Video is about capturing a moving scene just as much as it is about capturing moving pictures. Elements such as speeding cars caught up in the rat race, a train rushing past a sunlit intersection, or a blustery day where the wind violently shakes trees, stirs up dust and blows debris, contribute to the over all production value of your video. Today we're going to talk about how to use lighting to make movements like these appear real and exciting for your next video production.

Magic Lighting

It’s exciting to shoot a night scene where there is lots of traffic, emergency vehicles with all their blinking red and blue lights and smoke billowing from a building. When shooting a situation like this you really only get one chance to get it right. But when everything comes together the results can be spectacular, especially if you pan from a scene like this to a person involved, then capture a great interview with all that in the background. But given a situation like this you will probably only get one or, at best, two takes before the lighting changes, the situation changes or you are forced to leave the scene.


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So what’s a videographer to do? If you have a good understanding of common film lighting techniques you can reproduce all of the effects we described. With just above average effort and very little equipment you can create the illusion of a large production. All you have to do is visualize what you really need to “see” in a scene and rely on selective cropping, effective placement of lighting and a bit of Hollywood magic to achieve a convincing look.

Let’s say the script calls for a frantic interview of a man, who, while working the night shift, learns of a nearby wildfire and wind-storm and rushes home only to find his own house on fire. He is standing in front of a nearby fence. The script requires no flames in the scene, however the background, as well as the subject, should be lit with the flickering orange light from the nearby fire and there should be obvious elements of emergency vehicles as well as traffic. What you need to recreate this scene is orange flickering light from the fire, red flashing lights from the emergency vehicles, streaming head lights from the nearby traffic and on-camera lighting for the interview. To create true video cinematography you might throw in some selective focus so everything behind the subject is completely out of focus, add some hand held camera motion for drama and you’ll have all the elements of a great scene.

If you really want to go the distance for this scene you could even have a smoke machine and flash some moving red lights through the smoke. The two main elements working in your favor here is the use of selective focus and camera movement because, for the background, you can use just about any location you wish since you won’t really see enough of it anyway. (I have a wall sized wood bookshelf packed with camera equipment, props and miscellaneous stuff in my studio. It made a great “office wall” or “rustic room” as long as it was out of focus and correctly lit for each situation). Using film lighting techniques for the scene to light the subject and the background – which in this case calls for red and blue gelled lights as the “emergency vehicles”, yellow and orange gelled lights as the “fire lit background” and streaming lights for the “traffic” – you have everything you need. Add a cheap smoke machine which you can source from any Halloween store or a DJ supply house. (American DJ Fog Storm 700 Fog Machine $69.00 from Guitar Center) and you have a complete emergency scene.

You're going to need a few assistants for this scene because there are a lot of moving parts to this shot but what you gain is not only a video for your production but a greater appreciation for just how much effort goes into scenes like this and a better understanding of how to plan and estimate what is necessary to bid future projects. Using these cheats for making movies and incorporating techniques commonly used for special effects gives you an enormous library of tricks that will convince even seasoned filmmakers that you really had a large production when making your movie.

As a videographer it’s important to learn to recognize situations like this as assets that can increase production value to your work and if you are able to consistently take advantage of these situations you will be rewarded with better assignments because producers appreciate variety and they like options when screening video before sending it to the editors. Even if you edit your own material it’s always best to have much more than you need.

Smoke, Motion and Wrinkles

You can easily light the fence and subject with one light mounted with an orange gel. Just let the main light for the subject spill over to the rest of the set. You need to “flicker” the light with shear fabric by randomly shaking and moving it by hand in front of the light. There is no need to move the light because the fabric will do all the work. You can find the fabric at your local fabric store. Create wrinkles in the fabric to enhance texture and be sure to hold it far enough away to get the desired lighting texture and shake it the right speed and distance to get a vigorous flicker like you would see in a large fire. This lighting is for both the background and subject so the flickering motion synchronizes and looks natural.

Next you need the blinking lights of the emergency vehicles which can easily be achieved with blue and red gels on separate lights. Place them randomly to get the desired lighting and try moving one around while shooting so it looks like that vehicle is moving. For the headlights try mounting two spot lights such as focusing flash lights mounted on a board and have one of your assistants move them across the subject's face and background to create traffic driving around the scene.

A great special effect commonly used in the production of movie stunts is smoke which helps to conceal details that would otherwise reveal what’s really going on behind the scenes. Set the smoke machine to the side of the set and let the smoke billow across the background and it will pick up all of the special effects lighting on your set and provide a convincing, finishing touch to your video production. Combine this with some “frantic” camera motion and everyone just might think you really found a real fire.

Taking the Smaller Route

While all these techniques are great for a large production why not try something a little easier like the simple flickering of light on someone's face from a candle? If you try to use a candle as your main light source you will be a bit frustrated. While your eyes can see the candle flame and the light that it projects on your subject might look fine and your camera will probably record the flame correctly, it will only record a small amount of detail on the subject. What you end up recording will probably be too noisy for anything other than special effects. And trying to convince your audience that you did that on purpose is not good.

Your camera will record the flame well and since there isn’t much illumination from a candle flame, you don’t need very much light to simulate the flicker. A 100-watt light bulb at about three feet will balance nicely with the exposure of the flame so all you need is a wrinkled fabric to gently move in front of the bulb. Move it slowly about a foot away while the flame sits still and occasionally speed up the motion to simulate a slight breeze such as you might find when someone walks by. Place the light bulb on the same axis as the flame so it looks like it’s making all the light.

So now, how about if your subject is calmly enjoying the candle flame when all of a sudden a spaceship crashes the mood! Put an LED flashlight on your hot shoe, another LED light on a boom and have someone slowly move the light over your subject. Since your camera is white balanced for the tungsten bulb and the flame, which are a warmer tone in light quality, and the LEDs are naturally daylight color, the light from the LEDs will be quite blue! You can have great fun with just a little bit of preparation on this technique.

One Continuous Illusion

When watching blockbuster movies think about how the film director edits many smaller scenes into one larger scene. Through effective and creative editing even major productions incorporate many short segments to create the illusion of one continuous, linear scene and they do this to save money. This allows them the creativity to express huge ideas that can be assembled from many smaller edits.

The lighting techniques discussed here use tight cropping and shallow focus along with moving lights and hand held camera motion to “edit” out unnecessary detail, while providing convincing video in a cost effective and time efficient manor. Not including the burning house but having flickering orange lighting implies nearby flames. Flashing blue and red lights imply emergency vehicles and moving flashlights across the subject’s face implies traffic, which all contributes to the grand illusion of something dramatic happening even though it is just out of sight of the camera.

Your audience finishes the scene with their imagination and that is what great filmmaking is about. It engages your audience and makes them become involved in your production by requiring them to fill in the blanks. So you can choose to incorporate all of these filmmaking techniques or just a few to create powerful scenes or you can develop variations of them to use on simple assignments. Either way you become a better videographer and grow as an artist.

SIDEBAR: Organized Safety

While it may be wonderful to apply special effects and film lighting techniques in your video cinematography by moving things around while shooting, you should always consider safety when building complex sets or moving lights, booms or any other objects. Learn how to avoid problems by predicting events such as people tripping over cords, dropping lights or knocking things over. Run the sequence of the timeline through your head and pre-visualize how things can go wrong. I have mentioned in previous articles that I am obsessed with safety and can recount many projects where things got very complicated and one must consider every possibility when there so many “moving” parts on a set.

A motto of mine is “when in doubt leave it out” and that means don’t over prop or over produce or take unnecessary risks. Always run extension cords around the zone of traffic and when moving lights around the set for effect always collect cords between takes so they don’t become so tangled that they become unmanageable. Never handle hot lights directly and make sure that everything such as barn doors, soft boxes, spots or fresnels are well attached so they don’t come loose and fall on people. I always like to have someone who is not doing anything on the set just watch and look for anything that could become a problem because when everyone else is involved in shooting they can overlook even obvious problems. When shooting with quartz lighting indoors I always have a fire extinguisher available, because you just never know and it’s better to be prepared. I also like to keep everything organized so no one trips over objects I've placed on the set or in dark corners behind the scenes.  

Terry O'Rourke specializes in retail advertising photography and videography for clients worldwide.


  1. Thanks so much for a wonderful article! It makes me want to write a script just to "burn down" a house as you've described. I can see so many uses for what I've learned today!

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