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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.