Lighting Car Interiors

Did you ever notice that in the movies we never have a problem seeing a person’s features while he’s driving down the road? Even at night?

The next time you go driving, look over at your partner and focus on the light hitting his or her face. Unless the sun is shining right through the windshield, your partner will be fairly dark compared to the bright light outside the car. At night, you won’t see much at all. Obviously, something is going on here. Good, well-hidden lighting inside the car and a little suspension of reality are the key. In this column, we will look at ways to light the interior of a car, during the day and at night, to create realistic-looking lighting, while making it easier to see your actors’ faces. We’ll also talk about some car lighting safety issues.

Daylight Interiors

The interior of a car is much darker than the outside. On a sunny day, if you set the camera’s iris to the right setting for your actor’s face, the window next to the actor will be nothing but a glowing white blob. Even on cloudy days, the light intensity outside the car is much greater than inside. How do you get around this?

One of the first steps in creating realistic lighting for your car interior scenes is to determine what shots you are going to use. Will you shoot just through the windshield? Do you plan to shoot singles of each actor in a conversation, as well as the 2-shot through the windshield? Or do you plan to sit in the passenger seat, shooting the lone driver as you tool down the road? Each scenario has definite pluses and minuses, and all take different setups.

If you just shoot through the windshield, you have a number of things to handle.

If you just shoot through the windshield, you have a number of things to handle. First, have you ever looked through a windshield on a bright day? Notice it is really hard to see anything? The reflection off the windshield is intense. The only way to get rid of this reflection is to flag the sunlight from it, which means mounting a flag above the car and covering the windshield with the flag’s shadow. An easy way to hang a flag is by using a C-stand.

Now, your crew will probably not be too keen about sitting on the roof of the car holding a flag over the window, especially if you also insist on seeing the driver during a high-speed chase. Another problem will be that the interior of the car needs to be lit by a pretty powerful light to even come close to matching the intensity of the light outside the car. Where do you mount that light?
If you must see the car moving down the road, one way – and perhaps the safest way – around this is to have a “camera car” and “picture car” set up. The camera car tows the picture car, and you can mount both the light and flag system from the camera car – or better yet, a truck with a flatbed, so the car isn’t even on the road. Keep in mind you will need someplace to mount your camera and the lights, as well as a place for the director to watch the action and the audio mixer to hear the actor’s lines.

The ideal light in this situation would be a 1000-watt professional HMI light which has a daylight color temperature. However, this will drain the pocketbook pretty fast. A couple of 1000-watt Arris or even a couple of 650-watt Omnis with CTB daylight conversion gel and a silk will work, if you place them close enough to the windshield. Set the lights so that their reflection off the windshield is not in the camera shot. Also – superclean the windshield! Remember, you will need heavy batteries and a converter to power up the lights.

Side View

For shots from the side, you will need the front light setup, as well as carefully-placed neutral density filters on the side windows, to reduce the intensity of the light behind each actor’s head. You can mount the camera using a professional door mount or, if you can get one, an old-fashioned carhop tray.

To supplement the front lighting, you can use reflectors mounted on stands next to the camera to catch the natural light and bounce it into the interior of the car.

If you plan to shoot your actor from the side in a moving car, you can place a reflector inside the car to reflect the light coming in through the windshield towards your actor. This will take some finesse to get the light where you want it, but it can be done. You can also use small reflectors or mirrors mounted on the passenger side of the hood and reflecting through the windshield at your talent, but they need to be securely mounted and not hinder the driver’s vision. Do not mount quartz-halogen or other typical lighting in the car, because it is too hot for the small space. Kino Flo makes a very nice small lighting fixture that has flicker-free fluorescent tubes, but, for daylight shooting, it will add only a little bit to the overall light.

Nighttime Interiors

You don’t need to worry about trying to shoot a moving car scene at night. There are easy techniques to create a very believable car scene without moving out of the driveway or garage.

If your budget allows, you can mount the rather expensive but very reliable, cool-temperature and flicker-free Kino Flo Micro-Flo kit on the dash in front of each of your actors and create a very believable lighting on their faces. Or you can buy small fluorescent work lights at the local hardware store and gaffer-tape them to your dash. Once you have white-balanced the camera, you can add gels to the lights to simulate the color of the dash lights for that car model.

For the lights of a passing car, mount two par lamps on a board about three feet across. These become the headlights in the distance. Red gel another set for taillights. Pass a hand-held Lowel Omni light gelled with a blue filter across the car hood at regular intervals to create streetlights. Finally, set up a green-, yellow- and red-gelled par set with switches to make a stoplight. Shining these lights through the windshield onto your talent’s face creates very realistic street lighting effects. Edit your “studio” shoot with some good exterior video of the area, and the scene becomes totally believable.

The Guerrilla Way

For those one-man-band or low-funded productions, there are other ways to light a car interior. Ever see a “tap light”? How bout a “snake light”? Both of these hardware finds work well in tight places, like adding illumination to the floorboards, or to set in the driver’s lap to give a bit more glow to his face. Tap lights are small round battery-operated Plexiglas domes found in linen or hardware stores that you tap to turn on. Snake lights are flashlights that have a flexible handle that a user might wrap around his neck to work hands-free. These lights are adjustable and don’t throw off a lot of light, but in a pinch (and with zero budget), they can be effective, if you work with them.

Robert G. Nulph Ph.D.
Robert G. Nulph Ph.D.
Robert G. Nulph, Ph.D., is an instructor of video and film production at the college level and an independent video/film director.

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