I’ve been shooting films for Rick Goldsmith and his company Catcher Media for over 20 years now. “That’s longer than I’ve been alive,” said the make-up artist on U & Me, Catcher’s latest, when I told her. Ouch.
Like most of the films I’ve done with Rick, U & ME is a drama for schools, about healthy relationships. These projects are as much about giving young people a chance to be involved in the making of a film as they are about the finished product. This means that we have to be pretty light on our feet as a crew – always a good challenge.
One of the main scenes was in the corridor of a school, or “academy” as they all seem to be called now (have we established yet that I’m old?). Rick had picked a corridor that was relatively quiet, though it was still impossible to film when kids were moving between lessons. It had a nice double-door fire exit at the end with diffuse glass. Any corridor/tunnel benefits from having light at the end of it. That’s not a metaphor; light in the deep background is a staple of cinematography, and this light kicked nicely off the shiny floor as well. Whenever framing permitted, I beefed up the light from the doors with one of Rick’s Neewer NL-200As, circular LED fixtures.
For the key light there was a convenient window above the hero lockers. The window looked into an office which – even more conveniently – was empty. In here I put an open-face tungsten 2K pointing at the ceiling. This turned the ceiling into a soft source that spilled through the window. I added another Neewer panel when I needed a bit more exposure.
I also wanted to control the existing overhead lights in the corridor. They couldn’t be turned off – I don’t think there were even any switches – so I flagged the ones I didn’t like using black wrap and a blackout curtain hung from the drop ceiling. I taped diffusion over another light, one that I didn’t want to kill completely.
It looked nice and moody in the end.
A brighter scene was shot in the kitchen of an AirBnB that doubled as accommodation for us crew. Here I used the 2K outside the window to fire in a hot streak of sunlight that spilt across the worktops, the actor’s clothes and the cupboards (bouncing back onto her face when she looked towards them).
The 2K would have been too hard to light her face with. Instead I fired one of the Neewers into the corner next to the window, creating a soft source for her key. The only other thing I did was to add another Neewer bouncing into the ceiling behind camera for later scenes, when the natural light outside was falling off and it was starting to look too contrasty inside.
It might not have been rocket science, but it was quite satisfying to get an interesting look out of ordinary locations and limited kit.
Here’s another lighting breakdown from the short filmAnnabel Lee, which has won many awards at festivals around the world, including seven now for Best Cinematography.
I wanted the cottage to feel like a safe place for Annabel and E early in the film. When they come back inside and discuss going to the village for food, I knew I wanted a bright beam of sunlight coming in somewhere. I also knew that, as is usual for most DPs in most scenes, I wanted the lighting to be short-key, i.e. coming from the opposite of the characters’ eye-lines to the camera. The blocking of the scene made this difficult though, with Annabel and E standing against a wall and closed door. In the story the cottage does not have working electricity, so I couldn’t imply a ceiling light behind them to edge them out from the wall. Normally I would have suggested to the director, Amy Coop, that we flip things around and wedge the camera in between the cast and the wall so that we could use the depth of the kitchen as a background and the kitchen window as the source of key-light. But it had been agreed with the art department that we would never show the kitchen, which had not been dressed and was full of catering supplies.
The solution was firing a 2.5K HMI in through one of the dining room windows to create a bright rectangle of light on the white wall. This rectangle of bounce became the source of key-light for the scene. We added a matt silver bounce board just out of the bottom of frame on the two-shot, and clamped silver card to the door for the close-ups, to increase the amount of bounce. The unseen kitchen window (behind camera in the two-shot) was blacked out to create contrast. I particularly like E’s close-up, where the diffuse light coming from the HMI’s beam in the haze gives him a lovely rim (stop sniggering).
Adding to the fun was the fact that it was a Steadicam scene. The two-shot had to follow E through into the dining room, almost all of which would be seen on camera, and end on a new two-shot. We put our second 2.5K outside the smaller window (camera left in the shot below), firing through a diffusion frame, to bring up the level in the room. I think we might have put an LED panel outside the bigger window, but it didn’t really do anything useful without coming into shot.
For more on the cinematography of Annabel Lee, visit these links:
Last week, Annabel Lee– a short I photographed at the end of 2018 – won its sixth and seventh cinematography awards, its festival run having been somewhat delayed by Covid. I’ve previously written a couple of posts around shooting specific parts of Annabel Lee – here’s one about a Steadicam shot with a raven, and another about the church scene – and today I want to dissect the clip above. The sequence sees our two young refugees, Annabel and E, arriving at the Devonshire cottage where they’ll await passage to France.
I was a last-minute replacement for another DP who had to pull out, so the crew, kit list and locations were all in place when I joined. Director Amy Coop had chosen to shoot on an Alexa Mini with Cooke anamorphic glass, and gaffer Bertil Mulvad and the previous DP had put together a package including a nine-light Maxi Brute, a couple of 2.5K HMIs and some LiteMats.
The Brute is serving as the moon in the exteriors, backlighting the (special effects) rain at least when we’re looking towards the driver. (If you’re not familiar with Maxi Brutes, they’re banks of 1K tungsten pars. Ours was gelled blue and rigged on a cherry-picker.) The topography of the location made it impossible to cheat the backlight around when we shot towards Annabel and E; rain doesn’t show up well unless it’s backlit, so this was quite frustrating.
We didn’t have any other sources going on except the period car’s tungsten headlights. It was very tricky to get the cast to hit the exact spots where the headlights would catch them while not shadowing themselves as they held out their hands with umbrellas or brooches.
Inside the cottage it’s a story point that the electricity doesn’t work, so until E lights the oil lamp we could only simulate moonlight and the headlights streaming in through the window. These latter were indeed a simulation, as we didn’t have the picture car at the time we shot inside. There was a whole sequence of bad luck that night when the camera van got stuck on the single-lane dirt track to the cottage, stranding certain crucial vehicles outside and sealing us all inside for three hours after wrap, until the RAC arrived and towed the camera van. So the “headlights” were a couple of tungsten fresnels, probably 650s, which were panned off and dimmed when the car supposedly departs. We also tried to dim them invisibly so that we could get more light on E as he comes in the door and avoid the Close Encounters look when the window comes into shot, but after a few takes of failing to make it undetectable we had to abandon the idea.
We also didn’t have the rain machine for the interiors, so as E opens the door you might briefly glimpse water being poured from an upstairs window by the art department, backlit by an LED panel. We put one of the HMIs outside a window that’s always off camera left to give us some “moonlight” in the room, create colour contrast with the tungsten headlights and the flame of the oil lamp, and ensure that we weren’t left in complete darkness when the “car” departs. Annabel looks right into it as she hugs E.
When the action moves upstairs, an HMI shines in through the window again. I remember it gave us real camera-shadow problems at the end of the scene, because Steadicam operator Rupert Peddle had to end with his back to that window and the talent in front of him (though the clip above cuts off before we get to that bit). The practical oil lamp does a lot of the work making this scene look great. I was sad that I had to put a little fill in the foreground to make E’s bruises at least a tiny bit visible; this was a LiteMat panel set to a very low intensity and bounced off the wall right of camera.
It’s worth mentioning the aspect ratio. My recollection is that I framed for 2.39:1, which is normal for anamorphic shooting. With the Alexa Mini in 4:3 mode, 2x anamorphic lenses produce an 8:3 or 2.66:1 image, which you would typically crop at the sides to 2.39 in post. When I arrived at the grade Annabel Lee was all in 2.66:1 and Amy wanted to keep it that way. I’m not generally a fan of changing aspect ratios in post because it ruins all the composition I worked hard to get right on set, but there’s no denying that this film looks beautiful in the super-wide ratio.
Finally, let me say a huge thank you to all the people who helped make the cinematography the award-winning success it has become, crucially drone operators Mighty Sky, underwater DP Ian Creed and colourist Caroline Morin. I’m sure the judges for these awards were swayed more by the beautiful aerial and aquatic work than the stuff I actually did!
In August 2019 Jonnie Howard, director of The Knowledge, approached me about shooting an unusual short film with him. A Cliché for the End of the World is only two minutes long, but Jonnie wanted to shoot it as two unbroken takes which would be presented side by side. Each take would follow one character, starting and ending with them next to each other, but separating in the middle.
My first thought was that the two takes would have to be shot concurrently, but to squeeze two cameras into the small location and keep each out of the other’s frame would have been impossible. Instead, we settled on shooting with a single camera. After capturing 18 takes of the first side, Jonnie reviewed the footage with his editor Kat and selected one to use. We then shot the other side, with Kat calling out cues that would keep the actors in sync with the selected “master” take. (It took 18 takes to get this side in the can as well, partly because of getting the cues right and partly because of the difficulties Steadicam op Luke Oliver had in manoeuvring up the narrow staircase.)
The film had to be lit in a way that worked for both sides, with the camera starting in the living room looking towards the kitchen, moving up the stairs, through the landing and into the bedroom.
Working as usual to the general principle of lighting from the back, I set up a 2.5K HMI outside the kitchen window to punch a shaft of sunlight into the room. I angled this steeply so that it would not reach the actors directly, but instead bounce off the floor and light them indirectly. (See my article on lighting through windows.)
Gaffer Jeremy Dawson blacked out the living room windows to keep the foreground dark. He used an LED panel set to 6,600K (versus our camera’s white balance of 5,600K) to simulate an off-screen TV, waving a piece of black wrap in front of it to create dynamics.
Next we needed to bring up the light levels for the actor’s journey up the stairs, which were naturally darker. Jeremy and spark Gareth Neal opened the loft hatch on the landing and rigged an LED Dedo inside, aimed at the darkest part of the staircase. They diffused this with some kind of net curtain I think.
To brighten the landing we set up a diffused 2×4 Kino Flo in the spare room and partially closed the door to give the light some shape. Both this and the loft Dedo were a couple of stops under key so as not to look too artificial.
All that remained was the bedroom. The characters were to end up sitting on the bed facing the window. Originally the camera in both takes was to finish facing them, with the window behind it, but this would have meant shadowing the actors, not to mention that space between the bed and the window was very limited. After some discussion between me, Jonnie, Luke, the cast, and production designer Amanda Stekly, we ended up moving the bed so that the camera could shoot the actors from behind, looking towards the window. This of course made for much more interesting and dimensional lighting.
The window looked out onto the street, and with a narrow pavement and no permission from the council, rigging a light outside was out of the question. Furthermore, we knew that the sun was going to shine right into that window later in the day, seriously messing with our continuity. Unfortunately all we could do was ask Amanda to dress in a net curtain. This took the worst of the harshness out of any direct sun and hopefully disguised the natural changes in light throughout the day at least a little.
When the sun did blast in through the window at about 6pm, we added a layer of unbleached muslin behind the net curtain to soften it further. We doubled this as the angle of the sun got more straight-on, then removed it entirely when the sun vanished behind the rooftops opposite at 7pm. About 20 minutes later we rigged a daylight LED panel in the room, bouncing off the ceiling, as a fill to counteract the diminishing natural light. We wrapped just as it was becoming impossible to match to earlier takes.
We were shooting in RAW on a Canon C200, which should give some grading latitude to help match takes from different times of day. The split-screen nature of the film means that the match needs to be very close though!
As I write this, the film is still in postproduction, and I very much look forward to seeing how it comes out. I’ll leave you with the start and end frames from slate 2, take 17, with a very quick and dirty grade.
It is night. We Steadicam into a moonlit bedroom, drifting across a window – where a raven is visible on the outside ledge, tapping at the glass with its beak – and land on a sleeping couple. The woman, Annabel, wakes up and goes to the window, causing the bird to flee. Crossing over to her far shoulder, we rest on Annabel’s reflection for a moment, before racking focus to another woman outside, maybe 200ft away, running towards a cliff. All in one shot.
Such was the action required in a scene from Annabel Lee, the most ambitious short I’ve ever been involved with. Based on Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, the film was the brainchild of actor Angel Parker, who plays the titular character. It was directed by Amy Coop, who had already to decided to shoot on an Alexa Mini with Cooke Anamorphics before I was even hired.
Working with animals has its own difficulties, but for me as director of photography the challenges of this particular shot were:
Making the bedroom appear moonlit by the single window, without any lamps being visible at any point in the Steadicam move.
Lighting the view outside.
Ensuring the live raven read on camera even though the shot was quite wide.
Making Annabel bright enough that her reflection would read, without washing out the rest of the scene.
Blocking the camera in concert with Annabel’s move so that its reflection would not be seen.
I left that last one in the capable hands of Steadicam op Rupert Peddle, along with Angel and Amy. What they ended up doing was timing Angel’s move so that she would block the window from camera at the moment that the camera’s reflection would have appeared.
Meanwhile, I put my head together with gaffer Bertil Mulvad to tackle the other four challenges. We arrived at a set-up using only three lights:
A LiteMat 1 above the window (indoors) which served to light Annabel and her reflection, as well as reaching to the bed.
Another LED source outside the window to one side, lighting the raven.
A nine-light Maxibrute on a cherry-picker, side-lighting the woman outside and the cliffs. This was gelled with CTB to match the daylight LEDs.
Unfortunately the outside LED panel backlit the window glass, which was old and kept fogging up, obscuring the raven. With hindsight that panel might have been better on the other side of the window (left rather than right, but still outside), even though it would have created some spill problems inside. (To be honest, this would have made the lighting direction more consistent with the Maxibrute “moonlight” as well. It’s so easy to see this stuff after the fact!)
Everything else worked very well, but editor Jim Page did have to cut in a close-up of the raven, without which you’d never have known it was there.
White walls are the bane of a DP’s existence. They bounce light around everywhere, killing the mood, and they look cheap and boring in the background of your shot. Nonetheless, with so many contemporary buildings decorated this way, it’s a challenge we all have to face. Today I’m going to look back on two short films I’ve photographed, and explain the different approaches I took to get the white-walled locations looking nice.
Finding Hope is a moving drama about a couple grieving for the baby they have lost. It was shot largely at the home of the producer, Jean Maye, on a Sony FS7 with Sigma and Pentax stills glass.
Exit Eve is a non-linear narrative about the dehumanisation of an au pair by her wealthy employers. With a fairly respectable budget for a short, this production shot in a luxurious Battersea townhouse on an Arri Alexa Classic with Ultra Primes.
“Crown”-inspired colour contrast
It was January 2017 when we made Finding Hope, and I’d recently been watching a lot of The Crown. I liked how that series punctuated its daylight interior frames with pools of orange light from practicals. We couldn’t afford much of a lighting package, and I thought that pairing existing pracs with dimmers and tungsten bulbs would be a cheap and easy way to break up the white walls and bring some warmth – perhaps a visual representation of the titular hope – into the heavy story.
I shot all the daylight interiors at 5600K to get that warmth out of the pracs. Meanwhile I shaped the natural light as far as possible with the existing curtains, and beefed it up with a 1.2K HMI where I could. I used no haze or lens diffusion on the film because I felt it needed the unforgiving edges.
For close-ups, I often cheated the pracs a little closer and tweaked the angle, but I chose not to supplement them with movie lamps. The FS7’s native ISO of 2500 helped a lot, especially in a nighttime scene where the grieving parents finally let each other in. Director Krysten Resnick had decided that there would be tea-lights on the kitchen counter, and I asked art director Justine Arbuthnot to increase the number as much as she dared. They became the key-light, and again I tweaked them around for the close-ups.
My favourite scene in Finding Hope is another nighttime one, in which Crystal Leaity sits at a piano while Kevin Leslie watches from the doorway. I continued the theme of warm practicals, bouncing a bare 100W globe off the wall as Crystal’s key, and shaping the existing hall light with some black wrap, but I alternated that with layers of contrasting blue light: the HMI’s “moonlight” coming in through the window, and the flicker of a TV in the deep background. This latter was a blue-gelled 800W tungsten lamp bounced off a wobbling reflector.
When I saw the finished film, I was very pleased that the colourist had leant into the warm/cool contrast throughout the piece, even teasing it out of the daylight exteriors.
Trapped in a stark white townhouse
I took a different approach to colour in Exit Eve. Director Charlie Parham already knew that he wanted strong red lighting in party scenes, and I felt that this would be most effective if I kept colour out of the lighting elsewhere. As the film approaches its climax, I did start to bring in the orange of outside streetlamps, and glimpses of the party’s red, but otherwise I kept the light stark and white.
Converted from a Victorian schoolhouse, the location had high ceilings, huge windows and multiple floors, so I knew that I would mostly have to live with whatever natural light did or didn’t shine in. We were shooting during the heatwave of 2018, with many long handheld takes following lead actor Thalissa Teixeria from room to room and floor to floor, so even the Alexa’s dynamic range struggled to cope with the variations in light level.
For a night scene in the top floor bedroom, I found that the existing practicals were perfectly placed to provide shape and backlight. I white-balanced to 3600K to keep most of the colour out of them, and rigged black solids behind the camera to prevent the white walls from filling in the shadows.
(Incidentally, the night portions of this sequence were shot as one continuous take, despite comprising two different scenes set months apart. The actors did a quick-change and the bed was redressed by the art department while it was out frame, but sadly this tour de force was chopped up in the final cut.)
I had most control over the lighting when it came to the denouement in the ground floor living area. Here I was inspired by the work of Bradford Young, ASC to backlight the closed blinds (with tungsten units gelled to represent streetlights) and allow the actors inside to go a bit dim and murky. For a key moment we put a red gel on one of the existing spotlights in the living room and let the cast step into it.
So there we have it, two different approaches to lighting in a while-walled location: creating colour contrast with dimmed practicals, or embracing the starkness and saving the colour for dramatic moments. How will you tackle your next magnolia-hued background?
For another example of how I’ve tackled white-walled locations, see my Forever Alone blog.
So far, this blog series about my cinematography of The Little Mermaid has covered the biggest and most complex scenes in the movie. Today I’m going to look at some smaller scenes, and how I employed the cinematography tenet of lighting from the back to quickly build a look for these which has depth, mood and drama.
Many of these examples are specifically cross-backlighting, something I covered in my Lighting Techniques series, but I’ll quickly recap since it has so much relevance here. It involves lighting two characters facing each other with two sources, on the far side of the eye-line (short key), crossed so that each source keys one character and often backlights the other too.
So with that in mind, let’s proceed to the examples from my shooting diary.
The first week is pretty much all in houses with just a few principals, so an easy start. Day 1’s schedule is tight though. We start in a third floor bedroom – no way lamps are getting up to those windows from outside, so I’m relying on natural light augmented with a bit of cross-backlight cheated inside the room. (There’s a Kino Flo shining at Elle over Cam’s right shoulder, for example.) Once the haze is in it looks great. After we get the main coverage, we head out to the garden for the next scene, while the ‘B’ camera team steps in to pick up a couple of inserts…
…It’s a night scene and the grips have tented the window. To get a nice blue glow coming in, I have two 4×4 Kino Flos set either side of the window (outside), and they give a great wrapping backlight to the actors and the set dressing. Smoke and a cool white balance of 3,200K (the Kinos are tubed for 5,600K) complete the look. It owes a lot to a scene from Hook, one of Blake’s (director Blake Harris) reference movies which I watched during preprod. This stuff definitely filters in and inspires things!
Our first day on stage. It’s weird to be back at the former supermarket I spent five weeks of preproduction in. The first set, Locke’s chamber, is very confined and the walls don’t wild, so it’s quite slow-going to work in there. We fire a 5K fresnel through the stained glass window at the back of the set. Then I fall back on the tried and tested method of cross-backlighting even though I know that it will be hard to hide the lamps (a 650W fresnel in both of the upper rear corners of the set) from camera. In the end I have the art department dress drapes in front of them. For the villain’s single I leave the light hard, but for the hero’s single we use bounce boards to wrap the light around his face more…
We start with the fortune-teller’s tent, another small set constructed on stage. In fact, it’s just an Easy-Up artfully draped with fabrics. Initially there’s nowhere to get light in from except the front, but I know that this will leave the scene looking flat and fake, so I work with the art department again to make holes in the top rear corners. Through those we shine tungsten-bubbled “Fat Boy” Kino Flos. (These 2ft 4-bank units are giving the dual kickers on Cam in the centre, and the beautiful down-light on the background fabrics, bringing out the ruching. Each one also provides a little key-light on the two ladies.) The other sources are “moonlight” coming in through the entrance, linking us to the circus exteriors, and a stylised slash of light across Thora’s eyes from a Source Four, suggested by Jason (key grip Jason Batey). Adding foreground practicals is an important final touch to expand the depth and scale of the set…
It’s the last day of principal photography. Our big scene of the day is the newspaper office where Cam works, which is a set in the front of the studio, using the building’s real windows. We fire the 12K in and gel it with half CTS for a nice morning sunlight effect. We’re shooting towards the windows, which have blinds, so we get some nice shafts of light, though sometimes it’s a little too smokey. Running haze is a pretty skilled and tricky job, and involves considering the lens length and backlight, which both affect how much the smoke shows up on camera. When we get it right, combined with the dark wood period furniture, it totally sells the 1937 setting. Apparently people at video village are loving it, saying it looks like Mad Men….
Although The Little Mermaid takes place mostly on dry land, there were some key scenes involving tanks and pools. These include the moment which introduces the audience to the mermaid herself, played by Poppy Drayton. Here are some extracts from my diary covering the challenges of creating a magical, fairytale look while filming in and around water.
Today we’re inside the big top all day – actually all NIGHT. We can’t shoot during the day because too much daylight bleeds through the canvas of the tent.
We are setting up when a storm hits. The tent starts to blow about in a slightly alarming fashion, rain lashes down outside (and inside, because the tent isn’t very waterproof) and lightning flashes. We are ordered out of the tent, and I run into a waiting mini-van with Joe from art and some of the camera crew. We sit watching the rain and telling stories for half an hour before we can press on.
Around the wall of the tent the art department have hung canvas posters; at the suggestion of gaffer Mike Horton, we uplight these with par cans and par 38s. The design of these fixtures hasn’t changed since the 30s, so we can get away with seeing them in shot. The art dept have sourced four period spotlights which we use as background interest (they’re not powerful enough to really illuminate anything), as well as string-lights.
Ambience comes from a Maxi Brute, with just a couple of bubbles on, firing into the tent roof. After seeing a video test of various diffusersduring preproduction, I asked for Moroccan Frost to be added to our consumables list, and we use it for the first time on this Maxi Brute. It gives a lovely muted orangey-pink look to the scene.
We’re shooting our mermaid for the very first time, in a tank in the circus ring. The initial plan is to fire a Source Four straight down into the water to create genuine watery rippling light, while bouncing a par can off a wobbling frame of blue gel to beef up the effect. In the end the Source Four isn’t really cutting it, so instead we rig a 575W HMI, gelled with Steel Blue, to a menace arm and fire it into the tank as toppy backlight. This Steel Blue gelled daylight source, blued up slightly further by the water itself, contrasts beautifully with the Moroccan Frost tungsten ambience which the Maxi Brutes are giving us.
In her mermaid tail and costume, Poppy Drayton looks stunning in the tank. We shoot steadicam angles and some slo-mo to get the most out of the set-up.
Back on stage, and we’re shooting the rocky pool. This set was built before I even arrived in Savannah, so I’ve been waiting a long time to shoot it. It’s built almost right up to the ceiling of the studio (a former supermarket) so it’s challenging to light. The grips build four menace arms and poke two 4×4 Kinos and two 575W HMIs over the sides to cross-light the set and bring out all the texture in it. Where the set ends they put up a 20×20′ greenscreen, which we light with two Kino Flo Image 80s fitted with special chroma green tubes.
After a wide (which didn’t make the final cut), the next set-up is a 2-shot of our leads in the pool itself. We consider arming the camera out over the pool using a jib, but ultimately decide that it’s better for me to join the cast in the pool, with the camera on my shoulder in a splash bag. 2nd AC Kane Pearson joins the pool party as well, and ends up hand-bashing a monitor for me since the splash bag’s designed for a Panaflex film camera and the viewfinder doesn’t line up. I’m reminded of my frustrating splash bag experience on See Saw back in 2007, but this time at least within a few minutes I’ve found a comfortable and effective way to operate the camera, under-slinging it and allowing it to partially float so I don’t have to support the whole weight.
For this shot we’ve added our par-can-bounced-off-a-wobbling-blue-gel gag for watery light ripples, and combined with the real light ripples and the reflections of a 1.2K HMI backlight, the image looks beautiful.
After lunch we shoot the singles for the rocky pool scene. The pool itself has been removed, and the actors sit on stools in a paddling pool, with the set behind them. The paddling pool serves two functions: it catches the water that make-up pours over the actors to make them look wet, and it reflects rippling light onto their faces. This light originates from a par can. At first it flattens out the look, then we figure out that we need to lay black fabric on the bottom of the pool. This stops the par can’s light bouncing directly, while retaining the rippling highlights off the water’s surface. (Check out my article on shooting water for more tips like this.)
In the final edit this was all intercut with some beautiful footage by underwater DP Jordan Klein, shot both at a local diving pool in Savannah and at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in Florida. The main unit shot another scene in the actual ocean, but I’ll cover that later in this series. In the meantime, next week I’ll reveal some of the tricks and techniques used in shooting The Little Mermaid‘s many sequences in moving vehicles.
The biggest set on The Little Mermaid was the circus, an area the size of a football pitch which was transformed into a period spectacle. The big top and many other pieces were driven across the country from LA, and during our first week of principal photography the art department were hard at work setting it all up and dressing it.
Today’s post is about how I lit the night exterior scenes on this huge set. To that end I’m going to focus on the two biggest shots in the sequence: a tracking shot outside the big top, and the crane-up which first reveals the circus to the audience. Below, as well as my diary entries from the shoot, you’ll find a little behind-the-scenes video I grabbed on my phone for the tracking shot, and a lighting plan for the crane shot.
A couple of daylight pick-ups today, then we start setting up for a big night scene. The camera will dolly with Cam and Elle from the exit of the big top, past candy floss and ‘healing water’ stalls where bits of dialogue will happen, and finally reveal a ferris wheel in the distance. We block while the sun’s still up, and paint in the light as night sets in. We are trying to light most of it in a way that will also work for our big crane shot reveal of the circus later in the week, because repositioning large HMIs – especially the two 18Ks we’re flying on a condor (cherry-picker) – is very time-consuming. Inevitably it doesn’t quite work out that way, and one of the 18Ks has to die for now at least.
The ferris wheel is backlit by a 12K, with a little front-light from a 5K tungsten fresnel. Cross-light on the talent comes from the working 18K and a 6K on the opposite side of frame. Nine-light Maxi Brutes illuminate the tent from inside, some of that light spilling out onto the talent, while par cans uplight a row of banners outside. A 1K baby provides edge-light to the talent in their final position. A 300W fresnel inside the healing water wagon spills out, and a bare 40W globe inside the umbrella of the candy floss stall gives us a little glow there.
The final lamp to go up is another 300W fresnel, because the directors are concerned that the ’sold out’ sign on the healing water wagon isn’t clear enough. We end up firing it in from the front because there’s no time for anything else, but as always with front-light, I deeply regret it. Ideally we would have armed it out from the roof of the wagon to rake down the side of it.
Once the supporting artists are choreographed, the shot looks great.
We start with a big crane shot revealing the whole circus at night. For this shot we have the following lamps burning: 2 x 18Ks (on a condor), 1 x 12K, 1 x 4K – all those are providing moonlight or starlight, with varying degrees of blue gel on them; 2 x Nine-light Maxi Brutes making the big top glow from inside; a 5K spilling some orange glow on the background; 2 or 3 smaller tungsten units spilling out light from inside the smaller tents; and lighting the foreground, a 4×4 Kino and a 1K baby bounced off unbleached muslin. There are also numerous practicals on, including the lights on the ferris wheel, the illuminated ‘circus’ sign, several par can up-lighters, and about 7KW of fairy lights. Totalling over 80KW, it is easily the biggest lighting set-up of my career. Although the grip and electrical crew is relatively small given the scale of the set-up, they handle it with aplomb.
We have rebuilt our Giraffe crane to its maximum 31ft configuration, so we can swoop up over the entrance tent, past the ’circus’ sign, and reveal the twinkling string-lights of the midway leading to the big top, and the rides beyond.
Here’s a retrospective lighting plan for this crane shot (not to scale); click to enlarge it. Note that additional tents were added in postproduction, as you can see in the trailer.
Ideally we would have had two condors, with an 18K on each, and put one of them way back behind the trees, to maintain a consistent direction of moonlight, but budget and the practicalities of the location made this impossible.
One thing that was a little different to my original plan was the hard 4K edging the roofs of the midway tents on the lefthand side. This was meant to be a pair of 6Ks firing through a diffusion frame, to get a much softer, less “sourcey” look than the hard “moonlight” from the 18Ks. But unfortunately both our 6Ks were malfunctioning.
Another change was the lighting of the midway itself. We had a tungsten helium balloon on the truck, which I had planned to float above the midway to provide warm ambience. As it turned out, the practical string lights, although only 40W each, were so numerous that they provided ample illumination in the centre of the frame.
Later on in production, I was chatting to one of the ADs about this scene and he expressed surprise at how well I had handled it, given that it was so much bigger than any lighting set-up I’d previously done. Honestly it never fazed me. Lighting is entirely scaleable; the principles are identical, whether your set is a small bathroom or a football pitch. I’d done so much night exterior in my career, I’d just never had the big toys I wanted before. I’ll let you in on a secret though: the only reason I knew to ask for 18Ks and a condor was from reading American Cinematographer!
In my next post I’ll discuss shooting some of Poppy Drayton’s key scenes as the eponymous mermaid, including her introduction inside the big top. Don’t forget that The Little Mermaid is currently showing in movie theatres across the US and on Amazon in the UK.
Last week I discussed the technical and creative decisions that went into the camerawork of The Knowledge, a fake game show for an art installation conceived by Ian Wolter and directed by Jonnie Howard. This week I’ll break down the choices and challenges involved in lighting the film.
The eighties quiz shows which I looked at during prep were all lit with the dullest, flattest light imaginable. It was only when I moved forward to the nineties shows which Jonnie and I grew up on, like Blockbusters and The Generation Game, that I started to see some creativity in the lighting design: strip-lights and glowing panels in the sets, spotlights and gobos on the backgrounds, and moodier lighting states for quick-fire rounds.
Jonnie and I both wanted TheKnowledge‘s lightingto be closer to this nineties look. He was keen to give each team a glowing taxi sign on their desks, which would be the only source of illumination on the contestants at certain moments. Designer Amanda Stekly and I came up with plans for additional practicals – ultimately LED string-lights – that would follow the map-like lines in the set’s back walls.
Once the set design had been finalised, I did my own dodgy pencil sketch and Photoshopped it to create two different lighting previsualisations for Jonnie.
He felt that these were a little too sophisticated, so after some discussion I produced a revised previz…
…and a secondary version showing a lighting state with one team in shadow.
These were approved, so now it was a case of turning those images into reality.
We were shooting on a soundstage, but for budget reasons we opted not to use the lighting grid. I must admit that this worried me for a little while. The key-light needed to come from the front, contrary to normal principles of good cinematography, but very much in keeping with how TV game shows are lit. I was concerned that the light stands and the cameras would get in each others’ way, but my gaffer Ben Millar assured me it could be done, and of course he was right.
Ben ordered several five-section Strato Safe stands (or Fuck-offs as they’re charmingly known). These were so high that, even when placed far enough back to leave room for the cameras, we could get the 45° key angle which we needed in order to avoid seeing the contestants’ shadows on the back walls. (A steep key like this is sometimes known as a butterfly key, for the shape of the shadow which the subject’s nose casts on their upper lip.) Using the barn doors, and double nets on friction arms in front of the lamp-heads, Ben feathered the key-light to hit as little as possible of the back walls and the fronts of the desks. As well as giving the light some shape, this prevented the practical LEDs from getting washed out.
Once those key-lights were established (a 5K fresnel for each team), we set a 2K backlight for each team as well. These were immediately behind the set, their stands wrapped in duvetyne, and the necks well and truly broken to give a very toppy backlight. A third 2K was placed between the staggered central panels of the set, spilling a streak of light out through the gap from which host Robert Jezek would emerge.
A trio of Source Fours with 15-30mm zoom lenses were used for targeted illumination of certain areas. One was aimed at The Knowledge sign, its cutters adjusted to form a rectangle of light around it. Another was focused on the oval map on the floor, which would come into play during the latter part of the show. The last Source Four was used as a follow-spot on Robert. We had to dim it considerably to keep the exposure in range, which conveniently made him look like he had a fake tan! Ben hooked everything, in fact, up to a dimmer board, so that various lighting cues could be accomplished in camera.
The bulk of the film was recorded in a single day, following a day’s set assembly and a day of pre-rigging. A skeleton crew returned the next day to shoot pick-ups and promos, a couple of which you can see on Vimeo here.
I’ll leave you with some frame grabs from the finished film. Find out more about Ian Wolter’s work at ianwolter.com.