“Above the Clouds”: February 2017 Pick-ups

Last weekend saw many of the crew of Above the Clouds reunite to shoot the remaining scenes of this comedy road movie. Principal photography was captured on an Alexa Mini during summer 2016 on location in Kent, on the Isle of Skye, and at Longcross Studio in Buckinghamshire, with additional location shooting on a Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera in October.

The outstanding scenes were to be photographed on stage, at Halliford Studio in Shepperton, this time on an Arri Amira. The Amira uses the same sensor as the Alexas, allowing us to match the look from principal photography in the most cost-effective way. With the addition of a Premium license, the camera is capable of the same ProRes 4444 recording codec as the Alexas too. As per last summer, our glass was a set of Arri/Zeiss Ultra Primes, with a half Soft FX filter to take the digital edge off.

Director Leon Chambers designed and built the set himself, sending me photos of a scale model well in advance. He was also specific about certain lighting cues and states that were required across the two sets and six scenes we would be recording to complete the movie. Based on this information, I concocted a lighting plan, which I communicated to Halliford’s in-house gaffer Micky Reeves by Photoshopping stock images of lamps onto Leon’s set model photos.

Last Saturday was devoted to pre-lighting the sets, mainly the kitchen, while construction work continued on the second set.

 

Day 24 / Sunday

We begin with a morning scene. A 5K fresnel serves as a low sun, streaking across the back wall of the set (see my post about lighting through windows). Even with this direct light four stops over, the natural bounce off the set isn’t enough to bring actor Philip Jackson – with his back to the window – up to key. Micky rigs a Dedo firing into a soft silver bounce just out of frame to solve the problem.

Also coming through the window are two 4×4 kinos, rigged on goalposts above the window. Their daylight tubes reflect off the blinds, serendipitously creating the illusion of a blue sky “outdoors”, where in fact there is only a wall and a white backdrop.

Philip exits into the hallway and disappears from view, supposedly to go out through the front door. No door exists. Instead there is a flag which spark Amir Moulfi rotates in front of a 2K, creating a momentary oblong of light in which Philip’s shadow appears.

The next scene follows on from an exterior captured last October at dusk, when the natural light was soft, flat and cool in colour, cheated even cooler with the white balance. This failing daylight is to be the only source of illumination now in the kitchen set, until Philip enters and turns on the lights. This is the main reason that the daylight 4×4 kinos outside the window were rigged. A third kino from the direction of the front door is added, plus a small LED reporter light to pick an important prop out of the shadows.

Lead actress Naomi Morris enters, silhouetted against the windows. Then Philip enters and hits the lights. Simultaneously, Amir flips a breaker on a lunchbox, activating a hanging practical fixture above the breakfast bar and the 5K which that practical motivates.

Generally I don’t like toplight. It throws the eyes – those windows to the soul… or windows to the performance – into shadow. But with the hanging practical in shot, whatever I was going to use to beef it up had to be somewhat toppy or it wouldn’t make sense. I considered space-lights and Jem balls, but in consultation with Micky I ultimately picked a 5K with a chimera, coming in at a 45 degree back/toplight angle. As you can see from the photos, this looks almost comically large. But large and close means soft, which is what I want. It had to be soft enough to wrap both actors when they faced each other across the bar.

 

But why such a large lamp? Why not use a 2K, like Micky suggested yesterday? Bitter experience has always taught me to go with a bigger unit than you think you need, particularly if you’re softening it, and particularly if it’s going to take a while to rig. (The 5K was hung from another goalposts set-up.) We ended up dimming the 5K to 50% and scrimming it down a stop and a half. But having too much light like that is easy to deal with. If we had put up a 2K and it wasn’t bright enough, we would have to have taken the whole thing down and re-rigged with a 5K. And even if the 2K had seemed sufficient to begin with, blocking can often take actors into unexpected, dark corners of the set. Being able to turn up a dimmer a couple of notches to handle that kind of situation is very useful.

Besides the 5K, there are a few other sources playing: some 300W hairlights, a pup bouncing off the side of a cupboard to bring up the area around the cooker, a China ball in the hallway, and Leon’s Rosco LitePads serving as practical under-cabinet down-lighters.

 

Day 25 / Monday

I probably shouldn’t say what today’s set is, because it’s a little bit of a spoiler. There are some lighting similarities to the kitchen: again we have a character flicking a light switch, bringing on two hanging overhead practicals and a 2K with a chimera to beef them up.

A practical lamp on a desk was supposed to be turned on during the scene as well, but we all forget until it’s too late. It would have bounced off the desk and given Philip a little eye-light, and at first I regret losing this. But soon I realise that it is more appropriate for the scene not to have that level of refinement, for the lighting to be a little raw. The toppy, “broken key” angle of the chimera’s light works well for this tone too.

We wrap just before noon, releasing Naomi to high-tail it to Oxford to appear on stage in a musical this evening. Eventually there will be second-unit-style GVs and establishing shots to do, but there will only be three or four of us for that. For the cast and most of the crew, today brings Above the Clouds to an end, eight months after the camera first rolled.

See all my Above the Clouds posts here, or visit the official website.

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“Above the Clouds”: February 2017 Pick-ups

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