Moving Targets

Classic three-point lighting works great as long as your subjects stay put; but what do you do when they're moving — take the lights with them? Well, yes you can, as a matter of fact; but that's only one option. A more common method is to develop a strategy for lighting the whole area where the movement takes place. What, you say, you have only a few lights? No problem, as long as you know how to deploy them.

In the April 2004 Videomaker, we showed one way to do this in a big dark warehouse, as the subject moved from extreme long shot to closeup in a single take (Check it out at videomaker.com). This time around, let's look at some different situations.

In the warehouse example we began by lighting the subject first and then bringing up the background areas that weren't illuminated by spill from the subject's lights. Starting from a black interior, that's a sound way to go; but when you have more light to begin with you can often work the opposite way.

In many environments, lighting for movement involves two basic steps:

  • Get your stop. (Exposure)
  • Punch up the important stuff.
  • Getting your (f-) stop is jargon for lighting the overall scene brightly enough to record a good quality image. Punching up means adding light at the more important points on the movement path to enhance visibility and add emphasis. How you do this depends on whether you're working inside, outside, or at night.

    Lighting Indoors

    In most well-lit rooms you'll have almost, but not quite enough ambient light for a good image. To bring the level up, bounce fill light off the ceiling, and/or a reflective sheet at one side. (I like silver plastic tarps: tough, cheap, and grommetted for easy hanging. I get them from NorthernTool.com.)

    At this point, have the subjects move through the room, performing their scripted actions. Note each place where they stop, pause, or do something important as they go. These are the points that will get extra lighting attention. If you're big-time enough to have lights up above on a pipe grid, you can start adding light on your subjects now. Otherwise, the overall light will have to do for the wide shots, unless you want equipment in your picture.

    Once you move close enough to frame off your lights, you're ready to light your subjects. Since the bounce light provides overall fill, you'll want to add more key light, a back (rim) light, or both. Let's start with the key.

    Closer shots have to match the appearance of the wide views, so too much extra lighting can look hokey. The trick is to move a key light in and out until the subjects are slightly brighter than the rest of the frame. If you get too close they start looking radioactive. Choose a key style that matches the room: a spot for the area lighting in a restaurant, a soft light for an office with windows and/or ceiling fluorescents, and so-on.

    Where extra key lighting looks artificial, a rim light might do the job. Mounted very high and behind the subject, it will dust head and shoulders with enough extra brightness to separate subject and background. Taken to extremes, back lighting can look even cornier than key lighting, so take it easy. Where space and equipment permit, a subtle key and back light together can call attention to subjects but not to themselves.

    If you plan it right and frame it tight, you should be able to light at least two or three of the important positions at once, so that the subject can move between them during a shot. For lateral moves, keep the lights on the camera side of the action line. For fore-and-aft movement, mount the lights out of frame on each side. Again, keep extra illumination moderate so that subjects don't seem to be walking in and out of stage lighting.

    Lighting Outdoors

    The most common problem with outdoor ambient light is contrast: when you expose for shadows, then the highlights will flare whiter than nuclear blasts. In this situation, you want to fill in the shadows to reduce contrast and maybe add rim light to separate subjects from backgrounds.

    You'll probably work with reflectors — good news because shiny aluminum models bounce light far enough so they can be placed well out of frame, even in wide shots. Hard surface reflectors can be dangerous, so keep them out of your subjects' eyes.

    To get an effective fill, spot a reflector at 3 to 4 or 8 to 9 o'clock (on our imaginary clock face with the camera at 6 o'clock and the subject in the center). Mount the unit at or just below subject face level, to fill in eye sockets, nose shadows, etc. Watch your reference monitor (you do use one, don't you?) to avoid over-filling. The trick is to heat up the shadow side until you can just see details in it, while keeping it notably darker than the sunny side. Incidentally, use rigid reflectors if possible, to prevent wind wobble, which spoils the effect by throwing light ripples on the subject.

    Rim light is even more useful outdoors than in, if possible. If you can, let the Great Gaffer in the sky do the work for you: stage the movement so that the sun is somewhere behind the subjects. That will deliver a backlighting that looks natural and stays consistent regardless of where subjects move. If you need to use reflectors for back lighting, keep them as high as possible and make sure they don't flare in the lens.

    From there on, the technique is similar to indoors procedure. Pre-light each important pausing or stopping point in the movement and get the wide shot(s). Then move in and fine-tune the lighting for each closer angle. You may also want to add an overhead silk or screen to soften the sunlight.

    Lighting Night Scenes

    Brightly-lit scenes, both outdoors and in, start with achieving a good ambient light level. Dark scenes, however — say, outdoors at night or in unlit rooms — are different. Instead of creating overall ambient light, you must light the background well enough to make some kind of visible backing for the action. In front of it, subjects can move in and out of light, nearly disappearing between oases of visibility. As always, you identify and light important spots along the movement path, but in dark compositions the technique is different.

    First, place all lights a bit lower than usual (except for streetlights), sometimes keying even below subject eye level. Next, contrast is naturally higher in dark situations, so minimize fill, except where you really need to see some detail on the shadow side.

    Finally, use low, motivated back lighting wherever possible. Light supposedly coming from windows, car headlights or other "practical" sources can create a rim around subjects that keeps their outlines visible when between areas with key lights.

    Do your best to simulate actual light sources, but don't sweat it too much. Viewers are conditioned to accept less realism in night scenes because gaffers have always faced the problem of lighting the action — even deep in the woods on a moonless night.

    Lights on the Move

    We weren't joking about moving the lights with the subjects. Look at production stills of big-budget location shoots and you'll see actors having walking conversations, paced by honking big camera dollies festooned with lights.

    How can they get away with this? The theory is simple, though the practice takes, well, practice. First, the lights are just bright enough to kill excessive contrast and bring subjects forward from the background. The actors do not look "lit." Secondly, the lights are aimed, barndoored, and flagged to keep the light off the background. Otherwise, the houses or storefronts or whatever behind the subjects would be hit with a moving spotlight like the lead singer in an opera. Dead giveaway.

    You can use this technique for relatively short indoor camera/subject moves. Outdoors, a reflector will work if the sun is in the right position. Use the biggest soft silver model you can, to minimize the effects of changing sun/reflector angle and to safely work close to your subjects. A few ripples don't matter here because the light naturally changes on people as they move.

    On-camera lights often work very well. The idea is to fill dull shadows and add some eye sparkle without creating that awful deer-in-the-headlights look. If your camcorder light system lacks selectable light levels, use layers of spun glass diffusion to moderate the light until it does its job without looking hokey.

    Contributing Editor Jim Stinson is the author of the book Video Communication and Production.

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