We often receive letters from readers asking, “What the heck is that doohickey…?” “Do I really need that whatchamacallit…?” So, here’s a quick primer on light kit accessories – what they are, what they do and why you would use them.
You’re thinking of buying a new lighting kit and you are researching the light types and accessories in our current Lighting Buyer’s Guide. As you think about all the lighting tools, you realize there are also lots of little pieces in some of these kits besides all those fancy lights. So, what are those things in your lighting kit?
Let’s open it up and go over those strange objects and examine the terminology. By the end of this story, you will know the difference between a flag, a gel and a cucaloris.
What: Barn Doors
Why: Control the amount of light coming out.
How: In video and film terminology, barn doors aren’t used to corral farm animals. Think of them as leaves – 2 to 4 of them, usually. You put these doors in front of a light source. You will see them all over the place in lights used for film, television or Broadway productions. You use them to shape the light and place it where you want it and to mask it where you don’t. This is a very handy piece of equipment that you will never tire of using. Be aware that lights run hot – if you need to make an adjustment to one of the barn doors, please use gloves. On a production, it is easy to forget about wearing gloves and just move the barn doors – that’s a bad idea.
Why: Color balancing and some dramatic effect.
How: There are many names associated with gel – so you will hear it referred to as color gel, color filter, lighting gel or just gel. No matter the name, it all does the same thing. A gel is a transparent material that has color on it. You will see gels used extensively on theater productions, photography shoots, videography shoots and, of course, in movie production. You can use these gels for color correctness or to add color to a scene for dramatic effect. Gels are made of thin sheets of polyester or polycarbonate. You place them directly in front of the lights. Gels will not last you forever; they will fade or most of them will melt because of the intense heat from the lights.
Why: A shape that you can place in front of a light.
How: A cookie is a cut-out shape that you place in front of a hard light. A hard light is a light that is usually small, which you can focus and use to produce dark shadows and highlights. The result is usually rather dramatic, but – a word of warning – this is not the most flattering light. In case you were wondering, the “proper” names for this device are cuculoris or cucaloris.
Why: Reduce contrast
How: Like a gel, a diffuser is a translucent piece of material that you place in front of a light to soften highlights and shadows. You will also use a diffuser to reduce contrast and increase beam angle. Contrast refers to the difference between one tone and another or between the darkest and lightest parts of a scene. The light that comes through a diffuser is called diffused light. The diffused light creates softer shadows than a hard uncovered light.
Why: Block light
How: Photographers also call them cutters, siders or gobos. A flag is an opaque panel used to block light and shadow the subject, camera lens or the background. You can also use it to hide lights within a scene.
Why: Diffuse light in all directions.
How: This device looks exactly like its name sounds: umbrella-shaped. You place it in front of the light. You use an umbrella to diffuse light; it can turn a hard light into a large soft one. Remember that the interior of the umbrella needs to face the light or it won’t work properly.
Why: Reduce the intensity of the light.
How: This is not a diffuser, although sometimes you will hear the term scrim used to describe a diffuser. A scrim is a screen-like metal mesh placed in front of a light and used to reduce its intensity, not to diffuse it.
Why: Scatter and soften lights.
How: Silks are diffusers of different sizes which scatter and soften artificial lights. Synthetics have now replaced traditional silk for this job. Of course, these synthetic materials do not cost as much as regular silk, so sorry silkworm, we don’t need you anymore.
Why: Redirect and intensify the light beam.
How: There are two types of reflectors. You use the first type for indoor lighting. This reflector is bowl-shaped and can come in various sizes. You use this type of reflector to shape and intensify the light’s beam. The second reflector type is for outdoor use. You use these reflectors to redirect light. They are flat and colored in white, silver or gold.
What: Black Wrap
Why: Wrap a light source and control spillage of lighting.
How: Black wrap is a type of foil painted black, which you can use to shape the light without worrying about reflection problems. You can also use it to make small flags. (Remember: flags are for blocking light and shadowing the subject.)
Why: Attach scrims to barn doors.
How: This is not some fancy item that some lighting genius discovered. It is just a simple wooden clothespin. (See our sidebar.)
Why: Positioning of flags and gels.
How: This is a device you will use primarily to position flags and gels in front of lighting. You can also use it to hold up lights or anything else that you can fit on it. C-stands are metal, and you can place and set them up easily. You will see these stands all over movie productions and in photography studios. While they may look like tripods, they are not. You can vary the height of the stand using a number of risers.
There are a few other terms I think are useful for you to know, especially when it comes to proper lighting:
- There is a device known as an Obie light. Its purpose is rather simple. It sits on top of a camera and shines a small light onto the subject. The Obie light, also called an eye light, can quickly lighten dark eyes and faces without the need for another external light.
- Another useful device is a snoot. It is a tube-shaped object that you place in front of a light for projecting a sharp beam of light.
- In case you were wondering how you would go about repairing a gel… use clear polypropylene tape such as Permacel J-LAR. You use this tape to do a quick repair job on damaged gels.
So, those are the essentials that you will find in lighting kits. Some you will find only in the more expensive kits, but it is still useful to know what they are and how they work. Now you can open up that lighting kit and know exactly what everything in there is for and how to use it.
John Devcic is a freelance writer and videographer.
Side Bar: Why C47?
There’s a lot of industry lore associated with the film and video tool that we producers call a C47 and everyone else knows as a clothespin. Yes, C47s are nothing more than your standard household clothespin one would use to attach a wet towel to a drying line. However, the tool is quite valuable for all sorts of uses in the production industry, and in the lighting arena in particular. C47s are used to attach diffusion or gels to the barn-doors or flags in front of very hot lights. One should never use a plastic clothespin, as they can melt, and one should never call them clothespins on a set, as you will automatically be labeled a newbie.
There are many stories that have circulated through Hollywood over the years as to how the name C47 came about. Some attribute it to the extensive military numerical labeling system. However, the most common, and probably the best story is as simple as trying to fool the bean counters. As the story goes, a gaffer, (the lighting person), needed to treat a bright light so he clipped a sheet of gel or diffusion to a hot barn door by using clothespins. When the production manager then needed to account for the purchase of these ubiquitous devices, instead of trying to explain why he was buying clothespins, he just called them C47, which, supposedly, was due to something like the line item number 47 in column C from a prop catalog. There are several variations on this story, but they all come down to the same thing: someone somewhere needed to account for the purchase of a bag of ordinary household items and so converted the name to C47 to disguise the fact that the purchase was merely a handful of clothespins. Regardless of its origin, wooden clothespins, sometimes also called “bullets” are an essential item in any gaffer’s tool kit. (“Bullets” possibly coming from the fact that the gaffer would clip several pins end to end, and have a long bandoleer-like collection, similar to bullets, hanging from his belt clip.)
While we’re on odd lighting jargon; ever wonder where the term “Best Boy” came from? When a director or crew chief needed to add muscle to his crew, he’d request extra help from the crew shop, and emphasize the need for “the best boy”. This meant someone smart enough who had brains, not just brawn, to help set the lights, as well as understand their placement requirements. The Best Boy is now often the leader of the production’s group of gaffers, or lighting crew, and even women are called Best Boy in Hollywood terms.