24 Things I Learnt from CineFest

img_1220Last week I was fortunate enough to attend the Bristol International Festival of Cinematography: five days of masterclasses and panel discussions with a range of DPs from Oscar-winners like Chris Menges, ASC, BSC and Billy Williams, BSC, OBE to emerging cinematographers like Rina Yang. It was fascinating to watch the likes of Williams lighting the purpose-built set and explaining his decisions as he went. I learnt a huge amount, so I decided to share some of the opinions and nuggets of wisdom I collected.

  • Everyone agrees that the role of the DP is being diminished. Films are more collaborative than they used to be, often with lots of input from the VFX team right from the start.

Getting Work

  • You have to create your own luck. (Rina Yang)
  • Going to LA parties and schmoozing helps. (Roberto Schaefer, AIC, ASC)
  • Each clip on your showreel should make the viewer feel something. (Matt Gray, BSC)

Prep

  • Director Philippa Lowthorpe and Gray, her DP, spent weeks of prep getting on the same page when they worked together – chatting, exchanging photos, films, and so on.
  • Spend as much time as you can with the director in the early stages of prep, because as you get closer to the shoot they will be too busy with other stuff. (Schaefer)
  • Start with ten ideas about how you want to approach the cinematography of the film. If you hang onto five of them throughout the shoot you’re doing well. (Gray)
  • Hire a gaffer who knows more than you do. (Schaefer)

Equipment

  • On Gandhi, co-cinematographer Billy Williams, BSC, OBE was granted only half of the lighting kit he asked for. That was a $22 million movie which won eight Oscars!
  • Schaefer usually carries a 24’x30′ mirror in his kit, in case he needs to get an angle from somewhere where the camera won’t fit.
  • Schaefer doesn’t used OLED monitors to light from, because the blacks are richer than they will ever be seen by an audience on any other device, including in a cinema. He won’t judge the lighting by the EVF either, only a monitor calibrated by the DIT.
  • Focus drop-off is faster on digital than on film. Hence the current popularity of Cooke lenses, which soften the drop-off.
  • Nic Knowland, BSC uses a DSLR as a viewfinder to pick his shots. He also likes to record takes on his Convergent monitor so he can review them quickly for lighting issues.

On Set

  • You have to give the actors freedom, which may mean compromising the cinematography. (Nigel Waters, BSC)
  • Gray would never ask an actor to the find the light. The light needs to find them! As soon as actors are freed from marks, they can truly inhabit the space. [Note: in my experience, some actors absolutely insist on marks. Different strokes for different folks.]
  • On digital, everyone wants to shoot the rehearsal. (Schaefer)
  • Digital encourages more takes, but more takes use up time, drains actors’ energy and creates more work for the editor. Doing fewer takes encourages people to bring their A game to take one. (Williams)
  • Director Philippa Lowthorpe prefers a DP who operates because there is no filter between the ideas you’ve discussed in prep and the operation of the camera.

Lighting

  • Sometimes when you start lighting a set, you don’t where you’re going with it. You build a look, stroke by stroke, and see where it takes you. (Knowland)
  • Williams advocates maintaining the same stop throughout a scene, because your eye gets used to judging that exposure.
  • Knowland relies more on false colours on his monitor than on his light meter.
  • Schaefer often foregoes his traditional light and colour meters for an iPad app called Cine Meter III.
  • Knowland will go to 359º on the shutter if he’s struggling for light.
  • It’s worth checking the grade on a cheap monitor or TV. That’s how most people will watch it. (Schaefer)
24 Things I Learnt from CineFest

Know Your Lights: LED

In this final part of the Know Your Lights series, I’m taking a look at some of the LED fixtures currently available.

In this frame from Ren: The Girl with the Mark, Hunter's face is lit by a small LED reporter light hidden behind the bucket to suggest a reflection off the water.
In this frame from Ren: The Girl with the Mark, Hunter’s face is lit by a small LED reporter light hidden behind the bucket to suggest a reflection off the water.

LEDs (light emitting diodes) generate light through electroluminescence. When a controlled direct current is applied to the electrodes, electrons in the semi-conductor reconfigure, releasing energy as light. LEDs have been around since the early sixties, but for decades they were only capable of emitting a weak red glow, restricting their applications to things like TV standby lights and digital clocks. In recent years the brightness and colour range of LEDs has improved dramatically, making them practical alternatives to traditional light sources.

Compared with those sources – tungsten, HMI and fluorescent –  LEDs are more efficient, lighter, generate less heat, have a longer life, and are less likely to break and less dangerous when they do. They are fully dimmable, without the colour temperature changing, but if you wish, some fixtures allow you to alter the colour temperature with the turn of a knob.

On the down side, LED units are expensive, lack the raw power of large HMI or tungsten fixtures, and can often suffer from poor CRI (colour rendering index – see the overview for more info).

The technology is improving rapidly, and LEDs will only get better over the coming years. For now, many regard them as speciality lights, and they are almost always outnumbered by tungsten, HMI and fluorescent units in a drama lighting package. But some productions have really embraced them, an example being Guardians of the Galaxy, where many of the colourful practicals built into the sets were LEDs. Because they can be squeezed into smaller spaces than any other kind of light, and because you can get around the poor CRI by using coloured lamps, or gelling white ones, LEDs are well suited to creating practical glows from computers, control desks and other technology.

These are just a few of the LED fixtures currently on the market…

 

Panels

LP-1x1 Bi-color LitePanel
LP-1×1 Bi-color LitePanel

1’x1′ LitePanels are perhaps the most common LED unit. These panels have two dials on the back: one for brightness, and one for colour temperature (3200-5600K). They can be run off mains or a V-lock battery, drawing 40W to output about as much light as a 200W HMI.

LP-1x1 LitePanel, set up in seconds on a lintel in a street location in Japan for the sci-fi thriller Synced.
LP-1×1 LitePanel, set up in seconds on a lintel in a street location in Japan for the sci-fi thriller Synced.

I usually ask for a couple of these panels in my package, and they are great for situations like these:

  • As you are about to roll, you spot an area of the frame that needs a little extra splash of light. It is the work of moments to slap a battery on a LitePanel and fly it into shot.
  • A light needs to be situated in a tight space in the set, or in a spot which a power cable couldn’t reach without appearing in frame, or both. The fact that you can just prop these panels up against the set without worrying about them getting hot and damaging something is huge.
  • When required to shoot a night exterior without a generator, LED panels can really help you out. Even if you do have a genny, the ability to set up a source without running power to it is extremely useful. A short film I shot called Forever Alone is a good example.
  • Wrapped in a diffuser like tough-spun or muslin, they make good fill lights or eye lights for day exterior close-ups.
  • They can make good TV sources, particularly if your set-up time is limited. A spark can twiddle the brightness and colour temp dials during takes to simulate changing images on the TV screen.

There are many manufacturers producing panels in 1’x1′ and other sizes, but LitePanels are the best ones I’ve encountered. However, I’ve yet to come across any LED unit with a good enough CRI to use as a key light.

Under the black bag is an LED panel to keep some consistency to the light on the actors as the car moves.
Under the black bag is an LP-1×1 LitePanel to keep some consistency to the light on the actors as the car moves, in this scene from The Gong Fu Connection.
Arri SkyPanel S60-C, the 60cm colour-tuneable model
Arri SkyPanel S60-C, the 60cm colour-tuneable model

A range I haven’t used is the Arri SkyPanels. Designed primarily to be rigged overhead from studio grids, they come in 30, 60 and 120cm lengths. The coolest thing about these units is that you don’t need to gel them; just punch in the Lee or Rosco code of the gel you want to use, and the light instantly changes colour!

Rosco Lite Pads go for a slightly different approach. The LEDs are arranged around the edges of these panels, and bounce off the white backing to produce a soft daylight source. They’re not very bright, and again the CRI is not great, but the range of shapes and sizes they come in mean that you can find one to fit most tricky spaces.

Two 6"x2" Rosco LitePads taped to the dashboard of the picture car in Above the Clouds
Two 3″x12″ Rosco LitePads taped to the dashboard of the picture car in Above the Clouds

I used these a lot on Above the Clouds (check out the blog posts) in many different situations. Two 3″x12″ Lite Pads saw extensive use as fill/eye light, taped to the dashboard of a Fiat 500 in driving scenes. The other standard sizes are  3″x6″, 6″x6″, 6″x12″, 12″x12″ and 3″ circular. The panels themselves are stripped down, so batteries and dimmers can be sited remotely.

Rosco also makes LitePad Vectors, which are more like other brands of LED panel, with on-board dimmers and increased light output, and they can even make custom LitePads.

 

Arri L7-C LED fresnel
Arri L7-C LED fresnel

Fresnels

Several companies make small fresnels which at first glance appear to be HMIs, but are in fact LEDs. LitePanels make the Sola 6C and Sola ENG, equivalent to 200 and 100W HMIs respectively. Arri makes the L5, L7 and L10 units, which are each available in three models with differing brightness and colour-tuneability characteristics. The brightest L10 models are comparable with a 2K tungsten fresnel, while drawing a fifth of the power.

There are budget models out there too, such as the NiceFoto CE-1500Ws, which I used a little on Ren: The Girl with the Mark. As with all budget LED and fluorescent lights, the CRI is very poor, but it was useful when we lacked enough traditional fixtures.

Overall, LED fresnels are currently most relevant in scenarios where power is very limited, or portability and lack of heat is particularly important – in a nutshell, electronic news-gathering (ENG).

 

Ribbons

litegear-vho-pro-120-x2-literibbon-hybrid-2-e1413377188863

One of the most exciting things about LEDs is that because the individual diodes are so small, they don’t necessarily have to be housed in a fixture of any kind. LiteGear, for example, supplies LiteRibbons, which are strips of LEDs “mounted to a white backing material that is flexible, cuttable and adhesive backed”. The possibilities for these ribbons are pretty much endless. Here are some examples:

  • The Enterprise bridge set featured in the last three Star Trek movies has all its control panels lit by LiteRibbons.
  • Mad Max: Fury Road, and many other movies with driving scenes, had strips of LEDs mounted to the ceiling, window frames and pillars of the truck cab to increase the exposure inside.
  • The mini reactor that powers Iron Man’s suit is illuminated by LiteRibbon LEDs.

bh1220_29962_028_resize

 

Conclusion

Some predict that, as LEDs get brighter, cheaper and higher in CRI, they will eventually replace every other kind of lighting. For now though, they’re just another part of the toolkit in which tungsten and HMIs, and to a lesser extent fluorescents, are the go-to tools.

There is a fifth type of lighting that is emerging too: plasma lighting, but it’s so new and so rare at the moment that I don’t feel equipped to write a post about it yet. But you can read about it over on Shane Hurlbut’s blog.

Another great blog to teach you about the many lights out there is Set Lighting, written by experienced Hollywood gaffer Martijn Veltman. His site was really useful when I was researching this series.

Of course, the most important thing is not what lights you have, but how you use them. There are many, many posts here on neiloseman.com to teach you about that. Check out the Lighting Techniques series for some basics, watch my Lensing Ren video series to see how all four types of lighting are used in practice on a real shoot, or simply search the tag ‘lighting’ for a wealth of material.

Happy lighting!

Know Your Lights: LED

Know Your Lights: Fluorescent

Unusually being used as practicals, in a music promo, are a 2'x4 Kino Flo (foreground, with 3200K tubes) and a Kino Flo Diva Lite (top left, with 5500K tubes).
Unusually being used as practicals, in a music promo, are a 2’x4 Kino Flo (foreground, with 3200K tubes) and a Kino Flo Diva-Lite (top left, with 5500K tubes).

Tungsten and/or HMI lamps are usually the workhorse units of a lighting package, providing the power that is needed to key-light all but the smallest of set-ups. But they’re not right for every situation. If you don’t need the punch of a point source, and you want something a little softer, fluorescents might be the answer.

This is the third category of lighting units I’m covering in my Know Your Lights series; back up to the overview if you want to start from the beginning.

Fluorescent units use very similar technology to HMIs, with electrodes exciting a gas so that it gives off UV light. The phosphor coating on the tube absorbs the UV light and fluoresces, i.e. re-emits the light in the visible spectrum. Like HMIs, fluorescent units require a ballast to regulate the current.

One of the most notable early uses of fluorescents was in Robocop (1987). Jost Vocano, ASC chose the fixtures because the long, thin reflections looked great on Robocop’s suit. The flip side of that coin is that under certain circumstances fluorescents can make actors’ skin unpleasantly shiny. There was a scene in Ren: The Girl with the Mark where the poor make-up artist had to cake layers of powder onto Sophie Skelton to combat the shine of a Kino Flo I had set up.

Robocop (1987, dir. Paul Verhoeven) - note the fluorescent strips reflected in the suit.
Robocop (1987, dir. Paul Verhoeven) – note the fluorescent strips reflected in the suit.

One way I often use fluorescents is as a “Window Wrap”, a soft source that augments a hard HMI coming in through a window to wrap the light more pleasingly around the talent’s face. Or I’ll place a fluorescent outside the room, to represent or enhance indirect daylight spilling through a doorway.

Being soft sources, the light rays which fluorescents emit spread out widely, meaning the intensity drops off quickly as you move away from the lamp. (We refer to this as “throw”: fluorescents have little throw, whereas spotlights have a lot of throw.) For this reason they start to become pretty ineffective once you get more than about 6ft away from them, depending on the model.

Kino Flo is far and away the most common brand of fluorescent lighting used in the film and TV industry today, so apologies if the rest of this post reads a little like an advert for them. They’re not paying me, honestly!

The company was started by gaffer Frieder Hochheim and best boy Gary Swink after inventing the units for the 1987 comedy-drama Barfly (DP: Robby Müller, BVK). They required a fixture small enough to tuck into little alcoves in a bar location, without getting hot and causing damage.

Kino Flos come in two different kinds:

 

4'x4 Kino Flo with remote ballast leaning against the base of the C-stand
4’x4 Kino Flo with remote ballast leaning against the base of the C-stand
4-bank Kino Flo ballast
4-bank Kino Flo ballast

Remote Ballast

With these units, the lighting fixture is separate to the ballast, and they are connected by a header cable, just like HMIs. Remote units are usually referred to by two numbers, the first representing the length of the tubes in feet, and the second representing the number of tubes. So a unit with two tubes, four feet in length, is called a “4ft 2-bank”, often written as: 4’x2 (pronounced “four by two”).

The most common units are 2’x4 (a.k.a. “fat boy”), 4’x4 and 4’x2, but others are available, including “Single Flo” units and 6ft/8ft “Mega” units.

The ballasts allow you to turn individual tubes on and off as required, and also feature a switch marked either Hi/Lo or 4ft/2ft, which reduces the light output by adjusting the current waveform.

 

Kino Flo Tegra
Kino Flo Tegra. You can see the integrated ballast on the back.

Built-in Ballast

As you might expected, these models combine the fixture and ballast into a single unit. They are designed primarily for interview/ENG applications where it is more convenient to have everything in one. On drama productions it is generally preferable to have a remote fixture, which will be lighter, and a header cable running to an easily accessible ballast.

One advantage of built-in models over their remote cousins is that they are smoothly dimmable down to 5%.

Built-in units are known by names rather than numbers: “Diva-Lite” (2’x4), “Tegra” (4’x4) and “BarFly”, which resembles a swollen 1’x1′ LED panel. There is also the large “Image 87”, a 4’x8 fixture with a built-in ballast. It’s great for lighting green and blue screens because it puts out so much soft light.

Kino Flo Image 87 with a silver egg crate fitted
Kino Flo Image 87 with a silver egg crate fitted
Top to bottom:
Top to bottom: 2900K, 3200K and 5500K tubes

Kino Flo tubes are available in five colours:

  • KF55 – 5500K – i.e. daylight – identified by blue end caps on the tubes
  • KF32 – 3200K – standard tungsten – gold end caps
  • KF29 – 2900K – warm tungsten – red end caps
  • 420nm blue – an extra-saturated blue for lighting blue screens
  • 525nm green – for lighting green screens

Kino Flos often come with plastic grids known as “egg crates” or “louvres”. Their purpose is to make the light more directional, effectively polarising it on a macro scale. They come in black, silver and “honeycomb” varieties, the latter available in 45º, 60º and 90º angles so you can choose how directional the light becomes – and, as a side effect, how much intensity you lose.

It is possible to remove the tubes and wiring from a Kino Flo housing so that the lamps can be squeezed into a tight space. For example, on The Little Mermaid we needed to see a soft blue glow emanating from a small translucent compartment in an organ. Best boy “Captain” Dan Xeller removed a 2ft Kino tube from its housing and placed it inside the compartment, running the wires out the back to the ballast.

Pampa Light in action behind the scenes of Ren: The Girl with the Mark. You can see I've gelled it with Quarter Minus Green in an attempt to correct the CRI.
Pampa Light in action behind the scenes of Ren: The Girl with the Mark. You can see I’ve gelled it with Quarter Minus Green in an attempt to correct the CRI.

Other than Kino Flo, another brand of fluorescent lights you may come across is Pampa Lights. They come in rugged boxes which can be interlinked to create larger banks of illumination. Unfortunately, in my experience the CRI (see overview) is not good, and they are best avoided.

The same goes even more so for the many fluorescent softbox kits available on Ebay from Hong Kong sellers. Not only are they flimsy in construction and questionable in terms of electrical safety, but the CRI of the lamps is very, very poor. If you need a cheap soft source, you would be much better off bouncing a halogen work light off a white card.

Indeed, firing an incandescent source into a bounce board will give you a better quality of light than even a Kino Flo. But a fluorescent fixture won’t make the room unbearably warm, it can emit daylight-balanced light, and it’s quicker to set up than a bounce board and the attendant flags. In a nutshell, it’s more convenient.

Next week, the Know Your Lights series concludes with a look at the fast-evolving world of LED illumination.

Know Your Lights: Fluorescent

Know Your Lights: HMIs

18K bubble for an Arrimax 12/18
18K bubble for an Arrimax 18/12

Following on from last week’s look at tungsten units, today we focus on HMI lighting. HMIs are more complex technology than tungsten, meaning they are far more expensive, and more prone to problems, particularly if you get a deal from a hire company and they give you older units. But they are bright and relatively efficient and because of this, and their colour temperature of 5,600K, they are by far the most popular type of light used in today’s film and TV industry when battling or mixing with natural daylight.

HMIs (hydragyrum medium-arc iodide) operate by creating an arc between two electrodes. This arc excites a gas which produces the light. In order to ignite the arc, a ballast is required. This device also regulates the current, while a special header cable connects the ballast to the light.

Arri_540817_Ballast_Electronic_2500_4000_Watts_1317042538000_325678
Arri electronic ballast for 2.5K and 4K HMIs

Ballasts come in two types: electronic and magnetic. Magnetic ballasts are cheaper, but if you are shooting at a shutter interval out of sync with the cycling of your power supply – e.g. 1/48th of a second with a 50Hz UK power supply – the HMI will appear to flicker on camera. Electronic ballasts have a ‘flicker free mode’ which converts the sine wave of the power supply into a square wave so that the arc does not extinguish at any point in the cycle. A side effect of this is that the head and/or ballast can produce humming, buzzing or squealing noises. Therefore many electronic ballasts have a ‘silent mode’ which reduces the noise but only prevents flicker at standard frame rates, not for high-speed work. In practice, flicker is rarely a problem as the shutter angles of today’s digital cameras can easily be tweaked to deal with it at common frame rates.

Adjusting an Arri Daylight Compact 1200 (a 1.2K MSR) on the set of Ashes. Photo: Sophie Black
Adjusting an Arri Daylight Compact 1.2K HMI fresnel

Like tungsten units, HMIs are available in open face, par and fresnel varieties, though the open face models are not very common. Arri, the major manufacturers of HMIs, call their daylight par fixtures ‘Arrisun’. Other HMI brands include Film Gear, Silver Bullet and K5600, which makes Jokers (see below).

Measured by their wattage, standard HMIs sizes are: 200W, 575W, 1.2K, 2.5K, 4K, 6K, 12K, 18K.

The smaller models, up to 2.5K, are fairly common on no-budget sets, because they can run off a domestic power supply and so don’t require a generator. At the other end of the scale, 18Ks are standard for daylight exterior and interior work on medium budgets and above.

Because of their power, HMIs often play a key part in night exterior lighting too. A 12K or 18K on a condor crane may be used to simulate the moon, while other HMI units, perhaps bounced or coming through a frame, might serve as sidelight or fill. By choosing to shoot at 3,200K, you automatically turn these HMI sources blue, often a desirable look for nighttime work.

Two 18K Silver Bullet HMI fresnels rigged to a condor crane to provide moonlight for a night exterior on The Little Mermaid
Two 18K Silver Bullet HMI fresnels rigged to a condor crane to provide moonlight for a night exterior on The Little Mermaid

There are many variants on the standard HMIs. Here are some of the more common ones.

Arrilux 125W Pocket Par
Arrilux 125W Pocket Par

Pocket pars are little 125W daylight pars that can be run off batteries. Before the days of LED panels, I used one of these for eye-light on a short film set in a forest in daylight. They can also make a good TV gag when bounced off a wobbling silver reflector.

K5600 Joker Bug 800W
K5600 Joker Bug 800W

Jokers are small units that come in 400W and 800W models. They can be reconfigured in various ways and even slotted into Source 4 housings (see last week’s tungsten post) to convert these units to daylight. We used a 400W joker a couple of times on Heretiks, when there was little space to rig in but we needed a fair bit of punch – like daylight through a small window.

Arrimax M18
Arrimax M18

The Arrimax range uses a hybrid of par and fresnel technology. They are lighter and more efficient than standard HMIs – the 800W model puts out almost as much light as an ordinary 1.2K, for example – but they’re more expensive to hire and don’t create the nice shafts of light that some DPs like (ahem). The model numbers are the wattage in tenths of a kilowatt: M8 (800W), M18 (1.8K), M40 (4K), M90 (9K) and the anomalously-named Arrimax 18/12 which accepts both 12K and 18K bubbles.

Airstar helium balloons in action
Airstar helium balloons in action

Helium Balloons are designed to provide a soft overhead illumination for night exteriors or high-ceilinged interiors. They come in a range of shapes and sizes, and aren’t necessarily HMIs; they can be fitted with tungsten lamps, or a combination of both.

Again, please let me know on Facebook or Twitter if I’ve missed out any of your favourite units. Next week: fluorescents.

Know Your Lights: HMIs

Above the Clouds: Week 1

Principal photography has begun on my latest feature, Above the Clouds, a comedy road movie written by Simon Lord and directed by Leon Chambers. The film stars Naomi Morris as Charlie, an 18-year-old learner driver who sets off on an epic road trip from Margate to Skye with a ‘gentleman of no fixed abode’ as her responsible adult.

imageDay 1 / Monday

It’s a very different shoot to my last one. With a five figure budget and a total crew of about ten or twelve, we’re lean and mean. About a quarter of that crew are working for me – 1st AC Rupert Peddle and 2nd AC Max Quinton, veterans of Heretiks, and my long-serving one-man lighting team, Colin Smith. We’re shooting on an Alexa Mini. Although it’s lovely how much lighter it is than the full-size model, it’s quite fiddly. It doesn’t help that the EVF is faulty, and while we wait for a replacement Max has to change many of the settings via a smartphone app. The lenses are Arri/Zeiss Ultra Primes, my first time with these, and I’m once again using a half Soft FX filter to take off the digital edge.

We start with a dining room scene. As many of the sets will be, it’s built in director Leon Chambers’ living room, so it’s not very big. We’re prepared for this though, and Leon has purchased several Rosco Litepads in 6″x2″, 4″x4″ and 12″x12″ sizes. We stick a 4×4 to the wall behind each character as hairlights, and rig the two 6x2s, at a perpendicular angle to each other, to a flag arm. Wrapped in unbleached muslin, they’re a pleasing key.

image

After lunch we move into the shed, dressed as a young artist’s studio, complete with coloured string lights. Colin and I add three tungsten bulbs as additional practicals, plus a couple of the Litepads amongst the rafters. Outside the window we place a 4×4 kino or 2.5K HMI depending on the time of day.

imageDay 2 / Tuesday

Today we’re in Leon’s kitchen primarily, but with several of the scenes spilling into the hall and porch. We put our two HMIs outside the windows and initially use an LED panel on top of a cabinet and my brand new torch gaffered to the side of a cabinet to augment these for a scene that is meant to have an evening feel. Then we move onto a proper daylight scene and those have to go, to ensure all the light seems to be coming in from outside. The other reason they have to go is that we are now doing an ambitious steadicam shot which moves from the kitchen to the hall and porch, then back into the kitchen, then back into the hall and porch as characters exit the house. To the two HMIs we add the 4×4 kinoflo shining down the stairs, augmenting the natural light coming down from the landing windows. Thanks to the Alexa’s large dynamic range, we are able to accomplish the shot without any clipping, even when the door opens and when the characters move through the darkest part of the hall. The rest of the day passes in variations on the theme. I quickly find that the window positions are limiting and a fair bit of head scratching to make the angles work goes on before we wrap.

Day 3 / Wednesday

Back in the kitchen, one of our first scenes involves heavy smoke as a story beat. I decide to go with purely natural light, so that it’s soft enough to illuminate the smoke evenly, rather than producing shafts or pools.

After lunch we shoot a dusk scene in broad (albeit overcast) daylight. I cool down the white balance to 4300K and use a .9 soft edge graduated ND, just edging into frame, to bring down the sky a little.

Later we move to a garage, a scenario in which all the light is coming from outside through the door. Although this looks flat when the camera is looking into the garage, I decide not to fight that. When we look the other way I use matt silver bounce and a 4×4 kino to fill in.

Day 4 / Thursday

image

We’re on location at a roadside cafe, and I agonised long last night about how much lighting gear we should take. We don’t have transpo or security so reducing the kit means a lot less hassle for us all, though generally I prefer to have everything to hand just in case. Ultimately I decided to keep it small – just LEDs, a 4×4 kino and then flags and bounce – knowing from location photos that there will be plenty of natural light.

In fact there’s too much. The photos failed to warn me of the skylights, which take a while to block with floppy flags and Easy Up walls clipped between them. Leon has set me up for success though by choosing to shoot the scene with the windows (and therefore the key light) in the background. Flagging the skylights and ambience allows the window light to wrap around the actors in a pleasing fashion, and makes for great modelling in the close-ups, with the window light hitting the talent’s down-sides. This natural light approach requires you to work with and respond to that natural light as well, and so I embrace the appropriate ‘broken key’ look that the sun position creates on male lead Andrew, a homeless man with a troubled past. (‘Broken key’ is a term Shane Hurlbut uses to describe a key light striking the talent not quite from the side, but slightly behind.)

imageLater we shoot a scene in the Fiat 500 ‘Yellow Peril’ outside in the car park. I use a rota polar to find the perfect amount of reflection in the car windows, striking a balance between seeing some clouds (the film is called Above the Clouds after all) and seeing the characters inside.

Again the 4×4 kino proves the ideal source to bring up the light coming through the windscreen, due to its shape and softness. As shooting progresses, the sky darkens. A storm is coming. We drop the kino down to one tube, quartering the amount of key light and therefore allowing me to turn off the Alexa Mini’s internal .6 ND, bringing up the background by 2 stops and re-balancing the overall exposure. But after one more take the rain begins, and we have to wrap. Fortunately we seem to have everything we need in the can.

Day 5 / Friday

After watching the news in shock over breakfast, and wondering just how badly Brexit is going to screw the UK film and TV industry, we head to Leon’s for some more scenes in his living room studio. This time it’s dressed as a Travel Inn, and my lighting is motivated by the bedside practicals on the back wall. (Lighting from the back first – always a good plan.) We put a dedo above each practical and a divalite between those to give us something softer and little wrappy. The only other sources are a third practical and a Mustard Yellow gelled 1×1 LED panel outside the window, representing a streetlight. For a morning scene in the same set we put a 2.5K HMI outside the window and let the closed curtains diffuse it, with no other sources.

The set is then reconfigured into reception, and I employ a cross-backlighting set-up, with an added LED panel to represent the glow from a computer monitor.

imageDay 6 / Saturday

Today’s location is a tiny little mechanic’s garage in the middle of nowhere. Most of the scenes take place in the doorway, so we are at the mercy of the weather, which is incredibly changeable. Bright sunshine, cloud and heavy showers alternate throughout the day.

On the first set-up I ask to wait for cloud on at least one take because I can see from the sky that is going to be the easiest thing to match to as the day goes on. Balancing the light inside and outside the garage will also be easier in cloud, even though the Alexa’s incredible dynamic range can handle it in bright sun too.

Aside from the weather, the big challenge for me is making the shots looking into the garage have depth. The best depth is normally achieved by having the brightest area of the frame be the background, and the darkest area the foreground. Looking into the garage though, the opposite is true. But there are other ways of creating depth. One is to make pools of light with practicals, so I leave on the location’s suitably grungy fluorescents. Another is smoke, so we pump a little in and use a 2.5K HMI through a window and a 4×4 kino tucked around a corner to pick it up.

image

After dinner we have a very brief night scene to do. The blocking suggests raking the 2.5K across the front of the building which will also three-quarter-backlight the talent. Extensive experience of doing this in the past warns me that the angle of incidence could cause a massive reflection of the lamp in the shiny garage door, so I choose the lamp position carefully, and push it through an 8×8 frame of full silent grid cloth to mitigate any glare. Also this particular film seems to call for a ‘softly, softly’ approach to moonlight. It’s not fantasy, it’s contemporary comedy, so most of the time my night sources will be streetlights to keep it feeling realistic, but when I have to use moonlight as motivation I don’t want it to be hard and draw attention to itself.

The diffusion looks great, and the door is glare free, but I failed to consider the window. Fortunately Rupert spots a way to flag it. Saved by a great team!

All in all, a very productive day and a good week.

Above the Clouds: Week 1

4 Reasons to Use a Light Meter

lightmeterIn the celluloid era, light meters were essential to ensure proper exposure of the film negative. In today’s digital world, where you can immediately see your images on a monitor, it may seem like light meters are obsolete.

But these devices still have their place in modern cinematography. On a bigger production, when you may not be at the camera the whole time, they can be very useful. Interrupting your ACs (as they set up the sticks, swing the lens, put on the eyepiece extension, balance the fluid head, run cables to the monitors, etc.) in order to see if your image is correctly exposed on camera can be inefficient.

And having the reliable, hard number a light meter gives you can be more reassuring than judging false colours or histograms.

Here are four ways in which I used my brand new light meter on my last production, The Little Mermaid:

  1. To call ND filters. When shooting outdoors, I would take light readings in the sun and in the shade, and when then the sun was in, to understand the range of light levels I was dealing with. I could then pick an ND filter that would put me at a stop at where I would still have the room to adjust the iris a little either way if the light got brighter or darker. This was particularly important when we were shooting on water in a splash bag, when changing NDs or even just adjusting the iris was a longer process. (In my next post I’ll look deeper into stop maths and ND filters to demonstrate exactly how to select an ND filter based on a light reading.)
  2. To measure contrast ratios. The Alexa can handle up to seven stops of over-exposure and eight stops of under-exposure. Knowing this, I could use my meter to see if certain areas were going to blow out or crush, before the camera was even set up. I could also measure how many stops the key side of an actor’s face was above the fill side, and thus work out the key-to-fill ratio. At present this is still something I judge by eye on the monitor, but the more I get to know the numbers, the more I suspect I will start determining it in advance.
  3. To check green-screens are properly lit. The visual effects supervisor, Jafar, told me that green-screens should be exposed at key, or up to half a stop over key. So if I was shooting at T4, I would walk along the green-screen and take readings at various points to make sure the meter was generally giving me between f4 and f4½.
  4. To schedule a dusk shot. For a twilight scene on a beach, I needed to know in advance exactly what our window of opportunity was. Looking up the sunset time is all well and good, but it doesn’t help you figure out how long afterwards there will be enough ambient light left to shoot with. So while at location the day before, I went out onto the beach and took light readings every few minutes after sundown. These told me I had 20 minutes from sunset until the ambient light dropped below what the lenses could expose.

Do you use a light meter? And if so, how?

4 Reasons to Use a Light Meter

Lensing Ren – episode 3

It’s the mid-point of season one of Ren: The Girl with the Mark and here’s my video breaking down the cinematography of that third episode. Topics covered this week include grip equipment, aspect ratio, smoke and faking candlelight.

Here is the lighting plan for Ren’s bedroom:

Rens-bedroom-1080p

There is more on simulating firelight in my First Musketeer blog post Candlelight.

For my thoughts on composing for the cinemascope aspect ratio, take a look at 2.39:1 Composition.

Want to know more about smoke? Check out Lighting Techniques #5: Smoke.

Check back next Saturday for another instalment of Lensing Ren, and meanwhile watch the next episode of Ren itself from Tuesday at 8pm GMT at rentheseries.com

Lensing Ren – episode 3

Lensing Ren – episode 2

Here’s my video breaking down the cinematography of episode two of Ren: The Girl with the Mark. This week I discuss lighting Ren’s house, tweaking wide-shot lighting for close-ups, and depth of field.

Here is the lighting plan for Ren’s house:

Rens-house-1080

And here is a video blog from the set of Ren’s house:

Check out the article I wrote during the shoot about lighting Ren and Dagron’s house if you’re still hungry for details.

If you want to know more about using kinoflos as indirect window light, have a look at Lighting Technique #3: The Window Wrap.

Want to know more about Depth of Field? This post will give you the basics.

Check back next Saturday for another instalment of Lensing Ren, and meanwhile watch the next episode of Ren itself from Tuesday at 8pm GMT at rentheseries.com

Lensing Ren – episode 2

Lensing Ren – episode 1

Here is the first in a series of cinematography videos I’m publishing to compliment the five episodes of Ren: The Girl with the Mark as they are released over the coming weeks. These videos will tell you the how, what and why of photographing the show. This week I discuss the camera equipment used, differentiating characters photographically, and lighting Karn’s magical woodland house.

Here is the lighting plan for Karn’s house:

Karns-house-1080p

And here is a video blog from the set of Karn’s house:

You may be interested to read my article on Masculine and Feminine Lighting, which gives some more detail on the techniques used to light Ren and Karn in the riverside scene.

See also: 5 Tips for Perfect Shafts of Light and Lighting Techniques #6: Cross-light.

Check back next Saturday for another instalment of Lensing Ren, and meanwhile watch the next episode of Ren itself from Tuesday at 8pm GMT at rentheseries.com

Lensing Ren – episode 1

Crossing Paths: Daylight Interior

IMG_2653
Col winds up the M18.

The final scene of Crossing Paths to go before the camera was a sombre daylight interior in a bedroom. If you’ve read my last two blog posts you’ll know that backlight is the central pillar of my approach to lighting both day exteriors and night exteriors. Daylight interiors are no different.

For day exteriors your backlight is the sun. For night exteriors it’s usually the moon. For day interiors it’s windows.

On the location recce I’d agreed with director Ben Bloore and production designer Sophie Black that we were going to shoot mostly towards the bedroom’s window. Given that the bed was the focal point of the scene, this decision was also cinematographically sound because it made for the most depth in the image, the window being in a dormer that distanced it from the bed.

To punch up the natural light coming in through the window – which was on the second floor –  I had my crew clamber up on the flat roof of the extension and erect our Arri M18 on a double wind-up stand. Luckily the geography of the room and the blocking permitted the M18’s light to hit Tina’s face as she lay in the bed.

Sophie had dressed a floor lamp in next to the bed, which gave me the perfect motivation to clamp a dedo to the bedframe, uplighting Phil’s face. The cool M18 coming in from the rear right and the warm dedo coming in from the rear left picked out the actors’ profiles nicely, as you can see below. This is a kind of cross-backlight set-up, as explained in Lighting Techniques #2.

Frame grab (C) 2015 B Squared Productions
Frame grab (C) 2015 B Squared Productions
This CU of Tina shows how the M18 coming through the window worked as her key. (C) 2015 B Squared Productions
This CU of Tina shows how the M18 coming through the window worked as her key. (C) 2015 B Squared Productions

Immediately above the camera position there was a skylight with a roller blind. By opening or closing the blind I could effectively increase or decrease the level of fill in the lighting. For most of the scene I chose none. Some would argue that it’s best to add fill and then crush it out in post if you don’t like it, but I like to make decisions on the set wherever possible, to deliver the most cinematic image straight out of the camera.

The Magnum 650, a worthy successor to the classic 550
The Magnum 650, a worthy successor to the classic 550

To soften the scene I pumped in lots of smoke. Col had kindly gifted me a Magnum 650 (to fill the smoke machine void in my life since my Magnum 550 packed up last year) and we let that baby rip in that tiny little room! The smoke helped add to the sense of decay and reacted beautifully to the curtains being opened mid-scene.

That’s all from the set of Crossing Paths. I believe the edit is now underway, and I look forward to seeing how this lovely little short film turns out.

Crossing Paths is a B Squared production (C) 2015. Find out more at facebook.com/Crossing-Paths-Short-Film-697385557065699/timeline/

Crossing Paths: Daylight Interior