Doctor Who as Lighting U.

We have a rule in the Hobby household. If the kids can get ready for bed quickly enough, we get to watch an episode of Doctor Who together. It is one of those rare shows that is equally enjoyed by every member of our family—including two middle-aged parents, a 12-year-old boy and a 14-year-girl.

That alone is remarkable. And as good as the show is, I've lately found myself watching it for the lighting as much as the imaginative story lines. A look at perhaps the most Strobist-y show on the TV dial, below.


It's Bigger on the Inside

For the uninitiated, a couple of things. The TARDIS (which stands for Time And Relative Dimension In Space) is essentially a machine in which The Doctor is able to travel across space and time. The exterior of the TARDIS is seen just above; the interior is seen at top. The Doctor is a Time Lord, and various things are revealed about his history through the course of the series.

I won't waste space here duplicating previous efforts at describing the show. Hit IMDB and Wikipedia to learn more. But suffice to say that without the limits of linear space and time (and with a Doctor who can regenerate into another form) the potential plot lines for the show are essentially limitless.

We're playing catch up, watching on demand via Netflix Streaming and are presently in Season 5 (c.2010). So we are traveling in time, too, I guess.

Legions of fans throughout the world attest to the fact that the show stands on its own. But I also have grown to love it for its no-fear approach to lighting. At first, it head me in the face like a baseball bat. I had never seen anything like it, via TV or cinema. Love it or hate it (and I was not sure at first) you can't ignore the lighting in Doctor Who.

Now five years in, the lighting on almost everything else I watch seems boring by comparison. They do so much with light on this show. I suspect they accomplish many cinematic looks on a TV budget that would otherwise be impossible without having developed a language to their lighting on the show.

The storytelling is equally brilliant. And together, the two make it must-watch TV for me—and for the rest of my family, but not for all of the same reasons.

An Ernest Approach to Light

Much of the visual language of Doctor Who is down to cinematographer (AKA Director of Photography) Ernest "Ernie" Vincze. He helmed 38 episodes over the period from 2005-2009. Included among those was Blink, a screen grab from which is seen above. Blink may well be the most creative and imaginative single episode of TV that I have ever seen.

You watch in wonder as they manipulate you more with creativity than brute force (or Cameron-esque resources). I won't spoil it other than to say they use such simple devices as time and light to steamroll you with tension and suspense.

Doctor Who is a visual tour de force. And once it has grabbed you as a lighting photographer you are doubly hooked compared to the typical viewing fan.

I have learned so much about light by critically watching this show. I can't recommend it enough, both as something to study and a show to simply enjoy. I am just now realizing this as I type this post, but if Heisler lit a TV show that show would be Doctor Who.

The Doctor Who stills shown here are not necessarily all from episodes done by Vincze, but his DNA is definitely present throughout. As I was researching him (and trying, unsuccessfully, to contact him) I came across a BBC web page wherein he talked about his philosophy of light.

Selected quotes are below. For more, see the BBC page.

"Light is beautiful. Light reveals the world to us. Light permeates our reality at every scale of our existence. Light is a carrier of beauty, a giver of life."

"Light is amazing. Light sets our biological clocks. Light is craved by the body and soul. It triggers in our brain the sensation of colour. Light feeds us and it inspires us with specials like rainbows, sunsets, Northern Lights."

"Light can be gentle or violent, living or dead, clear or misty, hot or dark and sensual. Light can be straight or slanting, subdued or bright, poisonous or calming."

"Apart from technical, there are no rules. You have to trust your instinct and the knowledge accumulated over a lifetime."

"My starting concept is stark blackness. From then on I build up the lighting to complement the storyline, narrative, the actors, composition and depth. Depth is an art in itself. It complements the lighting and it helps guide the viewer's focus and attention to where the director wants it."

Cool stuff, huh?

So, anyone else out there intrigued/inspired by the lighting in Doctor Who? What are your thoughts?

And for any of you who have yet to discover the show, I am jealous. Many nights await—either alone or with the family—as you travel in time and space and attend a lighting class, all once.


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Blogger Dan H. Perry said...

You need to go back for all 50 years of the Dr.

April 01, 2013 7:55 AM  
Blogger Sean McCormack said...

Always loved the Dr Who lighting. The use in the Library like you've in the stills is fantastic, especially heightens the fear of the dark.
And Blink is as awesome as it it terrifying. At least for TV :)

April 01, 2013 7:57 AM  
Blogger Soven Amatya said...

There are so many classic episodes from the archives of BBC TV. Glad you are catching up... so many more brilliant episodes to come too...

April 01, 2013 8:07 AM  
Blogger Todor Kolev said...

Sadly once you have developed your visual culture most TV shows are pretty bland. But once in a while there is some show that will make you go : "aaaahhhh, finally!".

April 01, 2013 8:09 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Holy Moly, I cannot believe this post just popped up today...I was JUST REMARKING during a marathon of Season 5 (we are also "behind" in seasons) that the lighting in this show is complete superb. Weiiiirrrd. It's like you read my mind.

April 01, 2013 8:17 AM  
Blogger Mr Mila said...

Dan is right, you have 50 years of catch up to play ;) Tom Baker was one of the best I think. Although I'm sure the lighting has come a long way, the storytelling has always been amazing.

April 01, 2013 9:03 AM  
Blogger Bernard said...

Hi David, I totally agree on the Dr. Who thing, the lighting really helps make it what it is. As a side note I work as a unit still(s) photographer in Ireland and have worked several times on the same productions as Owen McPolin who has DP'd a few of the 2010/11 episodes.
I have to say Owen is pretty much a genius with light and very generous on set (making space for me to get my shots from as close to camera position as possible). It should be borne in mind also that (certainly in the case of Owen on those productions), these guys not only light the set but also operate the camera (not sure if that's what they do on Dr. Who), which given the fast moving nature of tv production these days, is really difficult task, so to not take the easy way with lighting is just phenomenal.
Regards from a long time lurker (and admirer). Bernard Walsh.

April 01, 2013 9:04 AM  
Blogger frankmv said...

"Blink" is, without a doubt, the most imaginative Dr. Who has to offer. The "weeping angels" are back with a vengeance in the latest season...I won't spoil the ending for you.

Phenomenal show...equally phenomenal lighting.

April 01, 2013 9:05 AM  
Blogger Joshua McKerrow said...

Especially liked your choice of pix from Silence In The Library, where the monsters live in shadows? I was blown away by the use of light in that one.

April 01, 2013 9:18 AM  
Blogger Shawn Ruyffelaert said...

We tried watching Dr. Who from the beginning (of the new series) and stopped at episode 4 or 5, it just wasn't compelling and a little tacky (WAIT!).

Then our friend, a huge Dr. fan said "It gets better". She told us to watch Blink out of order, then go back and start again.

We did, and do not regret it! We too are hurtling through time trying to catch up with the latest seasons. Loving Netflix. :)

April 01, 2013 11:12 AM  
Blogger Will Kronk said...

I have so many friends that don't like this show and I don't understand why. In fact, I just recently finished watching the entire Netflix collection for the 2nd time.

I love the episode with the devil. I think it's called The Satan Pit. And my favorite of the new Dr.s is Christopher Eccelstein. Yeah, I'm wierd.

April 01, 2013 11:17 AM  
Blogger Tyler Provick said...

If you want to watch a show with lighting issues, watch Sanctuary. They tried to use virtual sets to keep the budget down but there was a disconnect between the practical lighting and the CGI lighting that the characters constantly look like they are floating over the background.

April 01, 2013 11:32 AM  
Blogger Sando said...

Nice to hear that you and your family enjoy watching Dr. Who. I can't get my girlfriend to watch it, with me. Have to say, never saw it through the eyes of a photographer. When watching Dr. Who I am a child again and really enjoy seeing it just because the Dr. is so cool!
There is one show where I go nuts, for the lighting and it's Glee. Yes, I know, Glee....But once you get over the "It's Glee!!!" part, it's really amazing, especially their stage lighting!

April 01, 2013 11:34 AM  
Blogger Silver Image said...

Have loved the dr for years. now if my flash would quit attacking me like a dalek......sigh

April 01, 2013 11:39 AM  
Blogger David Brown said...

when I was young Tom Baker was The Doctor that got me hooked.The lighting and effects back then left something to be desired by todays standards.But the story telling was then as today second to none. The rebirth of the series with Christopher Eccleston was inspired.The series had been allowed to sleep, mature and relaunch anew.This series involves you makes you think and is welcome amongst the innane drivel of reality tv.The lighting as you discuss is as immense as the plot and for the best of shows I think the Xmas specials encompass it all.

April 01, 2013 1:05 PM  
Blogger Scott Stevens said...

Love the show, and just last night while watching the latest episode, The Bells of St. John (thank you Sidereel!), I kept telling my wife about the amazing light. She didn't seem as impressed as I was, but that never stops me from telling her.

Also, great characters in Dr. Who... Hmm, I suppose you could consider the light to be a character, yes?

April 01, 2013 1:09 PM  
Blogger Gary L. Friedman said...

For me the two shows with the best "signature" lighting were the X files and Xena, warrior princess. Watch any one episode and you'll understand why.

April 01, 2013 1:10 PM  
Blogger JKorn said...

HA! We have the EXACT. SAME. Dr. Who on Netflix before bed, ritual. My son is 11, and my daughter is 12. And I've been noticing how great the lighting is, too.

Kinda freaky that you posted this when you did.

April 01, 2013 1:18 PM  
Blogger Miguel said...

When you get your TARDIS, do us a favor, and go back to the 1960's and tape all those missing Dr Who episodes that BBC scratched. While you're at it, buy a few cases of Kodachrome. Thanks.

April 01, 2013 1:21 PM  
Blogger Raye S. said...

I agree with you that the lighting for those seasons of Dr. Who is amazing, stunning even! Congratulations on finding such a gem of a show. I really got into the show during 2007/2008; as the season came out you were capping from, I was on pins and needles waiting to see, both how the story went, but also how much prettier the lighting would get.
I've tried to use those seasons of Dr. Who for inspiration, and visually learn how to make light "tangible", make it something you can reach out and hold.

Side note about pretty looking TV shows: The BBC car show "Top Gear" also has some fantastic use of light, filters and cinematography.

April 01, 2013 2:08 PM  
Blogger Dawn JP Danko said...

I have noticed the same thing! Another awesome TV show for great lighting is the The Tudors - not really kid friendly though...

April 01, 2013 2:08 PM  
Blogger Raye S. said...

Almost forgot; I have to add that another show I have really loved the lighting of is BBC's "Sherlock".

April 01, 2013 2:30 PM  
Blogger Dave Cearley said...

Sadly I've only caught maybe two episodes of Dr Who. Maybe I need to watch a few seminal episodes to get interested. I wonder, does the BBC, because their talent is so much cheaper than the US, able to spend more on technical expertise for their programming? I just started watching Downton Abbey the other day, and was immediately struck by the sheer size of the cast and the scale of the set dressing. Maybe us budget shooters should look to our BBC counterparts for inspiration more than to Hollywood.

April 01, 2013 2:41 PM  
Blogger Dana said...

I'm happy to hear there is another colonial commoner (like myself) who has become a practitioner of the dark arts of the TARDIS.

I haven't seen any comments yet on TORCHWOOD, which is a spin-off (and anagram!) of Doctor Who. The lighting in it is equally brilliant (Luminescent?) but I recommend watching it without the kids until you can make a decision whether or not it is for them.

I find UK productions very much superior to those from North America. I don't know if it is because the actors and crews seem to bounce from stage, to screen to television and obtain a broader range of skills, or if because the writers work solo and not by committee with network oversight.

Lastly, if you haven't watched these yet, I highly recommend the afore mentioned Torchwood, Sherlock, Kingdom, Mad Dogs, Restless, State of Play, The Hour, and Wallander.



P.S. I hope, for all the purchases I've made the in the last year, that you have shares in most camera companies.

April 01, 2013 3:40 PM  
Blogger Patricia C Vener said...

I have heard it said that a person's favorite Doctor will be the first one they've ever seen. This isn't entirely true but does hold up pretty well for a generality. My first Doctor was Tom Baker when PBS in New Jersey was showing the series, but my favorite Doctor is Peter Davison (yes, I was young and impressionable). Indeed, the series has matured from the early 1963 episodes especially in terms of lighting, costuming and effects. I've missed most recent episodes (after David Tennant) due to not having Netflix or TV accounts any more, but what I have seen is delightful and I always enjoy a film or show more if the cinematography and lighting are dramatic. It's something not seen as much since the era of the black and white movies went color.

April 01, 2013 4:19 PM  
Blogger Dawn Wehman said...

I've been reading your blog to my daughter for years as I've grown in my own lighting abilities as a photographer but you have hit the nail on the head with her as well, she's long admired the lighting and loves to yell, "mom, you've gotta come see how they lit this!"

April 01, 2013 4:26 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@T. Shue- Answered via G+.

April 01, 2013 5:28 PM  
Blogger Scott Campbell said...

If you like Dr. Who, then you will love the current Sherlock series out of the U.K.

April 01, 2013 5:36 PM  
Blogger David Rothwell said...

I have to agree with Dan Perrys' comment the last fifty years of Doctor Who shows a significant change in lighting and studio technique, long may the show continue.

April 01, 2013 5:43 PM  
Blogger Andy deBruyn said...

The lighting on the Dr. Who series is well executed and brilliant. But as a subscriber to American Cinematographer since the 70's, I'd be amiss not to mention the forebearers of such stylish lighting...Gianni di Venanzo's interior lighting for Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits begat Jordan Cronoweth's visual palette on Blade Runner. And on. Lighting U does have a rich history for us to study and learn. Thanks for the cinematic post.

April 01, 2013 6:11 PM  
Blogger Good old Clive said...

50 years ( repeat of previous comments ) pretty good, prettyyyyy good. Amazing in fact and so many fans around our globe. Love to be a time lord, I'd be straight back to my teens and pick a different career...... assistant to Duffy.

Bye for now.

April 01, 2013 7:58 PM  
Blogger Antares said...

Ah, my wife was watching this after the TV was left on from TOP GEAR (which is visually amazing at times as well). I didn't pay much attention until "Blink". Hooked.

BTW, the story arc for the first two seasons of Matt Smith is the best story of anything I have ever seen. Blows my mind.

April 01, 2013 10:23 PM  
Blogger MortonPhotographic said...

If you haven't already, go see Skyfall (James Bond). The color of the light blew my mind just as much as the lighting itself--oh yeah, I thight Heisler lit it! 8)

April 02, 2013 1:30 AM  
Blogger CC said...

Let me add to Scott Campbells recommendation of Sherlock. Brilliant, subtle and intriguing lighting. And dont get me started on Boardwalk Empire's period lighting!

April 02, 2013 4:16 AM  
Blogger Austin Dudley said...

Doctor Who is the single most amazing show and also is the longest running sci-fi show in history. Also sherlock on bbc is equally good. Although not the best lighting one of my favorite episodes is the Van Gogh. Great to know you watch The Doctor.

April 02, 2013 5:29 AM  
Blogger Stuart Little said...

I have to admit one of the benefits of living in the UK is the quality of the television shows we make and also buy in from other countries. We have good filtering most of the time...

I have been a life long fan of the Doctor and first watched it as many have already mentioned during the Tom Baker years. I tend to watch Doctor Who twice if not three times one of those is a pass at studying what lighting is like and why it works.

But, David, I want to give a shout out to a US show called the West Wing which ran for 7 seasons and I think was Obamas play book for getting elected in his first 4 years in office. Anyway, I digress, the lighting in that show was just astounding and should not be ignored either.


April 02, 2013 7:00 AM  
Blogger willmcgregor said...

Dr who is my favourite all time show and tennant my favourite doctor.

Steven Moffat who wrote blink is now the head writer for the newer seasons with matt smith (that you are coming up to)

But t h I love Russell T Davies as the head writer. I fell in love with the characters, that's his big thing, where as Moffat is more story,

The lighting and the visual effects are phenomenal.

You should watch Doctor Who confidential DH, there is one for every episode ever made, they are always on directly after the episode, its a full BTS on how they lit each episode, the special effects, what was cgi and what was practical.

you get to see everything !

April 02, 2013 8:15 AM  
Blogger Richard Cave LBPPA said...

Great post, I too love the show, A couple of times I was mere 100ft from the filming, and have had access to some of the show locations which are closed to the public. The use of lighting is fantastic and I am glad you picked up on it. I have tried to use the aesthetics of light that the show uses. In the past the show was infamous for its wobbly sets, overacting and dodgy effects. Then came along the new series which production standards (on a low budget) have put others to shame. The show was only resurrected as funds for a TV series were put in place, but it wasnt the Dr, it was a American Spin Off show from Buffy the Vampire Slayer which has exactly the same lighting design. The show was called Ripper and it followed Giles the librarian to the UK, for some reason it was cancelled. I bidded as the composer for the series, as did I bid as composer for Dr Who and I was fifth on the shortlist. Things turned around and I decided to go professional as a photographer, and now becoming a visual effects artist, to hopefully work on you guessed it.... I

April 02, 2013 2:04 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I agree with the lighting in Dr. Who.

Firefly is another program that had some great lighting. Most of the lighting on the characters was from "practical" lights built into the set design.

April 02, 2013 6:08 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I agree with the lighting in Dr. Who.

Firefly is another program that had some great lighting. Most of the lighting on the characters was from "practical" lights built into the set design.

April 02, 2013 6:10 PM  
Blogger DougOrama said...

I always thought of the X-Files as the quintessential TV show for lighting. I was always impressed by how awesome the lighting is, yet seemingly natural and non-in-your-face. I'll have to track down the beginning of the Dr. Who series. I haven't watched it since about three Dr. Whos ago.

April 02, 2013 9:45 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

What did the strobist-reading Dalek say to the good Doctor? "Illuminate ... illuminate ..."

I'll get my coat.

April 05, 2013 2:45 AM  
Blogger Shaleen Bickel said...

Since taking up photography, I have become obsessed with lighting and I find myself studying the light whenever I am watching a show. I thought I was the only one. I grew up with Dr. Who and still love it to this day. Blink is one of my favourite episodes. It was the most scary to me.

April 05, 2013 2:25 PM  
Blogger Banquet Bear said...

The Strobist...loves Doctor Who.

My heart...failing...

This has to be the coolest thing ever. As a long time Who fan and a newbie strobist just wanted to thank you for this post. Its like two points in space and time that are never supposed to meet...yet here they are!

April 07, 2013 8:30 AM  
Blogger Lee Hammond Photography said...

I have watched Dr Who since I was the 6 year old, watching from behind the couch, in 1963. Hard to believe it was broadcast live in those days.

I too have noticed how the lighting has improved in the past few seasons. We often see the beautiful companion [Amy, Clara] in the softest Rembrandt lighting. Clara has the most amazing eyes and they always seem to have perfect catch lights.

April 09, 2013 3:04 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I first noticed the lighting in Doctor Who because, like old B&W films, they are not afriad of the dark. They use shadow to compliment the light. Most modern TV and film seems flat and too evenly lighted.

April 18, 2013 12:04 AM  
Blogger atiratha said...

The lights in DW are superb, in fact, it was this programme that made me aware of visual trends and color trends (fashion oblivious guy here). Ecclestone's first season was very much red and orange tinted whereas Tennant's seasons (2 and 3, 4 not so much)used cooler shades to the point of too much bluish. With the change of the sonic scredriwer's color in S5, another change in light patterns came. I just love observing this! Also their publicity shots are something to behold.

April 18, 2013 4:59 AM  
Blogger Anna Nguyen said...

Oh My Gosh! I've been watching Doctor Who for about 3 years now and I didn't even THINK to watch it for lighting. I knew I loved it more than for the storyline. I'll start with the tenth doctor as I remember BLINK was the episode that not only made me completely fall in love, but develop that irrational fear of angel statues. Thanks David!

April 18, 2013 10:16 AM  
Blogger Justin Womack said...

Wonderful post, as a photographer and event lighting technician, the new Dr Who has also caught my attention. A show others haven't mentioned yet that should be checked out for the lighting is Twin Peaks. Some episodes are inspired.

April 21, 2013 10:54 PM  
Blogger sapoleon said...

Well... now I must start all the 2005 series again with critical eye!!!

(I don't have the previous so... )

doesn't matter that I already saw almost every episode twice... :D

June 02, 2013 10:39 PM  

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