If you go back to Laura Merians’ childhood journals, you’ll read about her thoughts on the living room’s lighting or a comment on the moonlight one night. From as early as she can remember, Merians was talking about the quality of light. “It’s comforting to know I’m the same person—same insecurities, same loves, same fascinations,” shares Merians.
Merians’ father was always taking pictures and always had cameras around. He was a doctor, but after marrying Merians’ mother, who was a model, the two traveled the world and he photographed it. He shot a few celebrities, including Jimi Hendrix, but mostly it was his instinct for imagery that
Merians revered. “He was always talking about photography and surrounding my brother and I with art,” she remembers. “Lighting was always a topic of conversation. In every environment that we lived in, he’d pay attention to it and comment on it, which caused me to pay attention to it.” Merians didn’t realize that this love of lighting could be turned into a career until after she had graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in philosophy. She had a work-study job in the Theater department as a lighting technician during her college days, but it was when her brother was working on a film with the photographer Larry Clark in 2000 that she realized it could be a job.
“I visited him in Florida before I was about to take off for Japan,” she says. “Because it was so low budget and they needed every hand they could get, the director invited me to stay and work on the film and gave me the choice of any department. Of course, I wanted lighting! The gaffer made me best boy electric, and that was that. Power distribution ended up being one of my main loves in the lighting department—figuring out distribution, where it needed to be, anticipating it on the scout. I loved being able to provide that to every department.”
Merians worked as an electrician for over six years. She joined Local 728 almost immediately, and because it was such a busy time, the Local was calling her for jobs constantly in features, commercials and television.
In 2002, Merians bought a Panasonic AG-DVX100 and started shooting on her own. “I was doing these little videos,” recalls Merians, “these one-off projects, when one of them got picked up for a series. Lovespring International was a great improv comedy show with Jane Lynch and was my first real job as a cinematographer.”
Although Merians’ first love will always be Super 8 (she even had some film with her in her bag), most every job she has been hired onto in the last five years has been digital. And in terms of lighting, she feels fortunate to have come up through that department during the transition from film to digital. “I got to see so many amazing mentors light both ways,” she says, “but I’ve seen that film is more forgiving. I think you get away with risks in lighting better with film. Sometimes, the risks in HD don’t work as well, and there’s definitely a different interpretation of light that HD sees because of its inherent sensitivities.”
On her latest music video shoot with Sigur Rós, Merians used strobe lights. Because of the way the RED EPIC interprets the lines of information, when you turn on the strobe, the camera is only capturing half of the strobe. Perhaps someone will see that as an odd effect, and perhaps some might say it’s stylistic, but half the frame’s there and half isn’t. On film, it would just show the strobe as the eye would see it.
“I’ve always found with new media that it’s just a new opportunity to approach something with a different aesthetic. Same with lighting and digital—I approach it as a chance to get something different out of it than I would with film.”
Merians has been working mostly with the ARRI ALEXA, the RED, Canon EOS 7Ds and EOS 5D Mark IIs, and has been focused on the music videos and commercial world, including online lifestyle vignette-type videos for Whole Foods, where she sometimes even gets to use her beloved Super 8.
The Björk music video was directed by Huang, a friend and longtime collaborator of Merians, and is similar in aesthetic to their Slamdance-winning three-part experimental fantasy short, Solipsist, which included a lot of in-camera work mixed with visual effects. “Andrew is really good at integrating the world of the practical and VFX,” offers Merians. “Both Solipsist and Björk were done with a lot of puppeteering and practical elements, but there’s a lot of layering that was done with visual effects, as well.”
A particularly visually stimulating scene in Solipsist involves two boys on a nighttime seashore who have their faces and stomachs disappearing into themselves as if they were sinking sand. On the EPIC and 7D, Merians shot the plate scene at the beach, shot one boy who was composited as two on a stage, and the sinking stomach and face were another practical element they shot and then composited in.
Tackling creatively challenging shoots such as these is Merians’ forte. Her years of working in the lighting and electrical department have put her in the ideal position with the rest of her crew, and sh
e feels fortunate to have learned in that way. “I consider my crew invaluable collaborators,” says Merians. “And I know that I’ll continue to learn every day and become better at my craft. This year’s goal is to be ready to shoot that feature.”