Light Source: Lighting Backgrounds

Often the difference between a good shot and a great shot is the background. More often than not, videographers pay scant attention to their backgrounds because they’re busy worrying about lighting the person they are shooting. Many times you’ll find that you barely have time to select an appropriate background let alone light it.

This month we’ll see why background lighting is important, and we’ll look at various ways to create powerful, dramatic backgrounds using these simple lighting techniques.

Background Basics

One way to control the look of your background even before setting up a light is to move your camcorder closer to or farther from your subject. If you’ve got a busy or distracting background, pull your camcorder away from your subject and zoom in. By using the telephoto lens of your camcorder, you reduce the amount of the background that’s in the shot. If you want to show more of the background, move your camcorder closer to your subject and zoom out. The wide angle of your lens will show more of the background. By controlling what appears in your shot, you control the area you need to light.

Creating Backdrops

Whether you’re using a professional backdrop or a sheet off your bed, cloth backdrops are valuable tools you should add to your video kit. Whether you make or buy a backdrop, you’ll need to know how to choose its color, material and size.

Backdrops come in a variety of colors, but light gray and light-to-medium-brown drops provide the greatest versatility to the videographer. A light gray backdrop will provide a surface that can easily be colored with light. By adding colored gels to lights pointed at your backdrop, you can turn neutral gray into almost any color. A light or medium brown drop will give your gelled colors a richer, more dramatic tone. The brown drop is effective if you are shooting a dramatic interview or need to disguise otherwise distracting backgrounds. Because of its darker color, you can use very little light, making it appear almost black.

The material you choose is important. It should be made from a heavy muslin or light canvas material. The material should be heavy enough to retain wrinkles and yet light enough to drape over objects and easily roll up for storage. The wrinkles created when rolling your drop help add a surface texture that will make the background look more natural and interesting. A material that holds wrinkles will reflect light better than material that is so flimsy and smooth that it doesn’t wrinkle. You can dye or paint the material with a slightly lighter or darker color to add texture (be sure to select paint that won’t crack when you roll your backdrop for storage).

The size also matters. A large rectangular drop, at least twelve feet wide and twenty feet long, gives you many options. You can hang it horizontally with a curved edge along the floor to create the illusion of infinite depth; or hang it vertically to provide a really wide background.

Lighting Backdrops

Keep in mind that your background serves to complement your talent; it shouldn’t overshadow the talent. Decide what effect you’re trying to achieve: is it a dramatic interview or something more casual? If drama is what you want, keep your background dark. Use brighter backgrounds for casual interviews.

To add color to your background, use colored heat-resistant lighting gels. These gels come in a variety of colors and are relatively inexpensive; you should be able to find them in some video supply stores and in most theatrical supply houses. Deep reds (it must be a deep highly saturated red, like a dark burgundy or else it’ll likely bleed on the screen), blues and greens are some of the most effective colors.

By adding red and blue gels to two lamps and focusing them from the sides between the talent and the backdrop, you can "paint" the canvas with color. The background will turn the same color as the gelled lights. By changing the focus and location of the beams of the two colored lights and overlapping them, you can easily create a richly colored, three-tone background. Take care that no white light hits the drop.

To add a very dramatic, if somewhat overused touch, place a barndoor on the front of a light and hang it on the upper left hand side of your backdrop just out of camcorder shot. Move the light and barndoors until you get a dramatic splash of light radiating from the top left to bottom right of the shot. For best results, shut the barndoors almost completely and light the backdrop with rich, dramatic colors.

If your drop is big enough, you can achieve an attractive effect by draping it over stacked boxes, chairs, stools or other objects. By using red and blue gelled lights, you can create a variety of shades and colors. Place your lights at the sides of your set and focus them toward the draped objects. If you set a box with an edge toward the camcorder it will look blue on one side and red on the other. If the light hits the top of the box, it will be magenta where the two colors mix.

For a brighter background, wash the backdrop with a couple of colored floodlights or video lamps set on flood. By adding a colored gel to your slanted light effect, you can add a splash of soft color across your backdrop. Keep in mind though, even in less dramatic, lighter situations, the background should be a little darker than the talent.

Background Lighting on Location

Some people feel that if you are shooting on location, you should leave the lights and gels at home. Offices have lights; homes have lights; why not just bring enough lighting to light the talent and forget the rest? You can do this if you wish, but your video productions will likely look pale and lifeless.

Background lighting is extremely important on location. You may not want to put a splash of color behind a CEO’s head as he talks about cutting jobs, but you can add color to the objects behind him as he walks you through the factory. By controlling the size of your background with the proper lens setting and by adding colored lights to the background, you can make a mundane scene more interesting.

The techniques on location are the same as in the studio. You have to be able to control all of the light. Turn off the lights in the office, store or section of the factory in which you are shooting. You can then add colored lights to the background and control the lighting on your talent. To get the deepest possible color, you have to start with total darkness. You can turn a white washing machine a beautiful blue if you light it with blue-gelled lights only. However, if you light the white washing machine with white light, adding color will only give you a very washed out pastel effect.

Another option is to bounce ambient light to illuminate your backgrounds. By using a gold-surfaced reflector, you can fill the background with a warm inviting glow. By using a blue or other colored reflector, you can add a colored tint for a different look.

Smoke and Shadows

Smoke, lit from behind can add a dramatic touch to your backgrounds. Smoke machines have come a long way. You can now rent smoke machines for a small fee and the chemical smoke they create is non-toxic and doesn’t leave your cast and crew rushing for the door. By adding colored gels to the lights behind the smoke, you can create an ethereal, smoky, colored background almost anywhere. By making sure that no light hits the smoke from the front, the colored background effect will be quite dramatic.

To give your background a shadowed look, either the leafy shadows of a forest or the shadows of a window frame, place a light to the side of your talent facing the background. Place in front of the light the object you wish to cast the shadow. This is called a cucalorus or cookie. The light will cast the shadow on the background. By gelling the light and changing its position, you can create a variety of effects. Keep in mind that the absence of white light is the key to solid, rich colors. Use a green gel for a leaf effect and a blue gel for a window effect. If you want the shadow to have a harder edge, the closer you place the cookie to the background, the harder the shadow’s edge will be. Look through your camcorder and move the cookie until you can see it, then move it slightly out of the shot. You will be surprised at how close you can get it.

Final Thoughts

A background can enhance or detract from your productions. By controlling the background lighting and using that portion of the video shot to support your message, you will increase the impact of your scenes and the power of the production. Make sure you white balance your camcorder with true white light before using these effects.

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