The Art of Single Source Lighting

Can a scene be lit with just one lamp? It certainly can, and in fact some of cinema’s most stunning and iconic images have been achieved this way. A single source image can be realistic or stylised, flattering or scary, but is almost always arresting. Even if you decide the look of a single source is too extreme, and add more lamps, building the lighting around that one key source can still be a very useful approach.

Let’s consider some of the ways in which a single source can be used.

 

Front Light

Front light is not very common in cinematography because – and this will be especially true without any other sources – it produces a flat image. Often we think of front light as being devoid of depth, though in fact it does reveal depth because things closer to the camera (and therefore also closer to the light) are brighter, while distant backgrounds are darker. An example is the sequence from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in which the frontal spotlight and the resultant dark surroundings represent the protagonist’s memories being erased.

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” – DP: Ellen Kuras ASC
“Out of the Past” – DP: Nicholas Musuraca ASC. This one’s a bit of a cheat because there appears to be a second light on the background.

More common is three-quarter front light, which gives some modelling on the face, and is consequently seen a lot in portraiture, both modern and classical.

Photo by Shane Francescut, www.theweeklyminute.wordpress.com
“Portrait of Doge Leornardo Loredan” – Giovanni Bellini (1501)

 

Side Light

Light from the side can be the most informative, revealing shape, texture and detail. As a single source, it produces incredible chiaroscuro – contrast between light and shade. This shot from the The Godfather is a great example.

“The Godfather” – DP: Gordon Willis ASC

Here is a more complex example from classical art. I saw this painting at the Guildhall recently and it inspired me to write this post. I love the way that the soft light comes in through an unseen doorway to the right, illuminating the wall and modelling each of the people differently according to the angle it reaches them at.

“The Reading of the Bible by the Rabbis” – Jean Jules Antoine Lecomte du Noüy (1882)

 

Toplight

Perhaps the most famous use of toplight is in The Godfather‘s opening scene, where the characters’ eye sockets are rendered black and hollow by the steep angle of the single source.

“The Godfather” – DP: Gordon Willis ASC

A ceiling lamp hanging over a table is one of the most frequently seen examples of single source top-lighting.

“Mud” – DP: Adam Stone

Often the table or things on it – papers, white tablecloths – will reflect back some of the toplight, filling in the shadows. Film Riot investigates the many variations of this set-up in their episode on single source lighting.

 

Backlight

There are many examples of scenes lit only from the back. It’s a beautiful look, creating mood and mystery, revealing form without details, reducing people to simulacra. The optional addition of smoke helps the light to wrap a little and lift the shadows.

“Blade Runner” – DP: Jordan Cronenweth ASC
“Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince” – DP: Bruno Delbonnel AFC, ASC
“The Man from London” – DP: Fred Kelemen
“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” – DP: Roger Deakins CBE, ASC, BSC
“The Social Network” – DP: Jeff Cronenweth ASC

It’s not uncommon for a DP to begin lighting by setting a backlight to give form and depth to the scene, then seeing if and where other sources are necessary, to illuminate faces and other important details.

 

OMNIDIRECTIONAL

Most film fixtures shed their illumination in broadly one direction, but of course most light sources in day-to-day life aren’t that discriminating, throwing rays all around them. In the form of practicals, such omnidirectional lights can create very interesting images, particularly when they are handheld.

“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” – DP: Roger Deakins CBE, ASC, BSC

When people are grouped around an omnidirectional source, each one is modelled differently. Characters in the foreground, between the lamp and the camera, become silhouettes, while those to the sides are rendered in chiaroscuro, and those in the background are lit frontally. This creates a wonderful feeling of dark-to-light/near-to-far depth and dimensionality. 17th century Dutch masters like Gerrit Dou and Gerard van Honthorst painted such effects beautifully.

“The Match-maker” – Gerard van Honthorst (1625)
“The Denial of St Peter” – Gerard van Honthorst (circa 1618-1620)

Having recently re-equipped myself with a 35mm SLR, I’m planning a photography project inspired by some of these candlelit scenes. Watch this space!

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The Art of Single Source Lighting

Lighting with LED Screens

Gravity’s LED light box

LED lighting has found its way onto most sets now, but there is another off-shoot of LED technology which I see cropping up more and more in American Cinematographer articles. Sometimes it’s lighting, sometimes it’s a special effect, and often it’s both. I’m talking about LED screens: huge LED panels that, rather than emitting solid, constant light, display a moving image like a giant monitor.

I touched on LED Screens in my article about shooting on moving trains, and moving backgrounds do seem to be one of the most common uses for these screens. House of Cards has been in the news this week for all the wrong reasons, but it remains a useful example here. Production designer Steve Arnold describes the use of LED screens for car scenes in the political drama:

We had a camera crew go to Washington, D.C. to drive around and shoot plates for what you see outside when you’re driving. And that is fed into the LED screens above the car. So as the scene is progressing, the LED screens are synched up to emit interactive light to match the light conditions you see in the scenery you’re driving past (that will be added in post). All the reflections on the car windows, the window frames and door jambs is being shot while we’re shooting the actors in the car. Then in post the green screens are replaced with the synced up driving plates, and it works really well. It gives you the sense of light passing over the actors’ faces, matching the lighting that is in the image of the plate.

The green-screen stage used for a car scenes on House of Cards, complete with LED screens for interactive lighting.

This appears to be the go-to method for shooting car scenes now, and more exotic forms of transport are using the technique as well. Rogue One employed “a massive array of WinVision Air 9mm LED panels” to create “an interactive hyperspace lighting effect” (American Cinematographer, February 2017).

The hyperspace VFX is displayed on a huge LED screen on the set of Rogue One.

Production designer Doug Chiang comments on the use of LED screens in the Death Star command centre:

We wanted to see things on the viewscreen where traditionally it would have been a giant bluescreen; we wanted the interactive reflective quality of what you would actually see. Even though we ultimately had to replace some of those images with higher-fidelity images in postproduction, they were enough to give a sense that the quality of light on the actors and the reflections on the set looked and felt very real.

One of the first major uses of LED screens for lighting was in the seminal stranded-in-space thriller Gravity. Concerned about blending the actors convincingly with the CGI backgrounds, DP Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC came up with a solution that was, at the time, cutting-edge: “I had the idea to build a set out of LED panels and to light the actors’ faces inside it with the previs animation.” (AC, November 2013)

Gravity also featured a scene in which Sandra Bullock’s character puts out a fire, and here once again LED panels provided interactive light. This is a technique that has since been used on several other films to simulate off-camera fires, including Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, and the true story of the BP oil rig disaster, Deepwater Horizon.

An LED screen in use on Dunkirk

Traditionally, fire has been simulated with tungsten sources, often Maxibrutes, but on Deepwater Horizon these were relegated to background action, while foregrounds were keyed by a huge 42’x24′ video wall made up of 252 LED panels.  DP Enrqiue Chediak, ASC had this to say (in AC, October 2016):

Fire caused by burning oil is very red and has deep blacks. You cannot get that with the substance that the special effects crews use – all those propane fires are yellow. Oil fire has a very specific quality, and I wanted to reach that. It was important to feel the sense of hell.

By playing back footage of real oil fires on the video wall, Chediak was able to get the realistic colour of lighting he wanted, while retaining authentic dynamics.

The giant LED wall on Deepwater Horizon

This technique isn’t necessarily confined to big-budget productions. In theory you could create interactive lighting with an iPad. For example, a tight shot of an actor supposedly warming themselves by a fireplace; if you could get the iPad close enough, playing a video of flames, I imagine the result would be quite convincing. Has anyone out there tried something like this? Let me know if you have!

I’ll leave you with a music video I shot a few years back (more info here), featuring custom-built LED panels in the background.

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Lighting with LED Screens

5 Lighting Modifiers You Can Put on Windows

Lighting through windows is the cornerstone of a DP’s day interior work. I’ve previously written about the various ways that hard light through a window can be used. Today I’m going to look at some examples of how dressing on the windows – anything from curtains to paint or newspaper – can create interesting lighting looks and help you tell the story.

Please note: there are some minor spoilers in this post, and a quite big one for the season two finale of Mr Robot.

 

1. PAINTS AND STAINS

Director Michael Bay and DP John Schwartzman, ASC recycled many techniques they had used on commercials when they shot Armaggeddon. One of these was to create coloured light, not by arbitrarily gelling lamps, but by having the art department paint the windows. In an early scene on the oil rig, the windows are yellowed to give a warm feel to a romantic scene between AJ and Grace, contrasting with the cool, monochromatic look of the asteroid later on in the film. “The windows here are like a Filon fibreglass that we then threw some orange asphaltum stain on to give it that warm tone,” Schwartzman explains in the commentary.

 

2.NEWSPAPER

During the first season of time travel thriller 12 Monkeys, our heroes James Cole and Dr Cassandra Railly base themselves out of a disused shop. It’s a safe place they retreat to when they need to plan or regroup, and a womb-like feeling of warmth and security is created visually by the orange newspaper covering the shop’s front windows.

The season two finale of Mr Robot uses a similar technique to a very different end. Gaps in the paper here allow violent shafts of light to pierce the room, foreshadowing the bullet which is about to pierce Elliot’s body.

 

3. Blinds

When I lensed the race drama Exile Incessant in 2015, director James Reynolds wanted to visually represent the ideological differences between the older and younger South Africans. I decided to bathe the progressive youngsters in soft, low-contrast light, while throwing hard light and deep shadows onto the more narrow-minded adults, whose world is black and white in more ways than one. For the hospital scene pictured below, I adjusted the venetian blinds – with a 2.5K HMI behind them – to give a contrasty pattern of light and shade on the old man.

Lighting through blinds is of course a famous feature of film noir cinematography, and has found its way into countless movies of all genres over the last several decades.

He Walked by Night (1948, dir. Alfred L. Werker)

 

4. Diffusing curtains

Placing sheer curtains on a window can solve two problems for filmmakers: disguising an unwanted or non-existent (if on stage) background, and softening the light. This is a widely-used technique; in fact it’s common practice for art departments to consult with DPs about curtains to ensure that the right options are available for the style of lighting that will be employed.

In an episode of my YouTube series Lighting I Like, I discussed a scene from The Crown – Netflix’s dramatisation of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign – in which King George VI is found dead. Unlike many daylight interiors in the series which feature hard shafts of sunlight, the scene in question employed net curtains to create a softer, more subdued light, appropriate to the sombre content.

 

5. Billowing curtains

The season two Breaking Bad episode “Grilled” sees out-of-their-depth crystal meth cooks Walter White and Jesse Pinkman taken hostage by crazy drug lord Tuco Salamanca. Realising that their only hope of escape lies in killing Tuco, Walter and Jesse plot to poison his burrito. The episode bristles with tension, generated not just through the script and performances, but also by flapping curtains which paint the scene with restless shadows. The scene appears to have been shot on location, so whether the wind was artificial or just a happy accident I don’t know, but either way it adds immeasurably to the atmosphere.

Both Breaking Bad and 12 Monkeys feature in the second season of Lighting I Like – coming soon!

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5 Lighting Modifiers You Can Put on Windows

5 Tips for Working with Practicals

As the sensitivity and dynamic range of cameras has increased, practicals have become a more and more important and popular tool in the cinematographer’s arsenal. A practical is any light source that appears in the frame. It could be a fluorescent strip-light, a table lamp, car headlights, candles, a fireplace, an iPad, fairy lights, street lamps, a torch, a security light… any light that could be realistically found in the place where your scene is set.

Here are five pieces of advice I’ve put together from my own experiences working with practical lights.

 

1. Liaise continually with the director and art department.

Production Designer Stuart Craig and Cinematographer Slawomir Idziak PSC confer on the set of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Although the bulb, wiring and power supply are the responsibility of the lighting department, the fixture itself falls under the purview of the art department. A good production designer will be thinking of light sources from the very beginning of their set design process. This is the start of a conversation which will continue throughout preproduction, as you the DP ask for fixtures in certain positions to make the set and actors look good, and the designer either says yes or asks for compromises so as not to ruin the aesthetics or believability (or budget!) of their design. The places a DP wants light sources in order to get the best modelling of the talent are often not the places a real human being would choose to install a light source in their home/office/dungeon etc. Some designers will demand realism and fight you on these decisions; others are open to artistic license. Either way, you must respect the symbiotic relationship between your two departments and do your best to reach a solution that works for both of you.

Keeping the director in the loop is also very important. When it comes to lighting, practicals are one of the things most likely to cause disagreement between the director and DP. You may have spent an hour lighting the set to be motivated by the candles all around, only for the director to walk onto set and say that they feel it makes no sense within the story for someone to have lit the candles in this scene. At which point, if you can’t change the director’s mind, you will find yourself hastily relighting the set while the 1st AD shakes their head in despair.

 

2. Sometimes it’s as simple as turning it on.

A Serious Man (DP: Roger Deakins CBE, ASC, BSC)

Earlier in my career, whenever I saw a practical, I felt that I had to set up a movie light somewhere out of frame in order to beef up the amount of light apparently coming from that practical. And traditionally, this is indeed the way DPs have worked, because film stocks weren’t sensitive enough to get an acceptable exposure from typical practicals like table lamps. Or it was impossible to find a level for the practical where it was bright enough to expose the talent but dim enough that the lamp itself didn’t read on camera as an ugly, over-exposed white blob.

But today’s digital cameras have a wider dynamic range, making it much easier to expose both the source and the subject acceptably. So ask yourself, do you really need that movie light? Roger Deakins, the world’s most celebrated living cinematographer, says he commonly lights his sets now with predominantly practical sources. Take a look at your scene without any additional lights, and only add extra sources if your practical’s illumination isn’t reaching the distance it needs to.

And practicals don’t even need to light the talent. Sometimes you have a scene perfectly well illuminated with other sources, but turning on a practical in the background just adds the icing on the cake. It may not illuminate anything but a small pool immediately around itself, but that little pool of orange light might add colour contrast, production value and interest. I’ve often seen daylight interior scenes on TV or in movies where bright shafts of “sunlight” are blasting in through a window, and no-one would realistically need to turn an artificial light on, but nonetheless several table lamps are glowing away in the background – because it looks great!

 

3. Always use dimmers.

As I’ve already said, finding that perfect brightness for your practical can be a delicate balancing act, so always have your crew put practicals on dimmers (a.k.a. “squeezers”) to make it easy to find that right level. Besides, practicals often look best with a warmer colour temperature, and you can get that by dimming them down, if they’re tungsten, adding to the cosy feel.

 

4. Keep other sources off the practical.

One of the reasons practicals look good is because they create contrast in the frame: a bright patch spreading out into darkness. If other light is falling on the practical, this effect will be washed out and reduced. If the other source is bright, it may even make the practical look like it’s not switched on. (Just like if you take a torch outside in daylight and turn it on, it doesn’t look like it’s on at all because the sun is so overpowering.)

If possible, other sources should be flagged so that they don’t hit the practical. This is something that an experienced gaffer will often have done as a matter of course.

 

5. Dim the camera side of the practical.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (DP: Roger Deakins CBE, ASC, BSC)

Even with the wide dynamic range of today’s cameras, the flame or bulb of a practical may still look unpleasantly bright on camera. To deal with this, depending on the design of the fixture, you may be able to hide a small piece of ND gel inside it on the camera side. If properly arranged, this will cut the light travelling directly into the camera lens, but not the light shining in other directions and illuminating the talent.

Alternatively, the glass case of a lantern can be sprayed black on the camera side. The paint will not be picked up by the camera because there will still be a lot of light coming through it, but it should cut enough brightness to eliminate lens flare and reduce highlight clipping.

 

I hope these tips are helpful next time you shoot with practicals. Happy lighting, and merry Christmas!

5 Tips for Working with Practicals

5 Ways to Use Hard Light Through a Window

The first step in lighting a daytime interior scene is almost always to blast a light through the window. Sometimes soft light is the right choice for this, but unless you’re on a big production you simply may not have the huge units and generators necessary to bounce light and still have a reasonable amount of it coming through the window. So in low budget land, hard light is usually the way we have to go.

Now, I used to think that this hard window light had to hit the talent’s faces, otherwise what’s the point? But eventually I learnt that there are many things you can do with this light….

 

1. Light the talent directly.

This is what I always used to do. The problem is that the light will be very harsh. If there is a good amount of natural light coming in through the window too, that might soften the look enough. If not, slipping a diffusion frame in front of the light will take the edge off the hardness. And it depends which way the talent is facing. If the hard light is backlighting or edging them, the effect might well be beautiful.

prison2
Ren: The Girl with the Mark, S1 E4, director: Kate Madison, DP: Neil Oseman
Hard side light from an Arri M18 outside the window, combined with a 4x4 kino from a 3/4 angle inside the room
The Gong Fu Connection, director: Ted Duran, DP: Neil Oseman

 

2. Light part of the talent directly.

This is a nice way to get the best of both worlds. You hit their clothes with the hard light, maybe a bit of their chin too; it creates contrast, brings out the texture in the costume, and adds dynamics because as the talent moves, the edge of the hard light will move around on them. To light the parts which the hard source doesn’t hit you can use bounce, or a kinoflo Window Wrap.

ren4-commander-house
Ren: The Girl with the Mark, S1 E4, director: Kate Madison, DP: Neil Oseman
Ren: The Girl with the Mark (Mythica Entertainment, dir. Kate Madison)
Ren: The Girl with the Mark, S1 E2, director: Kate Madison, DP: Neil Oseman

 

3. Light the floor.

Arrange the light so it hits the floor, creating a skip bounce. Unless the floor’s a very dark colour, the light will bounce back up and light your talent softly from below. While some people are afraid of the “monster” look of lighting from below, it can often produce a very beautiful look. It’s well worth exploring. Alternatively, bounce the hard window light off a wall to create a soft side light.

Manure, director: Michael Polish, DP: M. David Mullen
Manure, director: Michael Polish, DP: M. David Mullen
This photo from the set of Above the Clouds (director: Leon Chambers) shows a white sheet which I laid on the floor to skip-bounce the HMI outside the window. Some of its effects can be seen on Rupert's face (right)!
This photo from the set of Above the Clouds (director: Leon Chambers) shows a white sheet which I laid on the floor to skip-bounce the HMI outside the window.

 

4. Light the background.

A hot splash of “sunlight” on the background is a common way to add interest to a wide shot. It can show off the production design and the textures in it, or help frame the talent or separate them from the background.

The Crown, S1 E10 "Gloriana", dir.
The Crown, S1 E10 “Gloriana”, director: Philip Martin, DP: Ole Bratt Birkeland
My Utopia, director: Patrick Moreau, DP: Joyce Tsang
My Utopia, director: Patrick Moreau, DP: Joyce Tsang

 

5. Light nothing.

Sometimes the most effective way to use a shaft of light through a window is simply as background interest. Volumize the light using smoke, and it creates a nice bit of contrast and production value in the scene. Silhouetting characters in front of the beam can be very effective too. 

33_GuardRoomWide1
Ren: The Girl with the Mark, S1 E4, director: Kate Madison, DP: Neil Oseman
Big Sur, director: Michael Polish, DP: M. David Mullen
Big Sur, director: Michael Polish, DP: M. David Mullen

 

Any that I’ve missed? What are your techniques for lighting through windows?

5 Ways to Use Hard Light Through a Window

5 Tips for Shooting Water

As well as the general principles of cinematography like three-point lighting, short key and so on, there are specific principles that apply to certain situations only. Since these situations don’t always come up, it can take a little longer to develop a mental toolkit to get the best out of them. One such situation is shooting water – scenes by riversides, on beaches, beside swimming pools or in bathrooms. What are the tricks you can use to get the most cinematic look?

 

1. Use a circular polarising filter

4952a23d13929fe1903f601843a9ef4d
Without (left) and with (right) a polarising filter

A polarising filter cuts out all light waves except those travelling in a certain plane. Since reflections are usually only in a single plane, by rotating a circular polariser filter until you hit the right angle, you should be able to reduce the reflections you’re seeing. This can have an impact on how water appears on camera. On an overcast day, a CP will allow you to reduce the reflections of the grey sky, making the water look clearer and bluer.

 

2. Get sparkly

All the evidence you need that shooting towards the sun is good.
Shooting towards the sun provides both lovely backlight and sparkles on the river in this shot from Stop/Eject.

Water will always look prettier, particularly large bodies of it, if the sun is sparkling on it. How do you capture this on camera? Use the principle that the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection, the same principle you use when positioning a bounce board. As with all day exteriors, shooting at the correct time of day is critical. You want the sun to bounce off the surface of the water and into your lens, which means being on the opposite side of the water to the sun, with the camera facing the sun. Use a top flag on your matte box (a.k.a. “top chop” or “eyebrow”) to prevent lens flare if you so wish.

img_1527

 

3. Get rippling light

Using a paddling pool and a par can to create a rippling light effect on The Little Mermaid. Note the black fabric as per tip 4 below.
Using a paddling pool and a par can to create a rippling light effect for close-ups on The Little Mermaid.  Note the black fabric as per tip 4 below. At the white end of the paddling pool you can see the stool where the talent sat.

The same principle can be applied to capture rippling light effects on walls, faces, etc. This time you want the sun, or artificial light source, to bounce off the surface of the water and hit your subject. You can suggest an off-camera body of water when there is none by carefully positioning a fish tank, paddling pool or similar in relation to the light and your subject.

 

4. Kill the bottom bounce

img_1529

Beware that not all the light will bounce off the surface of the water. Some will pass through it, bounce off the bottom of the pool and then hit your subject. If the bottom of the pool isn’t a dark colour, this unmoving bounce light will overpower the rippling light coming off the surface. Lay duvetyne or other black fabric on the bottom of the pool so that the only bounce is from the surface.

 

5. Fake it

A grip standing by to fake rippling watery light on The Little Mermaid
Grip Sawyer Oubre standing by to fake rippling watery light on The Little Mermaid

If you need to create a rippling light effect without using water, you can fake it with a sheet of blue gel on a frame in place of the water surface. Wobble the frame slightly (only slightly, or the sound department will start to yell at you) and the gel will ripple in the frame, creating a similar effect to water. Thanks to my key grip on The Little Mermaid, Jason Batey, for introducing me to this technique.

Another way to simulate watery light is to bounce a lamp off silver paper or fabric which is being rippled by a fan. More on this technique here.

What about shooting UNDER water? Just one tip for that: hire an underwater DP.

5 Tips for Shooting Water

5 Tips for Lighting a Green Screen

Green screen work is almost unavoidable for a modern cinematographer. In an age when even the most basic of corporates might use the technique, and big blockbusters might never leave the green screen stage, knowing how to light for it is essential. The following tips apply equally to blue screen work….

IMG_0837 1. Light the screen at key.

Or to put it another way, your screen should not be over- or under-exposed. If you use a light meter, you can hold it at various spots on the screen (taking care not to block any light with your body) and check that the reading always matches what the iris of your lens is set to. If your camera or monitor has a false colours option, you can use this to check the level and consistency of the exposure across the screen.

2. Use soft sources.

Bouncing tungsten lamps off polyboard is a cheap and effective way to spread soft light across a green screen. Typically you will want two sources, one to each side of the screen. They will need to be well flagged so that their light does not spill onto the subject.

On larger budgets, Kinoflo Image 85s or 87s are often used to illuminate green screens. They are 4ft 8-bank units which put out a large amount of soft light. Ask your hire company to supply them with spiked green tubes; designed especially for green screen work, these tubes help to increase the colour saturation of the screen. (Spiked blue tubes are also available.)

3. Control spill.

As far as possible, reflected green light from the screen should not fall on the subject. The main way to ensure this is to put as much distance as possible between the screen and the subject.

I learnt a great tip recently which also helps reduce spill: once the exact camera position is known, bring in 4×4 floppy flags slightly behind the subject, one either side, just out of frame.

IMG_31674. Avoid dark shadows.

Green spill will bleed most easily into the dark areas on your subject, especially if you’re shooting with a wide aperture. Clipped (or ‘crushed’) blacks are particularly undesirable. The solution is to use more fill light, even if this goes against the mood and contrast levels you’re using in non-VFX shots. If you use LUTs, you should consider creating a custom one for green screen work which pushes the contrast further to compensate for this flatter starting point. If not, you will have to work with the colourist in post to ensure that the shadows are restored to their usual levels once the VFX are complete.

5. Add tracking markers.

Camera movement against green screen isn’t the no-no that it used to be, with any VFX team worth their salt being able to deal with handheld shots, pans, tilts and push-ins. If there isn’t a VFX supervisor on set, you can help them out by taping crosses to a few points on the screen. There should always be at least one marker in shot throughout the camera move (more if it’s a multi-axis move), and they shouldn’t stay put behind any tricky edges (e.g. long hair) for long.

5 Tips for Lighting a Green Screen

Poor Man’s Process II

Back in 2013 I wrote a blog about Poor Man’s Process, a low-tech method of faking shots inside a supposedly moving car, using lighting gags and camera movement to sell the illusion. But Poor Man’s Process doesn’t have to be limited to cars.

While gaffering for DP Paul Dudbridge on By Any Name, we had to tackle a nighttime scene in which the hero flees through a forest. Rather than trying to get close-ups with any kind of tracking rig, Paul decided to use a technique apparently favoured on Lost, whereby the actor and camera are stationary, and lights and branches are moved around them to create the impression of movement.

It worked a treat, so when faced with a very similar scene on Ren, I shamelessly ripped Paul off. The actors weren’t sure; they felt pretty silly running on the spot, but we persevered. My lighting set-up used the 2.5K HMI, already rigged for earlier shots, as a side key, and an LED panel as three-quarter backlight. Branches were waved in front of both to throw shadows, and I shook the camera a lot.

Poor Man’s Process was required a second time on the series, in the very last scene, on the very last day of the shoot.

Sophie Skelton (Ren) and Duran Fulton Brown (Hunter) ride Tony the Phony Pony. Photo: Miriam Spring Davies
Sophie Skelton (Ren) and Duran Fulton Brown (Hunter) ride Tony the Phony Pony. Photo: Miriam Spring Davies

By this time we were one big happy family and we were all having far too much fun. Gaffer Squish was singing “One Day More” from Les Miserables, actor Duran was riding Tony The Phony Pony like a rodeo champ, candy was being freely imbibed and marshmallows were being toasted. The Poor Man’s shot seemed more like an extension of us all just larking about than anything else.

Ren and Hunter were required to ride off into the moonlight on a single horse, but the horse in question was quite jumpy and not safe for the actors to ride. Designer Chris and production assistant Claire knocked up the highly impressive phony pony, which was used extensively, but moving it fast enough for the final shot was out of the question.

Claire Finn prepares for some arboreal lighting action. Photos: Miriam Spring Davies
Claire Finn prepares for some arboreal lighting action.

So Tony remained stationary while Claire, her sister Alex and producer Michelle threw dignity to the wind and ran around with bits of trees.

I was using the 2.5K HMI as backlight, and a 1.2K HMI bounced off Celotex as a side key. Claire, I think, was on the 2.5K, jiggling a branch about to create some nice dynamism cutting up the hard backlight. Alex, if I recall rightly, was doing a windmill action with her branch in front of the Celotex. Michelle, meanwhile, stood ready with her branch until director Kate called “Tree!”, at which point Michelle would run past at full pelt and Sophie (Ren) would duck under the branch she was supposedly riding by.

You can see some behind-the-scenes footage in Lensing Ren episode 5.

Aided by smoke, a wind machine and the obligatory camera shake, the whole thing was quite effective. Less so the Epping Forest shots, which didn’t make the final cut. Somehow the running-on-the-spot was never quite convincing. Not enough choppy shadows, maybe?

My last project was a $4 million feature, but even that called for Poor Man’s in one instance. A small train carriage set piece had to appear to be moving as our heroes jumped onto it, so in front of each light we placed a ‘branch-a-loris’, a kind of man-powered windmill made from scaff tube and branches. Again lots of smoke, wind and camera shake were employed to sell the illusion.

I think Poor Man’s Process is one of my favourite techniques. It doesn’t always work, but if there’s enough movement in the camera and the lighting, and it’s cut in with genuine wide shots, it can often be extremely effective.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, please do me a little favour and vote for Ren: The Girl with the Mark in the Melbourne Web Fest Audience Award Poll (find us in the drama section). It only takes a moment!

Poor Man’s Process II

5 Tips for Perfect Shafts of Light

There’s nothing like a good shaft of light to add production value to your cinematography. But you can’t just shine a lamp through a window and expect to get Hollywood shafts. Here are the essential conditions you need:

1. You need focused light, i.e. a lamp with a lens. Source 4s work extremely well. HMI or tungsten fresnels will also do the job, and sometimes Dedos.

A Source 4 and Source 4 Junior firing beams through smoke
A Source 4 and Source 4 Junior firing beams through smoke
A Source 4
Source 4
HMI fresnel
HMI fresnel
Dedo, de-e-edo. Dedo come and me want go home.
Dedo

2. You need a smoke machine or hazer to volumise the light. A cheap one from Maplin will work, but as a general rule the cheaper the machine, the more its output will be wreaths of smoke rather than just thickening up the atmosphere. However, given time to disperse and some vigorous wafting with a flag or the clapperboard, any smoke will work.

ProSound GT-800 fog machine from Maplin
ProSound GT-800 fog machine from Maplin
Phantom Pea Soup hazer
Phantom Pea Soup hazer

3. The smoke/haze needs to be backlit. The closer the light source is to being directly behind the smoke, the more the smoke will show up. So shoot towards windows.

These frames are the start and end positions of a tracking shot from Ren (with a top secret make-up effect!). Note how the shafts of light from the window are much more prominent when the camera is pointed more towards the light source.
These frames are the start and end positions of a tracking shot from Ren (with a top secret make-up effect!). Note how the shafts of light from the window are much more prominent when the camera is pointed more towards the light source.

www.rentheseries.com

4. A dark background will show up the smoke best. If you’re shooting in a house with white walls then you’re probably flogging a dead horse.

The dark prison walls here show up the shaft of light very nicely.
The dark prison walls here show up the shaft of light very nicely.

5. Keep other light sources away from the shaft. Competing lamps can muddy the shaft of light or maybe make it disappear altogether. Often I find that shafts of light work well as background interest, with the actors well in front of it, lit by other sources.

In this set-up for Ballet Pointe Shoes (dir. Gisela Pereira), I'm using the layers of scenery on the stage to separate layers. In the back layer there's a pair of cool, high Source 4s creating the crossed beams, while in the front layer warmer Dedos create shorter shafts of light.
In this set-up for Ballet Pointe Shoes (dir. Gisela Pereira), I’m using the layers of scenery on the stage to separate layers of lighting. In the back layer there’s a pair of cool, high Source 4s creating the crossed beams, while in the front layer warmer Dedos create shorter shafts of light.

Follow all these guidelines and you’ll get lovely shafts of light every time!

5 Tips for Perfect Shafts of Light

Lighting Techniques #7: Gobos and Shadows

Gobos are shapes that you fit onto a lamp in order to break up the light. If you’re using Source 4s you can get gobos especially for the purpose, which slot into the front of the lamp.

Gobos
Gobos
matthews_wood_cucoloris_3
A cucoloris

A cucoloris is a piece of wood or metal with vaguely leaf-life shapes cut into it. You would mount this on a C-stand or clamp of some kind. You can easily make your own cucoloris by punching holes in black-wrap or cardboard.

In fact you can create patterns of light and shadow by placing almost anything in front of a light, varying the distance from the source to make the pattern sharper or softer. Be careful to observe the minimum safe distances printed on the side of the lamphead though, or you might set fire to your shadow-maker.

Here are some examples of breaking up the light that I’ve tried over the years…

On more than one occasion I’ve taped up some of the PVC pipes which my dolly uses as tracks, to create the impression of vertical bars or pillars. In the below example the French windows (when closed) didn’t have enough bits of frame to break up the light sufficiently, so I had my spark tape a pipe to the window…

IMG_2464

I don’t have a picture, but I remember once on a horror feature sticking lots of blobs of gaffer tape to a window.

In this shot from Stop/Eject I blacked out the room’s real window and rigged a fold-up director’s chair in front of a 1K Arrilite to cast a window frame-like shadow…

The bedroom by sunlight

Look for things in the set that you can shine lights through, like this partition window….

Creating interesting shadows by using a partition window at the location.

or a fence…

ss2

or blinds…

IMG_2531

If you want the venetian blinds effect and you don’t have any, stick strips of gaffer tape to the window.

On Ren I built an openable and closable little door (complete with tiny barred window) for light to shine through, since the set didn’t have a door.

image

On the same show, the roof of Karn’s house became a giant gobo for the 2.5K HMI placed above and behind the set, creating these incredible God rays when smoke was added. The roof was made of interlocking branches and had been covered by sheets by the art department – presumably to block light – but I removed the sheets because I wanted this lighting effect…

image

Branches make great gobos. I often sneakily break one off a nearby tree and rig it to a C-stand to cast some summery shadows or break up a moonlight or streetlamp source that’s looking too bright and flat.

IMG_1029-1.JPG

If you’ve missed the other posts in my Lighting Techniques series so far, here are the links:

#1: Three Point Lighting

#2: Cross-backlighting

#3: The Window Wrap

#4: Health Bounce

#5: Smoke

#6: Cross-light

Lighting Techniques #7: Gobos and Shadows