It’s the mid-point of season one of Ren: The Girl with the Mark and here’s my video breaking down the cinematography of that third episode. Topics covered this week include grip equipment, aspect ratio, smoke and faking candlelight.
Here is the lighting plan for Ren’s bedroom:
There is more on simulating firelight in my First Musketeer blog post Candlelight.
For my thoughts on composing for the cinemascope aspect ratio, take a look at 2.39:1 Composition.
Here is the first in a series of cinematography videos I’m publishing to compliment the five episodes of Ren: The Girl with the Mark as they are released over the coming weeks. These videos will tell you the how, what and why of photographing the show. This week I discuss the camera equipment used, differentiating characters photographically, and lighting Karn’s magical woodland house.
Here is the lighting plan for Karn’s house:
And here is a video blog from the set of Karn’s house:
You may be interested to read my article on Masculine and Feminine Lighting, which gives some more detail on the techniques used to light Ren and Karn in the riverside scene.
The final scene of Crossing Paths to go before the camera was a sombre daylight interior in a bedroom. If you’ve read my last two blog posts you’ll know that backlight is the central pillar of my approach to lighting both day exteriors and night exteriors. Daylight interiors are no different.
For day exteriors your backlight is the sun. For night exteriors it’s usually the moon. For day interiors it’s windows.
On the location recce I’d agreed with director Ben Bloore and production designer Sophie Black that we were going to shoot mostly towards the bedroom’s window. Given that the bed was the focal point of the scene, this decision was also cinematographically sound because it made for the most depth in the image, the window being in a dormer that distanced it from the bed.
To punch up the natural light coming in through the window – which was on the second floor – I had my crew clamber up on the flat roof of the extension and erect our Arri M18 on a double wind-up stand. Luckily the geography of the room and the blocking permitted the M18’s light to hit Tina’s face as she lay in the bed.
Sophie had dressed a floor lamp in next to the bed, which gave me the perfect motivation to clamp a dedo to the bedframe, uplighting Phil’s face. The cool M18 coming in from the rear right and the warm dedo coming in from the rear left picked out the actors’ profiles nicely, as you can see below. This is a kind of cross-backlight set-up, as explained in Lighting Techniques #2.
Immediately above the camera position there was a skylight with a roller blind. By opening or closing the blind I could effectively increase or decrease the level of fill in the lighting. For most of the scene I chose none. Some would argue that it’s best to add fill and then crush it out in post if you don’t like it, but I like to make decisions on the set wherever possible, to deliver the most cinematic image straight out of the camera.
To soften the scene I pumped in lots of smoke. Col had kindly gifted me a Magnum 650 (to fill the smoke machine void in my life since my Magnum 550 packed up last year) and we let that baby rip in that tiny little room! The smoke helped add to the sense of decay and reacted beautifully to the curtains being opened mid-scene.
That’s all from the set of Crossing Paths. I believe the edit is now underway, and I look forward to seeing how this lovely little short film turns out.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There’s nothing like a good shaft of light to add production value to your cinematography. But you can’t just shine a lamp through a window and expect to get Hollywood shafts. Here are the essential conditions you need:
1. You need focused light, i.e. a lamp with a lens. Source 4s work extremely well. HMI or tungsten fresnels will also do the job, and sometimes Dedos.
2. You need a smoke machine or hazer to volumise the light. A cheap one from Maplin will work, but as a general rule the cheaper the machine, the more its output will be wreaths of smoke rather than just thickening up the atmosphere. However, given time to disperse and some vigorous wafting with a flag or the clapperboard, any smoke will work.
3. The smoke/haze needs to be backlit. The closer the light source is to being directly behind the smoke, the more the smoke will show up. So shoot towards windows.
4. A dark background will show up the smoke best. If you’re shooting in a house with white walls then you’re probably flogging a dead horse.
5. Keep other light sources away from the shaft. Competing lamps can muddy the shaft of light or maybe make it disappear altogether. Often I find that shafts of light work well as background interest, with the actors well in front of it, lit by other sources.
Follow all these guidelines and you’ll get lovely shafts of light every time!
Gobos are shapes that you fit onto a lamp in order to break up the light. If you’re using Source 4s you can get gobos especially for the purpose, which slot into the front of the lamp.
A cucoloris is a piece of wood or metal with vaguely leaf-life shapes cut into it. You would mount this on a C-stand or clamp of some kind. You can easily make your own cucoloris by punching holes in black-wrap or cardboard.
In fact you can create patterns of light and shadow by placing almost anything in front of a light, varying the distance from the source to make the pattern sharper or softer. Be careful to observe the minimum safe distances printed on the side of the lamphead though, or you might set fire to your shadow-maker.
Here are some examples of breaking up the light that I’ve tried over the years…
On more than one occasion I’ve taped up some of the PVC pipes which my dolly uses as tracks, to create the impression of vertical bars or pillars. In the below example the French windows (when closed) didn’t have enough bits of frame to break up the light sufficiently, so I had my spark tape a pipe to the window…
I don’t have a picture, but I remember once on a horror feature sticking lots of blobs of gaffer tape to a window.
In this shot from Stop/Eject I blacked out the room’s real window and rigged a fold-up director’s chair in front of a 1K Arrilite to cast a window frame-like shadow…
Look for things in the set that you can shine lights through, like this partition window….
or a fence…
If you want the venetian blinds effect and you don’t have any, stick strips of gaffer tape to the window.
On Ren I built an openable and closable little door (complete with tiny barred window) for light to shine through, since the set didn’t have a door.
On the same show, the roof of Karn’s house became a giant gobo for the 2.5K HMI placed above and behind the set, creating these incredible God rays when smoke was added. The roof was made of interlocking branches and had been covered by sheets by the art department – presumably to block light – but I removed the sheets because I wanted this lighting effect…
Branches make great gobos. I often sneakily break one off a nearby tree and rig it to a C-stand to cast some summery shadows or break up a moonlight or streetlamp source that’s looking too bright and flat.
If you’ve missed the other posts in my Lighting Techniques series so far, here are the links:
Recently I’ve been involved in pick-ups shoots for a couple of projects I lensed last year: action-comedy feature The Gong Fu Connection and fantasy series Ren. Both pick-up shoots were strange experiences, featuring some very familiar aspects of the original shoot – locations, sets, costumes – but noticeably lacking others – certain actors, crew members and so on. The Ren pick-ups in particular were like re-living principal photography in microcosm, with stressful crowd shoots followed by more relaxed, smaller scenes and finally night shots with flaming arrows again!
I’ve blogged previously about how a director/producer can prepare for pick-ups – by keeping certain key props and costumes, for example – but today I have a few thoughts from a DP’s perspective.
1. Keep a record of lighting plans. I have a pretty good memory for my lighting set-ups, but not everyone does, so keeping notes is a good idea. Your gaffer may even do this for you. I frequently use this blog as a means of recording lighting set-ups, and indeed tried to access it during the Ren pick-ups shoot but was foiled by dodgy wifi.
2. Keep camera logs. On a properly crewed shoot this will be the 2nd AC’s job. The logs should include at least the following info for each slate: lens, aperture, ASA, white balance and shutter angle. This can be useful in principal photography too, for example if you shoot the two parts of a shot-reverse at different ends of the day or different days all together, and need to make sure you use the same lens.
3. Have the original scene handy when you shoot the pick-ups. Load the edit onto a laptop or tablet so that you can compare it on set to the new material you’re framing up.
4. Own a bit of lighting kit if you can. In the shed I have some battered old Arrilites and a few other bits and pieces of gear that has seen better days. On a proper shoot I would leave this at home and have the production hire much better kit. But for pick-ups, when there’s often no money left, this stuff can come in handy.
5. Keep gels. If you employ an unusual colour of gel during principal photography, try to keep a piece of it in case you need to revisit that lighting set-up in pick-ups. Production will have to pay for the gel once it’s been used anyway. On the Ren pick-ups shoot, after pulling all of my gels out of the plastic kitchen bin I keep them in, I was relieved to find that I still had two pieces of the Urban Sodium gel I used in the flaming arrows scene the first time around.
LED technology is transforming the way cinematographers can light. Running off batteries and not getting hot are two of their biggest advantages over other sources, making them much more flexible. I tend to avoid keying with them, because even the most expensive brands don’t render skintones as accurately as incandescent sources, but there are many other uses they can be put to. Here are a few of my favourite.
1. Eye-light on overcast day exteriors
If it’s one of those dark days when reflectors just don’t seem to do anything, or you’re under the tree canopy of a forest, an LED panel can give you a bit of fill and eye-light.
So you’ve spent a while lighting the master shot of your big night exterior scene, and everyone’s ready to shoot. Then you notice that there’s an area in the background of frame which looks dark and empty, and you’d love a bit of extra light in there. Just slap a battery on your LED panel and run over there with it. No need to run power cables!
If you’re shooting a long scene with your talent on the move and you need to maintain a little fill when they’re between lamps, an LED panel is easy for your spark to hand bash as they walk with the actors.