Negative Lighting

There were no practicals in this corner of the pub, so we placed an 800 open-face outside the window, gelled with Midnight Blue, and a 1×1′ LED panel in the wood-burner, gelled with CTO.

This year I’ve shot a couple of productions on the Sony FS7, a camera I’ve been very impressed by. Its most interesting feature is its high native ISO of 2000, which makes quite an impact on how you go about lighting. The light shed by practicals is often enough to illuminate a scene, or a large part of it, and sometimes you need to take existing practicals away in order to maintain contrast and shape, similar to how you take ambient light away (negative fill) when shooting exteriors.

It’s a strange thing about being a DP that, yes, sometimes you’re required to plan a mammoth lighting set-up using tens of kilowatts of power, but other times it’s just a case of saying, “Take the bulb out of that sconce.” You’re working to exactly the same principles, using your creative eye just as much in both scenarios.

Let’s look at some examples from a promotional film I shot with director Oliver Park for Closer Each Day, an improvised stage soap.

Our location was a pub, which had a large number of existing practicals: mainly wall sconces, but some overheads above the bar and in the corridors too. The film had to be shot in a single night, entirely on Steadicam, with some shots revealing almost the whole room, and to further complicate matters I was a last-minute hire due to another DP having to step down. Keeping the lighting simple, and avoiding putting any “film lights” on the floor where the roving camera might see them, was clearly the way to go.

I identified the darker areas of the room and added a few extra sources: two blue-gelled 800s outside the windows, an orange-gelled 1×1′ LED panel in the wood-burner, an LED reporter light in one key corner, and a small tungsten fresnel toplight onto a key table, firing down from the mezzanine so it would never be in shot. Other than those, and a low level of fill bounced off the ceiling, we relied exclusively on the existing practicals. (They were mainly fluorescent, and ideally we would have reglobed these all with tungsten, but it wasn’t possible.)

This view from the mezzanine shows the diffused 300W fresnel top-lighting the drinking contest table, and the black-wrapped 650 firing into the ceiling for fill.

 

So, that’s the “positive” lighting. Here are three examples of “negative” lighting in the film…

When Big Dick Johnson (yep, that’s the character’s name) first enters the pub, I put a piece of tape over a little halogen spotlight just above his point of entry. This was partly because it was very bright and I didn’t want him to blow out as he walked under it, but it also made for a much better sense of depth in the overall shot. As I’ve often mentioned on this blog, the best depth in an image is usually achieved by having the foreground dark, the mid-ground at key and the background bright. Killing the halogen spotlight helped create this progression of brightness and therefore depth. It’s also just nice in a shot like this to come out of darkness into the light, enhancing the reveal of the new space to the viewers.

When Billy De Burgh scrambles to buy a ticket at the box office, there are two practicals just above his head. Depending on which way we were shooting, I de-globed one of the fixtures – always the one closest to camera. This ensured that Billy always had backlight, and never had a really hot, toppy front-light shining harshly down on him.

On a side note, the blue light inside the box office was existing – I guess they were using cool white LED bulbs in there – and I really like the way it differentiates the spaces on camera. It puts the bored ticket-seller in a cold, detached world very separate to Billy’s warmer, more urgent world.

This doorway where Big Dick ends the film had sconces on both sides. It’s never very interesting to have an actor evenly lit on both sides of their face, and especially as Dick is such a tough, unpleasant character, I felt that more contrast was required. I chose to remove the globe from the righthand sconce, so that when he turns camera left to look at the sign he turns into the remaining sconce, his key-light. We filled in the other side of his face a tiny touch with a reflector.

I would love to have been able to exercise the same control over the street-lamps in the opening scene of the film – some of them are quite flat and frontal – but unfortunately time, budget and permissions made that impossible. We would have needed huge flags, or a council-approved electrician to switch the lamps off.

That’s all for today. Next time you’re in Bristol, check out Closer Each Day. I didn’t get chance to see it, but I hear it’s brilliant.

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Negative Lighting

5 Lighting Tips from Classic Art

A few weeks ago I discussed compositional techniques which we can learn from the work of JMW Turner. This time I’m looking at the use of light, and I’m broadening the scope to cover a few other classical artists whose works have caught my eye at galleries lately.

Without artificial illumination, these old masters had to make the most of the light God gave them. Here are five examples of their techniques which we can trace directly forward to cinematographic techniques of today.

 

Cross-light

“Mornington Crescent Nude” (circa 1907) – Walter Richard Sickert

Decades before DPs started encouraging directors to shoot interior scenes towards windows to achieve the most interesting modelling, Sickert had the same idea. See how the light from the window in the background throws the model’s body into relief, giving it form and dimension? Cross-light is commonly used today in commercials for sport and fitness products, to emphasise muscle tone.

See also: Lighting Techniques #6: Cross-light

 

Background strokes

“Tancred’s Servant Presenting the Heart of Guiscard in a Golden Cup to Guismond” (circa 1675) – Adriaen van der Werff

What caught my eye about this painting was the slash of light on the background wall in the top left corner. It may seem trivial, but a little stroke of background light like this can really elevate the quality of a shot. Here it anchors the corner of the composition and gives us a hint of the room’s decor, adding interest to what would otherwise be a black void behind Guismond.

While lighting the subject of the shot is clearly a DP’s priority, it’s important to find time to paint in the surroundings even if they’re in the deep background or extreme foreground.

“Drive” (DP: Newton Thomas Sigel)

See also: 5 Ways to Use Hard Light Through a Window

 

Haze

“Chloe Idille” (1811) – Salomon Gessner & Carl Wilhelm Kolbe

This monochrome etching has a tremendous feeling of depth, and it is achieved purely through contrast. The further away an object is, the more air there is between that object and your eye. Since air isn’t 100% transparent, that distant object appears lighter and lower-contrast than closer objects. Gessner and Kolbe capture this effect beautifully here.

Many cinematographers today use hazers to create or enhance this atmospheric effect, even for interiors. In the days of miniature effects, smoke was often used to create atmospheric haze and increase the feeling of scale. On Blade Runner, for example, Douglas Trumbull’s VFX crew sealed the motion control stage and used infra-red sensors linked to hazers to automatically keep the smoke level constant during the long-exposure passes over the futuristic cityscape.

“Blade Runner” (DP: Jordan Cronenweth)

See also: Depth Cues in Cinematography

 

Golden hour

“Abingdon” (1806) – Joseph Mallord William Turner

Painters figured out centuries ago that the most beautiful light is found at the beginning and end of the day. It’s partly due to the cross-light effect (see above) of the lower sun, and partly due to the beautiful orange colour caused by the greater amount of atmosphere the sun’s rays must pass through. To shoot the perfect sunset, you’ll need patience, and a sun-tracker app or at least a compass. Ensure the schedule permits you to try again another day if clouds spoil the view.

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” (DP: Douglas Slocombe)

See also: Sun Paths

 

Wet-Downs

“The Boulevard Montmartre” (1897) – Camille Pissarro

This is the only night image in a series of impressionist oil paintings which Pissarro executed from a hotel window overlooking the Boulevard Montmartre. What makes it particularly beautiful is the wet street, turning what might otherwise have been a dull grey central swathe of the image into an arena of alternately shadowy and glittering reflections.

Cinematographers shooting night exteriors on streets will often have the tarmac hosed down for four reasons: (1) as already noted, the beauty of the reflections; (2) the deeper blacks and increased contrast; (3) the extra exposure gained by the light sources bouncing off the water; and (4) avoidance of continuity problems if it rains.

A scene from “Terminator 2” (DP: Adam Greenberg) on a street that’s been wetted down

See also: 7 Considerations for Night Shooting

5 Lighting Tips from Classic Art

Lighting I Like: “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”

The third episode of my YouTube cinematography series Lighting I Like is out now. This time I discuss a scene from the first instalment in the Harry Potter franchise, directed by Chris Columbus and photographed by John Seale, ACS, ASC.

 

You can find out more about the forest scene from Wolfman which I mentioned, either in the February 2010 issue of American Cinematographer if you have a subscription, or towards the bottom of this page on Cine Gleaner.

If you’re a fan of John Seale’s work, you may want to read my post “20 Facts About the Cinematography of Mad Max: Fury Road.

To read about how I’ve tackled nighttime forest scenes myself, check out “Poor Man’s Process II” (Ren: The Girl with the Mark) and Above the Clouds: Week Two”.

I hope you enjoyed the show. Episode four goes out at the same time next week: 8pm GMT on Wednesday, and will cover a scene from episode two of the lavish Netflix series The Crown. Subscribe to my YouTube channel to make sure you never miss an episode.

Lighting I Like: “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”

“Above the Clouds”: Week 3

IMG_0572Day 12 / Sunday

A split day, starting with two scenes at two different petrol stations (one of them open!). It’s a sunny day and when the cast stand next to the Yellow Peril (the picture car) they are bathed in yellow bounce. We build on this by bouncing more light with the gold side of a Lasolite.

IMG_0590Next we have some interiors in a soup kitchen, which will intercut and contrast with the dining room scenes from day one. Whereas the dining room had perfect three point lighting with a Rembrandt key, I want the soup kitchen to look much less pleasant, so I use toplight, broken keys and cross-light to bring out the texture of the peeling walls.

Our last scene is a night exterior. A sodium vapour security light which we can’t turn off is already backlighting the set. Rather than fighting it, we beef it up using the 1.2K gelled with Urban Sodium. This forms half of a cross-backlighting set-up, paired with a 1×1 LED panel gelled with Quarter Plus Green. Another 1×1 gelled with Mustard Yellow provides a pool of light in the background, while the 4×4 Kino gelled wth full CTB supplies a tiny bit of ‘moonlight’ fill. I’ve never lit a scene with so many different colours, but it feels realistic because there are so many different kinds of streetlamps and security lights in our towns and cities these days.

 

Day 13 / Monday

IMG_0595In the pub all day. The scenes are meant to have an evening feel, so we black out the windows with thin weed-blocking material which lets a little light through, and close the curtains. On a tungsten white balance we get just a little blue glow coming through the curtains. The window in the door has no curtains, so we gel it with .9 ND and it looks convincingly dusky outside.

Fairly standard stuff today, lighting wise. Cross-backlighting for bar scenes, a bit of blue glow in the deep background from a kino to give depth and show up the smoke.

We echo the Turner scenes with a symmetrical shot of Andy and Naomi seated in front of the fireplace. For a soft, pleasing key we bounce fire both the Dedos into a poly board. A double CTO-gelled LED panel on the floor enhances the backlight from the fire, and the pub’s practicals do the rest.

One of the last close-ups we do has an alcove in the background. It bothers me that the brickwork in there is the same shade and tone as the foreground brickwork – we’re losing the dimensionality – so I have Colin run in with a bit of half CTB to cool down the sconce slightly and separate the alcove.

 

Day 14 / Tuesday

IMG_0612

IMG_0613More micro sets in Leon’s living room. One of them is a tiny under-the-stairs bathroom, which we light with a single bare bulb hanging down into the shots. Again the Alexa’s dynamic range allows me to hold all the highlights and shadows, even when Andy is inches from the bulb, and it looks completely authentic on camera.

For the first time I try gelling the Rosco Litepads to match the tungsten Dedos. It doesn’t work; the Litepads are noticeably greener. If I try that again I’ll need to spend some time to find the correct cocktail of minus green and CTO gels.

 

IMG_0633Day 15 / Wednesday

After one final micro set in Leon’s living room we move upstairs for some crucial scenes in the master bedroom. I light it with a 2.5K HMI coming in through the window, that being really the only option. I shape this with gels, diffusion and black-out on the window or the lamp-head itself. For example, when we do Naomi’s close-ups I stick two or three layers of opal to the middle section of the window. That way we keep the nice hot streaks on the background wall, but Naomi has a much softer light on her.

The only other sources are the two 6×2″ Litepads hidden in the wardrobe behind a key prop, dimmed right down so they just silhouette the prop very, very slightly. For the final bedroom scene I go purely with available light, since the sun is now shining in at a nice angle, hitting the bed and bouncing back up into Naomi’s face.

It’s our last day in Kent, and many of the crew will be returning home tonight and commuting for the rest of the week, so it feels like the end of an era. Nevertheless, we remain detached and professional. No-one kidnaps Naomi’s stuffed dog Rupert and messages a picture of him tied up and gagged with gaffer tape, and definitely no-one retaliates by kidnapping Colin’s dashboard Spider-pig.

 

Day 16 / Thursday

IMG_0642

We are at Longcross Studio & Test Track, an ex-MOD facility in Berkshire. We stage a traffic jam on a road originally built for tank trials. The 85mm lens gets more use than it has the whole shoot so far. The compression of perspective works perfectly for the scene, enhancing the feeling that the characters are hemmed in both physically and psychologically.

Most of the action takes place inside the car and is shot raking across the characters from a side window. To get the best shape to the natural light, we black out the sunroof and place negative fill on the window closest to camera, then bounce in extra light through the windscreen.

The rota polar sees extensive use again, although sometimes it reveals weird circular patterns in the car’s window glass.

 

IMG_0650Day 17 / Friday

Our second day at Longcross, and this time we’re using the main loop of track. It’s non-exclusive, so occasionally a prototype sports car zooms past us, or a stills photographer hanging out of the boot of an SUV.

Day-playing grip Darren has brought his universal mount which we use as a hostess tray, shooting in through the passenger or driver’s windows. (Leon is not a fan of bonnet-mounted shots.) The rig prevents us from closing the window, which necessitates minor rewrites, but the shots look great and allow us to cover large swathes of dialogue relatively quickly.

The picture car is towed on an A-frame by Andrew’s Landrover. Riding in the Landrover are Leon, Rupert and me, each with a monitor. Leon’s shows a clean picture, Rupert’s of course has focus assist, and I switch mine between clean and false colours so that I can monitor the exposure as we go around the track. Leon connects his mixer to the Landrover’s stereo so that we can all hear the dialogue. Communication back to the picture car is achieved via radio with Max, hiding on the back seat, popping out to slate and even reading in lines for a phone conversation.

IMG_0658Col rigs the two 6×2″ Litepads to the dashboard. They mitigate the sunroof’s toplight by filling in the shadows very slightly, but more importantly they put a sparkle in the actors’ eyes, which always helps the performances come across on camera. I take a light reading inside the Yellow Peril before each lap, but due to the number of trees around the track, light levels during the takes are about two stops below what I get in the car park when we’re prepping. Fortunately the cloud cover is fairly consistent today so there aren’t hot patches of sun to contend with.

Today wraps the English portion of principal photography for Above the Clouds, and we sadly say goodbye to Colin, Zoë, Alice and Andrew. It’s been a really fun team to work with, and it will be strange next week without them.

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“Above the Clouds”: Week 3

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

Lensing Ren – episode 5

Season one of Ren: The Girl with the Mark has come to an end, and to ease the pain a little, here’s one last video breakdown of the show’s cinematography. This week I talk about the exterior scenes from daylight through sunset to night.

Here is the lighting plan for the final scene:

Village-night-1080p

Check out the article I wrote during the shoot about the sunset scene if you’re still hungry for details. And here is an unpublished blog post I wrote during the shoot about the village night exteriors…

The 2.5K HMI backlight
The 2.5K HMI backlight. The dimmer board for the Cyclotron can be seen in the lower right.

The last two days of principal photography on Ren were actually night shoots. It was great to take the village set that I’d shot in natural light for five weeks and chuck some of my own light at it.

In his American Cinematographer interview about The Monuments Men (February 2014), Phedon Papamichael said, “My big night-exterior lighting setups usually have one source” – often a backlight, judging by the examples given in the article – “and then I use whatever practicals are in the shot.” My approach is much the same, though a big source for me is a 2.5K HMI, not an Arri T12, sadly!

One of the Urban Sodium-gelled 800W Arrilites beefing up the braziers
One of the Urban Sodium-gelled 800W Arrilites beefing up the braziers

I knew our key shot was going to be Ren’s POV looking up the street to the Kah’Nath Master flanked by several archers, with Karn and Baynon in the background. I set up my 2.5K dead in the back of the shot, its stand hidden by the furthest house facade.

Another of the Urban Sodium-gelled 800W Arrilites beefing up the braziers
One of the Urban Sodium-gelled 800W Arrilites beefing up the braziers

The plan was for the archers to light their arrows from two braziers, one either side of the street, so Chris Dane and Amanda Stekly dressed these in accordingly. I set up an Arrilite 800 near each one, choosing Urban Sodium gel to give the “firelight” a grungy colour appropriate to the bad guys. (I was shooting on a tungsten white balance to turn the HMI moonlight blue.)

The dimmers controlling the Arrilites
The dimmers controlling the Arrilites

Chris – by this time well-attuned to my lighting needs – also rigged a third brazier to act as the key light for himself (Karn) and James Malpas (Baynon), towards the back of the set. The Arrilite for this one I gelled with full CTO for a yellower, friendlier colour.

All three Arrilites were run through in-line dimmers, and various bystanders were co-opted to flicker them throughout the evening.

Bulbs
The Cyclotron

I rigged a Cyclotron behind the window of the background house – four 100W bulbs under a sheet of CTO, wired to Colin’s dimmer board so they too could be flickered, suggesting firelight inside the house.

The Celotex bounce board
The Celotex bounce board

I figured that the front of this house would still be very dark, being out of range of the Arrilites and facing away from the HMI, so I had gaffer Richard Roberts rig a Celotex board to bounce some of the HMI light back onto it. As it turned out, when it got dark and we fired everything up, there was lots of bounce off the set pieces closest to the HMI anyway. This was a nice bonus that gave us more options when blocking Karn and Baynon’s actions, without having to set up extra lamps.

A sunset view of the lighting set-up from roughly the master camera position. The LED panel on the right was used only as a work light.
A sunset view of the lighting set-up from roughly the master camera position. The LED panel on the left was used only as a work light.

When the braziers were lit and the Master and soldiers strode onto the set in their awesome costumes (courtesy of Miriam Spring Davies and stand-in wardrobe supervisor Claire Finn), we all felt we had a truly epic sequence in the can.

Ren archers

If you’ve missed any of Lensing Ren or Ren itself, here’s a playlist featuring every episode of the fantasy series, interspersed with the corresponding cinematography breakdowns:

Lensing Ren – episode 5

Crossing Paths: Night Exterior

Col and Sophie smoke up the road before a take.
Col and Sophie smoke up the road before a take.

After a morning of playing with the sun, the next task on Crossing Paths was to light a night exterior scene.

The Blackmagic Production Camera, with a native ISO of 400, is not the most sensitive of cameras. But with this scene being a flashback, I gained a stop of light by changing my shutter angle to 360 degrees and making that extra motion blur part of the film’s flashback look. (Click here to read my post on Understanding Shutter Angles.)

ArriMax M18
ArriMax M18

Just as a DP normally looks to orientate a daylight scene to use the sun as backlight, so they often aim to do the same with the moon at night. Except of course, unless you’re shooting on a Sony A7S, the actual position of the moon is irrelevant because it’s too dim to shed any readable light. Instead you set up a fake moon – usually an HMI – in the position that works best for you.

I knew that there would be two main camera angles for this scene, in which Michelle runs out of her house and across the road. One would be a handheld tracking shot, leading Michelle as she runs. The other would be an angle looking up the road. So the first angle would be looking towards the house and the second would be at 90 degrees to that.

Gulliver
Gulliver

Where to put the backlight? (I was going to use an ArriMax M18 for the moon.) Clearly not behind the house, because I didn’t have a massive crane to put it on! Similarly I could not put it at the end of the road without it being in shot. The clear solution was to put it mid-way between these two positions, in a neighbour’s garden. From there it would provide 3/4 backlight (from the left) for the view down the road, and side-light (from the right) for the view towards the house, developing to 3/4 backlight as Michelle crosses the road.

To get my backlight fix at the start of the handheld leading shot, I placed a Dedo at the top of the stairs shining down.

3 x 300W Gulliver lamps, kindly supplied by spark Colin Stannard, were also used in the scene. Two were hidden behind trees down the road, pointing at parts of the background to stop it being black. (The road’s sodium streetlamps provided some nice bokeh as they reflected in parked cars, but did nothing to illuminate the scene.)

IMG_2644
A Gulliver, on the left of this image, shines on the front door through a tree.

The third Gulliver was used to 3/4 front-light Michelle in the first half of the leading shot. I put it on a C-stand, nice and high, shining through a tree so as to break up the light – always a good trick for frontal light sources at night.

To ensure Michelle’s face was visible in the second half of the leading shot, an 8’x4′ poly was used to bounce some of the “moonlight” back at her.

Frame grab from the leading shot. The warmer light from frame left is from the Gulliver shining through the tree, while the colder light from the right is from the M18.
Frame grab from the leading shot. The warmer light from frame left is from the Gulliver shining through the tree, while the colder light from the right is from the M18. (C) 2015 B Squared Productions

Here’s a lighting diagram of the whole set-up…

Sketch 2015-10-01 17_01_36Crossing Paths is a B Squared production (C) 2015. Find out more at facebook.com/Crossing-Paths-Short-Film-697385557065699/timeline/

Crossing Paths: Night Exterior

How to Black Out Windows

Blacking out a window
Blacking out a window on Beyond Recognition

Sometimes when shooting indoors, you need to make day look like night. And believe it or not, there’s an art to blacking out windows. Light is like water: it leaks in through the tiniest crack, and you need to appreciate that if you’re going to black out a window successfully. Here are my tips.

  1. Don’t do it. Shoot at night; it’s quicker and easier. It will also look much better because you can light the view outside for added depth in the background of frame.
  2. Ignored rule one? Well, at least do a split shoot so that you only shoot away from the windows during daylight, and shoot towards them after dark. If the windows aren’t actually in frame, your light seal doesn’t need to be 100%.
  3. Ignored rule two as well? Unquestionably the best way to black out a window is to gaffer tape black drapes or bin bags to the outside of the window frame. Don’t try to tape to the surrounding brickwork; it won’t hold. The gaffer tape needs to go in an unbroken line all the way around the edges, or light will leak in through the cracks.
  4. If you have large windows to black out, it may be tempting to rig drapes on stands. OK, fine, but you still need to gaffer tape all the edges. And make sure the stands are well sandbagged in case the wind gets up.
  5. Here’s an example where the lefthand side hasn’t been taped. As you can see, the daylight comes in and nicely cross-lights the drapes, showing up every wrinkle and utterly destroying the illusion of a dark sky. (Fortunately, in this instance the window wasn’t going to be in shot, and the amount of light leaking in wasn’t sufficient to contaminate the DP’s lighting design.)
    image
  6. When you’re outside doing the blacking-out, it is impossible to judge the quality of your work. You need to go inside and see what it looks like. You’ll probably get a nasty shock.
  7. Beware that some things that seem opaque from the outside – bin bags or fabric – actually let light through. Hold them up to the light to check this before you waste time gaffering them up. These drapes looked completely opaque from outside…
    image
  8. Sometimes the DP will want to put a lamp outside to simulate moonlight, and this will need to be tented around. This is extremely difficult and can waste a lot of time. The lamp will spill light onto the drapes, showing them up for what they are. Black wrap the lamphead as much as you can (without covering any vents) and don’t use a tarpaulin as black-out material because it will reflect the light.
  9. Finally, remember to put any stands holding up the drapes BEHIND the drapes, so they’re hidden from camera. (I’ve seen this mistake made, and made it myself, several times – see picture above!

UPDATE: Karl Poyzer has this great tip: “A much easier way to black out windows not in shot or behind a curtain is to spray them with water and roll tin foil over them, stays stuck there indefinitely, blocks out 100% of the light, is cheap and won’t fall down.” Thanks Karl!

How to Black Out Windows