Light Source: On Location with Gaffer Tom

Dear Goldilocks,

You say you don’t believe work is keeping me too busy to write and what’s a gaffer anyway, some job on a fishing boat? That hurts, Goldy, really hurts. 🙁 You wanna know what a gaffer does? Lemme tell you about today. All 20+ hours of it.

The scene sounds simple in an e-mail: an actor walks down a street, ducks into an alley, jimmies open a door, steals a chemical from the secret lab inside and blows himself up, badda-boom! (Hey, I don’t write this stuff.) My job, if I care to accept it, is to light all this for videotaping. (Of course I care to accept it: I’m broke, as usual.)

Okay, let’s divide the lighting job into three areas: the street, the alley and the lab. Before we start, remember that this epic has a budget in the low four figures, which means my lighting gear consists of:

  • One three-light location kit with two spots and a "broad" the size and shape of a hotdog bun, plus light stands, gels, screens and so on.
  • One camera-mounted light with separate Anton Bauer battery brick.
  • Two hard-surface aluminum reflectors with C-stands to hold them up.

    Let’s light these three areas, one-by-one.

    Exterior – Night: A Run-Down Commercial Street

    Okay, our actor walks furtively through the darkness, past several mom-and-pop stores (like maybe a cleaners, a bakery and a deli). At the third store window, he pauses to check the directions on a piece of paper, before ducking around the corner into an alley.

    We don’t have the stuff to light a big exterior, so we go mainly available light, and that means shooting at twilight. We need enough light for the camcorder to read both the street and the lights shining through the store windows. By setting the white balance to incandescent, the store lights will look white and the street will seem bathed in blue moonlight. Reflectors would be nice for back-cross lighting, but too bad: the sun’s gone down already.

    The real problem here is reading that note. The director wants to see the actor from inside the deli (don’t get me started on directors), but we don’t have permission to shoot in there. That’s where the camera light comes in.

    First, we move the actor over to the alley mouth. This is called "cheating." Since the audience can’t see the deli from this angle, they won’t know he’s been moved. The alley gives us a longer "throw" for the camera, simulating the view through the deli window. Our props department hung some sausages up in front of the camera. Their silhouettes in the top of the frame helped sell the gag (Figure 1).

    Why the long throw? So we can use a telephoto lens setting that will keep both the sausage foreground and the street background out of focus. I put a pink gel over the camera light (to make it even warmer) and hold it just above the top of the frame, while the actor reads the note, looks furtively around, and continues out of frame. The editor will cut back to the wide shot of him turning into the alley.

    Now, you have to jump backward in time because the alley sequence that plays after the street was actually shot before, to take advantage of sunlight.

    Exterior – Night: An Alley With a Sliding Metal Doorway

    The establishing shot shows the alley with a red light over the door into the building. We replace the bulb with the biggest halogen screw-base lamp I’ve got in my kit, tape a cylinder of rolled-up red plastic around it, and voil! a red hazard light. It won’t do squat for the closeups, but I don’t care, as you’ll see.

    We’re still working day-for-night, with the white balance set to indoor so everything looks like moonlight. To light the sunless alley, I spot a big hard reflector out where it’ll pick up the midday sun (remember, we actually shot this earlier in the day) and zing it in at almost a horizontal angle. As our actor scuttles down the alley, away from the camera, the light starts hot on his back, then dims as he moves farther away from it.

    Now we’re at the door. To light the close angles, ambient light is enough for a combined soft key/fill, but to enhance that moonlight effect I want some rim light. To do this, I raise the alley-mouth reflector so its beam won’t hit the camera crew and bounce it off a second hard reflector behind the actor so that it splashes the back of his head and shoulders (Figure 2).

    Now for the red overhead. From my trusty gaffer’s kit, I select a screw-in converter that turns a socket into an outlet and install that in the light over the door. Using my "broad" floodlight with the red gel now covering it, I place the light just above the frame so that it illuminates the door, while still looking like the overhead light (Figure 3).

    One final problem: the actor is supposed to be using a flashlight to see the door he’s jimmying, but a flashlight doesn’t have enough power for good lighting. To solve the problem, we establish the real flashlight in his hand, letting its beam sweep across the lens. Then to do the actual lighting, I hand-hold the versatile camera light, playing it around the door and lock as if it were a flashlight.

    Finally, we have to get that door open. We can’t open the real alley door, so we cheat the actor outward once again, place the camera and its light where the door would be, and hold the black side of a foamcore board in front of it. As the actor mimes opening the door, we pivot the foamcore sideways, wiping the "door" open and progressively washing the actor with the camera light (Figure 4). Cut to match action (which we shot in this morning) and the illusion of a door opening will be absolutely perfect.

    Interior – Night: A Mad Scientist Laboratory

    Still with me, Goldy? Okay, now we time-travel backward yet again because we shot the lab interior before the street and before the alley. My big lighting problem here isn’t power, because now we’re inside a big empty room. The problem is that the room isn’t a lab and Props hasn’t enough paraphernalia to turn it into one. What to do?

    It works like this: we align a long counter about ten feet in front of a blank wall and dress it with the stuff we do have (beakers, retorts, Bunsen burners, tubes and spiral glass thingies, all bubbling with air pumped through water with different shades of food coloring). While this is being set up, I place a spot low-down and well out in front of the lab equipment, shining through it onto the back wall. Tadaa! Our blank expanse now shows shadowy suggestions of much more lab equipment out of frame.

    I stand my second spot at the left end of the counter, aiming horizontally straight through all the glass goodies, to get rim lighting and color patches throughout the length of the counter. At the right end, I position the floodlight, further softened by a heavy translucent white gel and aimed at the actor’s stopping point (Figure 5).

    Action! The burglar creeps along behind the counter, illuminated by reflections off the glass pieces. We pan with him until he comes to the right end and stops in front of a globe full of evil red liquid. With a cry of triumph, he grabs the bottle…

    …and the whole thing blows up. Now how do you do that on a nickel budget? The next day (are you following this time frame, Goldy?) in a dark room, we place both spotlights eight feet off the floor, aimed straight down. While the Prop person breaks the glass stuff into artistic shards, the videographer rotates the camcorder 90 degrees counter-clockwise (so that screen-left is down) and sets the shutter speed to 1/1,000 sec.

    With the camera rolling, the Prop person lets the glass fall in a shower through the shot, glittering in the pair of spotlights. In digital post, the editor will repeat each frame four times to create a strobe/slow motion effect. With each frame exposed at 1/1,000 second, the glass shards will be lethally sharp as they blow from right to left across the screen. Add a big fat detonation on the FX track and you’ve got your exploding laboratory.

    So that’s what I did today, Goldy. Guess I got a bit carried away, telling it, but, as Blaise Pascal wrote, "I’m sorry to write such a long letter, but I didn’t have time to write a short one."


    Gaffer Tom

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