Ren: Lighting Dagron’s House

This is our big interiors week on Ren. The main set is the inside of Ren’s house, which was assembled in a mere three days by Chris Dane and his team, cannibalising the village exterior set. In this video blog I explain how I lit the set.

This set-up worked pretty much as-is for the first big scene in the house, shot on Monday. It was all handheld, so I needed the flexibility to move around with the camera and not worry about lamps on the floor getting in shot. The way I’d lit the set meant that the cast could stand pretty much anywhere and look good, especially since whoever was wiggling the “firelight” reflector could tweak the angle of it to follow any actor threatening to go a bit dark.

100W bulbs hidden behind the dresser for "candlelight"
100W bulbs hidden behind the dresser for “candlelight”

As the bedroom was visible in the background of many shots, I rigged a rough version of the candelight effect I knew I would be using when we got to the bedroom scenes proper. I clipped four 100W tungsten bulbs behind pieces of furniture and cabled them into two channels of the dimmer board Colin kindly lent us. These were then flickered to suggest flames.

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The dimmer station

The dedo over the table proved to be superfluous. When I saw Claire making candles for the set, I asked her to double-wick them. I’d read in American Cinematographer that they’d done that on Pirates of the Caribbean to boost the light output, and sure enough, once those candles were lit, the dedo wasn’t needed.

The following day I played around with the lighting a bit more. When we came in for close-ups – this time on sticks – I turned off the overhead 4ft kino and brought in a 2ft kino on the floor for Window Wrap (Lighting Technique Number #3). That way the light got into the talent’s eye sockets and was generally more flattering.

The kinoflo on the right acts as Window Wrap
The kinoflo on the right acts as Window Wrap

For another scene I decided the fire had gone out, allowing our bad guys to be bathed in cool daylight while the good guys stayed near the candlelight by the bedroom door. It’s nice when you have motivated colour contrast like this in a set and you can play around with which characters are in which colour of light. I look forward to shooting the remaining house scenes and developing some nice candlelight in the bedroom.

Find out more about Ren at www.rentheseries or on Facebook or Twitter.

Ren: Lighting Dagron’s House

Ren: Lighting the Prison Cell

After a month of shooting exteriors, yesterday we shot the first interior set for Ren. Which was just as well since a tropical storm was raging outside and blowing down parts of the exterior village set.

It was a classic prison cell scene, one of those shaft-of-light-through-the-barred-window jobbies. Amanda Stekly and her team did a great job of creating a two-walled set with moss, wet stone and even real snails. Outside the window was a platform to sell the illusion that the cell was below ground level.

Here are some frames from the scene:

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2.5K HMI
2.5K HMI

If you’re going for this shaft-of-light-piercing-the-gloom look, you need three things. Firstly, a powerful, focusable light; I used a 2.5K HMI fresnel. Secondly, you need to accept over-exposure. The only way you will get any detail in the shadows is by exposing bright enough that the highlights – anyone standing in the direct beam of light – will clip. If you don’t like the highlight roll-off characteristics of your camera, stay away from this type of lighting. The cool thing about having a keylight this hot is that when a character moves around in the light, especially if they’re wearing light-coloured clothing, they bounce the light around in interesting and often unpredictable ways.

I shot the scene on Richard Roberts’ Blackmagic Cinema Camera, partly because of ongoing problems getting a monitor signal out of my Production Camera, and partly because of the extra stop of dynamic range the BMCC would give me to milk this high contrast lighting scenario.

The third and very important thing you need is a smoke machine to volumise the shaft of light. (More about using smoke in a future post.)

In this view of the platform behind the set, the fluorescent fixture providing indirect "daylight" can be seen on the left, gelled with Quarter Minus Green to remove the green spike in the lamp's output.
In this view from behind the set, the fluorescent fixture providing indirect “daylight” can be seen on the left, gelled with Quarter Minus Green to remove the green spike in the lamp’s output.

In order to give the sense of indirect “sky” light also coming in through the window, I placed a fluorescent outside the window so as to catch some of the side wall of the set. When I first tested the lighting set-up the previous night, I placed a second fluorescent fixture directly above the window to get some edging on the tops of the stones underneath. But I found that the more sources I set up, the less definition I got in the shaft of HMI light, so I dropped the toplight.

The door gobo
The door gobo

Although the script called for guards to drag Hunter (Duran Fulton Brown) into the cell and shut him in, the two-walled set had no door. So with help from the art department I constructed a ridiculous-looking door in roughly one-third scale, simply to cast the shadow of the door. Behind it I placed a redhead gelled with half CTO, which Richard wiggled during takes to suggest firelight.

The LED hidden behind the bucket
The LED hidden behind the bucket

I set the camera to a white balance of 4,500K so that the “daylight” of the HMI would go a little cold and the “firelight” would go really warm.

Our first shot involved Hunter washing his face at a bucket of water, then slumping back into the “sunlight”. We positioned the bucket out of the “sunlight”, in the small patch of light coming through the window of our fake door. But Hunter was still too dark by the bucket. I didn’t want to flood the set with fill and ruin the mood, so I hid a small LED light behind the bucket and diffed it down. This lights Hunter’s face when he leans over it, and hopefully suggests a reflection off the water.

A fluorescent toplight rigged over the bucket for the face-washing close-up
A fluorescent toplight rigged over the bucket for the face-washing close-up. Note the black cloth hanging from one side to reduce spill.

When we moved to a close-up of Hunter washing his face (below), I rigged a fluorescent toplight, suggestive of indirect daylight from the window, and placed a circle of foil at the bottom of the bucket. The idea was that the toplight would reflect off the foil and the surface of the water and light Hunter’s face. It didn’t work, but the toplight itself really made the shot for me. The more you work with an actor, the more you learn the best ways to light them, and I’ve learnt that Duran looks great with toplight.

Foil in the bucket for added bounce
Foil in the bucket for added bounce

Screen grabs (C) 2014 Mythica Entertainment. Visit www.rentheseries.com for more info.

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Ren: Lighting the Prison Cell

Ren Teaser Trailer Released

The first teaser trailer for Ren has been released today. This is the ambitious fantasy web series I’ve been photographing for the last four weeks. (I also cut this trailer.)

Michael Hudson has produced a series of behind-the-scenes podcasts about Ren. You can listen to me talking about the cinematography, along with all the other talented HoDs talking about the hard work and genius they have brought to bear, at http://www.rentheseries.com/news/ren-podcasts/

Ren Teaser Trailer Released

Working with Other Departments

Art assistant Denise Barry's photo of the cast and crew shortly after arriving in France
The cast and crew of The First Musketeer – one of the best collaborative experiences of my career

Filmmaking is all about teamwork. But sometimes DPs can forget this and ignore the needs of other departments in their quest to get their perfect shot. In recent years I’ve really come to appreciate the importance of forging a good relationship with the other heads of department so as to get the best possible results and foster a good vibe on set.

Take cross-lighting as an example. Cross-light comes in from the side of frame and throws any texture into relief. This might be exactly what you need to show off the detail in a set or a costume and make the art department very happy. Or it might show up things we don’t want to see – the edge of a make-up appliance, or scarring on an actress’s face. In cases like this, a good DP should modify their lighting, no matter how much they love it, so that the make-up or the talent looks their best.

I’d like to collaborate more with make-up artists in the future. I’m sure we’re looking at a lot of the same things when we assess a face and decide how to approach it. Understanding the direction the make-up is going in could spark ideas about how to build on that with light. I once spent a lot of time trying to lighten up the face of an actor who had been made-up very dark; a brief chat with the MUA beforehand could have avoided that wasted time.

Stanley Kubrick’s production designer apparently used to design sets with a master shot in mind. So when you walk onto a set or a dressed location, talk to the designer about where they think it looks best from. They have lived with this set for longer than you have and they may have some great ideas.

It’s also important to respect others’ work. Don’t walk onto a set and start dressing stuff to camera; show the designer the monitor and let them work their magic. And don’t move stuff to get your tripod in without asking permission; they may need to take continuity pictures first so that they can put everything back in the right place later.

The cast and crew of Fled
The cast and crew of Brendan O’Neill’s “Fled”

The same goes for the sound department. If the boom op is struggling with shadows, tweak the lighting to help them out if you can. No film set is complete without a friendly rivalry between the camera and sound departments, but it’s vital this is underpinned by mutual respect. Sometimes there is an attitude on set that the DP outranks the sound recordist; don’t tolerate this. Sound and vision are equally important.

Last but definitely not least is the cinematographer’s relationship with the talent. It’s easy to forget how much important work is going on in an actor’s head. And what are the crew doing while the cast are trying to focus? Cracking jokes, spraying smoke around, turning on dazzling lights, thrusting polyboards in people’s faces, clapping slates and generally being incredibly distracting. Try to be aware of this and minimise it where possible, particularly for very serious or emotional scenes. Explain to the talent why you’re surrounding them with equipment and how it’s making them look good and servicing the story. Foster an environment where they feel they can ask you to move something if it’s distracting. If the acting isn’t good, no-one is going to watch the film long enough to admire the lighting – so do what you can to help the talent.

And remember, when people view your showreel, they’re judging not just the quality of your work, but the overall quality of the films you’ve worked on. In short, help make other people look good and you will look good too.

Working with Other Departments

Ode to Ren

Setting up for one of the crowd scenes
Setting up for one of the crowd scenes

A year after lensing season one of Harriet Sams’ ambitious period web series The First Musketeer, I’ve jumped on board Kate Madison’s equally epic series Ren. Coming from the woman who made Born of the Hope, the incredibly popular Lord of the Rings fan film, it’s no surprise that Ren is a fantasy of Jacksonian proportions. Marked by a powerful ancient spirit and feared by all who see her, the title character starts a journey and discovers that all she thought she knew may have been a lie.

I’ve already posted several blogs about lighting Ren, but now I want to talk more about the project as a whole and the unique experience I’m having on it. Ren is one of those landmark shoots which is so tough but so much fun, where the crew become like family and you hate the idea of it ever ending. As I write this I’m on a train which is taking me away from Cambridgeshire and the drafty studio I’ve come to think of as home, towards a far less exciting shoot. This weekend away on a paid job seems strange and wrong, and I can’t wait to get back to my Ren family on Sunday night.

The studio is an old factory, its workshops filled with sets, props and costumes. For the last three weeks I’ve been sleeping on an air bed in what was probably once a meeting room. Directly above that is the make-up room, and next to that is the production office from which Kate and associate producer Michelle Golder battle daily against a dwindling budget and scheduling headaches to keep this epic web series shooting.

Ronin Traynor choreographs a fight scene with Richard Zeman (left) and Duran Fulton Brown (right)
Ronin Traynor (left) choreographs a fight scene with Richard Zeman (centre) and Duran Fulton Brown (right)

And in the car park is the set, which you may have seen in my video blog. Chris Dane and a team of volunteers spent three months fashioning the medieval village. Miriam Spring Davies has spent countless hours crafting the costumes to beautifully clothe each of the principals, plus a village full of extras and fifteen imposing Kah’nath soldiers. Hans Goosen, who flew over from Germany (I think) to be involved in the project, lived and worked in the studio for weeks while making stunning hero props. And these are just a few of the ridiculously talented and dedicated people who are bringing Ren’s world to life.

Ever since a damp weekend in autumn 2008, which I spent holding an umbrella over a steadicam operator on Born of Hope, I’ve wanted to work properly with Kate. As a maker of ambitious fantasy projects myself, I feel she’s a kindred spirit. When I learnt she was looking for a DP for Ren, I gave her the hard sell, knowing that I couldn’t bear to let anyone else photograph this series. My experiences on The First Musketeer – which shares several cast and crew members with Ren – stood me in excellent stead to approach the fantasy period settings of Kate’s script. I learnt so much on Musketeer about creating texture to sell the period, ageing scenes with smoke, and simulating firelight.

Actor Duran Fulton Brown, director Kate Madison and gaffer Richard Roberts warm their hands over a prop braziere.
Actor Duran Fulton Brown, director Kate Madison and gaffer Richard Roberts warm their hands over a prop braziere.

When Kate finally picked me, it was too late for me to rearrange other commitments that clashed with the first three days of shooting. I arrived at the studio on a Saturday night with my regular assistant Colin Smith. It was packed with crew and extras who were in the middle of a busy weekend of shooting crowd scenes. The next morning I was launched into Ren, and real life faded like a dream. That was three weeks ago.

Since then the crew has grown and shrunk (mostly shrunk!) with the passing days, as people give up what time they can and then return to their normal lives. For a project so unique and wonderful, we have struggled enormously to attract crew. By the second week I found myself regularly in the production office, gradually taking over scheduling and sometimes attempting to AD the shoot. Lately I’ve been cutting sizzle reels and teaser trailers to help Kate and Michelle sell the project to potential sponsors. It’s a far cry from the promises I made myself earlier this year not to do unpaid work any more, not to edit any more and not to work on anything where I don’t get a proper bed. But somehow Ren has gone beyond being a job, even beyond being an unpaid collaborative project. It’s my life now, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. So roll on Monday and the next day of adventure on this crazy, beautiful thing we call Ren: Season One.

Ode to Ren

Lighting Techniques #4: Health Bounce

This is a really simple technique but incredibly effective. All you do is put a reflector or a piece of polyboard under the talent’s face. Here’s an example frame from Ren starring Sophie Skelton. This was shot on an overcast day using a 2.5K HMI as backlight.

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Sophie is very beautiful and the make-up (by Becca Youngs) is great, but the icing on the cake is a simple piece of polyboard out of the bottom of frame. It subtly lifts the shadows on her face and puts a ‘sparkle’ in her eye. That sparkle is actually the poly’s reflection, but it’s amazing how much life and energy that gives. I’m calling this technique the Health Bounce because it’s used a lot in ads for health and beauty products.

Here’s a side-by-side comparison without (left) and with (right) the poly.

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The human brow has evolved to protect our eyes from sunlight, amongst other things. In an exterior scene, particularly on an overcast day, the light comes predominantly from above, rendering the forehead and the nose the brightest areas, and throwing the eye sockets into shadow. This is a challenge for cinematographers. So much of an actor’s performance is in the eyes – it’s essential to get light into the eye sockets to capture every nuance of that performance. A bounce board underneath the face helps do that.

Colin Smith holds the polyboard for the above shot of Sophie
Colin Smith holds the polyboard for the above shot of Sophie

Lighting Techniques #4: Health Bounce

Ren: Night for Day

The 2.5K HMI can be seen here in the lower right, and the fake sky on the top right.
The 2.5K HMI can be seen here in the lower right, and the fake sky on the top right.

It had to happen sooner or later. On an ambitious series like Ren, with a tight schedule, it was inevitable that we would at some point have to shoot a daylight shot after dark. So I’d given it some thought beforehand. It seemed to me like soft toplight, simulating sky, was what was needed. I figured that a 2.5K HMI fired into an overhead 6×6 silk would do the job, and that’s one of the reasons I pushed production to hire a 2.5 despite the very limited budget.

The moment came yesterday when we got into a time crunch with one of our lead actors (Duran Fulton Brown) and had to complete a scene despite the natural light running out. Fortunately the scene was scripted as evening and we had shot coverage at magic hour and in twilight with an HMI “sunset”. So we weren’t trying to match full-on daytime.

Colin (left) helps hold up the roof. Rich (right) does not. Duran Fulton Brown (centre) plays Hunter.
Colin (left) helps hold up the roof. Rich (right) does not. Duran Fulton Brown (centre) plays Hunter.

We used a redhead for the direct “setting sun” light. We had a silk but no sturdy stands to rig it on, so we built a quick roof out of poly and Celotex (matte silver bounce), holding it up with lightweight stands and crew members! We put the 2.5K on the floor in the corner and fired it into this ceiling. The final touch was to fire an LED panel at the back wall to fill in the black shadows that the redhead was casting.

Check out the final shot below. It looks a lot less convincing to me now than it did at the time, but I believe the concept was sound. We just needed more stands to rig the poly at a better angle to get the maximum bounce, including some behind Duran to give a general “sky” backlight. Lessons learnt for the next time!

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Ren: Night for Day

Ren: Shooting the Exterior Set

Here’s a little video blog about the challenges of shooting on the amazing medieval village set that Chris Dane and others have built for Ren.

I’ve been using the Artemis app a lot to test out lens choices and compositions for “seeing off the set” issues. That way if I’m set up for a shot and we’re waiting on costume or an actor, I can preview the next shot on Artemis and warn Chris that he’ll need to move a wall to hide the car park.

More soon from the set of Ren.

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Ren: Shooting the Exterior Set