During 2016-2017 I blogged about the production of Above the Clouds, a comedy road movie which I shot for director Leon Chambers. It premiered at Raindance in 2018, closely followed by Austin Film Festival, where it won the audience award for Best Narrative Feature, the first of four gongs it would collect.
In two decades of filmmaking, Above the Clouds is easily in the top five productions I’m most proud of. Since this January it has been available on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play and other platforms, and I highly recommend you give it a watch. DO NOT continue reading this blog unless you have, because what follows are two blog entries that I held back due to spoilers.
The script calls for Charlie to be seen sitting in the window seat of a plane as it rises quite literally above the clouds. This is another micro-set filmed in Leon’s living room, in fact half in the living room and half in the hall, to leave enough room for the lights beyond.
Although the view out of the window will be added in post, I need to simulate the lighting effect of bursting through the clouds. My plan involves a 1.2K HMI, and a 4×4 poly board held horizontally with a triple layer of 4×4 Opal sheets hanging from one edge.
We start with the HMI pointed straight into the window and the poly board held high up so that the Opal hangs in front of the lamp. As the plane supposedly rises through the cloud layer, Colin lowers the poly until it is below the level of the lamp, while Gary tilts the HMI down so its light skips off the poly (like sun skipping off the top of clouds) and bounces back up into the window. Gary then tilts the HMI back up to point straight into the window, to suggest further banking or climbing of the aircraft. This direct light is so hot that it bounces off the armrest of Charlie’s seat and gives a glow to her cheek which syncs perfectly with a smile she’s doing.
Today’s set is a dark room. A photographer’s dark room, that is. Not just a random dimly-lit room.
We begin with only the red safe-light in play. The wall-mounted practical has a 15W bulb, so it needs some serious help to illuminate the room. Micky rigs a 1K pup with Medium Red gel and fires it over the top of the set, above the practical. The effect is very convincing. Pure red light can make everything look out of focus on camera, which is why I chose the slightly magenta Medium Red gel, rather than the more realistic Primary Red. The colourist will be able to add some green/yellow to correct this.
During the scene, Naomi pulls a cord and the normal lights come on. These are two hanging practicals, fitted with dimmed 100W tungsten globes. In a very similar set-up to yesterday, we use a 2K with a chimera, poking over the set wall on the camera’s down-side, to enhance and soften the practicals’ light.
To read all the Above the Clouds blogs from the start, click here.
So far, this blog series about my cinematography of The Little Mermaid has covered the biggest and most complex scenes in the movie. Today I’m going to look at some smaller scenes, and how I employed the cinematography tenet of lighting from the back to quickly build a look for these which has depth, mood and drama.
Many of these examples are specifically cross-backlighting, something I covered in my Lighting Techniques series, but I’ll quickly recap since it has so much relevance here. It involves lighting two characters facing each other with two sources, on the far side of the eye-line (short key), crossed so that each source keys one character and often backlights the other too.
So with that in mind, let’s proceed to the examples from my shooting diary.
The first week is pretty much all in houses with just a few principals, so an easy start. Day 1’s schedule is tight though. We start in a third floor bedroom – no way lamps are getting up to those windows from outside, so I’m relying on natural light augmented with a bit of cross-backlight cheated inside the room. (There’s a Kino Flo shining at Elle over Cam’s right shoulder, for example.) Once the haze is in it looks great. After we get the main coverage, we head out to the garden for the next scene, while the ‘B’ camera team steps in to pick up a couple of inserts…
…It’s a night scene and the grips have tented the window. To get a nice blue glow coming in, I have two 4×4 Kino Flos set either side of the window (outside), and they give a great wrapping backlight to the actors and the set dressing. Smoke and a cool white balance of 3,200K (the Kinos are tubed for 5,600K) complete the look. It owes a lot to a scene from Hook, one of Blake’s (director Blake Harris) reference movies which I watched during preprod. This stuff definitely filters in and inspires things!
Our first day on stage. It’s weird to be back at the former supermarket I spent five weeks of preproduction in. The first set, Locke’s chamber, is very confined and the walls don’t wild, so it’s quite slow-going to work in there. We fire a 5K fresnel through the stained glass window at the back of the set. Then I fall back on the tried and tested method of cross-backlighting even though I know that it will be hard to hide the lamps (a 650W fresnel in both of the upper rear corners of the set) from camera. In the end I have the art department dress drapes in front of them. For the villain’s single I leave the light hard, but for the hero’s single we use bounce boards to wrap the light around his face more…
We start with the fortune-teller’s tent, another small set constructed on stage. In fact, it’s just an Easy-Up artfully draped with fabrics. Initially there’s nowhere to get light in from except the front, but I know that this will leave the scene looking flat and fake, so I work with the art department again to make holes in the top rear corners. Through those we shine tungsten-bubbled “Fat Boy” Kino Flos. (These 2ft 4-bank units are giving the dual kickers on Cam in the centre, and the beautiful down-light on the background fabrics, bringing out the ruching. Each one also provides a little key-light on the two ladies.) The other sources are “moonlight” coming in through the entrance, linking us to the circus exteriors, and a stylised slash of light across Thora’s eyes from a Source Four, suggested by Jason (key grip Jason Batey). Adding foreground practicals is an important final touch to expand the depth and scale of the set…
It’s the last day of principal photography. Our big scene of the day is the newspaper office where Cam works, which is a set in the front of the studio, using the building’s real windows. We fire the 12K in and gel it with half CTS for a nice morning sunlight effect. We’re shooting towards the windows, which have blinds, so we get some nice shafts of light, though sometimes it’s a little too smokey. Running haze is a pretty skilled and tricky job, and involves considering the lens length and backlight, which both affect how much the smoke shows up on camera. When we get it right, combined with the dark wood period furniture, it totally sells the 1937 setting. Apparently people at video village are loving it, saying it looks like Mad Men….
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you’ve ever read or been taught about lighting, you’ve probably heard of the Inverse Square Law. It states that light fades in proportion to the square of the distance from the source. But lately I started to wonder if this really applies in all situations. Join me as I attempt to get to the bottom of this…
But before we go into that, let’s get the Law straight in our minds. What, precisely, does it say? Another excellent book, Gerald Millerson’s Lighting for Television and Film, defines it thusly:
With increased distance, the light emitted from a given point source will fall rapidly, as it spreads over a progressively larger area. This fall-off in light level is inversely proportional to the distance square, i.e. 1/d². Thus, doubling the lamp distance would reduce the light to ¼.
The operative word, for our purposes, is “spreads”.
If you’d asked me a couple of years ago what causes the Inverse Square Law, I probably would have mumbled something about light naturally losing energy as it travels. But that is hogwash of the highest order. Assuming the light doesn’t strike any objects to absorb it, there is nothing to reduce its energy. (Air does scatter – and presumably absorb – a very small amount of light, hence atmospheric haze, but this amount will never be significant on the scale a cinematographer deals with.)
In fact, as the Millerson quote above makes clear, the Inverse Square Law is a result of how light spreads out from its source. It’s purely geometry. In this diagram you can see how fewer and fewer rays strike the ‘A’ square as it gets further and further away from the source ‘S’:
Each light ray (dodgy term, I know, but sufficient for our purposes) retains the same level of energy, and there are the same number of them overall, it’s just that there are fewer of them passing through any given area.
So far, so good.
Taking the Law into my own hands
During season two of my YouTube series Lighting I Like, I discussed Dedo’s Panibeam 70 HMI. This fixture produces collimated light, light of which all the waves are travelling in parallel. It occurred to me that this must prevent them spreading out, and therefore render the Inverse Square Law void.
This in turn got me thinking about more common fixtures – par cans, for example.
Par lamps are so named for the Parabolic Aluminised Reflectors they contain. These collect the light radiated from the rear and sides of the filament and reflect it as parallel rays. So to my mind, although light radiated from the very front of the filament must still spread and obey the Inverse Square Law, that which bounces off the reflector should theoretically never diminish. You can imagine that the ‘A’ square in our first diagram would have the same number of light rays passing through it every time if they are travelling in parallel.
Similarly, fresnel lenses are designed to divert the spreading light waves into a parallel pattern:
Even simple open-face fixtures have a reflector which can be moved back and forth using the flood/spot control, affecting both the spread and the intensity of the light. Hopefully by now you can see why these two things are related. More spread = more divergence of light rays = more fall-off. Less spread = less divergence of light rays = more throw.
So, I wondered, am I right? Do these focused sources disobey the Inverse Square Law?
Breaking the law
To find the answer, I waded through a number of fora.
Firstly, and crucially, everyone agrees that the Law describes light radiated from a point source, so any source which isn’t infinitely small will technically not be governed by the Law. In practice, says the general consensus, the results predicted by the Law hold true for most sources, unless they are quite large or very close to the subject.
If you are using a softbox, a Kinoflo or a trace frame at short range though, the Inverse Square Law will not apply.
The above photometric data for a Filmgear LED Flo-box indeed shows a slower fall-off than the Law predicts. (Based on the 1m intensity, the Law predicts the 2m and 3m intensities as 970÷2²=243 lux and 970÷3²=108 lux respectively.)
A Flickr forum contributor called Severin Sadjina puts it like this:
In general, the light will fall off as 1/d² if the size of the light source is negligible compared to the distance d to the light source. If, on the other hand, the light source is significantly larger than the distance d to the light source, the light will fall off as 1/d – in other words: slower than the Inverse Square Law predicts.
Another contributor, Ftir, claims that a large source will start to follow the Law above distances equal to about five times the largest side of the source, so a 4ft Kinoflo would obey the Law very closely after about 20ft. This claim is confirmed by Wikipedia, citing A. Ryer’s The Light Measurement Handbook.
But what about those pesky parallel light beams from the pars and fresnels?
Every forum had a lot of disagreement on this. Most people agree that parallel light rays don’t really exist in real life. They will always diverge or converge, slightly, and therefore the Law applies. However, many claim that it doesn’t apply in quite the same way.
A fresnel, according to John E. Clark on Cinematography.com, can still be treated as a point source, but that point source is actually located somewhere behind the lamp-head! It’s a virtual point source. (Light radiating from a distant point source has approximately parallel rays with consequently negligible fall-off, e.g. sunlight.) So if this virtual source is 10m behind the fixture, then moving the lamp from 1m from the subject to 2m is not doubling the distance (and therefore not quartering the intensity). In fact it is multiplying the distance by 1.09 (12÷11=1.09), so the light would only drop to 84% of its former intensity (1÷1.09²=0.84).
I tried to confirm this using the Arri Photometrics App, but the data it gives for Arri’s fresnel fixtures conforms perfectly with an ordinary point source under the Law, leaving me somewhat confused. However, I did find some data for LED fresnels that broke the Law, for example the Lumi Studio 300:
As you can see, at full flood (bottom graphic) the Law is obeyed as expected; the 8m intensity of 2,500 lux is a quarter of the 4m intensity of 10,000 lux. But when spotted (top graphic) it falls off more rapidly. Again, very confusing, as I was expecting it to fall off less rapidly if the rays are diverging but close to parallel.
A more rapid fall-off suggests a virtual point source somewhere in front of the lamp-head. This was mentioned in several places on the fora as well. The light is converging, so the intensity increases as you move further from the fixture, reaching a maximum at the focal point, then diverging again from that point as per the Inverse Square Law. In fact, reverse-engineering the above data using the Law tells me – if my maths is correct – that the focal point is 1.93m in front of the fixture. Or, to put it another way, spotting this fixture is equivalent to moving it almost 2m closer to the subject. However, this doesn’t seem to tally with the beam spread data in the above graphics. More confusion!
I decided to look up ETC’s Source Four photometrics, since these units contain an ellipsoidal reflector which should focus the light (and therefore create a virtual point source) in front of themselves. However, the data shows no deviation from the Law and no evidence of a virtual point source displaced from the actual source.
I fought the law and the law won
I fear this investigation has left me more confused than when I started! Clearly there are factors at work here beyond what I’ve considered.
However, I’ve learnt that the Inverse Square Law is a useful means of estimating light fall-off for most lighting fixtures – even those that really seem like they should act differently! If you double the distance from lamp to subject, you’re usually going to quarter the intensity, or near as damn it. And that rule of thumb is all we cinematographers need 99% of the time. If in doubt, refer to photometrics data like that linked above.
And if anyone out there can shed any light (haha) on the confusion, I’d be very happy to hear from you!
The outstanding scenes were to be photographed on stage, at Halliford Studio in Shepperton, this time on an Arri Amira. The Amira uses the same sensor as the Alexas, allowing us to match the look from principal photography in the most cost-effective way. With the addition of a Premium license, the camera is capable of the same ProRes 4444 recording codec as the Alexas too. As per last summer, our glass was a set of Arri/Zeiss Ultra Primes, with a half Soft FX filter to take the digital edge off.
Director Leon Chambers designed and built the set himself, sending me photos of a scale model well in advance. He was also specific about certain lighting cues and states that were required across the two sets and six scenes we would be recording to complete the movie. Based on this information, I concocted a lighting plan, which I communicated to Halliford’s in-house gaffer Micky Reeves by Photoshopping stock images of lamps onto Leon’s set model photos.
Last Saturday was devoted to pre-lighting the sets, mainly the kitchen, while construction work continued on the second set.
Day 24 / Sunday
We begin with a morning scene. A 5K fresnel serves as a low sun, streaking across the back wall of the set (see my post about lighting through windows). Even with this direct light four stops over, the natural bounce off the set isn’t enough to bring actor Philip Jackson – with his back to the window – up to key. Micky rigs a Dedo firing into a soft silver bounce just out of frame to solve the problem.
Also coming through the window are two 4×4 kinos, rigged on goalposts above the window. Their daylight tubes reflect off the blinds, serendipitously creating the illusion of a blue sky “outdoors”, where in fact there is only a wall and a white backdrop.
Philip exits into the hallway and disappears from view, supposedly to go out through the front door. No door exists. Instead there is a flag which spark Amir Moulfi rotates in front of a 2K, creating a momentary oblong of light in which Philip’s shadow appears.
The next scene follows on from an exterior captured last October at dusk, when the natural light was soft, flat and cool in colour, cheated even cooler with the white balance. This failing daylight is to be the only source of illumination now in the kitchen set, until Philip enters and turns on the lights. This is the main reason that the daylight 4×4 kinos outside the window were rigged. A third kino from the direction of the front door is added, plus a small LED reporter light to pick an important prop out of the shadows.
Lead actress Naomi Morris enters, silhouetted against the windows. Then Philip enters and hits the lights. Simultaneously, Amir flips a breaker on a lunchbox, activating a hanging practical fixture above the breakfast bar and the 5K which that practical motivates.
Generally I don’t like toplight. It throws the eyes – those windows to the soul… or windows to the performance – into shadow. But with the hanging practical in shot, whatever I was going to use to beef it up had to be somewhat toppy or it wouldn’t make sense. I considered space-lights and Jem balls, but in consultation with Micky I ultimately picked a 5K with a chimera, coming in at a 45 degree back/toplight angle. As you can see from the photos, this looks almost comically large. But large and close means soft, which is what I want. It had to be soft enough to wrap both actors when they faced each other across the bar.
But why such a large lamp? Why not use a 2K, like Micky suggested yesterday? Bitter experience has always taught me to go with a bigger unit than you think you need, particularly if you’re softening it, and particularly if it’s going to take a while to rig. (The 5K was hung from another goalposts set-up.) We ended up dimming the 5K to 50% and scrimming it down a stop and a half. But having too much light like that is easy to deal with. If we had put up a 2K and it wasn’t bright enough, we would have to have taken the whole thing down and re-rigged with a 5K. And even if the 2K had seemed sufficient to begin with, blocking can often take actors into unexpected, dark corners of the set. Being able to turn up a dimmer a couple of notches to handle that kind of situation is very useful.
Besides the 5K, there are a few other sources playing: some 300W hairlights, a pup bouncing off the side of a cupboard to bring up the area around the cooker, a China ball in the hallway, and Leon’s Rosco LitePads serving as practical under-cabinet down-lighters.
Day 25 / Monday
I probably shouldn’t say what today’s set is, because it’s a little bit of a spoiler. There are some lighting similarities to the kitchen: again we have a character flicking a light switch, bringing on two hanging overhead practicals and a 2K with a chimera to beef them up.
A practical lamp on a desk was supposed to be turned on during the scene as well, but we all forget until it’s too late. It would have bounced off the desk and given Philip a little eye-light, and at first I regret losing this. But soon I realise that it is more appropriate for the scene not to have that level of refinement, for the lighting to be a little raw. The toppy, “broken key” angle of the chimera’s light works well for this tone too.
We wrap just before noon, releasing Naomi to high-tail it to Oxford to appear on stage in a musical this evening. Eventually there will be second-unit-style GVs and establishing shots to do, but there will only be three or four of us for that. For the cast and most of the crew, today brings Above the Clouds to an end, eight months after the camera first rolled.
From time to time I help out my friend Kate Madison shooting show reels for actors. The fun and the challenge is in creating and lighting little micro-sets to capture angles that look like they might be lifted out of a scene from a much larger production, all with limited equipment.
Here’s an interesting shot from a recent showreel for Dana Hajaj. This was intended to resemble a Good Wife style legal drama, though actually the first reference that the lawyer’s office setting brought to my mind was Ally McBeal. I remember how they often had hot sunlight coming in through their office windows which would hit the talent from the chest down, while softer, indirect daylight would illuminate the faces.
Clearly this technique wasn’t exactly going to work for an MCU, but it did get me thinking about windows as two-in-one sources: a hard source which adds interest and ‘sheen’ to the image but is too harsh to hit faces with, and a soft sources for faces. Often cinematographers will use two different lights through the same window to achieve these two distinct effects. (I sometimes employ what I call a “Window Wrap” to this end.)
Now, the set for this showreel shot was just a red wall and sconce. (We tried a plant in the corner but couldn’t get it to work.) I wanted to suggest what the rest of the set might be, beyond the borders of this MCU, and simulating a window seemed like a natural choice. Furthermore, a window with Venetian blinds would help sell what was really a living room as a place of business. But this was not film noir; I didn’t want stripes of light on Dana’s face. Instead I used them to add interest to the wall.
Kate had a slatted-top stool in the hall which threw convincing “blinds” shadows when clamped to a C-stand in front of an 800W Arrilite. Ideally the shadows would have been sharper, but without a Dedo or a par this was the best I could do.
To get the maximum richness from the practical, I put a topper (black wrap clipped to the stool!) on the 800 to keep it off the sconce, and placed CTO inside the lampshade to warm up the fluorescent bulb.
To key Dana, I fired a 1K Arrilite into a 4’x4′ polyboard which was positioned next to the stool. Tungsten bounced off poly gives a beautiful soft, matt quality of light, and is a great way to key talent.
The backlight comes from a 1’x1′ LED panel set to about 4500K. What is the motivation for this source? North light coming from another window maybe? The great thing about micro-sets is there’s no wide shot so I don’t have to worry about that if I don’t want to! The motivation is that cold backlight looks good on black hair, and that’s that.
As we prepared to roll, I wondered if I should increase the contrast more. I could have done this by (a) flagging the poly bounce to prevent it filling in the “blinds” shadows on the wall and (b) bringing in negative fill on the talent’s camera right side to kill the ambience. But I decided that more contrast was not appropriate for this kind of piece.
For another scene for Dana’s reel, we mocked up a remote Arabian campsite on Kate’s patio! Kate used a piece of fabric hung from a post and two light stands to represent the tent.
I wanted to give the impression that if we cut to a wide shot – which of course we never do, but if we did – that it would show a vast landscape, perhaps a desert, all backlit by moonlight. On this hypothetical production, I would generate that moonlight with 18Ks on condor cranes, gelled with Steel Blue.
But on this tight shot I was able to achieve the same effect with two far smaller sources, both gelled with Steel Blue. (This is a blue with more green in it than CTB. It’s prettier and has connotations of many 80s and 90s thrillers and action movies that seemed to use copious amounts of this gel.) In the deep background is an LED panel, 3/4 backlighting a couple of blurry apple trees that could maybe play as vegetation around an oasis. Immediately behind the “tent” is a 40″ C-stand, top floor, with a 1K Arrilite on it. So close to the talent, the 1K comes down at a steep enough angle to imply moonlight, or an 18K on a condor, depending on how you want to look at it.
The flames from the fire pit weren’t doing much to light Dana, so I bounced another 1K off a gold reflector on the floor next to the fire. During takes I wiggled the reflector to add dynamics to the light.
To add a final touch of production value, I suggested a foreground practical. Kate found a candle lantern which we hung from a flag arm just in front of camera. Every frame of a Blockbuster movie is packed with details, so things like this help a lot to sell the scale.
In this final part of the Know Your Lights series, I’m taking a look at some of the LED fixtures currently available.
LEDs (light emitting diodes) generate light through electroluminescence. When a controlled direct current is applied to the electrodes, electrons in the semi-conductor reconfigure, releasing energy as light. LEDs have been around since the early sixties, but for decades they were only capable of emitting a weak red glow, restricting their applications to things like TV standby lights and digital clocks. In recent years the brightness and colour range of LEDs has improved dramatically, making them practical alternatives to traditional light sources.
Compared with those sources – tungsten, HMI and fluorescent – LEDs are more efficient, lighter, generate less heat, have a longer life, and are less likely to break and less dangerous when they do. They are fully dimmable, without the colour temperature changing, but if you wish, some fixtures allow you to alter the colour temperature with the turn of a knob.
On the down side, LED units are expensive, lack the raw power of large HMI or tungsten fixtures, and can often suffer from poor CRI (colour rendering index – see the overview for more info).
The technology is improving rapidly, and LEDs will only get better over the coming years. For now, many regard them as speciality lights, and they are almost always outnumbered by tungsten, HMI and fluorescent units in a drama lighting package. But some productions have really embraced them, an example being Guardians of the Galaxy, where many of the colourful practicals built into the sets were LEDs. Because they can be squeezed into smaller spaces than any other kind of light, and because you can get around the poor CRI by using coloured lamps, or gelling white ones, LEDs are well suited to creating practical glows from computers, control desks and other technology.
These are just a few of the LED fixtures currently on the market…
1’x1′ LitePanels are perhaps the most common LED unit. These panels have two dials on the back: one for brightness, and one for colour temperature (3200-5600K). They can be run off mains or a V-lock battery, drawing 40W to output about as much light as a 200W HMI.
I usually ask for a couple of these panels in my package, and they are great for situations like these:
As you are about to roll, you spot an area of the frame that needs a little extra splash of light. It is the work of moments to slap a battery on a LitePanel and fly it into shot.
A light needs to be situated in a tight space in the set, or in a spot which a power cable couldn’t reach without appearing in frame, or both. The fact that you can just prop these panels up against the set without worrying about them getting hot and damaging something is huge.
Wrapped in a diffuser like tough-spun or muslin, they make good fill lights or eye lights for day exterior close-ups.
They can make good TV sources, particularly if your set-up time is limited. A spark can twiddle the brightness and colour temp dials during takes to simulate changing images on the TV screen.
There are many manufacturers producing panels in 1’x1′ and other sizes, but LitePanels are the best ones I’ve encountered. However, I’ve yet to come across any LED unit with a good enough CRI to use as a key light.
A range I haven’t used is the Arri SkyPanels. Designed primarily to be rigged overhead from studio grids, they come in 30, 60 and 120cm lengths. The coolest thing about these units is that you don’t need to gel them; just punch in the Lee or Rosco code of the gel you want to use, and the light instantly changes colour!
Rosco Lite Pads go for a slightly different approach. The LEDs are arranged around the edges of these panels, and bounce off the white backing to produce a soft daylight source. They’re not very bright, and again the CRI is not great, but the range of shapes and sizes they come in mean that you can find one to fit most tricky spaces.
I used these a lot on Above the Clouds (check out the blog posts) in many different situations. Two 3″x12″ Lite Pads saw extensive use as fill/eye light, taped to the dashboard of a Fiat 500 in driving scenes. The other standard sizes are 3″x6″, 6″x6″, 6″x12″, 12″x12″ and 3″ circular. The panels themselves are stripped down, so batteries and dimmers can be sited remotely.
Rosco also makes LitePad Vectors, which are more like other brands of LED panel, with on-board dimmers and increased light output, and they can even make custom LitePads.
Several companies make small fresnels which at first glance appear to be HMIs, but are in fact LEDs. LitePanels make the Sola 6C and Sola ENG, equivalent to 200 and 100W HMIs respectively. Arri makes the L5, L7 and L10 units, which are each available in three models with differing brightness and colour-tuneability characteristics. The brightest L10 models are comparable with a 2K tungsten fresnel, while drawing a fifth of the power.
There are budget models out there too, such as the NiceFoto CE-1500Ws, which I used a little on Ren: The Girl with the Mark. As with all budget LED and fluorescent lights, the CRI is very poor, but it was useful when we lacked enough traditional fixtures.
Overall, LED fresnels are currently most relevant in scenarios where power is very limited, or portability and lack of heat is particularly important – in a nutshell, electronic news-gathering (ENG).
One of the most exciting things about LEDs is that because the individual diodes are so small, they don’t necessarily have to be housed in a fixture of any kind. LiteGear, for example, supplies LiteRibbons, which are strips of LEDs “mounted to a white backing material that is flexible, cuttable and adhesive backed”. The possibilities for these ribbons are pretty much endless. Here are some examples:
The Enterprise bridge set featured in the last three Star Trek movies has all its control panels lit by LiteRibbons.
Mad Max: Fury Road, and many other movies with driving scenes, had strips of LEDs mounted to the ceiling, window frames and pillars of the truck cab to increase the exposure inside.
The mini reactor that powers Iron Man’s suit is illuminated by LiteRibbon LEDs.
Some predict that, as LEDs get brighter, cheaper and higher in CRI, they will eventually replace every other kind of lighting. For now though, they’re just another part of the toolkit in which tungsten and HMIs, and to a lesser extent fluorescents, are the go-to tools.
There is a fifth type of lighting that is emerging too: plasma lighting, but it’s so new and so rare at the moment that I don’t feel equipped to write a post about it yet. But you can read about it over on Shane Hurlbut’s blog.
Another great blog to teach you about the many lights out there is Set Lighting, written by experienced Hollywood gaffer Martijn Veltman. His site was really useful when I was researching this series.
Of course, the most important thing is not what lights you have, but how you use them. There are many, many posts here on neiloseman.com to teach you about that. Check out the Lighting Techniques series for some basics, watch my Lensing Ren video series to see how all four types of lighting are used in practice on a real shoot, or simply search the tag ‘lighting’ for a wealth of material.
Tungsten and/or HMI lamps are usually the workhorse units of a lighting package, providing the power that is needed to key-light all but the smallest of set-ups. But they’re not right for every situation. If you don’t need the punch of a point source, and you want something a little softer, fluorescents might be the answer.
This is the third category of lighting units I’m covering in my Know Your Lights series; back up to the overview if you want to start from the beginning.
Fluorescent units use very similar technology to HMIs, with electrodes exciting a gas so that it gives off UV light. The phosphor coating on the tube absorbs the UV light and fluoresces, i.e. re-emits the light in the visible spectrum. Like HMIs, fluorescent units require a ballast to regulate the current.
One of the most notable early uses of fluorescents was in Robocop (1987). Jost Vocano, ASC chose the fixtures because the long, thin reflections looked great on Robocop’s suit. The flip side of that coin is that under certain circumstances fluorescents can make actors’ skin unpleasantly shiny. There was a scene in Ren: The Girl with the Mark where the poor make-up artist had to cake layers of powder onto Sophie Skelton to combat the shine of a Kino Flo I had set up.
One way I often use fluorescents is as a “Window Wrap”, a soft source that augments a hard HMI coming in through a window to wrap the light more pleasingly around the talent’s face. Or I’ll place a fluorescent outside the room, to represent or enhance indirect daylight spilling through a doorway.
Being soft sources, the light rays which fluorescents emit spread out widely, meaning the intensity drops off quickly as you move away from the lamp. (We refer to this as “throw”: fluorescents have little throw, whereas spotlights have a lot of throw.) For this reason they start to become pretty ineffective once you get more than about 6ft away from them, depending on the model.
Kino Flo is far and away the most common brand of fluorescent lighting used in the film and TV industry today, so apologies if the rest of this post reads a little like an advert for them. They’re not paying me, honestly!
The company was started by gaffer Frieder Hochheim and best boy Gary Swink after inventing the units for the 1987 comedy-drama Barfly (DP: Robby Müller, BVK). They required a fixture small enough to tuck into little alcoves in a bar location, without getting hot and causing damage.
Kino Flos come in two different kinds:
With these units, the lighting fixture is separate to the ballast, and they are connected by a header cable, just like HMIs. Remote units are usually referred to by two numbers, the first representing the length of the tubes in feet, and the second representing the number of tubes. So a unit with two tubes, four feet in length, is called a “4ft 2-bank”, often written as: 4’x2 (pronounced “four by two”).
The most common units are 2’x4 (a.k.a. “fat boy”), 4’x4 and 4’x2, but others are available, including “Single Flo” units and 6ft/8ft “Mega” units.
The ballasts allow you to turn individual tubes on and off as required, and also feature a switch marked either Hi/Lo or 4ft/2ft, which reduces the light output by adjusting the current waveform.
As you might expected, these models combine the fixture and ballast into a single unit. They are designed primarily for interview/ENG applications where it is more convenient to have everything in one. On drama productions it is generally preferable to have a remote fixture, which will be lighter, and a header cable running to an easily accessible ballast.
One advantage of built-in models over their remote cousins is that they are smoothly dimmable down to 5%.
Built-in units are known by names rather than numbers: “Diva-Lite” (2’x4), “Tegra” (4’x4) and “BarFly”, which resembles a swollen 1’x1′ LED panel. There is also the large “Image 87”, a 4’x8 fixture with a built-in ballast. It’s great for lighting green and blue screens because it puts out so much soft light.
Kino Flo tubes are available in five colours:
KF55 – 5500K – i.e. daylight – identified by blue end caps on the tubes
KF32 – 3200K – standard tungsten – gold end caps
KF29 – 2900K – warm tungsten – red end caps
420nm blue – an extra-saturated blue for lighting blue screens
525nm green – for lighting green screens
Kino Flos often come with plastic grids known as “egg crates” or “louvres”. Their purpose is to make the light more directional, effectively polarising it on a macro scale. They come in black, silver and “honeycomb” varieties, the latter available in 45º, 60º and 90º angles so you can choose how directional the light becomes – and, as a side effect, how much intensity you lose.
It is possible to remove the tubes and wiring from a Kino Flo housing so that the lamps can be squeezed into a tight space. For example, on The Little Mermaid we needed to see a soft blue glow emanating from a small translucent compartment in an organ. Best boy “Captain” Dan Xeller removed a 2ft Kino tube from its housing and placed it inside the compartment, running the wires out the back to the ballast.
Other than Kino Flo, another brand of fluorescent lights you may come across is Pampa Lights. They come in rugged boxes which can be interlinked to create larger banks of illumination. Unfortunately, in my experience the CRI (see overview) is not good, and they are best avoided.
The same goes even more so for the many fluorescent softbox kits available on Ebay from Hong Kong sellers. Not only are they flimsy in construction and questionable in terms of electrical safety, but the CRI of the lamps is very, very poor. If you need a cheap soft source, you would be much better off bouncing a halogen work light off a white card.
Indeed, firing an incandescent source into a bounce board will give you a better quality of light than even a Kino Flo. But a fluorescent fixture won’t make the room unbearably warm, it can emit daylight-balanced light, and it’s quicker to set up than a bounce board and the attendant flags. In a nutshell, it’s more convenient.
Next week, the Know Your Lights series concludes with a look at the fast-evolving world of LED illumination.
Following on from my ‘Know Your Lights’ overview last week, today I’ll look in more detail at the first category of lamps and the various units available and when you might use them.
And that first category is incandescent lighting, commonly known as tungsten. It is the oldest, simplest and most robust lighting technology. Tungsten lamps are the cheapest to hire, the easiest to repair, and emit a smoother spectrum of light than any other artificial sources, making for the most natural skin tones. For my money, there’s no better way to artificially light a human face than by bouncing a tungsten source off polyboard.
Tungsten lighting units can be sub-categorised by the style of reflectors and/or lenses in the heads…
The simplest instruments are known as ‘open-face’ because they have no lens to focus the light. By far the most common units are the 800 Watt and 2,000 Watt models. These are often referred to as ‘redheads’ and ‘blondes’ respectively, though I strongly discourage these terms for reasons touched on here. 300W models – dubbed ‘Lilliputs’ by manufacturer Ianiro – are also available, as well as 1Ks and much larger models like the Mole-Richardson Skypan 5K and Skylite 10K.
While I have lit entire no-budget features with just open-face lights, on larger productions the uneven and unfocused nature of their light makes them a poor relation of other units on the truck. They are most likely to get fired into a bounce board or used to create a little pool of light somewhere in the deep background where finesse is not needed.
The fresnel lens was invented in the early 19th century by French physicist and engineer Augustin-Jean Fresnel in order to increase the focus and throw of lighthouse lamps. Today in the film industry, fresnel lenses can be found on tungsten, HMI and even LED fixtures.
Tungsten fresnels come in the following wattages: 150W, 300W, 650W (a.k.a. ‘tweenie’), 1K, 2K, 5K, 10K, 12K, 20K, 24K.
1Ks and 2Ks are sometimes called ‘babies’ and ‘juniors’ respectively, but confusingly those terms can also refer to whether they are the smaller location models or larger studio versions of the same wattage.
Though the fresnel lens reduces the light output a little, the beam is much more focused and can therefore create a shaft of light through smoke, which open-face lamps cannot. Hence I sometimes use tungsten fresnels to simulate hard sunlight when shooting on a stage. But beware that shadows cast by a fresnel can sometimes show up the ridges in the lens.
I often fire fresnels into bounce boards, and because their light is more focused they require less flagging to control the spill than open-face units.
Par lights use a parabolic (shaped like half a rugby ball) reflector and a lens to produce a soft-edged oval pool of light. They are extremely common in theatres, but are often used in film and TV as well.
Unlike fresnel and open-face units, par cans are referred to not by wattage but by the diameter of the bubble in eighths of an inch. So a Par 16 (a.k.a. ‘birdie’) has a 2″ bulb.
Par cans come in the following sizes: 16, 20, 36, 38, 46, 56, 64. They also come with various internal specs which affect the width of the beam.
Par cans are good for throwing shafts of light. On The Little Mermaid I used them to simulate car headlights, and as practicals (i.e. they were seen on camera) to uplight banners at the circus.
Maxibrutes (a.k.a. ‘Molepars’) are banks of multiple par 64 (1KW) lights. They come in banks of 4, 6, 9, 12 or 24. They pop up in the background of music promos quite often, because they look cool and kind of retro. I used two 9-light Maxibrutes, bounced off the tent roof, to illuminate the big top in The Little Mermaid. Some DPs like to use Maxibrutes for backlight on night exteriors. If you’re using them direct, you’ll need at least a sheet of diff to prevent multiple shadows.
Minibrutes (a.k.a. ‘fays’) are similar, but use smaller par 36 (650W) lamps.
Dedolites are compact units that use a unique lens system to produce very focussed, controllable light from (most commonly) 150W bulbs. They are widely available to hire, come with in-line dimmers, and are small and light enough to be rigged overhead or in tight spots. I often use them to beef up practicals.
Source Fours or (a.k.a. ‘lekos’) are ellipsoid reflector spotlights. They feature cutters which can be used to shape the beam, they can be hired with different lenses (some of which are zoomable), and they can be fitted with gobos to project patterns. They are good for stylised pools of light or for firing into distant bounce boards without spilling light elsewhere.
Finally, tungsten is usually the most desirable type of bulb to use in practicals. It is commonplace when shooting a daylight interior for a spark to go around replacing the energy-saver fluorescent bulbs in the table lamps with old-school tungsten ones. The colour is much nicer, the skin tones are better as noted above, and they can be dimmed to just the right level for camera.
I’m sure I’ve missed something out – please feel free to let me know on Facebook or Twitter! Next week: HMIs.
Welcome to the first in a series of posts looking at the many types of lighting instruments in use on film and TV sets today. This is not intended to be an exhaustive or comprehensive list, but it will give you a good idea of your options, particularly if you’re moving up from smaller productions – where lighting kit is mostly borrowed – to larger ones, where you’re required to submit a lighting list to a rental house.
Some of the key considerations when choosing a lamp are:
Incandescent lamps work by passing electrical current through a wire filament which becomes so hot that it glows. In the film industry they are generally referred to as ‘tungsten‘ units after the metal which the filament is made from. Common tungsten lamps include Dedolites, 1K ‘babies’ and open-face 800W and 2KW units (which have misogynous nicknames I shall not repeat here).
Pros: cheap, dimmable, extremely high CRI
Cons: very inefficient, get very hot, colour temperature changes when dimmed
Colour temperature: 3,200K
Light quality: generally hard (although certain units like Space Lights are softer)
The HMI (hydragyrum medium-arc iodide) is the most common form of high intensity discharge lamp used in the industry. It operates by creating an electrical arc between two electrodes which excites a gas. You may occasionally hear about an MSR (medium source rare-earth), which is slightly different technology, but as far as a cinematographer is concerned MSRs and HMIs are the same. They require a ballast to ignite the arc and regulate the current and voltage.
Pros: good CRI, good match for daylight, efficient
Cons: only dimmable down to 50%, expensive, heads and ballasts sometimes hum or ‘squeal’, older bulbs can vary in colour, flicker issues at certain shutter angles with magnetic ballasts
Fluorescent lamps are found almost everywhere today, as strip lights in supermarkets and offices, and energy-saver bulbs in the home. Similar in principle to HMIs, electric current causes mercury vapour to emit UV light which is translated into the visible spectrum by the phosphor coating on the tube. Kino Flo pretty much has the monopoly on fluorescent lighting for the film industry. Like HMIs, fluorescents require a ballast.
Pros: reasonable CRI from Kino Flos (appalling CRI from domestic/commercial fixtures), very efficient, get warm but not hot
Cons: limited dimming, high fall-off of light
Colour temperature: 5,500K and 3,200K tubes available
Gradually replacing tungsten as the most common lamps found on no-budget shoots, LED (light emitting diode) units contain semi-conductors that emit light when their electrons reconfigure. The technology is advancing rapidly, but there is currently a wide range of LED lamps on the market, varying greatly in price and corresponding quality.
Pros: extremely efficient, barely get warm, can run off batteries, almost fully dimmable, some models have adjustable colour temperature
Cons: CRI ranges from almost acceptable in the expensive models to downright shocking in the cheaper ones
Colour temperature: varies
Light quality: varies
Though there are other types of lighting, like xenon, metal-halide and HEP (high efficiency plasma), the above four are the main ones you will encounter on film and TV sets today. Over the next few weeks I’ll look at each of those types in more detail, listing many of the specific units available in each category and their applications.