Working with White Walls

White walls are the bane of a DP’s existence. They bounce light around everywhere, killing the mood, and they look cheap and boring in the background of your shot. Nonetheless, with so many contemporary buildings decorated this way, it’s a challenge we all have to face. Today I’m going to look back on two short films I’ve photographed, and explain the different approaches I took to get the white-walled locations looking nice.

Finding Hope is a moving drama about a couple grieving for the baby they have lost. It was shot largely at the home of the producer, Jean Maye, on a Sony FS7 with Sigma and Pentax stills glass.

Exit Eve is a non-linear narrative about the dehumanisation of an au pair by her wealthy employers. With a fairly respectable budget for a short, this production shot in a luxurious Battersea townhouse on an Arri Alexa Classic with Ultra Primes.

 

“Crown”-inspired colour contrast

Cheap 300W dimmers like these are great for practicals.

It was January 2017 when we made Finding Hope, and I’d recently been watching a lot of The Crown. I liked how that series punctuated its daylight interior frames with pools of orange light from practicals. We couldn’t afford much of a lighting package, and I thought that pairing existing pracs with dimmers and tungsten bulbs would be a cheap and easy way to break up the white walls and bring some warmth – perhaps a visual representation of the titular hope – into the heavy story.

I shot all the daylight interiors at 5600K to get that warmth out of the pracs. Meanwhile I shaped the natural light as far as possible with the existing curtains, and beefed it up with a 1.2K HMI where I could. I used no haze or lens diffusion on the film because I felt it needed the unforgiving edges.

For close-ups, I often cheated the pracs a little closer and tweaked the angle, but I chose not to supplement them with movie lamps. The FS7’s native ISO of 2500 helped a lot, especially in a nighttime scene where the grieving parents finally let each other in. Director Krysten Resnick had decided that there would be tea-lights on the kitchen counter, and I asked art director Justine Arbuthnot to increase the number as much as she dared. They became the key-light, and again I tweaked them around for the close-ups.

My favourite scene in Finding Hope is another nighttime one, in which Crystal Leaity sits at a piano while Kevin Leslie watches from the doorway. I continued the theme of warm practicals, bouncing a bare 100W globe off the wall as Crystal’s key, and shaping the existing hall light with some black wrap, but I alternated that with layers of contrasting blue light: the HMI’s “moonlight” coming in through the window, and the flicker of a TV in the deep background. This latter was a blue-gelled 800W tungsten lamp bounced off a wobbling reflector.

When I saw the finished film, I was very pleased that the colourist had leant into the warm/cool contrast throughout the piece, even teasing it out of the daylight exteriors.

 

Trapped in a stark white townhouse

I took a different approach to colour in Exit Eve. Director Charlie Parham already knew that he wanted strong red lighting in party scenes, and I felt that this would be most effective if I kept colour out of the lighting elsewhere. As the film approaches its climax, I did start to bring in the orange of outside streetlamps, and glimpses of the party’s red, but otherwise I kept the light stark and white.

Converted from a Victorian schoolhouse, the location had high ceilings, huge windows and multiple floors, so I knew that I would mostly have to live with whatever natural light did or didn’t shine in. We were shooting during the heatwave of 2018, with many long handheld takes following lead actor Thalissa Teixeria from room to room and floor to floor, so even the Alexa’s dynamic range struggled to cope with the variations in light level.

For a night scene in the top floor bedroom, I found that the existing practicals were perfectly placed to provide shape and backlight. I white-balanced to 3600K to keep most of the colour out of them, and rigged black solids behind the camera to prevent the white walls from filling in the shadows.

(Incidentally, the night portions of this sequence were shot as one continuous take, despite comprising two different scenes set months apart. The actors did a quick-change and the bed was redressed by the art department while it was out frame, but sadly this tour de force was chopped up in the final cut.)

I had most control over the lighting when it came to the denouement in the ground floor living area. Here I was inspired by the work of Bradford Young, ASC to backlight the closed blinds (with tungsten units gelled to represent streetlights) and allow the actors inside to go a bit dim and murky. For a key moment we put a red gel on one of the existing spotlights in the living room and let the cast step into it.

So there we have it, two different approaches to lighting in a while-walled location: creating colour contrast with dimmed practicals, or embracing the starkness and saving the colour for dramatic moments. How will you tackle your next magnolia-hued background?

For another example of how I’ve tackled white-walled locations, see my Forever Alone blog.

Working with White Walls

6 Tips for Making DIY Lighting Look Pro

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

 

1. Make the most of natural light

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

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

See also: “Sun Paths”

 

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

£2 LED camping light
£2 LED camping light

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

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

 

3. Key with tungsten or halogen

Worklight
Halogen floodlight

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

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

 

4. Control the light

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

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

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

 

5. Soften the light

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

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

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

 

6. Make use of practicals

Black-wrapped ceiling light
Black-wrapped ceiling light

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

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

6 Tips for Making DIY Lighting Look Pro

“The Knowledge”: Lighting a Multi-camera Game Show

Metering the key-light. Photo: Laura Radford

Last week I discussed the technical and creative decisions that went into the camerawork of The Knowledge, a fake game show for an art installation conceived by Ian Wolter and directed by Jonnie Howard. This week I’ll break down the choices and challenges involved in lighting the film.

The eighties quiz shows which I looked at during prep were all lit with the dullest, flattest light imaginable. It was only when I moved forward to the nineties shows which Jonnie and I grew up on, like Blockbusters and The Generation Game, that I started to see some creativity in the lighting design: strip-lights and glowing panels in the sets, spotlights and gobos on the backgrounds, and moodier lighting states for quick-fire rounds.

Jonnie and I both wanted The Knowledge‘s lighting to be closer to this nineties look. He was keen to give each team a glowing taxi sign on their desks, which would be the only source of illumination on the contestants at certain moments. Designer Amanda Stekly and I came up with plans for additional practicals – ultimately LED string-lights – that would follow the map-like lines in the set’s back walls.

Once the set design had been finalised, I did my own dodgy pencil sketch and Photoshopped it to create two different lighting previsualisations for Jonnie.

He felt that these were a little too sophisticated, so after some discussion I produced a revised previz…

…and a secondary version showing a lighting state with one team in shadow.

These were approved, so now it was a case of turning those images into reality.

We were shooting on a soundstage, but for budget reasons we opted not to use the lighting grid. I must admit that this worried me for a little while. The key-light needed to come from the front, contrary to normal principles of good cinematography, but very much in keeping with how TV game shows are lit. I was concerned that the light stands and the cameras would get in each others’ way, but my gaffer Ben Millar assured me it could be done, and of course he was right.

Ben ordered several five-section Strato Safe stands (or Fuck-offs as they’re charmingly known). These were so high that, even when placed far enough back to leave room for the cameras, we could get the 45° key angle which we needed in order to avoid seeing the contestants’ shadows on the back walls. (A steep key like this is sometimes known as a butterfly key, for the shape of the shadow which the subject’s nose casts on their upper lip.)  Using the barn doors, and double nets on friction arms in front of the lamp-heads, Ben feathered the key-light to hit as little as possible of the back walls and the fronts of the desks. As well as giving the light some shape, this prevented the practical LEDs from getting washed out.

Note the nets mounted below the key-lights (the tallest ones). Photo: Laura Radford

Once those key-lights were established (a 5K fresnel for each team), we set a 2K backlight for each team as well. These were immediately behind the set, their stands wrapped in duvetyne, and the necks well and truly broken to give a very toppy backlight. A third 2K was placed between the staggered central panels of the set, spilling a streak of light out through the gap from which host Robert Jezek would emerge.

A trio of Source Fours with 15-30mm zoom lenses were used for targeted illumination of certain areas. One was aimed at The Knowledge sign, its cutters adjusted to form a rectangle of light around it. Another was focused on the oval map on the floor, which would come into play during the latter part of the show. The last Source Four was used as a follow-spot on Robert. We had to dim it considerably to keep the exposure in range, which conveniently made him look like he had a fake tan! Ben hooked everything, in fact, up to a dimmer board, so that various lighting cues could be accomplished in camera.

The bulk of the film was recorded in a single day, following a day’s set assembly and a day of pre-rigging. A skeleton crew returned the next day to shoot pick-ups and promos, a couple of which you can see on Vimeo here.

I’ll leave you with some frame grabs from the finished film. Find out more about Ian Wolter’s work at ianwolter.com.

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“The Knowledge”: Lighting a Multi-camera Game Show

Creating “Stasis”

Stasis is a personal photography project about time and light. You can view all the images here, and in this post I’ll take you through the technical and creative process of making them.

I got into cinematography directly through a love of movies and filmmaking, rather than from a fine art background. To plug this gap, over the past few of years I’ve been trying to give myself an education in art by going to galleries, and reading art and photography books. I’ve previously written about how JMW Turner’s work captured my imagination, but another artist whose work stood out to me was Gerrit (a.k.a. Gerard) Dou. Whereas most of the Dutch 17th century masters painted daylight scenes, Dou often portrayed people lit by only a single candle.

“A Girl Watering Plants” by Gerrit Dou

At around the same time as I discovered Dou, I researched and wrote a blog post about Barry Lyndon‘s groundbreaking candlelit scenes. This got me fascinated by the idea that you can correctly expose an image without once looking at a light meter or digital monitor, because tables exist giving the appropriate stop, shutter and ISO for any given light level… as measured in foot-candles. (One foot-candle is the amount of light received from a standard candle that is one foot away.)

So when I bought a 35mm SLR (a Pentax P30T) last autumn, my first thought was to recreate some of Dou’s scenes. It would be primarily an exercise in exposure discipline, training me to judge light levels and fall-off without recourse to false colours, histograms or any of the other tools available to a modern DP.

I conducted tests with Kate Madison, who had also agreed to furnish period props and costumes from the large collection which she had built up while making Born of Hope and Ren: The Girl with the Mark. Both the tests and the final images were captured on Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400. Ideally I would have tested multiple stocks, but I must confess that the costs of buying and processing several rolls were off-putting. I’d previously shot some basic latitude tests with Superia, so I had some confidence about what it could and couldn’t do. (It can be over-exposed at least five stops and still look good, but more than a stop under and it falls apart.) I therefore confined myself to experimenting with candle-to-subject distances, exposure times and filtration.

The tests showed that the concept was going to work, and also confirmed that I would need to use an 80B filter to cool the “white balance” of the film from its native daylight to tungsten (3400K). (As far as I can tell, tungsten-balanced stills film is no longer on the market.) Candlelight has a colour temperature of about 1800K, so it still reads as orange through an 80B, but without the filter it’s an ugly red.

Meanwhile, the concept had developed beyond simply recreating Gerrit Dou’s scenes. I decided to add a second character, contrasting the historical man lit only by his candle with a modern girl lit only by her phone. Flames have a hypnotic power, tapping into our ancient attraction to light, and today’s smartphones have a similarly powerful draw.

The candlelight was 1600K warmer than the filtered film, so I used an app called Colour Temp to set my iPhone to 5000K, making it 1600K cooler than the film; the phone would therefore look as blue as the candle looked orange. (Unfortunately my phone died quickly and I had trouble recharging it, so some of the last shots were done with Izzi’s non-white-balanced phone.) To match the respective colours of light, we dressed Ivan in earthy browns and Izzi in blues and greys.

Artemis recce image

We shot in St. John’s Church in Duxford, Cambridgeshire, which hasn’t been used as a place of worship since the mid-1800s. Unique markings, paintings and graffiti from the middle ages up to the present give it simultaneously a history and a timelessness, making it a perfect match to the clash of eras represented by my two characters. It resonated with the feelings I’d had when I started learning about art and realised the continuity of techniques and aims from me in my cinematography back through time via all the great artists of the past to the earliest cave paintings.

I knew from the tests that long exposures would be needed. Extrapolating from the exposure table, one foot-candle would require a 1/8th of a second shutter with my f1.4 lens wide open and the Fujifilm’s ISO of 400. The 80B has a filter factor of three, meaning you need three times more light, or, to put it another way, it cuts 1 and 2/3rds of a stop. Accounting for this, and the fact that the candle would often be more than a foot away, or that I’d want to see further into the shadows, the exposures were all at least a second long.

As time had become very much the theme of the project, I decided to make the most of these long exposures by playing with motion blur. Not only does this allow a static image – paradoxically – to show a passage of time, but it recalls 19th century photography, when faces would often blur during the long exposures required by early emulsions. Thus the history of photography itself now played a part in this time-fluid project.

I decided to shoot everything in portrait, to make it as different as possible from my cinematography work. Heavily inspired by all the classical art I’d been discovering, I used eye-level framing, often flat-on and framed architecturally with generous headroom, and a normal lens (an Asahi SMC Pentax-M 50mm/f1.4) to provide a natural field of view.

I ended up using my light meter quite a lot, though not necessarily exposing as it indicated. It was all educated guesswork, based on what the meter said and the tests I’d conducted.

I was tempted more than once to tell a definite story with the images, and had to remind myself that I was not making a movie. In the end I opted for a very vague story which can be interpreted many ways. Which of the two characters is the ghost? Or is it both of them? Are we all just ghosts, as transient as motion blur? Do we unwittingly leave an intangible imprint on the universe, like the trails of light my characters produce, or must we consciously carve our mark upon the world, as Ivan does on the wall?

Models: Izzi Godley & Ivan Moy. Stylist: Kate Madison. Assistant: Ash Maharaj. Location courtesy of the Churches Conservation Trust. Film processing and scanning by Aperture, London.

Creating “Stasis”

Lighting I Like: “Preacher”

Preacher is the subject of this week’s episode of Lighting I Like. I discuss two scenes, from the second episode of the second season, “Mumbai Sky Tower”, which demonstrate the over-the-top, comic-book style of the show.

Both seasons of Preacher can be seen on Amazon Video in the UK.

New episodes of Lighting I Like are released at 8pm BST every Wednesday. Next week I’ll look at two scenes from BroadchurchClick here to see the playlist of all Lighting I Like episodes.

Lighting I Like: “Preacher”

Lighting I Like: “12 Monkeys”

The latest episode of Lighting I Like is out, analysing how the “Splinter Chamber” set is lit in time travel thriller 12 Monkeys. This adaptation of the Terry Gilliam movie can be seen on Netflix in the UK.

I found out lots about the lighting of this scene from this article on the American Society of Cinematographers website. It didn’t mention the source inside the time machine though, but my guess is that it’s a Panibeam 70, as used in the Cine Reflect Lighting System.

New episodes of Lighting I Like are released at 8pm BST every Wednesday. Next week I’ll look at two scenes from PreacherClick here to see the playlist of all Lighting I Like episodes.

Lighting I Like: “12 Monkeys”

Negative Lighting

There were no practicals in this corner of the pub, so we placed an 800 open-face outside the window, gelled with Midnight Blue, and a 1×1′ LED panel in the wood-burner, gelled with CTO.

This year I’ve shot a couple of productions on the Sony FS7, a camera I’ve been very impressed by. Its most interesting feature is its high native ISO of 2000, which makes quite an impact on how you go about lighting. The light shed by practicals is often enough to illuminate a scene, or a large part of it, and sometimes you need to take existing practicals away in order to maintain contrast and shape, similar to how you take ambient light away (negative fill) when shooting exteriors.

It’s a strange thing about being a DP that, yes, sometimes you’re required to plan a mammoth lighting set-up using tens of kilowatts of power, but other times it’s just a case of saying, “Take the bulb out of that sconce.” You’re working to exactly the same principles, using your creative eye just as much in both scenarios.

Let’s look at some examples from a promotional film I shot with director Oliver Park for Closer Each Day, an improvised stage soap.

Our location was a pub, which had a large number of existing practicals: mainly wall sconces, but some overheads above the bar and in the corridors too. The film had to be shot in a single night, entirely on Steadicam, with some shots revealing almost the whole room, and to further complicate matters I was a last-minute hire due to another DP having to step down. Keeping the lighting simple, and avoiding putting any “film lights” on the floor where the roving camera might see them, was clearly the way to go.

I identified the darker areas of the room and added a few extra sources: two blue-gelled 800s outside the windows, an orange-gelled 1×1′ LED panel in the wood-burner, an LED reporter light in one key corner, and a small tungsten fresnel toplight onto a key table, firing down from the mezzanine so it would never be in shot. Other than those, and a low level of fill bounced off the ceiling, we relied exclusively on the existing practicals. (They were mainly fluorescent, and ideally we would have reglobed these all with tungsten, but it wasn’t possible.)

This view from the mezzanine shows the diffused 300W fresnel top-lighting the drinking contest table, and the black-wrapped 650 firing into the ceiling for fill.

 

So, that’s the “positive” lighting. Here are three examples of “negative” lighting in the film…

When Big Dick Johnson (yep, that’s the character’s name) first enters the pub, I put a piece of tape over a little halogen spotlight just above his point of entry. This was partly because it was very bright and I didn’t want him to blow out as he walked under it, but it also made for a much better sense of depth in the overall shot. As I’ve often mentioned on this blog, the best depth in an image is usually achieved by having the foreground dark, the mid-ground at key and the background bright. Killing the halogen spotlight helped create this progression of brightness and therefore depth. It’s also just nice in a shot like this to come out of darkness into the light, enhancing the reveal of the new space to the viewers.

When Billy De Burgh scrambles to buy a ticket at the box office, there are two practicals just above his head. Depending on which way we were shooting, I de-globed one of the fixtures – always the one closest to camera. This ensured that Billy always had backlight, and never had a really hot, toppy front-light shining harshly down on him.

On a side note, the blue light inside the box office was existing – I guess they were using cool white LED bulbs in there – and I really like the way it differentiates the spaces on camera. It puts the bored ticket-seller in a cold, detached world very separate to Billy’s warmer, more urgent world.

This doorway where Big Dick ends the film had sconces on both sides. It’s never very interesting to have an actor evenly lit on both sides of their face, and especially as Dick is such a tough, unpleasant character, I felt that more contrast was required. I chose to remove the globe from the righthand sconce, so that when he turns camera left to look at the sign he turns into the remaining sconce, his key-light. We filled in the other side of his face a tiny touch with a reflector.

I would love to have been able to exercise the same control over the street-lamps in the opening scene of the film – some of them are quite flat and frontal – but unfortunately time, budget and permissions made that impossible. We would have needed huge flags, or a council-approved electrician to switch the lamps off.

That’s all for today. Next time you’re in Bristol, check out Closer Each Day. I didn’t get chance to see it, but I hear it’s brilliant.

Negative Lighting

Lighting I Like: “Life on Mars”

This week’s edition of Lighting I Like focuses on a scene from Life on Mars, my all-time favourite TV show. Broadcast on the BBC in 2006 and 2007, this was a police procedural with a twist: John Simm’s protagonist D.I. Sam Tyler had somehow travelled back in time to the 1970s… or was he just in a coma imagining it all? Each week his politically correct noughties policing style would clash with the seventies “bang ’em up first, ask questions later” approach of Philip Glenister’s iconic Gene Hunt.

I must get around to doing a proper post on colour theory one of these days, but in the meantime, there’s a bit about colour contrast in this post. And you can read more about using practicals in this post.

I hope you enjoyed the show. The sixth and final episode goes out at the same time next week: 8pm GMT on Wednesday, and will feature perhaps the most stunning scene yet, from the Starz series Outlander. Subscribe to my YouTube channel to make sure you never miss an episode of Lighting I Like.

Lighting I Like: “Life on Mars”

Lighting I Like: “The Crown”

It’s Wednesday, and that means it’s time for another episode of my YouTube series Lighting I Like. This one is about The Crown, one of the most beautifully shot shows of 2016.

You can read more about how the cinematography reflects the burden of the wearing the Crown in my post “How The Crown Uses Broad Key Lighting to Evoke Tradition“.

There are also examples from The Crown in my recent post on using shafts of light through windows.

I hope you enjoyed the show. Episode five goes out at the same time next week: 8pm GMT on Wednesday, and will cover a scene from my all-time favourite TV series, Life on Mars. Subscribe to my YouTube channel to make sure you never miss an episode of Lighting I Like.

Lighting I Like: “The Crown”

Lighting I Like: “Ripper Street”

The second episode of Lighting I Like looks at a scene from the season four premiere of Victorian crime drama Ripper Street, available on Amazon Prime in the UK.

On closer inspection, the “tungsten fill” I mention in the video is more of a soft tungsten toplight – perhaps a Chimera Pancake – rigged to the ceiling in the centre of the room. When Jackson exits at 2:00 you can see him walk under it.

Here’s some further reading if you want to know more about using practicals, and candlelight in particular:

5 Tips for Working With Practicals

Candlelight – how I tackled multiple candlelight scenes in my first period production, The First Musketeer, including a video blog from the set.

I hope you enjoyed the show. Episode three goes out at the same time next week: 8pm GMT on Wednesday, and will cover a scene from the 2001 movie Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Subscribe to my YouTube channel to make sure you never miss an episode.

Lighting I Like: “Ripper Street”