Get Creative with Cookies!

When you light a set or location, you're not just

cranking out lumens to get a good f-stop. You're painting

the scene with light, and a powerful painting tool in your


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kit is the cookie. Cookies are big cards with patterns

carved out of them and placed in front of lights to throw

shadows on walls and other surfaces. (If you care where

the odd name "cookie" comes from, consult the adjacent

sidebar — though it won't help very much.) Cookies are

easy to make and use, and they're more fun than a barrel

of people, so let's see what they can do for you.

Cookies are large (at least 24" square) cards

or boards — sort of like big lighting flags with patterns

cut out of them. By placing them between a spotlight and

its target, you can throw distinct silhouettes like leaves

or window blinds. You can create tinted patterns by

fronting any cookie with a colored gel. Cookies are

typically made of metal, cardboard, or, as we'll

recommend, thin plywood or foamcore board. As we'll also

see, we can often use some dimensional objects as cookies.

What Cookies Do
At their simplest, cookies can spruce up a dull surface by

varying the light washed across it. This is useful for the

background walls often visible during interviews with

talking heads. It can also add snap to a plain gray

curtain backing a studio set.

Many special-purpose cookies work great for

softening the background. By placing them quite close to

their lights, their silhouette shadows are too soft to

reveal any pattern. Instead, they produce a subtly

variegated wash across the background. If you need a

dedicated wall-breaker-upper, a design like Figure 1 works

well if you make the holes small and irregular, and place

the cookie close to its light source. For location

lighting, strong color washes can look hokey, but you can

slip a light blue or amber gel over the spotlight behind

the cookie to cool or warm a bland background.

Cookies often suggest things that are outside

the frame (remember: if it's not in the frame, you can

imply that it exists). Very common patterns include

Venetian blinds (Figure 2 — we'll explain why the blind

cutout is raked) or the mullions of bare, small-paned

windows. Leaves or leafless tree branches (Figure 3) are

also common. Incidentally, the all-purpose mottled cookie

shown in Figure 1 also works well for leaves when you

place it farther away from its light source, to create

more distinct shadows.

When suggesting off-screen objects with

cookies, you can often strengthen the effect with colored

gels. For example, a pale green gel used with a leaf

cookie can help sell the illusion that the scene is in a

sunlit forest.

Home-Baked Cookies

Though you can cut cookies out of sheet metal or

cardboard, you'll find that plywood and foamcore board are

easier to work with.

For quick and simple construction, use a sheet

of half-inch foamcore board — the kind with rigid

Styrofoam sandwiched between sheets of paper. Choose a

board that's black on both sides, to control bounce from

the light source. Look for boards two feet square or

larger. The bigger the board, the farther away from the

light it can be placed and the bigger (and simpler) the

cuts you'll need to make to create a pattern.

Now, draw the silhouette you want on the board.

I like to use a classic Xacto knife, but any matte knife

or box cutter will serve. Cut against a throw-away board

so that you can make deep knife passes that slice cleanly

through the foamcore.

Remember: the light will shine through the

holes, so the part you don't cut will throw the shadow.

This sounds obvious, but I once got confused and cut the

shape of a tree out of my board, which of course,

projected a white silhouette instead of a black one. All

cookies should have generous opaque borders to prevent

light spill. Note the thick border around the bare tree in

Figure 3a. If you're working in stiffer plywood, you could

make an open-sided cookie, as in Figure 3b, for extra


If you think you'll use a cookie repeatedly,

you may want to make it out of 3/16 plywood instead of

foamcore. (Quarter-inch ply is stiffer but heavier — take

your choice.) A power scroll saw works well enough, but I

prefer the high-performance rotary tool that uses a

drill-type saw and operates like a router (such as a

Dremel tool, or a Black and Decker RTX, for example), for

close control over the finer details.

Cookie Setup

To deploy a cookie effectively, you'll need a century

stand or similar stand-and-clamp to hold the sheet in

position, plus a spotlight to shine through it. The light

source should be a spot, because it produces a hard-edged

beam that creates good shadows. (I like a unit with a

lens, for even better control.) Four-way barn doors are a

must, to keep the light from spilling around the edges of

the cookie and ruining the effect.

Now you see why the cookie has to be at least

two feet square. To get a well-defined shadow, you need to

place it well out in front of the light source. Move it in

and out to create just the edges you want; then barn door

the spot to keep the light within the cookie area. If

necessary, widen the light masking by adding free-standing


To adjust the overall intensity of your

silhouette, move lamp and cookie nearer to the background

or farther away. (It's difficult to dim a halogen

spotlight without warming up its color temperature.)

Now about that rake on the Venetian blind

cookie. If you try to create this effect with a square-cut

outline, you have to turn the cookie at an angle. This

makes it much harder to keep light from spilling around

it, and the near end of the shadow will be softer than the

far end because it's closer to the light source. By

building the diagonals into the cutout, you can place the

cookie at right angles to the light.

Fresnel light with colored light and stars cut out of paper
Fresnel light with colored light and stars cut out of paper

Special Cookies

If you think the bare tree cookie (Figures 3 and 3b) is

tricky to cut and handle, you're right. Instead, I get the

same effect by carrying a fan of dead branches from an

actual shrub and clamping them up in front of the

spotlight with a C-stand. It works great and I can

simulate a windy day by moving it slightly during the


Branches complete with leaves work even better.

Just clamp 'em up, aim a fan at them, and check that

realistic rustle on the background. BTW, I think this

effect works better when the leaves are close to the light

and their edges are very soft.

Perhaps the ultimate moving cookie is the fire

hula skirt: a curtain of skinny strips hung in front of an

orange-gelled light and moved slowly by a crew member to

create a flickering effect. In the past, we've suggested

thumb-tacking newspaper strips to a stick, but I find that

thin but opaque cloth can be rolled up and reused when

needed (

Figure 4).
Finally, don't forget that cookies don't have to

be realistic. In studio situations, you may want a frankly

stylized look to project on a background–for example, try

a vaguely urban roof line silhouette (Figure 5). Placed

above and in front of a gray curtain, this cookie can work

very well. However, if you're going to do this often in

your studio, consider investing in one of the ellipsoidal

spots-with-gobo described in the accompanying sidebar.

Good lighting!

What's in a Word?

"Cookie" is short for "cucalorus," a word so obscure that Google turns up only the information that its origin is not, in fact, Greek, and that it may or may not be named for a character in a fairy tale (um, okay). Cookies are sometimes classed as a subset of "gobo," a theatrical term for silhouettes used to throw shadows and/or color patterns.

Widely employed at plays, rock concerts, and clubs, true gobos are usually placed inside lights of a type rarely used in movies (ellipsoidal spotlights, a.k.a "lekos"). Freestanding cookie-type gobos are also used sometimes in stage applications.

Some claim that the word gobo derives from "go-between;" but there's no evidence for this, and anyway, if that were the case, why wouldn't the short form be "gobi?"

Contributing Editor Jim Stinson is the author of the

book Video Communication and Production.

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