Crossing Paths: Night Exterior

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

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

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

ArriMax M18
ArriMax M18

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sketch 2015-10-01 17_01_36Crossing Paths is a B Squared production (C) 2015. Find out more at

Crossing Paths: Night Exterior

Crossing Paths: Day Exterior

Michelle Darkin Price and Phil Molloy in Crossing Paths (C) 2015 B Squared Productions
Michelle Darkin Price and Phil Molloy in Crossing Paths (C) 2015 B Squared Productions

The sun is an awesome light source, but you’re not alone as a DP if you sometimes feel it’s the enemy. Shooting Ben Bloore’s Crossing Paths at the weekend, I was very lucky to be met with a perfect blue sky, but even so there was work to do in maintaining and sculpting the light.

The first step on the road to succesfully photographing day exterior scenes is choosing the right location. Crossing Paths is mostly about two characters sitting on a park bench. It needed to look serene and beautiful – which means backlight.

The initial location had an east-facing bench, so I asked for the scene to be scheduled in the evening. That way the characters would be backlit by the sun as it set in the west.

Hard reflector
Hard reflector

The location was later changed to Belper River Gardens (where, three years earlier, I had shot scenes from Stop/Eject). The new bench faced west, which meant shooting in the morning so it would be backlit from the east.

In a rare instance of nature co-operating, the sun blazed out over the trees at about 8am and perfectly backlit the actors as we set up for the master shot. I used an 8’x4′ poly to bounce the light back and fill in their faces.

As we moved into the coverage, a very tall tree started to block some of the sunlight. This was where our hard reflector came in. This is a 3’x3′ silver board mounted in a yoke so that it can easily be panned and tilted.

Col set up this reflector in a patch of sunlight, ricocheting it onto the back of the actors’ heads, maintaining the look of the master shot.

Col adjusts the hard reflector to backlight the talent.
Col adjust the hard reflector to backlight the talent.

Later one of the characters stands up and looks down on the bench. We needed to shoot his CU for this moment without him squinting into the sun, and without harsh shadows on his face. Cue the next tool in our sun control arsenal: the silk. Stretched across a 6’x6′ butterfly frame, the silk acted like a cloud and softened the sunlight passing through it.

Col and production assistant Andrew position the silk.
Col and production assistant Andrew position the silk.
The silk in action on Phil
The silk in action on Phil. (C) 2015 B Squared Productions

You need to think carefully about what order to do your coverage in with natural light, particularly if the day is as sunny as this one was. I asked to leave the shots looking south last, so that the sun would have moved round to backlight this angle.

This south-facing shot was left until around midday in order to have it backlit. (C) 2015 B Squared Productions
This south-facing shot was left until around midday in order to have it backlit. (C) 2015 B Squared Productions

What if it had been an overcast day? Well, it wouldn’t have looked as good, but we were tooled up for that eventuality too. We had an ArriMax M18 which could have backlit the actors in all but the widest shots (for which we would have had to wait for a break in the clouds) and a 4’x4′ floppy for negative fill if the light was too flat. More on those some other time.

Related posts:
Lighting ‘3 Blind Mice’ – using positive and negative fill and artificial backlight for day exterior scenes
Sun Paths – choosing the right locations for The Gong Fu Conection
Moulding Natural Light – shooting towards the sun and modifying sunlight

Crossing Paths is a B Squared production (C) 2015. Find out more at

Crossing Paths: Day Exterior

Soft Wrapping Backlight on The Shepherds’ Play

The Second Shepherds’ Play, the medieval comedy which I lensed last week, had several scenes in “the Mak Shack”, the grotty home of the antagonists. The set posed an interesting problem in that – apart from the door, which wouldn’t always be open – it contained no light sources. No windows, no lamps, no candles. Given the wordy script and the tight schedule, I needed to light it in a way that would not need tweaking between set-ups, and which would work for one particular scene that director Doug Morse wanted to film as a single developing shot showing about 180º of the set.

One option would have been to posit a window in the off-screen 180º, but that would have resulted in very flat illumination, all lit from the front like a photo taken with flash.

I wanted to create a cross-backlighting set-up (Lighting Technique #2), but it was impossible to hang lamps above the rear of the set without damaging the location’s brickwork. So instead I had Colin rig two pieces of Celotex (matte silver bounce board) above the back two corners. Into these I fired Source Fours, peeking over the front walls of the set. These lamps, designed for theatre use, are relatively cheap to hire and have lenses and cutters which provide a great deal of control over where the light does and doesn’t go, meaning you can ensure it all goes onto a bounce board and nowhere else. Using Source Fours as sources for bounced light is a tip I picked up from David Vollrath‘s talk in the Big League Cine Summit in January.

Here you can see a Source Four Junior peeking over a wall at the front of the set to hit a bounceboard at the back.
Here you can see a Source Four Junior peeking over a wall at the front of the set to hit a bounceboard at the back.
Viewed from the back of the set, both Source Fours can be seen firing over the front walls.
Viewed from the back of the set, both Source Fours can be seen firing over the front walls. The lamps are high enough that their beams go completely over the heads of the talent.
This reverse angle shows the two bounce boards above the back corners of the set, which you'll have to trust me is directly underneath them in the darkness.
This reverse angle shows the two bounce boards above the back corners of the set, which you’ll have to trust me is directly underneath them in the darkness.

This set-up enabled me to execute the 180º handheld shot without casting any shadows myself, and without the actors casting hard shadows (which would have been inappropriate for a period piece), while still primarily lighting the downsides of their faces to give depth and shape to the image. It also provided backlight to ensure the actors stood out.

I’ll leave you with some frame grabs (courtesy of Grandfather Films) and a floor plan of the set-up. Visit Grandfather Films on Facebook for more on the Shepherds’ Play.





Soft Wrapping Backlight on The Shepherds’ Play

The One That Got Away: Festival Results

In 2013 Katie Lake and I made a little puppet film for the Virgin Media Shorts competition, called The One That Got Away. Although it failed to make the shortlist, I believed it had legs, so I started entering it into festivals. Today I’m going to talk about how it fared. A little later in the year I’ll do the same thing for my other 2013 short, Stop/Eject, and between the two posts I hope to help you answer the question, “Is it worth entering my film into festivals?”

To start with, here’s the film.

It cost next to nothing to make, so I decided to enter it only into festivals that had no entry fee. I created accounts on the festival submission platforms Short Film Depot and Reel Port. Both sites have systems whereby you purchase credits (known on Short Film Depot as ‘reels’ and on Reel Port as ‘stamps’), which you can then use to pay for submissions. As far as I know, this payment is purely a middleman fee and doesn’t go to the festivals themselves. Both sites allow you to upload your film, which is then sent automatically with your submissions.

The_One_That_Got_Away_ posterShort Film Depot allows you to upload your first film for free, with subsequent uploads costing 3 reels (€3 – currently about £2.15). Each festival submission costs 2 reels(€2 – about £1.45).

Reel Port is free to upload your film to. Each festival submission costs one stamp. Stamps are priced on a sliding scale: buy just one and it will cost you €3 (£2.15), whereas a book of 5 is €12.50 (£9), a book of 20 is €39 (£28) and a book of 50 is €75 (£54). So if you buy in big bulk, you could pay as little as £1.08 per submission, plus currency exchange fees. More likely, you’ll end up with leftover stamps you never use!

I entered The One That Got Away into 36 festivals over the course of about 18 months: 23 entries on Reel Port, 12 on Short Film Depot, and one directly to the Worcestershire Film Festival (which was completely free).

The total cost was €98.95, or about £71 plus currency exchange fees – that’s about twice the film’s budget! I should point out that I made one exception to the ‘no entry fee’ rule: that total cost includes €12.50 I spent on entering the film into Encounters. This was a discount rate because I was entering Stop/Eject at the same time. Why did I pay for Encounters? Because of their Depict Competition (which The One That Got Away didn’t actually qualify for, being over 90 seconds) they seemed to be associated with very short films, and with hand-made animation-type films. Plus I knew the festival director from doing FilmWorks.

How many of those 36 festivals did the film get into?

Two. Worcestershire Film Festival, and Belo Horizonte International Short Film Festival in Brazil. Belo Horizonte’s notification email told me that The One That Got Away “was one of the 12 selected for the Children’s Exhibition, among 2,700 subscribers.” That gives you an idea of the kind of odds you’re up against with a festival submission. Suddenly 2 out of 36 doesn’t seem so bad.

Shooting The One That Got Away. A row of 100W bulbs can be seen on the right.
Behind the scenes of The One That Got Away

I have great admiration for what the guys at Worcestershire Film Festival are doing, and it was really great to go along and see the film with an audience, but at the moment it’s quite a new and low-key festival. For all I know, the same is true of Belo Horizonte, though I wasn’t about to fly to Brazil to find out. (They were not offering to pay my travel.) I’d estimate a total audience reach of about 100-150 people for those two screenings. Less, I would guess, than it’s had online. And apart from a little bit of buzz amongst my social media network generated by the announcement of these festival selections, there have been no other benefits.

I leave you to decide for yourself whether you think it was worth all those entries and the cost of £71. A full list of festivals entered follows.

Look out for my future post on Stop/Eject’s festival entries. Since that film was crowd-funded, we were able to take a very different approach and enter a lot of top tier festivals, so it will be an interesting comparison.

The One That Got Away submissions via Reel Port:

  • Anibar International Animation Festival, Republic of Kosova
  • 12th International Festival Signes de Nuit,  France
  • Kinodot Online Festival of Creatibe Short Film, Russian Federation
  • The International Bosphorous Film Festival, Turkey
  • Exground Filmfest, Germany
  • Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival, UK
  • 9th International Short Film Festival, Lithuania
  • Cinefiesta, Puerto Rico
  • Mobile SIFF – Shanghai International Film Festival, China
  • Odense International Film Festival, Denmark
  • Concorto Film Festival, Italy
  • 20min|max, Germany

Submissions via Short Film Depot:

  • Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia
  • International Short Film Week, Regensburg
  • Seoil International Extreme-short Image & Film Festival
  • Curocircuito – Santiago de Compostela International Short Film Festival
  • Tehran International Short Film Festival
  • Kaohsiung Film Festival
  • Asiana International Short Film Festival
  • Bogota Short Film Festival
  • Belo Horizonte International Short Film Festival (accepted)
  • Kuku International Short Film Festival for Children and Youth, Berlin
  • Off-courts Trouville
  • Uppsala International Short Film Festival
  • Shnit International Short Film Festival
  • Manlleu Short Film Festival
  • Sapporo International Short Film Festival & Market
  • Sao Paulo International Short Film Festival
  • Seicicorto International Film Festival Forli
  • Festival Silhouette
  • China International New Media Shorts Festival
  • Plein la Bobine
  • Corti da Sogni Antonio Ricci – International Short Film Festival
  • FEC Festival – European Short Film Festival
  • Mecal Barcelona International Short Film and Animation Festival

Direct submissions:

  • Worcestershire Film Festival (accepted)


The One That Got Away: Festival Results

Ren: Lighting the Prison Cell

After a month of shooting exteriors, yesterday we shot the first interior set for Ren. Which was just as well since a tropical storm was raging outside and blowing down parts of the exterior village set.

It was a classic prison cell scene, one of those shaft-of-light-through-the-barred-window jobbies. Amanda Stekly and her team did a great job of creating a two-walled set with moss, wet stone and even real snails. Outside the window was a platform to sell the illusion that the cell was below ground level.

Here are some frames from the scene:

prison1 prison2

2.5K HMI
2.5K HMI

If you’re going for this shaft-of-light-piercing-the-gloom look, you need three things. Firstly, a powerful, focusable light; I used a 2.5K HMI fresnel. Secondly, you need to accept over-exposure. The only way you will get any detail in the shadows is by exposing bright enough that the highlights – anyone standing in the direct beam of light – will clip. If you don’t like the highlight roll-off characteristics of your camera, stay away from this type of lighting. The cool thing about having a keylight this hot is that when a character moves around in the light, especially if they’re wearing light-coloured clothing, they bounce the light around in interesting and often unpredictable ways.

I shot the scene on Richard Roberts’ Blackmagic Cinema Camera, partly because of ongoing problems getting a monitor signal out of my Production Camera, and partly because of the extra stop of dynamic range the BMCC would give me to milk this high contrast lighting scenario.

The third and very important thing you need is a smoke machine to volumise the shaft of light. (More about using smoke in a future post.)

In this view of the platform behind the set, the fluorescent fixture providing indirect "daylight" can be seen on the left, gelled with Quarter Minus Green to remove the green spike in the lamp's output.
In this view from behind the set, the fluorescent fixture providing indirect “daylight” can be seen on the left, gelled with Quarter Minus Green to remove the green spike in the lamp’s output.

In order to give the sense of indirect “sky” light also coming in through the window, I placed a fluorescent outside the window so as to catch some of the side wall of the set. When I first tested the lighting set-up the previous night, I placed a second fluorescent fixture directly above the window to get some edging on the tops of the stones underneath. But I found that the more sources I set up, the less definition I got in the shaft of HMI light, so I dropped the toplight.

The door gobo
The door gobo

Although the script called for guards to drag Hunter (Duran Fulton Brown) into the cell and shut him in, the two-walled set had no door. So with help from the art department I constructed a ridiculous-looking door in roughly one-third scale, simply to cast the shadow of the door. Behind it I placed a redhead gelled with half CTO, which Richard wiggled during takes to suggest firelight.

The LED hidden behind the bucket
The LED hidden behind the bucket

I set the camera to a white balance of 4,500K so that the “daylight” of the HMI would go a little cold and the “firelight” would go really warm.

Our first shot involved Hunter washing his face at a bucket of water, then slumping back into the “sunlight”. We positioned the bucket out of the “sunlight”, in the small patch of light coming through the window of our fake door. But Hunter was still too dark by the bucket. I didn’t want to flood the set with fill and ruin the mood, so I hid a small LED light behind the bucket and diffed it down. This lights Hunter’s face when he leans over it, and hopefully suggests a reflection off the water.

A fluorescent toplight rigged over the bucket for the face-washing close-up
A fluorescent toplight rigged over the bucket for the face-washing close-up. Note the black cloth hanging from one side to reduce spill.

When we moved to a close-up of Hunter washing his face (below), I rigged a fluorescent toplight, suggestive of indirect daylight from the window, and placed a circle of foil at the bottom of the bucket. The idea was that the toplight would reflect off the foil and the surface of the water and light Hunter’s face. It didn’t work, but the toplight itself really made the shot for me. The more you work with an actor, the more you learn the best ways to light them, and I’ve learnt that Duran looks great with toplight.

Foil in the bucket for added bounce
Foil in the bucket for added bounce

Screen grabs (C) 2014 Mythica Entertainment. Visit for more info.



Ren: Lighting the Prison Cell

Stop/Eject: Script to Screen

Following my personal observations on the shot planning process the other day, here’s a look at that process in action and a record of some of the thoughts that go through my head as a director when I’m choosing camera angles.

Everything begins with the script, and here is the extract for the Stop/Eject sequence I’m going to break down:

KATE stands behind the alcove’s curtain with an armful of tapes.
She pushes one into the recorder – “JULY 16th 2007, 5-6:30pm” - 
and hits PLAY. Warm summer sunshine steals in through the crack
in the curtain. She pulls it back to reveal the river, sunlight
dancing and sparkling in the water of the weir.
COPY-KATE cycles through the gardens on a creaky old bicycle
with a custom paint job and various doodads hanging off,
oblivious to her other self and the alcove stood in the middle
of a Victorian bandstand.
Copy-Kate spots a strange figure on the riverbank, wearing
closed-back headphones and waving a big, fluffy microphone at
the running water.  She looks ahead – she’s about to run over
TWO YOUNG GIRLS.  She grips the brakes tightly and the bike
screeches to a stop with a noise like a small army of warring
cats.  She catches her breath as the older girl scowls and drags
her sister away.

Sophie drew the following storyboards for this sequence, based on my rough sketches:

I don’t like starting scenes with establishing shots; I prefer to reveal them gradually. So when I conceived the first shot (top left) – setting up Kate in the alcove in the shop – I suspected I would probably end up cutting it, and sure enough I never even filmed it. The audience would know by now where the tape recorder alcove was, I figured.

The next shot (top right) follows Kate as she puts down the stack of tapes. This is fairly basic visual storytelling. The audience already knows that the tapes contain recordings of Kate’s life. When we see her come in with an armful of cassettes, we anticipate her nostalgia trip.

As this was the first time Kate was to travel back in time more than a few hours, I felt it important to show the action of the tape going into the recorder in close-up (bottom), to ensure the audience understood the connection between the tapes, the machine and the time travelling.


We then return (top left) to the previous angle, following Kate as she stands back up and opens the curtain. One of my regrets with Stop/Eject was that I never shot over Kate’s shoulder as she looked out of the alcove. I can only think this is because I was trying to avoid doing “the obvious thing”. In this scene I chose instead to tease what she’s seeing, revealing first the sunlight on her face, and then (top right) an abstract close-up of a spinning bike wheel, part of the visual theme of circles I had smart-arsedly developed for the film. My thinking was that time travel was a big and unbelievable concept for Kate to take in, so it needed to be broken to her (and therefore us) gradually.

Finally the scene is revealed (bottom left) in a high wide shot to establish the geography, which then cranes down to draw us into the action. On the day, there was a bush in the foreground, which began to obscure the action as we craned down, so we decided to crane up instead, rising up over the bush to reveal the action.

Next it was necessary to show the place of Kate and the alcove in the geography. I wanted to echo the formality and symmetry of the bandstand’s architecture by framing it flat-on, dead centre (bottom right).

storyboards_scan11Then Copy-Kate sees Dan, her future husband, for the very first time. I wanted to show an immediate connection using an over-the-shoulder shot-reverse. Since Copy-Kate was on a moving bike, this meant panning with her for her angle (top) and then tracking with her for Dan’s angle (bottom) in order to keep her shoulder in frame. I left Dan’s shoulder out of Kate’s shot since he hasn’t seen her yet and so hasn’t made a connection.

The editing podcast below from summer 2012 explains the various iterations I went through with this sequence. (I later brought Miguel Ferros on board to re-edit the film, and his final version is far superior to all of my attempts.) You can see in the podcast some of the problems that my linear shot planning approach caused, notably my failure to cover the whole scene in the crane shot, and the restrictions which that placed on me in the edit.

Despite these minor quibbles, I’m very proud of Stop/Eject and its visual storytelling. It’s recently received a couple of glowing reviews on Unsung Films and The London Film Review, the latter praising its visuals, and both quite rightly lauding Georgina Sherrington’s brilliant lead performance.



Stop/Eject: Script to Screen

Where to Put Your Key Light

What angle the key light hits a character at is a KEY (groan) decision for a director of photography. The lighting featurette in my last post looked at some of the options, but today I’d like to expand on those with some more up-to-date examples.

Imagine a clock face. You’re looking down on the scene and your talent is at the centre with their eyeline to twelve o’clock.

The key light clock
The key light clock

With that in mind, consider the following shots. The camera is at between twelve and one o’clock in each case.

Key light at almost twelve o’clock
Half past eleven
Half past eleven
Eleven o'clock
Eleven o’clock
Quarter to eleven
Quarter to eleven
Half past nine (Aimee Denaro in See Saw)
Half past nine (view the See Saw trailer)

Clearly the level of fill makes a big difference, but you can already see that a key light at noon gives a flawless, evenly lit look which is great for a leading lady, while a half-past-nine casts half of the face into darkness for a threatening or mysterious feel. There is a sweet spot I love at about quarter to eleven where, on one side of the face, only the eye and a triangle on the cheek are lit. But generally between half past ten and half past eleven models the face nicely.

In all of the above examples, with the camera at one-ish, the key was between nine and twelve, i.e. the key was on the opposite side of the eyeline to the camera. This is known as lighting the “downside” – the side away from camera. Most cinematographers, myself included, consider this the most pleasing side to light from, as it shows the shape of the face and gives a nice shadow area on the camera side into which you can dial your preferred amount of fill.

Here is an example of lighting the upside:

Key light at eleven o'clock, camera at eleven thirty (click here to link through to this interview with renowned designer Dick Powell, by Astute Graphics)
Key light at eleven o’clock, camera at eleven thirty (Click here to link through to this interview with renowned designer Dick Powell, by Astute Graphics)

In many scenes, the position of the keylight will be dictated by the layout of the set or location, so a DP should consider this in pre-production discussions with the production designer, on location scouts or when the director is blocking the actors.

Where to Put Your Key Light

How to Light a Church

Roger Harding (left) and Jeremy Heynes in The Deaths of John Smith.
Roger Harding (left) and Jeremy Heynes in The Deaths of John Smith. A 1.2K HMI punches through the window on the right, while a fluorescent softbox illuiminates the arches on the left. Background light comes from two 500W halogen work-lights rigged to a dimmer, while fill (given that it was getting dark outside at this point) comes from a blue-gelled 1K Arrilite behind and to the left of camera.

This weekend shooting began on Roger Harding and Darren Scott’s feature-length comedy The Deaths of John Smith. As director of photography I was called on to light a beautiful rural church on a limited budget. Here are some tips for ecclesial cinematography:

  • Hire HMIs – powerful, daylight-balanced lamps. Without at least one you will never have enough light to illuminate anything but the tiniest of churches. As a backlight on a mezzanine level, a 2.5K HMI will illuminate most churches. Better still, put them outside the windows and create artificial sunbeams. (A blue-gelled blonde or redhead outside a stained glass window is pretty much useless; those windows cut out so much light.)
  • Use smoke. A £50 disco smoke machine is perfectly sufficient – use it to volumize the light and emphasise the depth and scale of the building. If you’re struggling to expose a bright enough image, smoke helps there too – because it catches the backlight and lightens up the shadows.
  • Candlelight is a good way to introduce colour contrast into your scene. Dedos are the best lamps to fake candelight with, as they can produce a small circular pool of light. Failing that, any tungsten source will do, ideally rigged to a dimmer board for a bit of flickering.
  • Assuming you’ve got your HMIs punching directly in through all the windows on one side of your church (that’s the side the “sun” is on), you now need soft light coming in through the opposite windows. Ideally these would be larger HMIs playing off bounce boards, but you might get away with soft boxes or bounced tungsten sources (gelled blue, of course) hidden behind pillars inside the building.
  • Sellotape together some old bits of coloured gel and rig them in front of a fresnel to simulate daylight through a stained glass window. Note that this doesn’t really work with unfocused lamps like redheads.
Left to right: David Draper, Bryan Ferriman and Adrian Moore.
Left to right: David Draper, Bryan Ferriman and Adrian Moore. Our single HMI shines through the lefthand window, suitably volumized with smoke, leaving natural light to deal with the other two. A blue-gelled 1K Arrilite off to the right of frame creates the edge-light on the righthand side of each character. An existing halogen spotlight over the organ was gelled with half CTB to cool it down a little. I chose to leave the nearside of the characters dark to contrast the foreground with the brighter background.

On The Deaths of John Smith I only had access to one HMI, so for every shot I needed to carefully choose which window to put it outside of for the maximum impact. I relied on natural light as well as blue-gelled redheads and fluorescent softboxes just out of frame for fill light. Nonetheless, I’m very pleased with the results. Next weekend we have to repeat the performance with a large congregation….

All images copyright 2013 Two Hats Films. Visit the Facebook page or the official website for more info on The Deaths of John Smith.

Here the "sun" (HMI) is outside of the lefthand background window.
Here the “sun” (HMI) is outside of the lefthand background window, but I couldn’t resist cheating a little and pushing a 1K Arrilite through a nice yellow stained glass window in the top centre background. Additional backlight comes from a blue-gelled Arrilite off frame right, while a softbox behind and to the left of camera illuminates the actor’s face.
How to Light a Church

Lighting The One That Got Away

Lighting plan for the daylight scenes
Lighting plan for the daylight scenes

Here’s a breakdown of the lighting choices made on my little puppet film, The One That Got Away. You can watch the film over at the Virgin Media Shorts website. If you enjoy it, please use the tweet button to register your vote and help us get a place on the shortlist.

Conventional wisdom with marionettes is probably to go for very flat lighting with no backlight, to make it as difficult as possible to see the strings. But on TOTGA I wanted to embrace and celebrate the tactile, handmade look of the puppets and sets, so I chose a traditional three-point lighting scheme that imparted depth and made no effort to hide the strings.

Normally I shoot wide open – typically f1.8 – on my DSLR, but as the puppets were small the depth of field would have been ridiculously shallow at that aperture. Instead I lit the set very brightly (about 3KW of tungsten horsepower in our cramped living room – not very pleasant during a heatwave!) and stopped down to around f4.


The clouds cast shadows on the sky, but I think that adds to the charm.
The clouds cast shadows on the sky, but I think that adds to the charm.

For the daylight scenes I used my three open-face tungsten Arrilites: a 1K poking over the top of the backdrop for backlight, another 1K with tough-spun diffuser off camera left for key, and an 800W bouncing off the ceiling for fill. This last lamp was gelled blue to suggest ambient skylight.

I tried to simulate the camerawork that would have been used had this been shot at sea with real actors, so:

  • the camera bobs up and down in wide shots, as if Henry’s boat is being shot from another vessel;
  • the camera and boat are fixed in close-ups, with the background bobbing up and down, as if we’re now shooting on a tripod in Henry’s boat.


A cool white balance and blue gels help to give an underwater look.
A cool white balance and blue gels help to give an underwater look.

The underwater dream sequence was all shot dry-for-wet at 50fps for a watery slow motion. Using Magic Lantern I dialled in a cool white balance of around 2500K, and pumped in smoke to add diffusion and suggest currents. (I wished I’d use a lot more smoke, but we would have all choked to death.)

I used just two light sources: the 1K backlight, now gelled blue, and the other 1K, bounced off sheets of silver wrapping paper tacked loosely to the ceiling. This is exactly the same method I used for a scene in Ashes – flapping a piece of card at the wrapping paper makes the light ripple in a very watery way.

Shallow depth of field working nicely in the romantic underwater dream sequence
Shallow depth of field working nicely in the romantic underwater dream sequence

The underwater lighting scheme was a lot darker than the daylight one, so I opened up to around f2, giving a crazily shallow depth of field that worked nicely for this dream sequence. The mermaid’s close-ups were all shot through a CD case for an old-school soft-focus look.

I would have liked to have shot this sequence handheld, but a lack of crew meant I had to lock the camera off so I could operate the smoke machine, fan the wrapping paper and move little fish through frame.


When Henry awakens from his dream, the fish escapes and he gives chase. Orange gels and lens flare were used to suggest the sun getting lower in the sky, until finally Henry and his quarry are silhouetted against the solar disc itself. This is a domestic 100W tungsten bulb peeking over the back wave. The only other light source is a row of six more such bulbs under a sheet of orange gel, just behind and below the first one.

The sun is an ordinary 100W tungsten lightbulb.
The sun is an ordinary 100W tungsten lightbulb.

As the scene moves into twilight, the first bulb is removed and the orange gel over the other six is replaced with a purple one. The 1K backlight is turned back on (possibly it would have been more realistic without, but I’m just a sucker for backlight) and some pink fill is provided by placing a sheet of Minus Green gel on the other 1K and bouncing it off a reflector.

Pink and purple gels are used to give a post-sunset tinge to the final scene.
Pink and purple gels are used to give a post-sunset tinge to the final scene.

That’s all folks. Please do tweet about the film (being sure to include the title The One That Got Away and the hashtag #VMShortsVote for it to count as a vote) and click here to watch the behind-the-scenes featurette if you missed it.

Lighting The One That Got Away