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What Are Translights?

A Translight or Translite is a large illuminated film backing typically used as a backdrop in the film and TV industry. The name of Translite originally came from the black-and-white display film made by the Eastman Kodak Company. Technicians projected images in a darkroom onto the film in strips, which were then removed and processed by hand in tanks by the darkroom crew. The strips were seamed with tape; then oil paint was applied to the assembled picture for a tinted color effect. The name gradually was applied to any transparency lit from behind and used as a background picture for feature films or television production. Full-color printing of a Translight was first used on the motion picture One from the Heart.

Until 25 years ago, Translights were made in a photographic process, often in sections to allow very large sizes to be produced. Digital technology has now been introduced and allows large sizes to be printed with fewer seams more often on large format digital printers, with just under 5m or 16ft being attainable before joining takes place and images over 30ft high and 150ft wide have been produced.

Translights allow the director of photography to create what appears to be an exterior scene, but under controlled conditions, rather than dependent on weather, access, and time of day. The images extend a set. Because the image is captured during principal photography, no post-production is required. The ability to do thirty takes of a scene against a perfect sunset and still have the option of coming back after seeing the dailies for twenty more. Instead of shooting everything on location, which requires permits, crowd and traffic control, and ability to squeeze huge grip trucks onto a residential street without annoying the neighbors, a compromise is reached.

A further development of this technology is the “day-to-night” Translight. In this case, one side of the film is printed with the daytime image and the reverse side is printed with the night time scene, both images are perfectly aligned. With a change in the direction of illumination, the director of photography can change between daytime and night time scenes with no requirement for re-rigging. This type of Translight does not photographically reproduce the scene at night, for the daytime image remains somewhat visible and is enhanced by the night image emerging from behind to give that magical effect.

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