Banner Bastard Amber - Stage Lights on a Stage shining on a microphone
Colours Movies

Bastard Amber: Stage Lighting for Skintones

Before digital colour took over, an invention of this gel colour for the stage was one of the most popular colour gels for the theatre and film... with the most unfortunate name ever.

Before performances used digital colour, they would use light gels. Most film productions and theatre productions still do. Light gels are colour discs that snap into a light fixture to create a colour effect.

Visual representation is important on the stage. Lighting on stage can help tell a story by adding a lot of blue for sad tales or adding a lot of red for angry. But there is a lighting technique that is solely for skin tone. That’s bastard amber. The name seems like it could be “too cheeky” but there is a reason for the name and importance for its existence.

This colour is mostly used for lighting effects in theatrical and film productions. It provides a warm white that good for lamp effects and is associated with sunlight effects and mild fire effects. When the gels first were used it created a vivid amber flesh tone. It was commonly used in Technicolor productions. Some people called this the Technicolor tan when the light was combined with the gel light and theatrical makeup. It helped make actors look more attractive on film and on stage.

Screenshot of Carmen Miranda singing
The Lady in the Tutti-Fruitti Hat in The Gang’s All Here (1943)
Note: This film was restored with Kodak Eastman’s colour treatment,
therefore, the colour as more punch than the original.

What are these lights for:

Key light: The brightest light on a subject and the majority of light on a subject. The type of lighting that would be used for key light would be limelight (an incandescent light used in theatrical productions that would provide a soft very brilliant white light by a block of calcium oxide heated to incandescence in oxygen and hydrogen filled jet.)

Fill Light: The light source that fills in the shadows. The fill light should be less than the key light but still can eliminate shadows. Bastard Amber is a colour gel that would be used for fill lights on a stage.

Background Light: The light that separates the background from the subject creating depth. This light can be a hard light.

There are other gel colours used in lighting design to create warm colours, neutral colours, cool colours and the McCandless colour scheme. Pinks, lavenders, yellows and blues are used in lighting effects. Bastard amber is obviously an amber. A light bastard amber or a bastard amber is used in many lighting designs. It’s best to know something about additive colours, subtractive colour and kelvins for lighting design because it helps to know how to combine certain colours for colour effects, for example,
red + green = yellow.

Kelvins is a measurement of temperature in physical science. It is used as a colour temperature measurement. Heat cameras, digital cameras and white balance measurement tools use kelvins as a guide to creating white light.

Double chart of Kelvins from daylight to candlelight
Double chart of Kelvins from daylight to candlelight
Side note: Amber drift is the amber colour that glows from an incandescent light source before being fully lit. In short, it’s dim light from low power.

The name can be broken down to explaining why the word bastard is used for the lighting. Bastard is a description of colour that uses a complementary colour in its mixture slightly. In colour gels, it would have small pieces of the complementary colour inside the gel. There are other bastard colours in lighting design for various meanings. bastard green; bastard blue; bastard red.

How bastard amber makes flesh tones warmer.

This works similarly like how colour grading a film to blue and orange would work. The orange gives a tan appearance and the blue brings out any warm colours on the person’s face. This is similar to how most painted portraits compose faces. They would be painted with an overall warm tone then some blues would be added for shadows on the face. This would make the face look more natural.

HEX Code for Bastard Amber #E2C8A7
HEX Code for Bastard Amber #E2C8A7

The light gel has some complementary colours against the predominant colour. Bastard amber is predominantly an orange-pinkish tone with some tiny blue and green flecks inside the gel. It what helps make it warmer and natural looking than the other types of gels.

It was first created by accident by the lighting supply company Rosco in the early 1900s. In the early days, the colour gels that were used in the stage lighting systems were made out of real gelatine slates. (Which is where the name comes from.) A well known lighting designer, Louis Hartmann, was working on a play that relied on natural lighting. He went on a hunt for new colour gels to experiment with. At the Rosco production lab, he noticed some soon to be discarded gels in the corner. They were going to discard because of red dye contamination. After testing out the damaged discs, he noticed that the tone looked good on flesh tone. Instead of throwing out the colour gels, he said what “bastard amber you had,” referring to the stack of “soon to be” discarded gels thrown out. Rosco had to recreate the gel that was initially created by accident for the light designer with some modifications. It’s now known as Rosco 02. It still is popular after a hundred years of creation and is the most popular type of Bastard Amber. Also, where the name Bastard Amber originally came from, illegitimate orange.

This amber is very popular with skin tones but it can wash out other colours too if misued by muting vivid tones.

The McCandless Colour Scheme

The McCandless colour scheme is the theatrical lighting effect that you see most actors stand under in most productions. The lights are positioned at least 90 degrees apart and 45 degrees away from the action. One side of the gelled colour is a warm colour like Bastard Amber and the other side is either a cool tone or a neutral tone in a similar colour to Bastard Amber.

This method was created by Stanley McCandless from Yale University. Before he was the lighting professor in the Yale School of Drama, he was a working architect who was a consultant of theatrical lighting. Stanley McCandless is known as the father of modern day lighting which is still used today. In his book, A Method Of Lighting The Stage written in 1932, he proposed that the lighting should be divided up into uniform areas and manipulating the lights in intensity, colour, distribution and control. The actor is supposed to be fully lit under the foreground lights while the two colour lights will fill in the shadows in warm and cool lights.

This was not a new colour combination for theatrical lighting. Orange and blue are not only complementary colours. Before fixed artificial lighting, many artists used natural sunlight to light most productions. In 1539, San Gallo created a rising sun look by filling up crystal sphere with water and illuminating it with candles from behind. In 1545, Italian architect Sebastian Serlio instructed that placing candles behind a glass filled with various liquids to produce different stages of light throughout the day. For example, wine made red light, saffron made yellow light, ammonium chloride in a copper flask made blue light. While Andrea Palladio would use a variety of candles for indoor productions by restyling classic repertoires from Roman architecture.

How to do lighting for an at home video blog

I will first state that I am not a lighting expert but I will try to state what can work for an at home lighting system. Modern lighting for theatrical productions has turned to digital colour lights making it easier to convey moods, times of day and dramatization. And most lighting used for at home productions like YouTube vlogs uses a similar television production system.

The last time I had to set up lighting for video might have been in high school and college. The system still works but look at this as a preliminary instruction of how to do lighting at home.

Step One: Choose what you are filming

Being a little prepared doesn’t hurt. And with that deciding what the budget it would hurt. It just makes it easier to map out what to do and what kind of lighting you want. It could be the difference of lighting just for face-to-face vlogs to the camera than dramatic lighting for film noir.

Step Two: Decide what type of set you are using

If it’s in your room or in a small studio, different area requires different equipment. No everything on the market is necessary or needed. Do you need a large light or a small convenient one that can rest on a desk? For most projects that have people in front of a camera for the majority of the video, you might benefit from having three lights. A key light, fill light and background light.

Step Three: Decide what types of lamps you are willing to purchase

There so many types of lights to use and it can be overwhelming what you should be purchasing. If you are a novice, try a good pair of economic lights that can be purchased at your local photography store.

Step Four: Set up the three point lighting for the production.

Set up the three point lighting for the production. Tape or temporarily mark the area you want to film.

  • Set your key light first at a 30 degree angle at one side of the subject. Measure the light with a light meter to make sure that from the subject to the light source it’s 255 or a constant number. This light should be the brightest light on the subject.
  • Then set the fill light at the other side at a 30 degree angle from the subject. This light should be softer and not as bright as the key light. It’s to fill in shadows not to flatten the dimensions of the subject. If this happens tone down the fill light either by dialling it down, moving it back or a colour gel. Measure the light with a light meter to make sure it’s 255 or a constant number.
  • Finally, set the backlight. This light can be a hard light that could create shadows since the shadows would not be seen by the camera. Then measure the light once again to make sure that nothing changed.

Step Five: Check the colour balance of the scene with the light meter

Check the colour balance of the scene with the light meter. Are there cool tones? Are there warm tones? If you want a different colour balance for the scene to check a basic lighting design booklet for further details to avoid unnatural lighting.

Step Six: Check for glare on reflective surfaces.

Double check for glare on glasses or reflective surfaces. If glare happens to raise the light sources higher until it’s not visible through the camera view or move the lights further back then measure the lights to make sure that nothing has changed.

Banner Credit: Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

Haines, R. (1993).Technicolor Movies: The History of Dye Transfer Printing. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., pp.35-36.

Color in lighting design – Theatre 476: Stage Lightning

Color in Light – Northern State University

Fleshtones and Color Temperature – Artist Network

Spectrum Wavelengths Designer Series: Louis Hartmann – Rosco Laboratories

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