Friday, January 20, 2012

I feel like a failure, and quantum physics of light (as per request)

My illustration class, that I'd worked myself up into a tizzy over, has be cancelled due to low registration.  I can't express how disappointed I am about this - but that is not going to make for a fun or interesting blog.  Hadn't been back to school in years, and feeling the creative rut and winter blahs.

And the weevil headache.  Still.  With any luck, it'll consume the pain centers of my brain and I won't have to feel it soon.

My buddy Shadoe requested a post relating quantum physics to lighting on set, which is a great poser.  (I could have taken the easy way out - FireSign Theater - but why start now?)

The allegories are probably going to be tenuous at best, but I'll give this a go.  Might as well start with a mini science lesson.  This is all really basic layman stuff, so feel free to skip it if I'm boring.

Quantum mechanics is fun science for the geektastic laymen like myself because its a relatively new set of studies, and some of the mysteries are intriguing.  I won't pretend to understand the majority of the math (never got past Calc III - I warned you that I'm not that sharp), but we can hit some of the basics.

What is a quanta, anyway?

A 'quanta' in layman's terms (the ones I can understand) are basically the minimum amount of physical interaction of any particle.  For quantum mechanics, this usually refers to the energy of an electron - the teeny particles that whirligig on the outside of an atom.

Metaphorically, this could relate to the amount that I care about a film after running a 16 hour day when production refuses to provide a second meal.

In actuality, I only deal with this at the most rudimentary of levels as an electrician.  While I don't think about this much on set, electricity is, at it's most basic level, the effect of excited free electrons attracting and repelling each other - induced by agitating them through some other power source, typically a generator.  Couloumb's law,  the Leyden jar, all that fun stuff, if you want to dig deeper.   When on set, I'm much more concerned about balancing power and voltage drops, so this is kind of fun for me to write about (thanks Shadoe!).

Ahem, moving on.

For the purposes of this post, let's skip Planck and head right to Einstein. (Planck was more about thermal transfers and radiation, rather than the next theory, that relates more.)

The great light wave/particle weirdness (not really a debate) kind of starts with the discovery of photons.  A photon is like a single, teeny packet of light.

This again, isn't something we think about much on set, but if electricity didn't work this way, we wouldn't have lightbulbs. Thank Heinrich Hertz, who discovered that you could get light from metal. Light bulbs were being developed all over the world before this, but I feel like it was Hertz and Lenard, who came up with the fact that frequency of emission, rather than intensity being responsible for light emission, helped make the lightbulb a practical invention rather than an interesting novelty that both ate tons of power and was hot enough to melt your face off if you got too close.

I'm tangenting again, sorry.

Anyhow.  A dude named Louis de Broglie grabbed onto that wave/particle debate, and ran with it.  While light is a series of particles, those particles behave like a wave.  Without that, we wouldn't have diffraction (the way light can bend, as well as split into colors) and lighting tools would probably be very different than they are.  Lenses like Fresnels, for example, wouldn't 'soften' a beam the way they do, and a great many other tools like gels just wouldn't function in the same way.  While learning the theory doesn't change how light works, it does give us a greater understanding of how to manipulate light, and methods for developing new tools, or fashioning low rent versions of existing ones.

If light didn't bend, for example, reflectors wouldn't work.

Another tool that takes advantage of the wave theory is called a cookaloris, or cookie.  (I don't know where the name comes from, and haven't been able to find a satisfactory answer.)  This is a solid piece of material - usually wooden or metal for those with a budget, I've made them from cardboard - that creates shapes when placed in front of a light.  One of the most interesting details of these, is how you can 'focus' them.  The farther they are from a light source, the clearer and sharper the edges of the shape.  Closer, and you get a softer, less dense shadow with fuzzier edges.

This can be explained with the double slit experiment, performed by Thomas Young and Augustin Fresnel (eh? eh?  There he is!  In case you were wondering where the Fresnel lens came from) in 1827.  You can read up in detail on your own - basically, they discovered a diffraction pattern in light waves when objects (in this case, walls with slits) were placed in front of an object.  More objects also create further diffusion, resulting in layers of harder and softer shadows.  I use this sort of thing all the time at work.

Honestly, Shroedinger and Heisenberg's principles, interesting as they are, can only come into play in the most metaphorical of senses when talking about film lighting.  Mostly the effect that I don't know whether or not this next gig will suck giant donkey balls until I get there or not.  Ahh, uncertainty and the cat in the box applied to freelancing.

Wave function collapse, on the other hand, is integral to making light look the way it does.  As a light wave travels through the air, those teeny particles encounter resistance.  That resistance causes the wave function to collapse and the particles to disperse, meaning the light doesn't go on forever.  In industry lighting, we call that 'fall off', basically where the cast light begins to dim, and finally disperses completely.  Without this happening, we couldn't create dramatic scenes with high intensity key lights and deep shadows.

Some of the other things, like electrical fields, are practically important for safety reasons - like not starting fires and electrocuting actors and co workers.  While you don't have to understand the deeper math involved, having a basic understanding of how electricity works helps ensure the safety of the set.

A quick example would be that using a carrier (most typically an extension cord) that's too small for the voltage draw can start a fire.  Instead of those excited particles running all the way to the lighting unit, they 'flood' the carrier, escaping in the form of heat.  Too much of that, and you can melt the cable, or your co worker.

So, that's my attempt to relate quantum physics theory with practical, on set use.  I hope you enjoyed it.


  1. GREAT job of taking my smart ass comment and running with it! except it would be the amperage draw that melts your co-workers, not voltage.

  2. That's very true - what I get for posting before proofing. I've got to learn not to do that. Wise ass commentaries can produce interesting results!

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