Casting Shadows with Cookies: A Recipe for Success

In the video world, cookies aren’t tasty baked treats to eat with a glass of cold milk. To video pros, cookies are lighting accessories used to cast shadows to decorate a set and create illusions. Whether you wish to create tree leaves, windows, doorways or random patterns of light, a batch of homemade cookies may be just what you need to make your next shoot mmmmm good!

A cookie, also known as a cucalorus, is traditionally a small plate of metal with shapes cut into it, inserted in an ellipsoidal spotlight. By placing the cookie in the path of the light, the cut out areas create light and shadow shapes that are projected onto a background.

A relative to the cookie is a gobo. Gobo is short for "go between." Gobos are placed between a light (or camcorder) and the set. Shining a light through shapes cut in a large piece of cardboard, wood, plastic or posterboard creates the effect. Gobos are easy to make and have a definite place in your video production bag of tricks.

In this article, we will look at cookies and gobos, describe how to use them and provide easy step-by-step instructions for making your own.



The Internal Cookie

If you have access to an ellipsoidal theater light, you can place a small cookie in the pattern projector slot to cast an image onto a wall or floor. You can create these small cookies using a soda can, carefully cutting out a small rectangle as wide as the opening in the ellipsoidal. Make the rectangle a little longer than needed so that you have something to grab when you remove the cookie from the light. Trace your design on the piece of metal with a felt-tipped pen and carefully cut your design out of the soft aluminum using a sturdy cutting blade. Once you have cut out the design, carefully burn off the painted label by holding the cookie with a pair of pliers and holding it over a hot flame. Be sure to do this in a well ventilated area because the paint will smoke quite a bit. Once all of the paint is burnt off, you are ready to use the cookie.

Carefully slide it into the ellipsoidal slot and focus the image onto the back wall or wherever you need to project the shadow. This works great for any type of image. Some specific uses are business logos, station call letters, window frames and leaf patterns. One word of warning, use gloves when removing the cookie from the ellipsoidal. It will be very hot!



The Movie-set Cookie

If, like most of us, you don’t have access to the fancy lights big studios and theaters use, you can still easily create and use cookies. Movie-set cookies are large flags with patterns cut into them and mounted between a powerful hard light and the set.

To build your own cookie, start with a piece of 1/4-inch plywood, rigid posterboard or foamcore. With a marker, trace your design onto the material and cut it out with the appropriate tools. If you want to project leaves, cut a pattern with a number of small irregular shapes making sure you leave about six inches on the sides to provide support. To create clouds, cut out a number of irregular oblong shapes, leaving at least two inches of material between them. When making a leaf or cloud cookie, make sure the holes you cut out are smooth and form no noticeable pattern. You can cut out many other shapes the same way, making sure they are smooth and supported by the material left behind. You will be creating the pattern by what you don’t cut out, so be careful when designing your pattern.

When the pattern is complete, you’ll need to mount it to a stand and position it between your light source and your set. Now you’re ready to go. Make sure you have sandbags or some other heavy object on the bottom of the stand so that it doesn’t fall over. Place the cookie as close as possible to the surface you are projecting onto. The closer it is to the surface, the more defined the shadows will be. If you position the cookie close to the light source, the edges of the shadows will be very soft and washed out. If you are projecting leaves on someone’s face and the background, you can have a helper move the cookie slowly back and forth to create the feeling of wind.



The Gobo

If you have ever seen behind the scenes shots of a movie in production, you may have noticed big black rectangles blocking light from portions of the background, controlling the light within the scene and shading the camera lens from the lights. These black rectangles, also referred to as flags, are a type of gobo. A gobo is any material that you place in front of a light to partially block its beam. The gobo can also be a set piece that you shoot through to provide foreground framing. While the cookie is a type of gobo in that it blocks light, it is different. A cookie projects a distinct pattern, whereas the gobo usually blocks the light in sections. A light-blocking gobo is also called a flag.

Gobos are easy to create. You can make them out of rigid posterboard or foamcore, opaque black cloth mounted on a stiff, lightweight metal frame or lightweight 1/4-inch plywood painted black. Usually they are three-foot by four-foot rectangles that can be hand-held or mounted on lighting stands. Again, make sure you sandbag the light stand to prevent the gobo from falling over.

Another type of gobo, a "set piece" is placed between the camera and the scene, often a partial window frame or doorframe through which you shoot your scene. Placing this type of gobo between the camera and subject provides interesting foreground framing. You can also use tree branches, curtains or any other object in the foreground. Technically, these are all gobos.

When you make a setting gobo, you re-create the object you are looking through, but you don’t have to reconstruct the whole item. For a window frame, you can use an old pane from your house, remove the glass and put on a fresh coat of paint. Screw eye bolts to the top of the frame and attach a strong piece of string to the eyebolts, then hang it from the ceiling, or hold it in front of your camera. For the best effect, place the center of the four window panes in the left-hand top third of your picture with the subjects framed in the lower right windowpane. With some ingenuity, you can make your audience think you are shooting through a window, eavesdropping on your subject’s world.



Gobos and Cookies

Sometimes it is the little things that turn a good production into a great production. Using gobos and cookies will add that little extra to the atmosphere of your settings and make your productions more realistic and professional looking.

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