Shadows and Ashes

Colin Smith lines up the Super-8 camera as director Sophie Black pans the mirror.
Colin Smith lines up the Super-8 camera as director Sophie Black pans the mirror.

After an unseemly delay, here’s the third and final part of my series about lighting Ashes, Sophie Black‘s dark fantasy drama. Read part one here and part two here.

For the fantasy world dubbed “Toybox” by the production team, Sophie wanted a gritty, grainy, comfortable look. She was keen to shoot the scene on Super-8 and wanted to make full use of that high contrast celluloid look with harsh spotlighting, deep shadows and vignetting.

The biggest problem for me was how to get a spotlight effect in a fairly small room with an ordinary daylight fresnel. To get a circle of light small enough to fit entirely within the camera’s frame required the lamp to be much further from the subject than was possible within the space. I suggested shooting at night and putting the light outside the window, but the schedule couldn’t accommodate that.

The problem was solved by bouncing the light off a circular mirror. This masked the light into a relatively sharp circle, because the lamp was the entire length of the room away from the mirror. (The closer a mask is placed to a lamp, the fuzzier the edge of the mask will appear when thrown on the subject, so simply cutting a circle out of cardboard and placing it in front of the lamp would have given us a blob of light instead of a defined circle, because there wouldn’t have been enough space to put the cardboard far enough away from the lamp.)

Bouncing a redhead off a circular mirror. Photo: Sophie Black
Bouncing a redhead off a circular mirror for the sweeping light effect. Photo: Sophie Black

Not only did the mirror allow us to achieve a key shadow puppet shot which Sophie had conceived, it also enabled us to create a sweeping light effect for other parts of the sequence. Inspired by one of Lana del Rey’s music videos, Sophie wanted the effect of headlights passing by outside a window. We were able to do this simply by panning a redhead across the mirror.

The Toybox scene was shot both on Super-8 (by Col) and on my Canon 600D as a back-up. I set the ISO to 1600 on the DSLR to bake in a grainy look. I won’t do this again, however, because I failed to take into account the effect of the camera’s H.264 compression. The grain looked fine on the viewfinder, but once compressed and recorded there were lots of blocky artifacts. I hoped that the Super-8 film would come out well so this sub-standard digital material wouldn’t have to be used, but alas there were some focus issues and several of the shots were inexplicably missing from the reels when they came back from the lab. Fortunately the day was saved by a talented VFX artist who applied a very convincing Super-8 look to the 600D footage, which hides the compression artifacts.

Ashes is nearly finished now and we’re all very excited to see how it’s turned out. Meanwhile, here’s the trailer:

Shadows and Ashes

Fire and Ashes

Last week I looked at some watery lighting created for one of the fantasy scenes in Sophie’s short, Ashes. Today let’s look at another of the film’s fantasy scenes and another element: fire.

Sophie wanted a 1940s Hollywood look to this romantic scene set in a room full of candles. Shane Hurlbut recently posted a great blog about building an artificial firelight source, but given the size and layout of the room I didn’t feel this was going to work for us. When I lit the Wasteland trailer last autumn I used domestic 100W clip-lights to represent candlelight, and this is what I chose to go for again.

Sarah Lamesch and Adam Lannon in the "Hollywood" scene
Sarah Lamesch and Adam Lannon in the “Hollywood” scene

There are about half a dozen 100W bulbs hidden on the floor behind the bed, and another half dozen on a boom arm out the top of frame, again behind the actors. There are no other light sources but the candles themselves. To give a little bit of movement to the light, my righthand man Col is wobbling a reflector just off camera. More movement would have been nice – some dimmers perhaps, or someone lying behind the bed wiggling the bulbs a bit – but given that it was a closed set I felt it was better to keep things simple.

Col tapes the tights to a filter tray
Col tapes the tights to a filter tray

I was so focused on the lighting of this scene that it was only the day before the shoot that I realised the key to the forties look was going to be diffusion. By this point it was too late to add any Promist filters to our package, so I consulted Shane’s blogs on diffusion for other methods of softening the image. AD Chris was subsequently dispatched to buy some tights.

In an ideal world you get hold of some very fine silk stockings and tape a piece to the back of your lens. We were stuck with bog-standard 15 denier, and the design of the EF-S lens mount makes it impossible to put anything over the rear element, so it had to go on the front. Col stretched the piece of fabric across one of my Pro-aim shoulder rig’s 4×4″ filter trays. Putting the tights on the front rather than the back makes the effect much less subtle, but fortunately Sophie really liked it. You can see it in action on the still above, but I’ll leave you with a side-by-side comparison from a quick test we did on lead actress Sarah Lamesch:

Sarah Lamesch with (right) and without (left) the stocking filter
Sarah Lamesch with (right) and without (left) the stocking filter

Fire and Ashes

Water and Ashes

The opening frame of the big track and dolly shot
The opening frame of the big track and dolly shot

Earlier this week I DPed Sophie Black’s short film, Ashes. The script contained three fantasy scenes which were really fun to light because they didn’t have to be in any way realistic. All the scenes took place in the same bedroom, so here was a great opportunity to light the same space in three completely different and pretty whacky ways (plus in a more down-to-earth way for the “real world” scenes).

In lighting the fantasy scenes I drew inspiration from techniques covered in some of the blogs I listed in my top five last week. Sophie’s vision for one fantasy scene was of the lead character, played by Sarah Lamesch, on a bed adrift on a sea of hands. The hands were moulded in plaster and spread all over the floor, and it was my job to create the impression of water through lighting. So I turned to The Underwater Realm’s website, recalling a video blog they posted last year when their DP Eve Hazelton began testing lighting techniques for dry-for-wet photography (around six minutes in).

The silver wrapping paper on the ceiling
The silver wrapping paper on the ceiling

Big thanks to Realm Pictures for posting this blog. Although Eve ultimately rejected the technique in favour of something more realistic, it was perfect for Ashes. I had Sophie buy several rolls of silver wrapping paper, which we pinned loosely to the ceiling. I placed a 1.2K Arri Daylight Compact on the floor in the corner, pointed up at the paper. As we rolled, Sophie aimed a desk fan at the paper to create rippling, watery reflections.

I knew I wanted to do something special with Sarah’s incredibly striking eyes in this scene, to complement the make-up. I started off by having Colin rig a DIY lamp above her, surrounded by black wrap and card with only a slit of light coming through to highlight her eyes. Unfortunately I discovered that the light from DIY lamps just isn’t focused enough for this kind of effect, so I abandoned it.

Instead I created Sarah’s eye-light using a string of white Christmas lights taped to a piece of black card. This was inspired by Galadriel’s eye-light in The Lord of the Rings – a reference Sophie gave me. As it turns out, I think the starry reflections you see in Sarah’s eyes here are more from the silver paper than the fairy lights.

Sarah Lamesch
Sarah Lamesch as Sarah

This scene was also interesting from a grip point of view. We’d borrowed a jib, which we mounted on my dolly so that we could boom up from the hands on the floor, over the footboard and track to Sarah’s face. This was a real team effort. Colin handled the dolly and jib movement, while first assistant director Chris Newman operated the camera to begin with. As soon as the camera had cleared the footboard I jumped up onto the bed and took over from Chris for the rest of the shot.

In my next couple of posts I’ll look at the other fantasy scenes and we’ll see how Shane Hurlbut’s blog and a Lana Del Rey video inspired the cinematography in those.

Water and Ashes