrella!” replies Martin when asked if he has any tips. “I use a couple of different sizes. That’s one of my favorite things to do, to bounce it off an umbrella. You can’t do that in any other way than an LED, because the lights are just going to burn through.” His approach to interview setups will depend on the location, most often employing a Fiilex Q1000 and Fiilex Q500 with 72” and 42” umbrellas from Westcott.
He also uses diffusion, adding opal or quarter grids to accommodate distance, background, and environment. “I’ll also take that light, I’ll bounce it to a ceiling, or I’ll bounce it into a corner, or I’ll bounce it off of white cards or 1000H tracing paper. It’ll help me bring up the room ambient.” Martin liked the Q1000 and Q500 models so much that he bought the two a little more than two years ago for the show Who Do You Think You Are?, and has since used his Fiilex lights a bit on NBC’s The Voice, where he often oscillates between Second Unit DP and segment director.
Martin says that the gaffer on the show, James Barker, who owns his own rather unique lighting company, Illuminar, has also been working with Fiilex lights during interviews for ESPN, and on broadcast shows, like Shark Tank. Martin tested other LED solutions, in addition to the Fiilex models, from manufacturers like Cineo, Litepanels, Dedo, Westcott, and ARRI, the latter of which he loved, but found too expensive for the needs of his budget. He documented color temperature and distance measurements both with and without gels, noting that he paid special attention to shadow detail, as multiple-diode systems often result in multiple shadowing or haloes, even when used with diffusion.
“Fiilex was beyond!” Martin says happily. “Not only with gelling, but you also get true colors. With all these other lights, I was getting a funky, off-color. It was never like when you actually use a tungsten source or an incandescent. They didn’t have that quality. Colors weren’t really true from the gel. With Fiilex, it was the only one that you can literally truly gel and get that color.” Current Fiilex models use a single-point LED diode that has been calculated to provide a a very strong, color-neutral, and yet flattering light source that can be manipulated further to cut down or bounce as needed.”
These Fiilex lights are unbelievable, because you used to have to bring a K5600 Joker everywhere if you wanted a hard daylight source that you could use with a standard 20amp circuit… several! Like, ‘Oh, I need that 800 Joker, and that 400 Joker.’ Well, they’re hot, and it’s only daylight temperature, and the bulbs are expensive, and the bulbs also break. Plus not everybody knows how to fix them. The Fiilex Q1000 is almost as punchy daylight as the Joker, but it’s bi-color and extremely versatile. It’s like two lights in one. So when you throw gel to make that Joker tungsten, you’re looking at the same amount of output, pretty much. And the Fiilex is not hot!”
“There are other LED panels, like Cineo, with their Mavericks, and the HS’s and the LS’s. Those are amazing, too, and really high quality. But they’re all soft lights; you still need a hard light, I don’t care what you’re shooting. You can’t just throw up a light panel, you can’t just throw a big, soft source everywhere. If you’re trying to tell a story, you have to be able to manipulate light, and it’s hard to manipulate a soft, big source of light. You can bounce it all day, and you can keep softening it. Then, in turn, you also need a lot of grip just for that. Oftentimes, you don’t have that time or the manpower to completely grip out your lights.”
“Fiilex’s hard light is the best light that I’ve encountered, bar none!” he laughs. “Clean shadows, and again, the colors are true. Even with the dimmable feature on it, there’s no color shift.” Martin goes on to say that he often works with older actors, who will have extra lighting wants when it comes to beauty. Fiilex lights offer a hard source, but the light produced is also soft and ideally suited for skin tones. “On The Voice, our electric and grip department are fantastic, so it’s no problem, we can always do the “little tricks” that we all have. But when I’m working by myself, and I’m my own gaffer, and grip, and DP, and director, like on these segments for Who Do You Think You Are?, I have to be small and compact. The Fiilex lights, especially the Q1000, are lights that I can bounce, or I can put through a soft box, and the celebs are always in awe of what that light can do, and what I can do just by myself. The Q1000 has above-and-beyond exceeded my expectations.”
After using them on “Who Do You Think You Are”, Martin reached out with some suggestions to Fiilex through a connection at Samy’s Camera in Los Angeles. The company replied enthusiastically on his thoughts the very same day. “I was definitely not expecting anything like that!” he laughs. “I was just expecting maybe, ‘Oh, cool, thanks for buying them. Show looks good.’ Or, ‘Show’s interesting’, or whatever. Instead, it’s a really cool relationship that we have going on. I give them feedback, and sometimes they give me some lights and say, ‘Okay. Go use these and see what you think.’ It’s just a really fun back-and-forth. The company is more ground-up, which is really great, and what I feel like is the best way to get a new product out there.”
“I’ve been up to their facility up in Richmond,” he concludes, “by San Francisco. The stuff I’ve seen there, and how they test lights, and the other lights that they have that they’re just testing now? It blew my mind. That solidified the company as a contender to me. ‘Okay, these guys really want to compete with ARRI, but they’re going to do other things that ARRI doesn’t do… To be honest, it was still scary for me to buy LED, because you just don’t know much about them. Even though the market’s so saturated, there’s so much LED out there it’s crazy, so you don’t know where to go, or which one’s the right one to buy. So, like I said, I finally just, from the test I did, I just pulled the trigger, and I haven’t looked back.”
Edgar Martin’s homepage.
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