Death of Ross Lowell (1926-2019)

The Inventor of “Lowel-Lights” and of “Gaffer Tape”

La Lettre AFC n°295

[English] [français]

Ross Lowell died on 15 February 2019 at the age of 92. He was the inventor of the lighting system that bears his name, the Lowel-Light, and of the famous “gaffer tape,” an accessory that has become as commonplace as it is indispensable.

A cinematographer, director, photographer, and lighting designer, Ross Lowell was born on 10 July 1926 in New York City. He studied cinema at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) after serving in the US Navy as a photographer.
At the end of the 1950s, Stephen E. Fleischman, a documentary director with CBS, asked him to design a light and unobtrusive lighting system that could remain in place for a number of weeks at Highfields (the former residence of Charles Lindbergh), where an experimental program for the rehabilitation of juvenile delinquents had been founded.
Ross Lowell imagined a simple device for fixing Flood (RFL) lamps, a sort of clamp with a porcelain socket mounted on a small, articulated spigot, all of which were soldered to a simple metal plate that was designed to be able to be easily mounted on any surface or simply and temporarily stuck on a flat surface. To that end, he also designed a type of adhesive tape that was inspired by a product used on heating ducts (duct tape) produced by Johnson & Johnson. This is how “gaffer tape” was born, by combining Permacel adhesive (does not leave marks) with a cloth backing that could easily be torn by hand.

Article published in the “American Cinematographer” in January 1960
Article published in the “American Cinematographer” in January 1960
Cinematographer Gerald Hirschfield uses a few Lowel-Light clamps as booster lights

Ross Lowell soon added a frame outfitted with barndoors that could be directly clipped onto the bulb.

Advertisement published in the “American Cinematographer” in January 1962
Advertisement published in the “American Cinematographer” in January 1962
Famous cinematographer Sam Leavitt, ASC, who won an Oscar in 1958 for Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones, has “(fallen) in Love with Lowel Lights” !

Over the following years, Ross Lowell perfected a complete lighting system with halogen bulbs and a full set of accessories : Tota-Light, Omni-Light, DP Light, Softlight 2, etc.
A sort of consecration came when John Alcott, BSC, said in an interview during the shooting of Barry Lyndon in 1976 : “We used Mini-Brutes and we used a lot of Lowel-Lights - all the time. I used the Lowel-Lights in umbrellas for overall fill. I always use the umbrellas - ever since A Clockwork Orange. I find that the Lowel-Light has far greater range of illumination from flood to spot than any other light I know of. In fact, it’s the only light of its type that gives you a fantastic spot, if you need it, and an absolute overall flood. Also, when you put a flag in front of most quartz lights you get a double shadow - but not with the Lowel-Lights. But then, of course, they were designed by a cameraman.” (Interview with John Alcott, BSC, American Cinematographer, March 1976, p. 321)

Cinematographer Renan Pollès was kind enough to share his experience with us regarding the use of Lowel-Light equipment : “I truly appreciated Lowel-Light spots and used them throughout my career. At the time (the 1970s), there only existed heavy studio spots that took up a lot of space, and nothing had yet been designed for shootings on location. Lowel-Lights had the advantage of being light and of taking up a very little amount of room. Because I was shooting very low-budget films at the time, these spots were particularly well-suited to that type of project.
Renters weren’t carrying them at the time and so you had to buy them.
The star product of the brand was the Softlight with 2 800W bulbs and that could be folded up and carried in a case. Once unfolded, with its silvery fabric, it projected a very soft indirect light that was particularly useful for lighting faces.
Almendros also used it frequently and I remember having met him in the Métro one day on his way to a shoot with Rohmer, carrying his Softlight case in his hand. I had two myself and I used them on all of my shoots (gaffers didn’t like them a lot because they found them to be too fragile).
I also had a case with an Omni-Light spot and two Tota-Lights with their accessories and two umbrellas. The Omni-Light was a focusable spot with a 650W lamp, it was smaller than the famous Mandarine and had a number of accessories that made it very versatile. The Omni-Lights with 800 W bulbs were pretty practical because they were only 5cm thick and could be transformed into soft-lights with their silvery fabric umbrellas.”

The Lowel-Light system continued to evolve over the years, following and adapting to technological changes : fluorescent lamps and tubes, LED bulbs, etc., all with an impressive quantity of accessories.
Today, Lowel-Light is represented and distributed by Tiffen.

Ross Lowell received an “Academy Award for Technical Achievement” in 1979 (for the development of a lightweight lighting system) and published a book in 1992 entitled Matters of Light and Depth : Creating Memorable Images for Video, Film and Stills Through Lighting.

Watch a video in which Ross Lowell discusses lighting tools and techniques.