5 Ways to Fake Firelight

Real SFX run a fishtail on the set of “Heretiks”

Firelight adds colour and dynamism to any lighting set-up, not to mention being essential for period and fantasy films. But often it’s not practical to use real firelight as your source. Even if you could do it safely, continuity could be a problem.

A production that can afford an experienced SFX crew might be able to employ fishtails, V-shaped gas outlets that produce a highly controllable bar of flame, as we did on Heretiks. If such luxuries are beyond your budget, however, you might need to think about simulating firelight. As my gaffer friend Richard Roberts once said while operating an array of flickering tungsten globes (method no. 3), “There’s nothing like a real fire… and this is nothing like a real fire.”

 

1. Waving Hands

The simplest way to fake firelight is to wave your hands in front of a light source. This will work for any kind of source, hard or soft; just experiment with movements and distances and find out what works best for you. A layer of diffusion on the lamp, another in a frame, and the waving hands in between, perhaps?

Visit my Instagram feed for loads more diagrams like this.

One of my favourite lighting stories involves a big night exterior shot from The First Musketeer which was done at the Chateau de Fumel in the Lot Valley, France. We were just about to turnover when a bunch of automatic floodlights came on, illuminating the front of the chateau and destroying the period illusion of our scene. We all ran around for a while, looking for the off switch, but couldn’t find it. In the end I put orange gel on the floodlights and had someone crouch next to each one, wiggling their hands like a magician, and suddenly the chateau appeared to be lit by burning braziers.

 

2. Wobbling Reflector

This is my go-to technique – quick, easy and effective. It’s demonstrated in my Cinematic Lighting course on Udemy and also in this episode of Lensing Ren:

All you need is a collapsible reflector with a gold side, and an open-face tungsten fixture. Simply point the latter at the former and wobble the reflector during the take to create the flickering effect.

 

3. Tungsten Array

If you want to get more sophisticated, you can create a rig of tungsten units hooked up to a dimmer board. Electronic boxes exist to create a flame-like dimming pattern, but you can also just do it by pushing the sliders up and down randomly. I’ve done this a lot with 100W tungsten globes in simple pendant fittings, clipped to parts of the set or to wooden battens. You can add more dynamics by gelling the individual lamps with different colours – yellows, oranges and reds.

John Higgins’ 2MW firelight rig from “1917”

Larger productions tend to use Brutes, a.k.a. Dinos, a.k.a. 9-lights, which are banks of 1K pars. The zenith of this technique is the two megawatt rig built by gaffer John Higgins for Roger Deakins, CBE, BSC, ASC on 1917.

 

4. Programmed L.E.D.

Technological advances in recent years have provided a couple of new methods of simulating firelight. One of these is the emergence of LED fixtures with built-in effects programmes like police lights, lightning and flames. These units come in all shapes, sizes and price-ranges.

Philip Bloom’s budget fire-effect rig on location for “Filmmaking for Photographers”

On War of the Worlds: The Attack last year, gaffer Callum Begley introduced me to Astera tubes, and we used their flame effect for a campfire scene in the woods when we were having continuity problems with the real fire. For the more financially challenged, domestic fire-effect LED bulbs are cheap and screw into standard sockets. Philip Bloom had a few of these on goose-neck fittings which we used extensively in the fireplaces of Devizes Castle when shooting a filmmaking course for Mzed.

 

5. L.e.D. Screen

A logical extension of an LED panel or bulb that crudely represents the pattern of flames is an LED screen that actually plays video footage of a fire. The oil rig disaster docu-drama Deep Horizon and Christoper Nolan’s Dunkirk are just two films that have used giant screens to create the interactive light of off-camera fires. There are many other uses for LED screens in lighting, which I’ve covered in detail before, with the ultimate evolution being Mandalorian-style virtual volumes.

You don’t necessarily need a huge budget to try this technique. What about playing one of those festive YouTube videos of a crackling log fire on your home TV? For certain shots, especially given the high native ISOs of some cameras today, this might make a pretty convincing firelight effect. For a while now I’ve been meaning to try fire footage on an iPad as a surrogate candle. There is much here to explore.

So remember, there may be no smoke without fire, but there can be firelight without fire.

5 Ways to Fake Firelight

Beautiful/Realistic/Cheap: The Lighting Triangle

We’re all familiar with the “good/fast/cheap” triangle. You can pick any two, but never all three. When it comes to lighting films, I would posit that there is a slightly different triangle of truth labelled “beautiful/realistic/cheap”. When you’re working to a tight budget, a DP often has to choose between beautiful or realistic lighting, where a better-funded cinematographer can have both.

I first started thinking about this in 2018 when I shot Annabel Lee. Specifically it was when we were shooting a scene from this short period drama – directed by Amy Coop – in a church. Our equipment package was on the larger side for a short, but still far from ideal for lighting up a building of that size. Our biggest instrument was a Nine-light Maxi Brute, which is a grid of 1KW par globes, then we had a couple of 2.5K HMIs and nothing else of any signifcant power.

Director Amy Coop during the church recce for “Annabel Lee”

The master shot for the scene was a side-on dolly move parallel to the central aisle, with three large stained-glass windows visible in the background. My choices were either to put a Maxi Brute or an HMI outside each window, to use only natural light, or to key the scene from somewhere inside the building. The first option was beautiful but not realistic, as I shall explain, the second option would have been realistic but not beautiful (and probably under-exposed) and the third would have been neither.

I went with the hard source outside of each window. I could not diffuse or bounce the light because that would have reduced the intensity to pretty much nothing. (Stained-glass windows don’t transmit a lot of light through them.) For the same reason, the lamps had to be pretty close to the glass.

The result is that, during this dolly shot, each of the three lamps is visible at one time or another. You can’t tell they’re lamps – the blown-out panes of glass disguise them – but the fact that there are three of them rather gives away that they are not the sun! (There is also the issue that contiguous scenes outside the church have overcast light, but that is a discontinuity I have noticed in many other films and series.)

I voiced my concerns to Amy at the time – trying to shirk responsibility, I suppose! Fortunately she found it beautiful enough to let the realism slide.

But I couldn’t help thinking that, with a larger budget and thus larger instruments, I could have had both beauty and realism. If I had had three 18K HMIs, for example, plus the pre-rig time to put them on condors or scaffolding towers, they could all have been high enough and far enough back from the windows that they wouldn’t have been seen. I would still have got the same angle of light and the nice shafts in the smoke, but they would have passed much more convincingly as a single sun source. Hell, if I’d had the budget for a 100KW SoftSun then I really could have done it with one source!

There have been many other examples of the beauty/realism problem throughout my career. One that springs to mind is Above the Clouds, where the 2.5K HMI which I was using as a backlight for a night exterior was in an unrealistic position. The ground behind the action sloped downwards, so the HMI on its wind-up stand threw shafts of light upwards. With the money for a cherry-picker, a far more moon-like high-angle could have been achieved. Without such funds, my only alternative was to sacrifice the beauty of a backlight altogether, which I was not willing to do.

The difference between that example and Annabel Lee is that Clouds director Leon Chambers was unable to accept the unrealistic lighting, and ended up cutting around it. So I think it’s quite important to get on the same page as your director when you’re lighting with limited means.

I remember asking Paul Hyett when we were prepping Heretiks, “How do you feel about shafts of ‘sunlight’ coming into a room from two different directions?” He replied that “two different directions is fine, but not three.” That was a very nice, clear drawing of the line between beauty (or at least stylisation) and realism, which helped me enormously during production.

The beauty/realism/cost triangle is one we all have to navigate. Although it might sometimes give us regrets about what could have been, as long we’re on the same page as our directors we should still get results we can all live with.

Beautiful/Realistic/Cheap: The Lighting Triangle

Cinematic Lighting: An Online Course Available Now

My online course, Cinematic Lighting, is available now on Udemy. It’s an advanced and in-depth guide to arguably the most important part of a director of photography’s job: designing the illumination.

The course is aimed at cinematography students, camera operators looking to move up to DP, corporate/industrial filmmakers looking to move into drama, and indie filmmakers looking to increase their production values.

Rather than demonstrating techniques in isolation in a studio, the course takes place entirely on location. The intent is to show the realities of creating beautiful lighting while dealing with the usual challenges of real independent film production, like time, weather and equipment, as well as meeting the requirements of the script.

Cinematic Lighting consists of four hour-long modules: Day Exterior, Day Interior, Night Interior and Night Exterior. Each module follows the blocking, lighting and shooting of a short scripted scene (inspired by the fantasy web series Ren: The Girl with the Mark) with two actors in full costume. Watch me and my team set up all the fixtures, control the light with flags and rags, and make adjustments when the camera moves around for the coverage. Every step of the way, I explain what I’m doing and why, as well as the alternatives you could consider for your own films. Each module concludes with the final edited scene so that you can see the end result.

Students should already have a grasp of basic cinematography concepts like white balance and depth of field. A familiarity with the principle of three-point lighting will be useful, but not essential.

You will learn:

  • how to create depth and contrast in your shots;
  • how to light for both the master shot and the coverage;
  • how and when to use HMI, fluorescent, LED and traditional tungsten lighting;
  • how to use natural light to your advantage, and how to mould it;
  • how to use a light meter and false colours to correctly expose your image;
  • how to use smoke or haze to create atmosphere, and
  • how to simulate sunlight, moonlight and firelight.

Get lifetime access to Cinematic Lighting now.

Below is a full breakdown of the course content.

 

MODULE 1: DAY EXTERIOR

Learn how to block your scene to make the most of the natural light, and how to modify that light with flags, bounce and diffusion, as well as how to expose your image correctly.

1.1 Principles & Prep

  • What to look for on a recce/scout
  • How to predict the sun path using apps or a compass
  • How to block action relative to the sun
  • Three-point lighting
  • The importance of depth in cinematography
  • When to shoot in cross-light vs. backlight
  • How to get rippling reflections off water

1.2 Blocking for Success

  • Observing a rehearsal with actors Kate and Ivan
  • What to look for in the blocking
  • How to get reflections off a blade
  • When to shoot the master shot
  • How to choose what order to shoot your coverage in
  • Using a white poly/bead-board as bounce

1.3 Exposure

  • Why light meters are still important
  • Dynamic range and log recording
  • How to use an incident meter and a spot reflectance meter
  • The f-stop series
  • How to use false colours
  • How to arrive at the right exposure from all this information
  • How to select the appropriate ND (neutral density) filter
  • Shooting the wide shot

1.4 Shaping the Singles

  • Short- and broad-key lighting
  • Types of reflector
  • Positioning a reflector
  • Paying attention to eye reflections
  • Negative fill
  • How to use 4×4 floppy flags
  • Shooting Ivan’s close-up
  • Using a trace frame
  • “Health bounce”
  • Shooting Kate’s close-up
  • Summary
  • The final edited scene

MODULE 2: DAY INTERIOR

This module introduces some common lighting instruments, demonstrates how to imitate natural light entering a room, and how to create depth and contrast with black-out and smoke.

2.1 Scouting & Equipment

  • Identifying light sources in the room
  • Using apps or a compass to predict how sun will enter through the windows
  • The principle of dark-to-light depth
  • Using curtains to modify interior light
  • Introduction to some common lighting instruments: Dedolights, Kino Flos, an HMI and a Rayzr MC LED panel

2.2 Lighting through a Window

  • Observing the blocking with actors Kate and Ivan
  • Direct lighting using an HMI
  • Controlling contrast with black-out
  • Diffusing the light with a trace frame
  • Bouncing the light off poly/bead-board
  • Bouncing the light off parts of the set
  • Use of a light meter and false colours to set the correct exposure

2.3 Atmosphere

  • Use of smoke or haze to add atmosphere to the scene
  • Reasons to add atmosphere
  • The concept of aerial perspective
  • Shooting the master shot
  • Comparison of the final shot to the other versions demonstrated in 2.2 and 2.3

2.4 Lighting the Reverse

  • Use of viewfinder apps to find a frame and select a lens
  • Challenges of front-light
  • Adjusting the window light to highlight certain areas
  • Demonstrating a “window wrap” using a Kino Flo
  • Using light readings and ND filters to arrive at the correct exposure
  • Shooting the reverse
  • Summary
  • The final edited scene

MODULE 3: NIGHT INTERIOR

Create a moody night-time look indoors using practical sources, toplight, and simulated moonlight and firelight.

3.1 Internal vs. External Light

  • Observing the blocking with actors Kate and Ivan
  • Approaches to lighting a night interior scene
  • Lighting from outside with an HMI “moon”
  • Working with bounced “moonlight” inside the room
  • Choosing an overhead source as the key light

3.2 Working with Toplight

  • Time and safety considerations of working with top-light
  • Rigging a top-light safely
  • Controlling top-light spill on the set walls
  • Using unbleached muslin to soften and warm up the light
  • The inverse square law

3.3 Firelight & Moonlight

  • Working with practical candles
  • Reinforcing candles with a hidden LED fixture
  • Simulating an off-camera fireplace
  • Lighting the view outside the window
  • Bringing moonlight into the room to add colour contrast and depth
  • Shooting the master shot

3.4 Tweaking for the Coverage

  • Checking the blocking for the first single
  • Filling in shadows using additional unbleached muslin
  • Flagging the top-light to control the background
  • Adjusting the external light to maintain colour contrast
  • Shooting Kate’s single
  • Adjusting the fireplace effect to work for a close-up
  • Shooting Ivan’s single
  • Summary
  • The final edited scene

MODULE 4: NIGHT EXTERIOR

Paint with light on the blank canvas of night; set up an artificial moon; create depth, contrast and colour contrast; and use shadows to your advantage.

4.1 Setting the Moon

  • Observing the blocking with actors Kate and Ivan
  • Principles of night exterior lighting
  • Creating believable moonlight
  • Features of HMI lighting
  • Choosing a position and height for the HMI “moon”

4.2 Finessing the Master

  • Use of a practical fire source
  • Reinforcing a practical fire with an LED fixture
  • Colour contrast
  • Using a Kino Flo as an additional soft source
  • Tackling a difficult shadow
  • Reading and adjusting lighting ratios using an incident meter
  • Working with smoke/atmos outdoors
  • Shooting the master shot

4.3 Shooting the Singles

  • Adjusting the existing sources to work for a close-up
  • Shooting Ivan’s single
  • Diffusing the HMI
  • Monitoring exposure using false colours
  • Shooting Kate’s single

4.4 Lighting the Reverse

  • The pros and cons of flipping the backlight
  • Example of cheating the moonlight around
  • Using established sources to your advantage
  • Adding diffusion vs. a gobo to the HMI
  • Creating a “branch-a-loris”
  • Shooting the reverse
  • Summary
  • The final edited scene

APPENDICES

Useful links, a full kit list and a deleted scene

Get lifetime access to Cinematic Lighting now.

Cinematic Lighting: An Online Course Available Now

Why You Can’t Re-light Footage in Post

The concept of “re-lighting in post” is one that has enjoyed a popularity amongst some no-budget filmmakers, and which sometimes gets bandied around on much bigger sets as well. If there isn’t the time, the money or perhaps simply the will to light a scene well on the day, the flexibility of RAW recording and the power of modern grading software mean that the lighting can be completely changed in postproduction, so the idea goes.

I can understand why it’s attractive. Lighting equipment can be expensive, and setting it up and finessing it is one of the biggest consumers of time on any set. The time of a single wizard colourist can seem appealingly cost-effective – especially on an unpaid, no-budget production! – compared with the money pit that is a crew, cast, location, catering, etc, etc. Delaying the pain until a little further down the line can seem like a no-brainer.

There’s just one problem: re-lighting footage is fundamentally impossible. To even talk about “re-lighting” footage demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of what photographing a film actually is.

This video, captured at a trillion frames per second, shows the tranmission and reflection of light.

The word “photography” comes from Greek, meaning “drawing with light”. This is not just an excuse for pompous DPs to compare themselves with the great artists of the past as they “paint with light”; it is a concise explanation of what a camera does.

A camera can’t record a face. It can’t record a room, or a landscape, or an animal, or objects of any kind. The only thing a camera can record is light. All photographs and videos are patterns of light which the viewer’s brain reverse-engineers into a three-dimensional scene, just as our brains reverse-engineer the patterns of light on the retinae every moment of every day, to make sense of our surroundings.

The light from this object gets gradually brighter then gradually darker again – therefore it is a curved surface. There is light on the top of that nose but not on the underneath, so it must be sticking out. These oval surfaces are absorbing all the red and blue light and reflecting only green, so it must be plant life. Such are the deductions made continuously by the brain’s visual centre.

A compound lens for a prototype light-field camera by Adobe

To suggest that footage can be re-lit is to suggest that recorded light can somehow be separated from the underlying physical objects off which that light reflected. Now of course that is within the realms of today’s technology; you could analyse a filmed scene and build a virtual 3D model of it to match the footage. Then you could “re-light” this recreated scene, but it would be a hell of a lot of work and would, at best, occupy the Uncanny Valley.

Some day, perhaps some day quite soon, artificial intelligence will be clever enough to do this for us. Feed in a 2D video and the computer will analyse the parallax and light shading to build a moving 3D model to match it, allowing a complete change of lighting and indeed composition.

Volumetric capture is already a functioning technology, currently using a mix of infrared and visible-light cameras in an environment lit as flatly as possible for maximum information – like log footage pushed to its inevitable conclusion. By surrounding the subject with cameras, a moving 3D image results.

Sir David Attenborough getting his volume captured by Microsoft

Such rigs are a type of light-field imaging, a technology that reared its head a few years ago in the form of Lytro, with viral videos showing how depth of field and even camera angle (to a limited extent) could be altered with this seemingly magical system. But even Lytro was capturing light, albeit it in a way that allowed for much more digital manipulation.

Perhaps movies will eventually be captured with some kind of Radar-type technology, bouncing electromagnetic waves outside the visible spectrum off the sets and actors to build a moving 3D model. At that point the need for light will have been completely eliminated from the production process, and the job of the director of photography will be purely a postproduction one.

While I suspect most DPs would prefer to be on a physical set than hunched over a computer, we would certainly make the transition if that was the only way to retain meaningful authorship of the image. After all, most of us are already keen to attend grading sessions to ensure our vision survives postproduction.

The Lytro Illum 2015 CP+ by Morio – own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38422894

But for the moment at least, lighting must be done on set; re-lighting after the fact is just not possible in any practical way. This is not to take away from the amazing things that a skilled colourist can do, but the vignettes, the split-toning, the power windows, the masking and the tracking – these are adjustments of emphasis.

A soft shadow can be added, but without 3D modelling it can never fall and move as a real shadow would. A face can be brightened, but the quality of light falling on it can’t be changed from soft to hard. The angle of that light can’t be altered. Cinematographers refer to a key-light as the “modelling” light for a reason: because it defines the 3D model which your brain reverse-engineers when it sees the image.

So if you’re ever tempted to leave the job of lighting to postproduction, remember that your footage is literally made of light. If you don’t take the time to get your lighting right, you might as well not have any footage at all.

Why You Can’t Re-light Footage in Post

5 Steps to Lighting a Forest at Night

EXT. FOREST - NIGHT

A simple enough slug line, and fairly common, but amongst the most challenging for a cinematographer. In this article I’ll break down into five manageable steps my process of lighting woodlands at night.

 

1. Set up the moon.

Forests typically have no artificial illumination, except perhaps practical torches carried by the cast. This means that the DP will primarily be simulating moonlight.

Your “moon” should usually be the largest HMI that your production can afford, as high up and far away as you can get it. (If your production can’t afford an HMI, I would advise against attempting night exteriors in a forest.) Ideally this would be a 12K or 18K on a cherry-picker, but in low-budget land you’re more likely to be dealing with a 2.5K on a triple wind-up stand.

Why is height important? Firstly, it’s more realistic. Real moonlight rarely comes from 15ft off the ground! Secondly, it’s hard to keep the lamp out of shot when you’re shooting towards it. A stand might seem quite tall when you’re right next to it, but as soon as you put it far away, it comes into shot quite easily. If you can use the terrain to give your HMI extra height, or acquire scaffolding or some other means of safely raising your light up, you’ll save yourself a lot of headaches.

In this shot from “The Little Mermaid” (dir. Blake Harris), a 12K HMI on a cherry-picker creates the shafts of moonlight, while another HMI through diffusion provides the frontlight. (This frontlight was orange to represent sunrise, but the scene was altered in the grade to be pure night.)

The size of the HMI is of course going to determine how large an area you can light to a sufficient exposure to record a noise-free image. Using a good low-light camera is going to help you out here. I shot a couple of recent forest night scenes on a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, which has dual native ISOs, the higher being 3200. Combined with a Speedbooster, this camera required only 1 or 2 foot-candles of illuminance, meaning that our 2.5K HMI could be a good 150 feet away from the action. (See also: “How Big a Light do I Need?”)

 

2. Plan for the reverse.

A fake moon looks great as a backlight, but what happens when it comes time to shoot the reverse? Often the schedule is too tight to move the HMI all the way around to the other side, particularly if it’s rigged up high, so you may need to embrace it as frontlight.

Frontlight is generally flat and undesirable, but it can be interesting when it’s broken up with shadows, and that’s exactly what the trees of a forest will do. Sometimes the pattern of light and dark is so strong and camouflaging that it can be hard to pick out your subject until they move. One day I intend to try this effect in a horror film as a way of concealing a monster.

One thing to look out for with frontlight is unwanted shadows, i.e. those of the camera and boom. Again, the higher up your HMI is, the less of an issue this will be.

If you can afford it, a second HMI set up in the opposite direction is an ideal way to maintain backlight; just pan one off and strike up the other. I’ve known directors to complain that this breaks continuity, but arguably it does the opposite. Frontlight and backlight look very different, especially when smoke is involved (and I’ll come to that in a minute). Isn’t it smoother to intercut two backlit shots than a backlit one and frontlit one? Ultimately it’s a matter of opinion.

An example of cheated moonlight directions in “His Dark Materials” – DP: David Luther

 

3. Consider Ground lights.

One thing I’ve been experimenting with lately is ground lights. For this you need a forest that has at least a little undulation in its terrain. You set up lights directly on the ground, pointed towards camera but hidden from it behind mounds or ridges in the deep background.

Detail from one of my 35mm stills: pedestrians backlit by car headlights in mist. Shot on Ilford Delta 3200

I once tried this with an HMI and it just looked weird, like there was a rave going on in the next field, but with soft lights it is much more effective. Try fluorescent tubes, long LED panels or even rows of festoon lights. When smoke catches them they create a beautiful glow in the background. Use a warm colour to suggest urban lighting in the distance, or leave it cold and it will pass unquestioned as ambience.

Put your cast in front of this ground glow and you will get some lovely silhouettes. Very effective silhouettes can also be captured in front of smoky shafts of hard light from your “moon”.

 

4. Fill in the faces.

All of the above looks great, but sooner or later the director is going to want to see the actors’ faces. Such is the cross a DP must bear.

On one recent project I relied on practical torches – sometimes bounced back to the cast with silver reflectors – or a soft LED ball on a boom pole, following the cast around.

Big-budget movies often rig some kind of soft toplight over the entire area they’re shooting in, but this requires a lot of prep time and money, and I expect it’s quite vulnerable to wind.

A recipe that I use a lot for all kinds of night exteriors is a hard backlight and a soft sidelight, both from the same side of camera. You don’t question where the sidelight is coming from when it’s from the same general direction as the “moon” backlight. In a forest you just have to be careful not to end up with very hot, bright trees near the sidelight, so have flags and nets at the ready.

This shot (from a film not yet released, hence the blurring) is backlit by a 2.5K HMI and side-lit by a 1×1 Aladdin LED with a softbox, both from camera right.

 

5. Don’t forget the Smoke.

Finally, as I’ve already hinted, smoke is very important for a cinematic forest scene. The best options are a gas-powered smoke gun called an Artem or a “Tube of Death”. This latter is a plastic tube connected to a fan and an electric smoke machine. The fan forces smoke into the tube and out of little holes along its length, creating an even spread of smoke.

A Tube of Death in action on the set of “The Little Mermaid”

All smoke is highly suspectible to changes in the wind. An Artem is easier to pick up and move around when the wind changes, and it doesn’t require a power supply, but you will lose time waiting for it to heat up and for the smoke and gas canisters to be changed. Whichever one you pick though, the smoke will add a tremendous amount of depth and texture to the image.

Overall, nighttime forest work scenes may be challenging, but they offer some of the greatest opportunities for moody and creative lighting. Just don’t forget your thermals and your waterproofs!

5 Steps to Lighting a Forest at Night

6 Tips for Making DIY Lighting Look Pro

Good lighting can boost the production values of a film tremendously, making the difference between an amateur and a professional-looking piece. For filmmakers early in their careers, however, the equipment typically used to achieve these results can be prohibitively expensive. Far from the Hollywood productions attended by trucks full of lights, a micro-budget film may be unable to rent even a single HMI. Do not despair though, as there are ways to light scenes well without breaking the bank. Here are my top six tips for lighting on the cheap.

 

1. Make the most of natural light

Checking my compass at the stone circle
Guesstimating the sun path on location

The hardest shots to light without the proper equipment are wide shots. Where a fully-budgeted production would rig Maxi Brutes on cherry-pickers, or pound HMIs through windows, a filmmaker of limited means simply won’t have access to the raw power of such fixtures. Instead, plan your day carefully to capture the wide shots at the time when natural light gives you the most assistance. For a day interior, this means shooting when the sun is on the correct side of the building.

See also: “Sun Paths”

 

2. Keep L.E.D.s to the background

£2 LED camping light
£2 LED camping light

There are a plethora of LED fixtures on the market, designed for all kinds of applications, some of them very reasonably priced. It might be tempting to purchase some of these to provide your primary illumination, but I advise against it. Cheap LED units (and fluorescents) have a terrible Colour Rendering Index (CRI), making for unnatural and unappealing skintones. Such units are therefore best restricted to backgrounds, accent lighting and “specials”. For example, I purchased a little LED camping light from a charity shop for about £2, and I often use it to create the blue glow from computer screens or hang it from the ceiling to produce a hint of hair-light.

See also my article on LEDs from my “Know Your Lights” series.

 

3. Key with tungsten or halogen

Worklight
Halogen floodlight

By far the best solution for a high output, high CRI, low cost key is a halogen floodlight; 500W models are available for as little as £5. Their chief disadvantage is the lack of barn doors, making the light hard to control, though if you can stretch to a roll of black wrap you can fashion a kind of snoot. Alternatively, consider investing in a secondhand tungsten movie fixture. With many people switching to LEDs, there are plenty of old tungsten units out there. Try to get a reputable brand like Arri or Ianiro, as some of the unbranded units available on Ebay are poorly wired and can be unsafe.

See also: “DIY Interview Lighting for the ‘Ren’ EPK”

 

4. Control the light

Lace curtains used to break up light in a Camerimage workshop last year

Flooding a halogen light onto a scene is never going to look good, but then the same is often true of dedicated movie fixtures. Instead it’s more how you modify the light that creates the nuanced, professional look. Improvise flags from pieces of cardboard to stop the light spilling into unwanted places – but be VERY careful how close you put them to a tungsten or halogen source, as these get extremely hot. For example, when shooting indoors, flag light off the background wall (especially if it’s white or cream) to help your subject stand out.

See also “Lighting Micro-sets” for an example of this.

 

5. Soften the light

Almost all cinematographers today prefer the subtlety of soft light to the harshness of hard light. You can achieve this by bouncing your fixture off a wall or ceiling, or a sheet of polystyrene or card. Or you could hang a white bedsheet or a shower curtain in front of the light as diffusion, but again be sure to leave a safe distance between them. Professional collapsible reflectors are available very cheaply online, and can be used in multiple ways to diffuse or reflect light.

Hot tub cover = bounce board
Hot tub cover = bounce board. Towel = flag

See also: “How to Soften Harsh Sunlight with Tinfoil and a Bedsheet”; and to read more about the pictured example: “Always Know Where Your Towel Is”

 

6. Make use of practicals

Black-wrapped ceiling light
Black-wrapped ceiling light

Finally, don’t be afraid to use existing practical lighting in your scene. Turning on the main overhead light usually kills the mood, but sometimes it can be useful. You can generate more contrast and shape by covering up the top of the lampshade, thus preventing ceiling bounce, or conversely use the ceiling bounce to give some ambient top-light and cover the bottom of the lampshade to prevent a harsh hotspot underneath it. Table lamps and under-cupboard kitchen lights can add a lot of interest and production value to your backgrounds. If possible, swap out LED or fluorescent bulbs for conventional tungsten ones for a more attractive colour and to eliminate potential flickering on camera.

See also: “5 Tips for Working with Practicals”, and for an example of the above techniques, my blog from day two of the Forever Alone shoot.

6 Tips for Making DIY Lighting Look Pro

Colour Schemes

Last week I looked at the science of colour: what it is, how our eyes see it, and how cameras see and process it. Now I’m going to look at colour theory – that is, schemes of mixing colours to produce aesthetically pleasing results.

 

The Colour wheel

The first colour wheel was drawn by Sir Isaac Newton in 1704, and it’s a precursor of the CIE diagram we met last week. It’s a method of arranging hues so that useful relationships between them – like primaries and secondaries, and the schemes we’ll cover below – can be understood. As we know from last week, colour is in reality a linear spectrum which we humans perceive by deducing it from the amounts of light triggering our red, green and blue cones, but certain quirks of our visual system make a wheel in many ways a more useful arrangement of the colours than a linear spectrum.

One of these quirks is that our long (red) cones, although having peak sensitivity to red light, have a smaller peak in sensitivity at the opposite (violet) end of the spectrum. This may be what causes our perception of colour to “wrap around”.

Another quirk is in the way that colour information is encoded in the retina before being piped along the optic nerve to the brain. Rather than producing red, green and blue signals, the retina compares the levels of red to green, and of blue to yellow (the sum of red and green cones), and sends these colour opponency channels along with a luminance channel to the brain.

You can test these opposites yourself by staring at a solid block of one of the colours for around 30 seconds and then looking at something white. The white will initially take on the opposing colour, so if you stared at red then you will see green.

Hering’s colour wheels

19th century physiologist Ewald Hering was the first to theorise about this colour opponency, and he designed his own colour wheel to match it, having red/green on the vertical axis and blue/yellow on the horizontal.

RGB colour wheel

Today we are more familiar with the RGB colour wheel, which spaces red, green and blue equally around the circle. But both wheels – the first dealing with colour perception in the eye-brain system, and the second dealing with colour representation on an RGB screen – are relevant to cinematography.

On both wheels, colours directly opposite each other are considered to cancel each other out. (In RGB they make white when combined.) These pairs are known as complementary colours.

 

Complementary

A complementary scheme provides maximum colour contrast, each of the two hues making the other more vibrant. Take “The Snail” by modernist French artist Henri Matisse, which you can currently see at the Tate Modern; Matisse placed complementary colours next to each other to make them all pop.

“The Snail” by Henri Matisse (1953)

In cinematography, a single pair of complementary colours is often used, for example the yellows and blues of Aliens‘ power loader scene:

“Aliens” DP: Adrian Biddle, BSC

Or this scene from Life on Mars which I covered on my YouTube show Lighting I Like:

I frequently use a blue/orange colour scheme, because it’s the natural result of mixing tungsten with cool daylight or “moonlight”.

“The First Musketeer”, DP: Neil Oseman

And then of course there’s the orange-and-teal grading so common in Hollywood:

“Hot Tub Time Machine” DP: Jack N. Green, ASC

Amélie uses a less common complementary pairing of red and green:

“Amélie” DP: Bruno Belbonnel, AFC, ASC

 

Analogous

An analogous colour scheme uses hues adjacent to each other on the wheel. It lacks the punch and vibrancy of a complementary scheme, instead having a harmonious, unifying effect. In the examples below it seems to enhance the single-mindedness of the characters. Sometimes filmmakers push analogous colours to the extreme of using literally just one hue, at which point it is technically monochrome.

“The Matrix” DP: Bill Pope, ASC
“Terminator 2: Judgment Day” DP: Adam Greenberg, ASC
“The Double” DP: Erik Alexander Wilson
“Total Recall” (1990) DP: Jost Vacano, ASC, BVK

 

There are other colour schemes, such as triadic, but complementary and analogous colours are by far the most common in cinematography. In a future post I’ll look at the psychological effects of individual colours and how they can be used to enhance the themes and emotions of a film.

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Colour Schemes

Front-light

A front-lit shot of mine from “The First Musketeer” (2015, dir. Harriet Sams)

Front-light is a bit of a dirty word in cinematography. DPs will commonly be heard rhapsodising about beautiful backlight or moody sidelight, but rarely does the humble front-light get any love. But there is no right or wrong in cinematography. Just because front-light is less popular, doesn’t mean it can’t make a great shot.

Why do we avoid front-light so often? Because it usually flattens things out, reducing or eliminating any sense of depth in the image, and giving no shape to faces or objects. Sometimes this might be the perfect look: for a character who is shallow, or who feels like their life is dull and uneventful, perhaps; a live-action scene to be intercut with two-dimensional animation; or a stylised flashback like the image above. And sometimes, of course, front-light is unavoidable for logical reasons – if a character is looking out of a window, say. The trouble is, it can make for un-engaging or un-cinematic images, and that’s when you may want to pull some other tricks out of the box.

Here are six ways to bring some interest back into a frontally-lit frame.

 

1. Cut the light.

A shot of mine from “Crossing Paths” (2015, dir. Ben Bloore)

If you can flag some of the front-light, reducing the area of the frame it’s hitting, and leave the rest to the fill light or to fall into shadow, you’ll get some contrast back into your image.

 

2. Use a gobo.

Another shot of mine, this one from “Lebensraum” way back in 2007.

If it doesn’t make sense to cut the light, try breaking it up with a gobo. You can make a gobo from almost anything. Commonly on night exteriors I send a spark off to liberate a branch from a nearby tree and rig that in front of the key-light. If I need to create a window-frame effect I’ve been known to clamp a chair or stool to a C-stand to get a suitable pattern of perpendicular lines.

 

3. Add dynamics.

Front-light is often more interesting if it’s not there all the time. If you can find an excuse to have it flicker or move somehow, you’ll get a lot more mood and shape in your shot. Firelight, TVs, rippling water, panning searchlights or the headlights of a passing car can all safely come from the front and remain dramatic. Create a moving gobo and you’ve got something really interesting. The tree branch example from earlier – if that blows around in the wind then it will add a lot of tension to the visuals. Here’s a firelight example from Ren: The Girl with the Mark

(Check out my Instagram feed for more lighting breakdowns like this.)

 

4. Darken the background.

“Magnolia” (DP: Robert Elswit, ASC)

You can combat the lack of depth by keeping the background dark, so that the front-lit subject stands out against it. This will happen automatically due to the Inverse-square Law (a post on that is coming soon) if the subject is close to the source, e.g. standing right by a window. Due to the nature of front-light, you probably can’t flag the background without flagging the subject too, so bringing your source closer to the subject or redressing the background may be your only options.

 

5. Make a virtue of the subject’s shadow.

“The Shadow of Death” by William Holman Hunt, 1873

One reason to avoid front-light is the distracting shadow which the subject will cast on the background. But sometimes this can be a great benefit to the shot, almost becoming another character, or adding subtext as in this painting.

 

6. Use a strong backlight.

A still of mine from “Stop/Eject”. The red backlight and the kicker from the practical help mitigate the flat front-light.

If there’s nothing you can do to modify the front-light, then pumping up the backlight might well save the day. The most flatly-illuminated shots suddenly become deep and appealing when the subject has a halo of over-exposed light. Indeed, this is what commonly happens with day exteriors: you shoot into the sun to get the nice backlight, and ambient light flatly fills in the faces.

So next time you’re faced with front-light, remember, it’s not the end of the world!

Front-light

Introduction to Short Key Lighting

“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” – DP: Andrew Lesnie, ACS, ASC

If you’re starting out in your cinematography career, or maybe stepping up from camera operation,  lighting can be daunting. How do you know where to put your lights? If you’re working to the Three Point Lighting system, the backlight is self-explanatory, and the fill will often be ambient and directionless, but you may still be left wondering where to put your main light source, your key.

Fortunately there is a very simple rule of thumb, known as short key. In simple terms, a short key light is one which is on the opposite side of the subject’s eye-line to the camera. Let’s delve into what this means and why it’s so common. In fact, once you understand what a short key is you’ll be forever spotting examples of it in film and TV – you’ll be staggered at how often it’s used.

It’s easiest to think of short key from the perspective of the actor. The camera is in front of us and off to one side, because very rarely do actors look down the lens, and the key light is in front of us and off to the other side. It’s called short key because the side of our face that it hits is the side away from camera. The opposite of short key is broad key, where the light is on the same side of us as the camera, thus lighting the “broad” side of our face, the side presented to camera. Note that the light can be either side of the camera, it’s which side of our eye-line it’s on that’s important.

“Arrival” – DP: Bradford Young, ASC

Short key follows the general cinematography principle that light is more interesting when it comes in from the side and behind, rather than from close to camera. It’s preferred by most DPs in most situations because it produces more dimensionality and contrast than broad key. By hitting the side of the face away from camera, a short key leaves shadow on the closer side, creating mood and interest. It brings out the shape of the nose and cheeks. It leaves the ear and side of the head darker, concentrating attention on the face and consequently the performance.

Under the umbrella of short key we can still vary the angle tremendously to affect the mood. If we place the key severely to the side, so none of its illumination reaches the camera side of the actor’s face, and use a very low level of fill, we create a strong, uncompromising look.

“Logan” – DP: John Mathieson, BSC
“Fight Club” – DP: Jeff Cronenweth, ASC

If we place the key closer to front-on, and soften it with diffusion so that it wraps around the camera side of the face, we create a more comfortable, flattering look.

“Skyfall” – DP: Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, CBE
“The Pianist” – DP: Pawel Edelman, PSC

We can also raise the lamp to shade the eye sockets, Godfather style, lower it to create a campfire ghost story look, or place it anywhere in between.

Broad key is less desirable amongst cinematographers, often resorted to only when short key cannot be reconciled with motivating the sources authentically. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s bad or that it can’t be used deliberately and creatively. Here’s just one example of broad key being used extremely effectively.

An example of broad key from “Amélie” – DP: Bruno Delbonnel, AFC, ASC

Short key though is the dominant, ubiquitous style of lighting. It is often the first thing a DP considers when walking onto the set: where can I put the key light in order to hit the short side of the talent? Or conversely, where can I put the camera so that it’s on the opposite side to the light?

If we’re dealing with fixed light sources like windows, or shooting outdoors – we’ll exploit the sun-path or even request that the blocking be altered to ensure a short key.  It can go such a long way to making an image cinematic.

“La La Land” – DP: Linus Sandgren, FSF
“Titanic” – DP: Russell Carpenter, ASC

In standard dialogue scenes with two characters facing each other, a technique called cross-backlighting is commonly used to short key both characters and provide backlight too. Check out my post on cross-backlighting for more info.

So next time you watch TV or a movie, look out for short key lighting; I guarantee you’ll see it everywhere.

The frame grabs in this post are from The Cinematographer Index. Check out this very useful resource showcasing great cinematography, and donate a few quid if you can.

Introduction to Short Key Lighting

The Art of Single Source Lighting

Can a scene be lit with just one lamp? It certainly can, and in fact some of cinema’s most stunning and iconic images have been achieved this way. A single source image can be realistic or stylised, flattering or scary, but is almost always arresting. Even if you decide the look of a single source is too extreme, and add more lamps, building the lighting around that one key source can still be a very useful approach.

Let’s consider some of the ways in which a single source can be used.

 

Front Light

Front light is not very common in cinematography because – and this will be especially true without any other sources – it produces a flat image. Often we think of front light as being devoid of depth, though in fact it does reveal depth because things closer to the camera (and therefore also closer to the light) are brighter, while distant backgrounds are darker. An example is the sequence from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in which the frontal spotlight and the resultant dark surroundings represent the protagonist’s memories being erased.

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” – DP: Ellen Kuras ASC
“Out of the Past” – DP: Nicholas Musuraca ASC. This one’s a bit of a cheat because there appears to be a second light on the background.

More common is three-quarter front light, which gives some modelling on the face, and is consequently seen a lot in portraiture, both modern and classical.

Photo by Shane Francescut, www.theweeklyminute.wordpress.com
“Portrait of Doge Leornardo Loredan” – Giovanni Bellini (1501)

 

Side Light

Light from the side can be the most informative, revealing shape, texture and detail. As a single source, it produces incredible chiaroscuro – contrast between light and shade. This shot from the The Godfather is a great example.

“The Godfather” – DP: Gordon Willis ASC

Here is a more complex example from classical art. I saw this painting at the Guildhall recently and it inspired me to write this post. I love the way that the soft light comes in through an unseen doorway to the right, illuminating the wall and modelling each of the people differently according to the angle it reaches them at.

“The Reading of the Bible by the Rabbis” – Jean Jules Antoine Lecomte du Noüy (1882)

 

Toplight

Perhaps the most famous use of toplight is in The Godfather‘s opening scene, where the characters’ eye sockets are rendered black and hollow by the steep angle of the single source.

“The Godfather” – DP: Gordon Willis ASC

A ceiling lamp hanging over a table is one of the most frequently seen examples of single source top-lighting.

“Mud” – DP: Adam Stone

Often the table or things on it – papers, white tablecloths – will reflect back some of the toplight, filling in the shadows. Film Riot investigates the many variations of this set-up in their episode on single source lighting.

 

Backlight

There are many examples of scenes lit only from the back. It’s a beautiful look, creating mood and mystery, revealing form without details, reducing people to simulacra. The optional addition of smoke helps the light to wrap a little and lift the shadows.

“Blade Runner” – DP: Jordan Cronenweth ASC
“Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince” – DP: Bruno Delbonnel AFC, ASC
“The Man from London” – DP: Fred Kelemen
“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” – DP: Roger Deakins CBE, ASC, BSC
“The Social Network” – DP: Jeff Cronenweth ASC

It’s not uncommon for a DP to begin lighting by setting a backlight to give form and depth to the scene, then seeing if and where other sources are necessary, to illuminate faces and other important details.

 

OMNIDIRECTIONAL

Most film fixtures shed their illumination in broadly one direction, but of course most light sources in day-to-day life aren’t that discriminating, throwing rays all around them. In the form of practicals, such omnidirectional lights can create very interesting images, particularly when they are handheld.

“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” – DP: Roger Deakins CBE, ASC, BSC

When people are grouped around an omnidirectional source, each one is modelled differently. Characters in the foreground, between the lamp and the camera, become silhouettes, while those to the sides are rendered in chiaroscuro, and those in the background are lit frontally. This creates a wonderful feeling of dark-to-light/near-to-far depth and dimensionality. 17th century Dutch masters like Gerrit Dou and Gerard van Honthorst painted such effects beautifully.

“The Match-maker” – Gerard van Honthorst (1625)
“The Denial of St Peter” – Gerard van Honthorst (circa 1618-1620)

Having recently re-equipped myself with a 35mm SLR, I’m planning a photography project inspired by some of these candlelit scenes. Watch this space!

The Art of Single Source Lighting