The firelight flickered against the cabin wall, warming the cool blue light of the full moon filtering through the tattered curtains. Suddenly the ominous blue then red flash of police lights filled the small room and Carson knew his game was up.
Suddenly the director yells "Cut!" and the camera pulls back to reveal two Hollywood flats painted to look like cabin walls and a squadron of techies moving a myriad of lights and other equipment to new locations. Nowhere in sight in the cavernous sound stage is there a squad car, a full moon or a flickering fire.
For years Hollywood and independent filmmakers as well as corporate video producers have used lighting techniques to make us believe things exist that aren’t really there. You can too! It is all a matter of collecting the right lighting instruments and accessories and adding a large dose of imagination. Mix them all together to give your scene a large dose of reality.
Throughout this column, we’ll look at a variety of ways to bring reality to your scenes. It is all in the power of lighting.
Mr. Sun and Mr. Moon
It’s a good idea to always plan the outdoor and daylight shots first for your productions, because you have more control of indoor lighting than you do over the weather. All you need to make sunshine or moonbeams is a small, powerful light source and some colored gel. You can create sunshine, even at night, by placing a powerful light (1000 watts or so) outside your window. (It is not advisable to do this if it is raining.) Make sure you place it at an angle similar to that of the sun at the time your scene takes place and that it is out of the camera shot. It works best if you use a small, intense light to create the light of the sun or moon because you want to imitate their qualities. If you think about it, the sun and moon are very small intense lights that throw very hard shadows. A big soft light will not do the trick.
To recreate the sun, you have to determine what time of day your scene is taking place. If your scene is in the early morning, you may want to place a single blue gel in front of the light. For mid day, use no gel and for evening, use a yellow/gold, orange or red/orange gel, going towards the red as the day progresses. A light shining into a hard gold reflector and reflected through the window makes a fabulous evening light.
To recreate the moon, place two Color Temperature Blue (CTB) gels together in front of your light. Dim the lighting in the room to pick up the color of the moonlight and create the feeling of nighttime.
If you are creating the sun or the moon on a sound stage or other big room, you can also create windows through which they can shine. Place a window frame just out of camera shot so that its shadow falls across the floor and the background wall. Set up window blinds and let the light filter through the slats. You instantly have a wall with a window.
Cars and Cops
With a little mechanical skill and a good sense of pacing, you can easily imitate car headlights, city streetlights, the flashing lights of a squad car or a searchlight being used to find the bad guy. You’ll also need a couple of small, focusable lights that you can gel.
One of the easiest, yet most effective lighting effects you can use is the imitation of a car’s headlights. Using a four-foot long 2X4, mount two narrow beam lights about two feet apart. Slowly sweep the beams of light at an angle across the darkened back wall of your set. Instant car lights. If you are shooting a scene in a car at night, you can use the same technique both for cars passing you from the other direction as well as those coming up from behind.
In the same driving scene, you can imitate the passing of city streetlights by rhythmically passing the beam of a powerful flashlight over the hood of the car, avoiding the camera lens. A flashlight works well because its lamp has a yellow color temperature and should look different from the lights you are using for headlights.
If your characters get in trouble with the law, you can fill the car or house with flashing blue and red lights by rhythmically passing a double or triple blue gelled light then heavily gelled red light past the background or interior of the car. The Lowel Omni light has a comfortable soft rubber grip that allows you to move it around without being burnt. Focus your light’s beam to the tightest setting possible and pass first the red then the blue past the set. You can flash the set, tilt the beam to the floor and pass it again. With two people, it is a bit easier, but one person can handle it. Take the gels off one of the lights, put on a yellow gel, widen the focus on the beam and you have just created a searchlight. If your scene occurs on a city street or in a seedy motel room, you can add the pulse of a red neon light. Reflect a diffused red-gelled light onto the background or into the interior of your car. By turning the light off and on or moving a flag to cover the light occasionally, you can imitate the stuttering of an old neon sign. Add a few sound effects and your characters are in for a long and dramatic night.
Fireplaces, televisions and lamps that you see used in video and movie scenes, more often than not, don’t really work the way we think they do. You can create it all through the magic of lighting.
If your character is supposed to be watching television yet you don’t see the front of the set, you can create a very believable TV light. Get an old TV set, remove the picture tube and tack a double CTB gel to the front. Inside, place a lighting instrument that has a good quality switch on its cord. Quickly turn the light off and on; pausing at times for longer lengths of both light and dark. A television is never always bright so the flickering makes it look more realistic. Of course, you could always plug in an actual TV set, but hey, that would be too easy.
If your character is sitting before a warm fire, you can create the effect by setting up a small, diffused light, angled up from floor level. In front of the light, hang inch-wide strips of red, yellow and orange gels on a broomstick. Gently shake the gels in front of the light to create the feeling of firelight movement. Another method uses a round wheel (like an old bicycle wheel) covered with various orange, red and yellow gels cut with holes and layered to provide a variety of combinations and the occasional flash of real light. Turn the wheel slowly in front of the light to create the movement of the flame. Again, add sound effects and bake to perfection.
For lamps that you will see on the screen, the first thing you need to do is remove the regular bulb. A sixty-watt bulb will cause the lamp to glow on camera and look much brighter than it should. Place a 15-watt bulb in the lamp to provide a soft internal glow and supplement the light with a diffused 600-watt or more lighting instrument. Be sure to flag the light so that its beam does not fall on the lampshade of the light you are trying to use. If you place the lighting instrument just off-line from the real light, you can light your character in a warm glow that will look like it is coming from the lamp beside them.
Water Water Everywhere
Sometimes, the script calls for water ripples reflecting in your characters eyes or on her face. Often, it just isn’t very convenient to set up lighting to get this effect using a real water source like a creek or lake. Don’t worry, it is really a quite simple effect to recreate. All you need is a deep pan like a roaster or a painter’s roller pan. Carefully break up a mirror into two to three inch pieces and place them in the bottom of the pan, face up. Cover the mirrors with about three inches of water. Shine a small, intense light into the water so that the light reflected from it falls onto the face of your character. Gently lift one end of the pan up and down to create a soft ripple effect. You should see water ripples in your characters eyes. If your scene occurs at night, add a CTB gel to your light. Add a few seagulls, some water sounds and your ready for a day or night in paradise.
Always be aware of the world around you. Look at the light that makes up our world, its reflections, its colors and the shadows it casts. If it occurs in the real world, you should be able to re-create it for the camera. A bit of knowledge, a dose of imagination, and a touch of lighting magic can create any reality you wish.