Light Source: Is it Real or Just Good Lighting?

About five years ago I found myself needing a quiet outdoor scene with a flowing stream, a glowing street lamp and the first sign of blooms on the dogwood trees. Unfortunately, it was freezing outside and the trees only dreamed of blossoming. Any streams that were flowing were doing so beneath a layer of ice. I needed spring and it was winter. I needed a comfortable evening, and frostbite was about the only thing nighttime would bring. What I needed was a bit of lighting magic.

In this month’s column, we look at reality lighting. Through the viewfinder, this type of lighting appears to come from the light sources visible in the shot. However, the actual illumination of the objects in the scene is done off-screen with lighting devices. To perform these techniques, all you need is some basic lighting equipment, a dash of imagination and the desire to amaze those who don’t know the truth behind the curtain.


Case One: Shooting the Outside Inside

Let’s go back to my dilemma. Since the real world was out of the question, I had to create a new one. In addition, since I didn’t have access to a nice sound stage, I had to settle for a 20-foot by 20-foot classroom with an 8-foot ceiling and thankfully some good theater props.

I knew that if I lit the scene from a high angle with no light spilling onto the walls of the room, I could create the illusion of vast darkness. Then I added a street lamp with a 15-watt bulb and tied a couple of silk dogwood branches in full bloom to some stands. I rescued a small arched wooden bridge from the school’s last theater production and threw that in too. Using the street lamp as my "real" light source, I placed a Lowel Omni reflector spot above the lamp and focused it at a 60-degree angle on my talent – two lovers meeting at a bridge. Carefully flagging the light from falling on the lamp, lamppost, walls and ceiling, I was able to create the illusion of the light coming from the street lamp and lighting our lovers. But, what about the water?

To complete the illusion, I placed another Omni with a heavy blue gel in front of the bridge and pointed it towards a baking pan sitting on the floor between the camera and bridge. I filled the pan with large broken pieces of mirror and a layer of water. Having an assistant slowly rock the pan back and forth, I adjusted the light so that the blue "moonlight" reflected off the water and mirrors into the faces of the two lovers. Adding sound effects in post production completed the illusion of reality.


Case Two: Taking the Shadows out of the Sun

Shooting outdoors is difficult this time of year because the sun is so bright and direct. In past articles, we talked about using the sun as our key or back light and supplementing it with reflectors. We have also talked about the camera’s inability to record high contrasts between bright and dark objects. This is the basis for our next case.

I needed to shoot a conversation between two characters, one with his back to the sun and the other looking into the sun at an angle. I know that the best time to shoot with sunlight is during the early morning or late afternoon. At this time, the sun was angling towards the earth at a lower angle that complemented the talents’ faces. Using this knowledge, I decided to shoot very early in the morning. Gathering my crew early, I set up the camera and focused it on our talent. Although our eyes told us the actors looked great in the morning sun, the viewfinder told us something else. With her back towards the sun, the lead had a beautiful rim-light on her head and shoulders but her face was totally dark. The actor with the sun in his face was well lit, but so bright the background became dark.

This was where lighting accessories came in handy. With the help of my assistants, I placed a white bounce card just out of the shot and reflected it into the face and upper body of the actor with the sun at her back. Her face glowed with the morning light and looked quite natural through the camcorder’s viewfinder.

For our overly-lit actor, we placed a large scrim between the sun and his face. The scrim decreased the intensity of the light and slightly diffused it, effectively reducing the contrast between him and the background. Just by adding the two accessories, we were able to manipulate the light so that our camera would record it as "true."


Case Three: Nighttime Rain During the Day

Sometimes you have to combine lighting effects with a little special effect wizardry. Once, in sunny Los Angeles, I had to create a scene of a woman inside her apartment on a rainy night. It was the height of summer and we had to shoot mid-afternoon due to scheduling problems with the talent. It was time for some heavy imagination.

Using a large room, we decorated one wall as if it was a bedroom and placed a bed against the wall with the foot of the bed facing the camera. Then we took a piece of clean, clear Plexiglas, hung it to the right of the bed, and put a plastic tub beneath it. In front of the Plexiglas, we hung a section of window blinds. Now it was time to light the set (see Case Three).

Our talent was a forlorn lover quietly smoking at the edge of her bed. The effect I was looking for was a dark, blue-edged night with occasional lightning and the reflection of the falling rain and blinds coming across her face.

To create the look, I placed an Omni with a blue gel on the backside of the blinds. I raised it to a 45-degree angle, and focused it on the actor’s face. I placed another Omni with a diffusion gel and an ND filter (to reduce the amount of light) behind her right shoulder and out of the camera shot, to give the impression of a soft nightstand lamp. I had a crewmember stand next to the wall switch in the room and flick it on and off quickly for the lightning effect. I had another crewmember slowly dribble water down the Plexiglas. With the help of sound effects, our set was ready. While to the eye our scene looked pretty rough, it was perfect through the lens.


Case Four: Inside a Car at Night

If you have ever tried to shoot a scene in a car at night, you know how frustrating it can be. We see nighttime car scenes in the movies all the time yet never question the brightness of the dashboard lights. It is quite simple to duplicate the lighting used in the movies and create a "realistic" night scene in an automobile.

All you need to have to light the interior of a car at night are two small fluorescent workshop lights, gaffer’s tape and gels that match the color of the car’s dashboard lights. Mount the two fluorescent lights just out of camera view under the dashboard, making sure they are shining up towards the talent. If the car has orange or red dashboard lights, you can either gel the lights, or white balance your camera using a light blue color instead of white. If the dash is yellow, you don’t need any gels, just white balance as usual.

To add some realism to the scene, have a couple of the crew members sit on the bumper and lightly move the car up and down. Also, to create a feeling of driving under streetlights, have one of your crew stand on a ladder. Shine a couple of strong flashlights across the hood of the car, starting from the front, over the windshield and down the back. By using these lights in a set pattern, you can simulate movement and speed.

For the occasional passing car, mount two reflector spots (or flashlights) about two feet apart on a four-foot long two-by-four. Slowly sweep at an angle the beams of light across the darkened side of your car or steadily shine them from the back into your rear view and side view mirrors. For a car passing from behind, slowly move the lights forward until they are glaring into the mirrors, then move them to the side and swipe their light across the side of the car. Add the sounds of a passing car, some engine and road noise, and your setup is complete.


Dealing With Reality

Any lighting situation the world creates, you can probably recreate given the right tools, imagination and skill. The key to creating lighting that seems motivated by the natural environment is to study what the real world looks like. Then it takes practice and experimentation. Above all, be creative.

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