The Second Shepherds’ Play, the medieval comedy which I lensed last week, had several scenes in “the Mak Shack”, the grotty home of the antagonists. The set posed an interesting problem in that – apart from the door, which wouldn’t always be open – it contained no light sources. No windows, no lamps, no candles. Given the wordy script and the tight schedule, I needed to light it in a way that would not need tweaking between set-ups, and which would work for one particular scene that director Doug Morse wanted to film as a single developing shot showing about 180º of the set.
One option would have been to posit a window in the off-screen 180º, but that would have resulted in very flat illumination, all lit from the front like a photo taken with flash.
I wanted to create a cross-backlighting set-up (Lighting Technique #2), but it was impossible to hang lamps above the rear of the set without damaging the location’s brickwork. So instead I had Colin rig two pieces of Celotex (matte silver bounce board) above the back two corners. Into these I fired Source Fours, peeking over the front walls of the set. These lamps, designed for theatre use, are relatively cheap to hire and have lenses and cutters which provide a great deal of control over where the light does and doesn’t go, meaning you can ensure it all goes onto a bounce board and nowhere else. Using Source Fours as sources for bounced light is a tip I picked up from David Vollrath‘s talk in the Big League Cine Summit in January.
This set-up enabled me to execute the 180º handheld shot without casting any shadows myself, and without the actors casting hard shadows (which would have been inappropriate for a period piece), while still primarily lighting the downsides of their faces to give depth and shape to the image. It also provided backlight to ensure the actors stood out.
I’ll leave you with some frame grabs (courtesy of Grandfather Films) and a floor plan of the set-up. Visit Grandfather Films on Facebook for more on the Shepherds’ Play.
As a cinematographer, it can often be tempting to make your shots look as slick and beautiful as possible. But that’s not always right for the story. And sometimes it can leave you nowhere to go.
Currently I’m shooting The Second Shepherds’ Play, a medieval comedy adaptation, for director Douglas Morse. The story starts in the mud and drizzle of three shepherds’ daily drudge, and in a Python-esque twist ends up in the nativity. The titular trio develop from a base, selfish, almost animalistic state to something much more divine.
So, much as my instincts filming the opening scenes yesterday were to have a shallow depth of field and bounce boards everywhere to put a sparkle in the shepherds’ eyes, this wouldn’t have been right for this stage of the film. We had to have somewhere to go, so I shot at around f9 all day with unmodified natural, overcast light. As we get towards the end of the story – we’re shooting roughly in story order – I’ll start to use eyelight and more sculpted illumination and reduce the depth of field, as well as switching from handheld to sticks.
Similarly, grading episode one of Ren the other day, it was important to keep things bright and cheerful, so that later episodes could be colder and darker by comparison when things go wrong for our heroes. And playing the long game, I lit Ren herself with soft, shadowless light for most of the first season, so that as she develops from innocence to more of an action heroine in later seasons, her lighting can get harder and moodier.
Like all heads of department on a production, DPs are storytellers, and it all comes down to doing what’s right for the story, and what’s right for that moment in the story.