Last 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.
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)
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)
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.
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.
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)
In this final part of the Know Your Lights series, I’m taking a look at some of the LED fixtures currently available.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There are many variants on the standard HMIs. Here are some of the more common ones.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Following on from my ‘Know Your Lights’ overview last week, today I’ll look in more detail at the first category of lamps and the various units available and when you might use them.
And that first category is incandescent lighting, commonly known as tungsten. It is the oldest, simplest and most robust lighting technology. Tungsten lamps are the cheapest to hire, the easiest to repair, and emit a smoother spectrum of light than any other artificial sources, making for the most natural skin tones. For my money, there’s no better way to artificially light a human face than by bouncing a tungsten source off polyboard.
Tungsten lighting units can be sub-categorised by the style of reflectors and/or lenses in the heads…
The simplest instruments are known as ‘open-face’ because they have no lens to focus the light. By far the most common units are the 800 Watt and 2,000 Watt models. These are often referred to as ‘redheads’ and ‘blondes’ respectively, though I strongly discourage these terms for reasons touched on here. 300W models – dubbed ‘Lilliputs’ by manufacturer Ianiro – are also available, as well as 1Ks and much larger models like the Mole-Richardson Skypan 5K and Skylite 10K.
While I have lit entire no-budget features with just open-face lights, on larger productions the uneven and unfocused nature of their light makes them a poor relation of other units on the truck. They are most likely to get fired into a bounce board or used to create a little pool of light somewhere in the deep background where finesse is not needed.
The fresnel lens was invented in the early 19th century by French physicist and engineer Augustin-Jean Fresnel in order to increase the focus and throw of lighthouse lamps. Today in the film industry, fresnel lenses can be found on tungsten, HMI and even LED fixtures.
Tungsten fresnels come in the following wattages: 150W, 300W, 650W (a.k.a. ‘tweenie’), 1K, 2K, 5K, 10K, 12K, 20K, 24K.
1Ks and 2Ks are sometimes called ‘babies’ and ‘juniors’ respectively, but confusingly those terms can also refer to whether they are the smaller location models or larger studio versions of the same wattage.
Though the fresnel lens reduces the light output a little, the beam is much more focused and can therefore create a shaft of light through smoke, which open-face lamps cannot. Hence I sometimes use tungsten fresnels to simulate hard sunlight when shooting on a stage. But beware that shadows cast by a fresnel can sometimes show up the ridges in the lens.
I often fire fresnels into bounce boards, and because their light is more focused they require less flagging to control the spill than open-face units.
Par lights use a parabolic (shaped like half a rugby ball) reflector and a lens to produce a soft-edged oval pool of light. They are extremely common in theatres, but are often used in film and TV as well.
Unlike fresnel and open-face units, par cans are referred to not by wattage but by the diameter of the bubble in eighths of an inch. So a Par 16 (a.k.a. ‘birdie’) has a 2″ bulb.
Par cans come in the following sizes: 16, 20, 36, 38, 46, 56, 64. They also come with various internal specs which affect the width of the beam.
Par cans are good for throwing shafts of light. On The Little Mermaid I used them to simulate car headlights, and as practicals (i.e. they were seen on camera) to uplight banners at the circus.
Maxibrutes (a.k.a. ‘Molepars’) are banks of multiple par 64 (1KW) lights. They come in banks of 4, 6, 9, 12 or 24. They pop up in the background of music promos quite often, because they look cool and kind of retro. I used two 9-light Maxibrutes, bounced off the tent roof, to illuminate the big top in The Little Mermaid. Some DPs like to use Maxibrutes for backlight on night exteriors. If you’re using them direct, you’ll need at least a sheet of diff to prevent multiple shadows.
Minibrutes (a.k.a. ‘fays’) are similar, but use smaller par 36 (650W) lamps.
Dedolites are compact units that use a unique lens system to produce very focussed, controllable light from (most commonly) 150W bulbs. They are widely available to hire, come with in-line dimmers, and are small and light enough to be rigged overhead or in tight spots. I often use them to beef up practicals.
Source Fours or (a.k.a. ‘lekos’) are ellipsoid reflector spotlights. They feature cutters which can be used to shape the beam, they can be hired with different lenses (some of which are zoomable), and they can be fitted with gobos to project patterns. They are good for stylised pools of light or for firing into distant bounce boards without spilling light elsewhere.
Finally, tungsten is usually the most desirable type of bulb to use in practicals. It is commonplace when shooting a daylight interior for a spark to go around replacing the energy-saver fluorescent bulbs in the table lamps with old-school tungsten ones. The colour is much nicer, the skin tones are better as noted above, and they can be dimmed to just the right level for camera.
I’m sure I’ve missed something out – please feel free to let me know on Facebook or Twitter! Next week: HMIs.