One of the signature aesthetics of this great city is the vast, golden glow that sweeps from the coast to the mountains.
But unlike the mythical city of El Dorado, supposedly paved with golden streets, much of that effect in Los Angeles was caused by old-school street lamps, known as high-pressure sodium (HPS) fixtures, which gave off an amber light. Unfortunately for fans of this iconic look, a majority of those lamps has been torn out in recent years and replaced with clear-eyed, energy-saving LED units.
Good for the environment. Maybe not so good for capturing the real Los Angeles on film:
One of the most underrated movies set in Los Angeles, a film that captures the look of urban L.A. fairly accurately, is Michael Mann's Collateral.
Sure, it was a shoot-'em-up with bullets, bodies and blood, but Mann captured L.A. well in this 2004 film because of his eye for that amber street lighting.
Independent filmmaker Dave Kendricken recently wrote in a piece for No Film School that movies will never look that way again.
That's because the city has replaced most of those old street lamps in core areas, 140,000 of 210,000 lamps citywide, according to a report last year from the Bureau of Street Lighting. We called to get an updated figure but have yet to hear back.
A map from the Bureau shows that most of the street lamps in the central city basin (all those shown in green) had been replaced by last October.
The replacement will save taxpayers an estimated $7 million a year in energy costs, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
But what about the aesthetic? We asked Kendricken:
It will change one of the most-seen backdrops in American movies. I didn't want to say it's for better or worse. I wanted to say it's the end of an era.
Interestingly, those old HPS lights were a pain for filmmakers who wanted to ensure that their actors popped on screen. Gels and blasts of power-draining location lighting were usually used outdoors at night, Kendricken explained.
In a rare twist, director Mann purposefully tried to let that amber light sing. Kendricken says the movie Fight Club had a similar glow. For Collateral, relatively groundbreaking, light-sensitive, high-definition Sony digital cameras were used, he says:
The thing that was interesting about Collateral as a specific example is it went against what you traditionally do with film. What Mann was doing with Collateral was trying to see into the background. They're driving around L.A. without having a lot of control: The street lighting behind them is pretty much as authentic as you can get. The background lighting is what Michael Mann really wanted to capture.
I think the reason Collateral was an interesting example is that Michael Mann didn't want to modify the feel of the city. Aesthetically speaking the film Collateral constitutes a historically discreet moment.
That said, the future of filmmaking in L.A. is a little brighter. Literally. In his piece for No Film School, Kendricken writes:
The LEDs should very well prove a benefit to existing-light photography – better for the environment, and in nearly every case, better for cinematography.
Capturing the true light of Los Angeles will no longer be a special skill possessed mainly by high-budget auteurs like Michael Mann. Of course, with digital technology, filmmakers could always edit in that amber glow if they so desired.
“Does the soul of the city become different with different lighting?” Kendricken asks. “That's a question I didn't want to answer.”