Many cinematographers have a love/hate relationship with driving scenes. They often love the energy it can give a scene but absolutely dread finding ways to control and place the lights. However, there are some tried and true methods for lighting car interiors that can help you avoid a headache. Methods such as using a studio, using a truck to power and tow the car, and placing small, hidden lights inside the car. By learning to use these methods, you'll be able to make your car scenes look just like they do in the movies.
One way to control the contrast between the background and your talent is to actually get rid of nature all together by lighting your scene in a studio. A studio will allow you to place lights around the outside of your car with precision and control - all while keeping your talent safe from distractions. Obviously, the biggest problem with using a studio is the lack of a realistic scene outside the car, so you'll have to make sure to set up a green screen background in your studio. This way you can use a chroma key program of choice, to replace the background with one that you've recorded. In this case, you'll have to make sure that you match the movement of the car's steering wheel with the footage you capture, otherwise the car will seem out of sync with the background. Besides lighting your green screen background evenly, you'll also need the lighting inside the car to match the natural light in your scene. If you'll be shooting from the side, a strong backlight coming from behind your talent will help define their shape from the background. Then, using a soft light placed in front and to the side of your talent you can fill in shadows without causing highlights. () A word of caution here: make sure this light is coming from the same direction as your sunlight, otherwise you may break the illusion. Also, make sure to clean the windshield thoroughly so that it doesn't wash out when this light is turned on. Finally, use some grips to both shake the car and to quickly place objects in front of your key and backlight in order to make it appear even more realistic. This will make it seem as if your talent is passing by trees, telephone poles, or other objects that tend to briefly block the sun. Using all of these techniques, here a look at how our scene turned out.
While it's true that studio lighting is the easiest method to light a car's interior, the most realistic method that will give you the most control is to use a process trailer or tow car. A process trailer is a wide flat trailer that is towed by a vehicle for the purpose of being used as a moving camera platform. The beauty of these trailers is that they allow both equipment and crew to set up around a car while it is moving. However they do come at a cost. Not only are these trailers expensive but due to their extra wide size, they are often required to have a police escort - which can get quite costly. However, due to the level of safety for the talent, the convenience for the crew, and the natural setting, these trailers can definitely be worth the cost and effort. If you're worried about the safety of your talent but don't have the money to invest in a process trailer, you can always rent a tow dolly from a moving company and mount your camera and lights to the car itself using industrial-grade suction cups. This method eliminates the convenience of easy electrical power but still allows your talent to focus on their lines and not on the road.
The least involved and least expensive way to light car interiors is to use equipment that can be placed right in the car itself. The challenge with this method is finding a way to power the equipment without killing the car's battery. With this in mind, using non-powered items such as white blankets, bounce cards, and reflectors are good ideas. One trick is to place a white cloth over the talent's lap and middle console in order to reflect soft light on their face. You can also place a reflector in the back seat of the car to give some backlight. If you still need a bit more light, you may want to consider using a high output LED light (that draws no more than 120 watts) and plug it into the power port. If these lights are strong enough, they can be used as a backlight or a fill light since the sun will more than likely be acting as your key light. By using an LED light, you'll be keeping the car cool and will be able to get more lumens per watt than with a quartz-halogen bulb. If you want to save even more power, try and use battery powered LED lights. If LED lights just aren't cutting it, you'll probably have to buy a high wattage power inverter that hooks up directly to a car battery and has Edison-style plugs. They're fairly inexpensive and last for quite a while if the car is running. With this device, you'll be able to use hundreds of watts of light in your scene for short periods of time. However, you'll have to run wires around the outside of your car or through the dash in order to get the inverter inside the car. Additionally, you'll also want to make sure to let the lights cool down between scenes so that the upholstery doesn't get singed or burned. These kinds of complications make the studio and towing methods more convenient options.
As you can see, lighting car interiors is no easy task. It takes planning, technical knowledge, and creativity. However, with an understanding of the most common methods for lighting car interiors, you can make sure that your scenes look great no matter what the situation.