How to Light Efficiently and Minimise Changes Between Angles

Exciting title, right? It’s not the glamorous side of a DP’s job, but enabling a scene to be shot quickly is a skill which definitely has its place, as long as you balance it with creative and technical quality, of course.

When a scene has been blocked and the cast have gone off to have their make-up and costuming finished, and even the director has disappeared to make plans for future scenes, the DP is left on the set to light it. Though there is always time pressure on a film, it is at a minimum during this initial lighting period (usually for the wide shot). But once the wide is in the can, the DP is expected to move quickly when tweaking lights for the coverage, as all the cast and crew are standing around waiting for you.

So a wise DP always thinks ahead to the coverage, setting up as much as possible for it concurrently with the wide, or better still sets up the wide’s lighting so that it works for the coverage too.

If we boil things right down, light looks best when it comes in from the side or the back, not the front. A common technique is to block and/or light the scene so that the main light source, be that the real sun, a window or an artificial source, is behind the cast in the wide. Let’s imagine this from the top down with the camera at 6 o’clock, the key light at 12 o’clock, and the actors in the centre.

Because of the 180º Rule, otherwise known as the Line of Action, the camera positions for the coverage are likely to all be on the bottom half of the clock face between 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock. At either of those two positions the 12 o’clock key light is now coming in from the side, so your image still has mood.

This date scene in “Harvey Greenfield is Running Late” was cross-backlit; you can just see the second light in the top right of this photo.

Another common set-up is cross-backlight. Here you would have two lights, one at about 10:30 and the other at 1:30. These give a three-quarter backlight in the wide and a three-quarter key light in the singles.

Something basic to avoid is lights actually being in shot when you move to a new camera position. Early in my career I used to put all my lamps on stands because I didn’t know any better (or have any rigging kit to do anything else), but that means you’re forever moving them. Much better to rig things to the ceiling, or to position them outside the room shining in through doors and windows. 

Practicals lights are really helpful too, because you can get them in shot with impunity. You can save hours of pain on set by collaborating with the art department in pre-production to make sure there are enough practicals to justify light from all the angles you might need it. Put them all on dimmers and use a fast lens or high ISO and you may well find that when you change camera position you only need to dim down the frontal ones and bring up the back ones to get the shot looking nice.

A behind-the-scenes view of some of the lights we rigged in the “Heretiks” chapel.

I once had to light a scene in a medieval chapel for a horror film called Heretiks. The master was a Steadicam shot moving 360º around the set. The gaffer and I invested the time beforehand to rig numerous 300W and 650W tungsten fresnels around the tops of all the walls, connected to dimmers. (The light was motivated by numerous candles.) With a bit of practice the gaffer and sparks were able to dim each lamp as the camera passed in front of it – to avoid camera shadows and the flat look of front light – and bring them back up afterwards, so there was always a wrapping backlight. A convenient side effect was that when we moved onto conventional coverage we could light shots in seconds by turning a few dimmers down or off and others up.

DP Benedict Spence used a similar principle on the recent BBC series This is Going to Hurt; he had 250 Astera Titan tubes built into the hospital set. While this was time-consuming and expensive upfront, it meant that shots could be lit very quickly by making a few tweaks at a lighting desk. And since the tubes looked like fluorescent strip-lights, there was never any problem with getting them in shot.

Once you start shooting a scene it’s important to keep up the pace so that the cast can stay in the zone. Spending extra time in prep or when lighting the wides will pay dividends in faster coverage, giving the director more time to get the best performances and to tell the story, which is ultimately what it’s all about.

How to Light Efficiently and Minimise Changes Between Angles

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: Week 3 Part 2

Day 21

Photo by Jonnie Howard

A morning full of short running scenes, all shot as oners on the Steadicam by Luke Oliver. Pretty much every crew member had had a cameo by this point, and today it was my turn. My character: Nerdy Cyclist. Alright, technically it was just Cyclist. The nerdy bit was just me (a) beefing up my part and (b) playing to type.

For the afternoon we moved to The Lab, a cocktail bar, where we filmed one of the fantasy/imaginary scenes that cuts with the very first shot we did of Harvey back on Day 1. Mixologist Tom was dressed in an elaborate all-black costume so Stephen and I hit him with two tungsten lamps, one either side, at an angle somewhere between side-light and backlight. This cut him out from the background, showed up the layering in the costume, edge-lit the cocktail shaker and liquids being poured, and deliberately kept Tom’s face dark. Quadruple win!

 

Day 22

We returned to Othersyde to pick up the one scene we dropped there on our most packed day of principal photography, Day 7. I referred to the blog post to help get the vibe of the lighting the same. The main motivation was the real streetlamp at the front of the site, which we wrapped using an Aputure with a lantern attachment, rigged on a mini boom. Another Aputure lantern gave a cool moonlight wash on the venue’s terraced outdoor seating, and a blue-gelled 300W tungsten fresnel uplighter replicated what we did on the other side of the building last year. A 2K blasted light from the direction Harvey has come; this light represented the ongoing wedding, so we had a couple of people moving around in front of it for dynamic shadows.

I ended up turning off the first Aputure for the wide as it seemed to kill the mood, but we brought it back for the close-up to show more of Paul’s face. To represent the light of his phone as he turns it on, Stephen held a PavoTube just above the camera and twisted it quickly around to face Paul on cue. We adjusted the eyebrow on the camera to flag the tube’s light off the phone itself.

There were a few bitty pick-ups to do while we were outside with access to power, including a “BOV” – a POV of a bee. We did this with the probe lens on Jonnie’s Canon C200, which I had to float around and then jab into Paul’s neck. Sorry, Paul.

At 1am we moved into an adjacent industrial street – having decided that it was unreasonable to have Paul shouting dialogue in a residential area at that hour – for some Steadicam shots. I went to the Gemini’s low-light ISO 3200 and Stephen hand-bashed a lantern on a boom pole to fill Paul in between streetlamps, which became a fun dance when we had to do a 270° orbit!

 

Day 23

We convened at Cambridge’s Castle Hill. Nearby Indian restaurant Namaste Village kindly agreed to let us shoot a brief scene there at the last minute, even having one of the staff do a spot of acting. I posted a video breakdown on Instagram – here it is:

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Neil Oseman (@neiloseman)

Back outside we filmed a nice sequence of shots ending with a 360° pan following Harvey as he walks around the top of Castle Hill talking on the phone. As the other end of the phone call had been shot with Steve’s head sometimes out of frame, we went the other way and gave Harvey loads of headroom, capturing some nice clouds along the way.

Then it was time for another pick-up from Day 7, reshooting the tent scene for continuity reasons. Again we put a light on one side and black-draped the other to get some shape into the light inside. This time we used a wider lens, the 14mm, and with the help of a runner I handheld it over Paul rather than trying to squeeze the tripod in around him like last time. He got a nasty shock when I accidentally knocked the matte box off and it hit him in the face. Er, sorry again.

After wrapping a few of us went back across the road to Namaste Village, where the food was excellent.

 

Day 24

On our last day we caught up to the elusive pick-up that was always meant to be a pick-up: the scenes with Harvey’s mum. We took over Rachel’s grandmother’s house for several hours, most of the shots being in a corner of her living room. Unusually I was drawn to a corner that didn’t have a window in it, because it had the best furniture and dressing to establish the character in our standard 24mm tableau shot.

But this meant – with all the windows behind camera – that it was a challenge to make the lighting interesting. We faked a window just off camera left using a diffusion frame with muslin and a grid over it; Stephen bounced the 600D into it from across the room. I closed the room’s curtains as much as I could get away with before the lack of natural fill light started to make it look like night. (For later scenes we closed them all the way and put a 300D behind the muslin, as pictured above.)

To add more interest to the shot I played around with the positions of two table lamps and a floor lamp. Pausing to check my script breakdown notes from last year I saw that I had written “a single practical floor lamp” in the lighting column; too many lamps would kill the scene’s sad tone. This is a good example of a breakdown keeping me honest as a DP and preventing me from getting carried away doing stuff on set just because I can (though that definitely still happens sometimes). I ended up with just one lamp in the back of the main shot.

After some variations on that main shot for later scenes, and a brief scene in the kitchen, we packed up and headed out for exteriors. Most of these were happy flashbacks from the early days of Harvey and Alice’s relationship, and Jonnie wanted to fill them with filmic references. First up was a Jules et Jim homage with the pair racing across a bridge, then a “remake” of one of Jonnie’s own amateur films with Harvey and Alice spinning around holding hands. For POV reverse shots we put the tripod on the point which they span around, and I set the panning tension to zero so that they could pull the camera around themselves by holding the moose bars (handgrips).

Next was a Manhattan-esque shot with the couple on a bench looking up at Ely Cathedral. We clearly weren’t going to light the cathedral on our budget, so we set up around sunset and waited for the streetlamps to come on and the ambient light to drop to a nice dusky level. We rolled when the daylight was metering at T1.4 at ISO 800, though I exposed at T2. To cut Harvey and Alice out from the background a bit Stephen stood just out of frame with an LED lantern motivated by a nearby streetlamp.

He pulled the same trick at our next location, a passageway beside Prezzo, where we did actually have to light a small portion of the cathedral wall as well, using a battery-powered Aputure (200X I think). We couldn’t have done it for long on the batteries we had, but fortunately it was a brief scene.

Our final set-up was a Poor Man’s shot of Harvey running at night. We did this on the green beside the cathedral because it was a handy open space where we could get a completely dark background save for a few dots of distant lights. Stephen armed a FalconEyes over Paul and swung it back and forth to create the illusion of passing streetlamps. The shot needed a tiny touch of fill, so we taped a PavoTube to the top of the matte box, setting it to 1% intensity and taping over most of it to get it down to a low enough level. (I was at ISO 3200 and on a 14mm lens, so mere inches from Paul’s face.)

Then Rob said the magic words, “It’s a wrap.” Like most micro-budget projects there are still a few loose ends to be shot, but those will be done with Jonnie’s camera and no crew. For most of the cast and crew Harvey Greenfield has run his course and I’ll see them at some distant time for the premiere. Thank you Stephen Allwright (gaffer), Jeremy Dawson (spark), Hamish Nichols (1st AC), Fiyin Oladimeji (2nd AC) and Nana Nabi (2nd AC daily) for all your hard work, and to Jonnie for bringing me onto this fun and creative film. Huge thanks also to Global Distribution, Red and Sigma who supported us with equipment which brought the whole thing up a level. The rough cut is already fantastic and I can’t wait to see it finished.

Read all my Harvey Greenfield is Running Late posts:

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: Week 3 Part 2

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: Week 3 Part 1

Photo by Jonnie Howard

Day 17

Our first location was a medical training ward populated by creepy dummies; we had a brief flashback scene to do around a hospital bed. When we arrived there was nice warm sunlight coming in through the frosted glass behind the bed, so we made sure that stuck around by putting an orange-gelled Aputure 600D out there. Inside we wrapped this with a FalconEyes and Stephen added some soft fill because I wanted the scene to feel romantic. To get some green into the frame (a calming colour in the film’s visual language) we stuck a couple of Nanlite PavoTubes into the background as practicals.

While Hamish (our new 1st AC) and Fifi were building the camera I faffed about with the Prosup Tango slider, trying to figure out a way to have the track go over the bed so we could pull straight back from Paul. It proved impossible simply because the track also ended up in frame, and instead we simply set it up beside the bed. It took a bit of clever blocking by director Jonnie to ensure that the camera could point directly along the axis of the track, rather than at an angle, which would have broken the established visual grammar of the film. This is the sort of thing that takes a bit of time to get back into after months away from the project, but it’s important to get it right.

Next we moved into the foyer, which we were playing as a bank. There was plenty of natural light but we made sure to keep that in the background, neg-filling behind the camera, and adding a key (a Rayzr MC 200) at 90° to the talent (Alex Wilber), who was partly facing towards a computer monitor on that side of camera anyway. A heavily dimmed 2K served as backlight.

After a brief panic when we thought we were missing our favourite lens, the 14mm, we moved to Cambridge 105’s studio a couple of blocks away. A special guest star played a Tony Blackburn-esque DJ and threw in some brilliant improvs.

We fought a battle against the high, bright sun that kept trying to come in the south-facing window, despite us having diffed a lot of it, and blacked out the whole top section, and having blinds partly lowered, and the windows having some special solar coating on them anyway. Once again we fired in the 600D, which probably did very little compared with that sun, and wrapped it inside with a FalconEyes, and added the PavoTubes into the background for colour. The DJ’s computer monitors were set to 60Hz, but I’d learnt my lesson from last year and immediately set the shutter to 144° to sort that out.

 

Day 18

We were at Anglia Ruskin University for the day, mostly in one of their media studios. Here we had to shoot a number of things against a black backdrop, mainly to cut into the climax of the film. These included a 180° camera move using the university’s track and dolly. I thought briefly about doing some elaborate lighting rig in which lamps would have to be dimmed up and down to maintain backlight and eliminate front-light as the camera circled, but then I came to my senses and we just fired a Source Four straight down onto the makeshift table that the two actors were hunched over so that it would bounce back up to them. I was using the Soft FX 1 to match the look of the Happy Place scenes from Day 3, which helped to take the harshness out of the highlights where the Source Four was directly hitting the cast.

A little later Jonnie started flinging things in front of the camera. Had he finally cracked? No, he just wanted some lovely slo-mo shots of key props arcing through a black void. We went to 120fps, the Red Gemini’s maximum 4K frame rate, and the higher native ISO of 3200. We were able to make a stop of somewhere between T4 and T5.6 by bouncing two 2Ks into an 8×4′ poly just out of frame, and using three triple banks of the uni’s linear cyc lights in the grid as backlight.

After lunch we came to a couple of crucial shots that were dropped from the night shoot on Day 10, meaning we had to replicate the lighting from Vinery Park. We used the cycs again, a Source Four on a stand as a special flaring backlight simulating the park’s streetlamp, and a couple of 2Ks through a diffusion frame as the key. Although we were back to 24fps we still needed loads of light because one of the set-ups was on an f/14 probe lens sliding into Harvey’s mouth! “It feels really weird,” Paul remarked. Yep. And sorry for bashing you in the teeth with it.

As our time on the campus ticked down we moved across to another building to shoot a call centre scene. We went for our 24mm “tableau” frame that we’ve used to establish all the characters who ring Harvey in their own environments, followed by a couple of other set-ups. We kept the talent’s (Kate Madison) eye-line between the camera and the windows for a nice short key, beefing it up with a FalconEyes, and added a dimmed 2K backlight and some warm PavoTubes in the background (orange being the stress colour in the film’s visual language).

 

Day 19

The good folks at BBC Breakfast were up bright and early, set up at the Granta beside Sheep’s Green, shooting live news footage of what was widely forecast to be a record-breakingly hot day. We were up pretty early too, watching from the banks of the Cam at 5:30am as the BBC drone flew over, and hoping that it wouldn’t ruin a take (which it didn’t).

We were shooting Harvey Greenfield‘s only stunt, which I probably shouldn’t spoil by describing. We’d given Stephen the day off, and my trusty 5-in-1 reflector was our only lighting gear, but of course there was no shortage of sunlight. I used the white side for most set-ups, running along beside the Steadicam later in the day to keep Paul’s face filled in when he wasn’t facing the sun.

There was an interesting moment when we had the sun in the background of a low-angle shot. As I’ve experienced before, the Soft FX filter reflected a rectangle of light onto the subject. But even when we took it out, the IRND filter did the same thing. Do all filters do it, I wonder? Must test that one day.

We wrapped a little after 3pm, as the heat was reaching its maximum. Despite all the dire warnings (and drone-worthy news coverage) it hadn’t been too hot to work. We were all sensible with hydration, shade and sunblock, and I even swam in the Cam a couple of times during the day to cool off. You don’t get to do that very often on a shoot!

Straight after wrap I went for another swim in Jesus Green Lido, whence a Channel 5 news crew were broadcasting live weather reports with the pool in the background. The presenter was positioned in the shade and they’d set up a 600D on either side of him to fill him in. Believe it or not, that would inspire the next day’s lighting.

 

Day 20

First up was a one-shot flashback scene at the Arts Picturehouse. We used the 600D as the “projector”, positioning it just barely out of the top of frame, and a 4×4′ poly armed over the camera as the screen bounce. During the takes Jeremy wiggled his hand in front of the 600D to create dynamics in the flare.

The day’s main scene was a fake advert starring a nineties keep-fit icon. The aim was a cheesy infomercial vibe, with a 4:3 aspect ratio and over-the-top acting. We cross-front-lit the scene with the Aputures 300D and 200X (thank you, Channel 5), with only a bit of diff on them. I over-exposed by a stop and took out the Soft FX filter to make the image even less filmic. I framed with a lot of headroom and even did a deliberately late tilt-down at one point. When the actual aerobics start, we went even more naff by adding two PavoTubes into the background and the Rayzr MC behind camera, all flashing nasty disco colours. It was great fun.

By the time we moved onto the last scene – another 24mm phone call, in a GP’s waiting room – it was at least 39°C in Cambridge and the UK’s temperature record had been broken.

There’ll be more from this shoot in next week’s post. In the meantime, you can read all the Harvey posts here. Note that the link will display them in reverse chronological order, so scroll down for the older ones.

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: Week 3 Part 1

Is Modern Cinematography too Dark?

“Why are things so dimly lit today? Can barely see anything.” Such was a comment on a frame of my cinematography that I posted on Instagram last year. It was a night scene but far from the darkest image I’ve ever posted.

“The First Musketeer” (2015, DP: Neil Oseman)

I remembered the comment recently when double Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kamiński said something similar in an interview with British Cinematographer. He lamented what he perceives as a loss of lighting skills that accompanied the transition from celluloid to digital filmmaking: “Now everyone shoots dark… Pictures are so murky you need to crank up the TV to see it… They just don’t know how to light.”

I think there’s a tremendous amount of talent in today’s world of digital cinematography, but the technology might have encouraged a trend towards darker images. With celluloid it was always better to err on the side of over-exposure, as highlights would fall off attractively but shadows could get lost in the grain. With digital it is more advisable to lean towards under-exposure, to avoid the harsh clipping of highlights.

We should also consider that modern digital cameras have more dynamic range than film, so there is less risk inherent in under-exposing a scene, especially as you can see on your histogram exactly what detail you’re retaining. But the same should be true of over-exposure too.

The demand from streaming platforms for HDR delivery also encourages DPs and colourists to play more with very dark (or very bright) images. Most viewers will still see the results in SDR, however, and some crucial information at the edges of the dynamic range could get lost in the transfer.

“Crimson Tide” (1995, DP: Dariusz Wolski, ASC)

The trend for darker images may have started even before the digital revolution though. “I think contemporary photography is going away from pretty pictures,” Dariusz Wolski told American Cinematographer in 1996, well over a decade before digital capture became the norm. “Something that is dark is really dark, and something that is bright is very bright. The idea is to stretch photography, to make it more extreme.”

Wolski may have been onto something there: a trend towards more naturalistic images. You have only to look at a film made in the first half of the 20th century to see that lighting has become much more realistic and less stylised since then. Darker doesn’t necessarily mean more realistic, but perhaps it has become a convenient trick to suggest realism, much like blue lighting is a convenient trick to suggest night that has very little basis in how things look in the real world.

The most noticeable increase in darker images has been in TV – traditionally bright and flat because of the inherently contrasty nature of the cathode ray tube and the many lights and reflections contaminating the screen in a typical living room. Flat-screens are less reflective, less contrasty and generally bigger – and a dimmer image is easier for the eye to interpret when it’s bigger.

Perhaps people are more likely to draw the curtains or turn off the lights if they’ve splashed out on a TV so large that it feels a bit like a cinema, but what about all the mobile devices we have today? I went through a phase of watching a lot of Netflix shows on an iPad Mini on trains, and I was forever trying to keep the daylight off the screen so that I could see what was going on. It was annoying, but it was my own fault for watching it in a form that the programme-makers couldn’t reasonably be expected to cater for.

A shot from “Games of Thrones: The Long Night” (2019, DP: Fabian Wagner, ASC, BSC) which has been brightened by disgruntled fans

“A lot of people… watch it on small iPads, which in no way can do justice to a show like that anyway,” said DP Fabian Wagner in defence of the infamously dark Battle of Winterfell in Game of Thrones. I’ve never seen it, and I’m all for a DP’s right to shoot an image the way they see fit, but it sounds like he might have gone too far in this case. After all, surely any technique that distracts the audience or takes them out of the story has defeated its purpose.

So, the odd extreme case like this aside, is modern cinematography too dark? I think there is an over-reliance on moodiness sometimes, a bit like how early DSLR filmmakers were too reliant on a tiny depth of field. DPs today have so much choice in all aspects of crafting an image; it is a shame to discount the option of a bright frame, which can be just as expressive as a dark one.

But if a DP wants to choose darkness, that is up to them. Risks like Fabian Wagner took are an important part of any art-form. Without them, cinematography would go stale. And I for one would certainly not want that, the odd negative Instagram comment notwithstanding.

Is Modern Cinematography too Dark?

“Red Dwarf VI”: Making a Sci-fi Sitcom in 1993

I have been a huge fan of the British sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf since the age of 12 or 13. The show has undergone many changes over the years, and every fan has their own view about which era is the best, but for me seasons V and VI will always be my favourites. I discovered the show during season V and I remember the huge anticipation for the next season. During this time the show’s production values were very high but it was still extremely funny, with the main characters all well established and well rounded.

So I was delighted to come across Joe Nazzaro’s book The Making of Red Dwarf in a charity shop recently. It focuses on the production of the series’ most lauded episode, the International Emmy-winning “Gunmen of the Apocalypse” from 1993. The episode sees mechanoid Kryten deliberately contract a computer virus in order to save the Red Dwarf posse, and their efforts to help him battle the infection within the framework of a Wild West VR game representing his consciousness.

What I find fascinating is that the series, at that time at least, was made in such a different way to modern high-end TV or film, following instead the multi-camera sitcom pattern of rehearsing all week and recording in the evening on Saturday.

The cycle began on a Sunday, with production designer Mel Bibby removing the previous episode’s sets from Stage G at Shepperton and installing the new ones.

On Monday the director, writers and cast rehearsed on the set while certain crew members travelled to location – the Laredo Western Club in Kent – to pre-rig. A British sitcom at this time had no director of photography; instead the camera angles were chosen purely by the director and technically executed under the purview of the camera supervisor, while illumination was provided by the lighting director, in this case John Pomphrey. His work at Laredo included putting warm lights inside the buildings to match the look of the interiors which he planned for the studio.

Pomphrey lit a lot of rock and pop shows, and was inspired by concert lighting for such bands as Iron Maiden:

“If you look at them they’re into the same colours I am: oranges, deep blues; powerful colours. I don’t believe in understating something, because you’re generally watching it on a small screen in a well-lit room, so you’ve got to overstate the colours. In the cinema, you can get away with subtle tones, but I don’t think you can on this show… I’m a frustrated cinematographer: I want to make ‘Aliens’.”

Tuesday was the location shoot, conducted with multiple cameras (though not for every set-up) as director Andy DeEmmony worked through his storyboards. At this time all UK TV was 4:3 standard definition. While a high-end drama would have used 16mm film, most shows, including Red Dwarf, were captured on a tape format like Betacam SP. “Gunmen of the Apocalypse” saw the series make rare use of a crane, and behind-the-scenes photos also show at least one HMI shining through a diffusion frame. It was common practice at this time to use large HMIs to fill in shadows on sunny day exteriors.

On Wednesday rehearsals continued on stage, culminating in a tech run during which camera supervisor Rocket previewed shots using the classic hand-framing method. In the evening the production team convened to discuss the next episode, “Polymorph II: Emohawk”.

Thursday was known as the Pre-VT day: the day when all scenes too complex to shoot in front of the live audience must be recorded. With “Gunmen” this meant scenes inside the Last Chance Saloon which required such camera tricks as pulling knives out of antagonist Jimmy’s jacket on nylon wires so that in reverse it looked like the knives were pinning him to the wall, Rimmer’s bar fight with four cowboys, and a scene aboard the Simulant ship which is the source of Kryten’s infection.

Pomphrey would communicate by radio with Dai Thomas, who spent studio days in a darkened cabin operating a lighting desk while watching the action on two monitors.

Friday saw more rehearsals, while Tuesday and Thursday’s footage was edited to show to the live audience tomorrow.

Saturday began with blocking and camera rehearsals, before the doors opened to the public at 7pm and recording commenced at 7:30.

It seems that Shepperton Stage G was not equipped with a gallery like a dedicated TV studio; instead, vision mixing was done from the scanner – an outside broadcast truck. For those who don’t know, vision mixing is live editing, cutting from one camera to another in real time as a production assistant calls the shots from the director’s camera script. Elsewhere in the scanner, an engineer monitored the images, doing something akin to the job of a modern DIT, adjusting colours, sharpness and even remotely controlling the cameras’ irises. (Zoom and focus were controlled by the camera operators.)

It’s a testament to all concerned that the show looked so cinematic despite being made this way. Later seasons became even more cinematic, doing away with the live audience for a little while, then bringing it back and later kick-starting Ed Moore BSC’s career when he shot seasons XI and XII beautifully. By this time the show was produced by Dave (a channel named, appropriately enough, after Red Dwarf‘s slobbish hero Dave Lister). It was now captured in HD, on Red cameras of some flavour if I remember rightly, with a focus puller for each one and a more film-like crew structure .

It’s unclear at present if any more seasons will follow 2020’s “The Promised Land”, but if they do I’m sure the series will continue to evolve and embrace new technologies and working practices. Which is a very dull way to end a post about a very funny show, so instead I’ll leave you with one of my favourite jokes from the series, which will make no sense whatsoever unless you remember the set-up.

Kryten, no kitchen appliance should give a human being a double polaroid.

“Red Dwarf VI”: Making a Sci-fi Sitcom in 1993

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: June 2022 Pick-ups

Last summer I lensed Harvey Greenfield is Running Late, a hilarious comedy feature starring Paul Richards, based on his acclaimed one-man play, soon to have its 100th performance. We had a 14-day window in Paul’s schedule for the shoot, during which we captured two thirds of the film – less than we’d hoped, but still a remarkable achievement given the resources we had and the production value we achieved. This summer we shoot the rest.

 

Day 15

Ten months on, we returned to the house from days 11 and 12. It’s on the verge of being sold, and this was our last chance to mop up the outstanding material here.

We eased into it gradually with simple inserts, recreating the look and lighting in the kitchen using Fifi’s camera notes, clips from the assembly edit, and this blog (yes, it’s not just for you, dear reader). At times like this I wish I recorded even more information – intensity and colour temperature readings for every source would be extremely useful, but is that really practical?

After traumatising Paul with a reshoot of a scene in which he gets slapped (accidentally for real the first time around) we popped outside to get a shot of him on the street, filmed through a car windscreen. Last year we captured the first monologue of the film as a oner, but with hindsight director Jonnie Howard decided it needed breaking up; this windscreen shot is one of several that he has added to illustrate the things Harvey monologues about. Proving that there are no easy shots, it took me an embarrassingly long time to eliminate annoying reflections in the glass by covering shiny parts of the dashboard with matt black tape and putting a polarising filter in the matte box.

Next we moved to the back garden for one of the film’s most complicated shots. It starts off as a two-shot of Harvey and Alice (Liz Barker) in a nighttime interior setting then – via a low-tech, Michel Gondry-style transition – becomes a single of Harvey in a daytime exterior. Gaffer Stephen Allwright and spark Jeremy Dawson built a dark box out of flags and bolton, parts of which had to swing away to let in the natural light during the transition. A light had to be panned off and a reflector swung in too, while production designer Amanda Stekly and her helpers performed their own magic with the set. By the time we got it in the can we were losing the light, but the result was well worth it.

The dusk gave us just the look we needed for a quick scene in the bedroom, then we were into full nighttime scenes. I climbed into the wardrobe to get the right camera angle – we were without our beloved 14mm lens this time around, so the locations felt a little tighter!

Later we had to recreate the lighting of the aforementioned oner, so we could shoot coverage, again with extensive reference to the camera notes, rushes and R3D metadata, this blog, and on-set photos captured on my phone. Last year we dialled a custom cyan colour into the Astera tubes and I really wish I had noted the XY or HSL numbers so that we could have dialled those into the Rayzr MC 200 that was replacing them for the pick-ups. Instead we had to judge it by eye.

It was now about midnight and we still had an important sequence in the kitchen and living room to shoot; we ultimately captured it in two set-ups and an insert. This day’s filming had seen the most extreme examples of the colour scheme I planned last year: orangey-red colours to represent Harvey’s stress, and cooler, greenish shades for calmer moments. By the end of the night it was starting to look like The Neon Demon and I was wondering if I had gone too far. I guess I will find out when it’s all cut together.

 

Day 16

A pleasant cycle ride through Cambridge and out across a meadow brought me to the brand-new village of Eddington and the impressive Storey’s Field Centre where we would be filming the office of Harvey’s boss, Bryan (Alan Hay). First up was a fantastic shot of Harvey huffing and puffing up a spiral staircase in the centre’s main hall. The high-tech building had its lights and two layers of blinds controlled electronically, and Stephen was able to completely reshape the natural light in the huge wide shot and even put a glorious streak of light on the staircase just by pressing a few buttons. If only every location was equipped so.

A smaller, but still obscenely spacious, hall served as Bryan’s office. French windows faced east into a beautiful courtyard garden. High windows on the opposite side of the room featured motorised blinds again, which sadly would not stop halfway, forcing us to close them completely to control the light. An overhang above the French windows, combined with the high walls of the courtyard, meant that very little natural light now entered the room. For a key, Stephen constructed a book-light by pointing an Aputure 600D up into a tilted frame of Ultrabounce and then hanging some diffusion (half grid, I think) off the top edge. We added a tungsten fresnel on a boom to give some orange, stress-themed hair-light to characters in the middle of the room.

The first shot was effectively the POV of a dartboard, so we stuck three darts to the matte box with Blu Tack. Sharp points and oily substances – exactly the things you want right next to your lens! – but it looked great.

The next couple of shots featured co-writer Raymond Howard’s baby daughter. One was a contra-zoom, captured on the 18-35mm which I zoomed manually off the barrel while pushing in on the Tango ProSup slider. The other required me to brandish the handheld camera right in baby’s face for a very long time until she eventually cried.

Then it was onto the big scene. This featured Bryan referring to a PowerPoint presentation, which meant a lighting transition as the screen came down and the projector fired up. For Harvey’s angle, with his back to the projector, we boomed an Aputure 300D behind him to simulate the projection beam, and sat a pocket LED light on the matte box to represent the bounce off the screen; these faded up as the 600D book-light and tungsten hair-light dimmed down. For Bryan’s angle the real projection light wasn’t doing enough on his face, so we “extended” the practical lamp on his desk with a small tungsten fresnel. For the wide shot we could get away with re-angling the practical so that it cast a dramatic, Citizen Kane-esque shadow from Bryan up onto the screen.

All in all, the day’s work added a huge amount of scale and humour to the movie. It was lovely to see and work with everyone again for the weekend. Next month most of us will be back for eight more days of running late.

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: June 2022 Pick-ups

My New Online Course: “Cinematography for Drama”

My new second online cinematography course, Cinematography for Drama, is now out on Udemy. The course explains the role of a DP on set, from collaborating with the director in blocking the cast and choosing the camera angles, to lighting the scene with depth and mood.

Across the four modules of the course, I set up and shoot scenes in common contemporary locations: domestic banter in a sunny kitchen, a monologue in a dark bedroom, an awkward first date in a restaurant, and a walk-and-talk in an outdoor bar. Watch me try out different blocking and camera angles to get the most depth and interest in the frame, create movement using a slider and a gimbal, and work out the coverage needed to complete the scene. Then learn the secrets of cinematic lighting as I set up LED, tungsten and practical lights to create a look. Witness the camera rehearsals through to the final take, then sit back and watch the final edited scene. 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.

This is a follow-up to my best-selling Udemy course Cinematic Lighting, which has over 3,600 students and a star rating of 4.5 out of 5. Here is some student feedback:

  • “Excellent. Informative and enjoyable to watch.” – 5 stars – David C.
  • “Thank you to Neil and his team for a fantastic course that gives a real insight into the thought process of a cinematographer.” – 5 stars – Dan B.
  • “Some great tips in this. Really enjoyed watching the decisions being made as and when the scenario is actually being lit, some good workarounds and nice in depth descriptions to why he’s doing what he is. Genuinely feels like your taking in some advice on set! Well worth taking the time to do this!” – 5 stars – Ed L.

You can get the new course for a special low price by using the code IREADTHEBLOG before April 2nd.

My New Online Course: “Cinematography for Drama”

Cinematography in a Virtual World

Yesterday I paid a visit to my friend Chris Bouchard, co-director of The Little Mermaid and director of the hugely popular Lord of the Rings fan film The Hunt for Gollum. Chris has been spending a lot of time working with Unreal, the gaming engine, to shape it into a filmmaking tool.

The use of Unreal Engine in LED volumes has been getting a lot of press lately. The Mandalorian famously uses this virtual production technology, filming actors against live-rendered CG backgrounds displayed on large LED walls. What Chris is working on is a little bit different. He’s taking footage shot against a conventional green screen and using Unreal to create background environments and camera movements in post-production. He’s also playing with Unreal’s MetaHumans, realistic virtual models of people. The faces of these MetaHumans can be puppeteered in real time by face-capturing an actor through a phone or webcam.

Chris showed me some of the environments and MetaHumans he has been working on, adapted from pre-built library models. While our friend Ash drove the facial expressions of the MetaHuman, I could use the mouse and keyboard to move around and find shots, changing the focal length and aperture at will. (Disconcertingly, aperture and exposure are not connected in this virtual environment. Changing the f-stop only alters the depth of field.) I also had complete control of the lighting. This meant that I could re-position the sun with a click and drag, turn God rays on and off, add haze, adjust the level of ambient sky-light, and so on.

Of course, I tended to position the sun as backlight. Adding a virtual bounce board would have been too taxing for the computer, so instead I created a “Rect Light”, a soft rectangular light source of any width and height I desired. With one of these I could get a similar look to a 12×12′ Ultrabounce.

The system is pretty intuitive and it wasn’t hard at all to pick up the basics. There are, however, a lot of settings, some of which even Chris doesn’t fully understand yet. To be a user-friendly tool, many of these settings would need to be stripped out and perhaps others like aperture and exposure should be linked together. Simple things like renaming a “Rect Light” to a soft light would help too.

The system raises an interesting creative question. Do you make the image look like real life, or like a movie, or as perfect as possible? We DPs might like to think our physically filmed images are realistic, but that’s not always the case; a cinematic night exterior bears little resemblance to genuinely being outdoors at night, for example. It is interesting that games designers, like the one below (who actually uses a couple of images from my blog as references around 3:58), are far more interested in replicating the artificial lighting of movies than going for something more naturalistic.

As physical cinematographers we are also restricted by the limitations of time, equipment and the laws of physics. Freed from these shackles, we could create “perfect” images, but is that really a good idea? The Hobbit‘s endless sunset and sunrise scenes show how tedious and unbelievable “perfection” can get.

There is no denying that the technology is incredibly impressive, and constantly improving. Ash had brought along his Playstation 5 and we watched The Matrix Awakens, a semi-interactive film using real-time rendering. Genuine footage of Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss is intercut with MetaHumans and an incredibly detailed city which you can explore. If you dig into the menu you can also adjust some camera settings and take photos. I’ll leave you with a few that I captured as I roamed the streets of this cyber-metropolis.

Cinematography in a Virtual World

Corridors and Kitchens

I’ve been shooting films for Rick Goldsmith and his company Catcher Media for over 20 years now. “That’s longer than I’ve been alive,” said the make-up artist on U & Me, Catcher’s latest, when I told her. Ouch.

Like most of the films I’ve done with Rick, U & ME is a drama for schools, about healthy relationships. These projects are as much about giving young people a chance to be involved in the making of a film as they are about the finished product. This means that we have to be pretty light on our feet as a crew – always a good challenge.

One of the main scenes was in the corridor of a school, or “academy” as they all seem to be called now (have we established yet that I’m old?). Rick had picked a corridor that was relatively quiet, though it was still impossible to film when kids were moving between lessons. It had a nice double-door fire exit at the end with diffuse glass. Any corridor/tunnel benefits from having light at the end of it. That’s not a metaphor; light in the deep background is a staple of cinematography, and this light kicked nicely off the shiny floor as well. Whenever framing permitted, I beefed up the light from the doors with one of Rick’s Neewer NL-200As, circular LED fixtures.

For the key light there was a convenient window above the hero lockers. The window looked into an office which – even more conveniently – was empty. In here I put an open-face tungsten 2K pointing at the ceiling. This turned the ceiling into a soft source that spilled through the window. I added another Neewer panel when I needed a bit more exposure.

I also wanted to control the existing overhead lights in the corridor. They couldn’t be turned off – I don’t think there were even any switches – so I flagged the ones I didn’t like using black wrap and a blackout curtain hung from the drop ceiling. I taped diffusion over another light, one that I didn’t want to kill completely.

It looked nice and moody in the end.

A brighter scene was shot in the kitchen of an AirBnB that doubled as accommodation for us crew. Here I used the 2K outside the window to fire in a hot streak of sunlight that spilt across the worktops, the actor’s clothes and the cupboards (bouncing back onto her face when she looked towards them).

The 2K would have been too hard to light her face with. Instead I fired one of the Neewers into the corner next to the window, creating a soft source for her key. The only other thing I did was to add another Neewer bouncing into the ceiling behind camera for later scenes, when the natural light outside was falling off and it was starting to look too contrasty inside.

It might not have been rocket science, but it was quite satisfying to get an interesting look out of ordinary locations and limited kit.

Corridors and Kitchens

“Annabel Lee”: Using a Wall as a Light Source

Here’s another lighting breakdown from the short film Annabel Lee, which has won many awards at festivals around the world, including seven now for Best Cinematography.

I wanted the cottage to feel like a safe place for Annabel and E early in the film. When they come back inside and discuss going to the village for food, I knew I wanted a bright beam of sunlight coming in somewhere. I also knew that, as is usual for most DPs in most scenes, I wanted the lighting to be short-key, i.e. coming from the opposite of the characters’ eye-lines to the camera. The blocking of the scene made this difficult though, with Annabel and E standing against a wall and closed door. In the story the cottage does not have working electricity, so I couldn’t imply a ceiling light behind them to edge them out from the wall. Normally I would have suggested to the director, Amy Coop, that we flip things around and wedge the camera in between the cast and the wall so that we could use the depth of the kitchen as a background and the kitchen window as the source of key-light. But it had been agreed with the art department that we would never show the kitchen, which had not been dressed and was full of catering supplies.

The solution was firing a 2.5K HMI in through one of the dining room windows to create a bright rectangle of light on the white wall. This rectangle of bounce became the source of key-light for the scene. We added a matt silver bounce board just out of the bottom of frame on the two-shot, and clamped silver card to the door for the close-ups, to increase the amount of bounce. The unseen kitchen window (behind camera in the two-shot) was blacked out to create contrast. I particularly like E’s close-up, where the diffuse light coming from the HMI’s beam in the haze gives him a lovely rim (stop sniggering).

Adding to the fun was the fact that it was a Steadicam scene. The two-shot had to follow E through into the dining room, almost all of which would be seen on camera, and end on a new two-shot. We put our second 2.5K outside the smaller window (camera left in the shot below), firing through a diffusion frame, to bring up the level in the room. I think we might have put an LED panel outside the bigger window, but it didn’t really do anything useful without coming into shot.

For more on the cinematography of Annabel Lee, visit these links:

“Annabel Lee”: Using a Wall as a Light Source