Locations and the Cinematographer

Lighting in from outside is crucial for a cinematographer
Lighting in from outside is crucial for a cinematographer. (Photo by Anneliese Cherrington from the set of The Deaths of John Smith)

On a low budget project there are extra challenges for everyone. As a cinematographer, the most common problem I come across, the one thing that most often foils my efforts to make the images look good, is not the lack of time, or money, or equipment, or crew. It’s the locations.

I understand that for many small projects, even just the travel expenses associated with the DP attending the recce can be prohibitive. If that’s the case, then here are a few things you can look out for yourself. Clearly there will always be compromise in low budget filmmaking, but if you can follow these tips ,where possible, you’ll enable the cinematographer to put the most production value on screen.

  1. Avoid locations with white or magnolia walls, particularly blank ones. They look cheap and nasty on camera and make it very hard to control the ambient light level.
  2. Ensure that permission is obtained to set up lights on the land outside the windows. Almost all cinematography for interior scenes is based heavily on lighting from outside in. Avoid locations where it’s physically impossible to put a light outside, such as rooms that aren’t on the ground floor, unless you can afford scaffolding, heavy-duty stands or a cherry picker.
  3. If there is a fire detection system, make sure the smoke alarms can be disabled. Many cinematographers use smoke or haze to bring a scene to life, but we don’t want to set the fire alarm off.
  4. If the scene is set at night, choose a location that will permit nighttime shooting. Blacking out windows to simulate night during daylight hours is time consuming. It also cuts off the DP’s main place to shine in lights, and it sacrifices depth in the images by denying the opportunity for a view out of the window.
  5. Choose locations that are appropriate for the lighting budget. It doesn’t matter what the camera’s native ISO is, no DP can properly light a classroom, or a village hall, or a car park without HMIs. If you can’t afford to hire big lights, you may well achieve better production values by choosing smaller locations.
Locations and the Cinematographer