The clean, professional look of an infinite white set is much more than just an aesthetic. Whether you are going for stylish and trendy or just looking for clarity, this video lighting setup is the best foundation for a permanent small home studio setup. The simplicity gives the look great flexibility, but it’s also inexpensive and relatively easy to light.
You’ve seen the infinite white look in everything from Apple’s Mac vs. PC ads to movies like The Matrix and just about every representation of heaven in modern movies. It’s a great special effects shot that doesn’t look like an effects shot. While shots against white are just about the easiest of all possible video setups, full-body shots are definitely not trivial to light, especially if you don’t have access to a large, professionally-lit studio. But it can be done and you can get very high production values on a low budget and in a limited space.
The trickiest (and most expensive) part of our set is figuring out how to make the set look seamlessly infinite. Keep in mind, however, that this will only matter when doing full-body shots. It’s also important to remember that this is the most boring shot possible, so while a good wide shot will establish your infinite set nicely, you probably don’t want to deliver the entire program from this vantage.
Which is great, because a head-and-shoulder shot against a white wall is simplicity itself. The wide shot is trickier, because we’ll need to hide the sharp joint where the wall meets the floor. You’ll need about 20 feet of depth to your studio setup and at least 10 feet of width and height.
Paper or Plastic?
The most traditional way to handle the wall/floor joint is with an 8-feet x 20-feet roll of paper. These are widely available since they are extensively used in photography studios. Paper is also cheap, roughly $40-$80 delivered to your door. The massive downside is that paper wrinkles, rips and can’t be cleaned: it’s really only a temporary solution.
So maybe we should try cloth, like canvas or muslin? Now we’re talking $150-$200. While this can work, you’re really going to have to watch out for wrinkles and the shadows they cast. Vinyl is perfectly smooth, easy to clean and durable, these rolls are also quite heavy, so you’re also going to need to invest in some sort of wall mount or some serious C-stands.
Fortunately, these setups are common and off-the-shelf rigs are easy to find. Still, we’re easily paying $300 by now and haven’t even thought about the lighting yet.
Watch D. Eric Franks’ demo on how to build this set at this Vimeo link.
Paint It Permanent
My solution is to build a curved cyclorama (“cyc” or “infinity cyc”) in the studio. It’ll take a day to set it up and involves a little carpentry, plastering, sanding and painting. There are a few materials that are simultaneously flexible enough to bend and rigid enough to hold the curve: 4-feet x 8-feet wall panels, linoleum and vinyl are good candidates.
Using finishing nails, tack the material to the wall about 30-inches up: this ain’t rocket surgery, but I’d try to minimize the distance the material extends out into the room, maybe somewhere around 20-inches. On a concrete floor, such as in a garage, you might need to use some spray glue to keep it in place. It won’t be the most durable joint, but, on the other hand, it’ll also be easy to pull up. Next, you’ll have to plaster over the nail holes and smooth out the joint between the paneling and the wall and the paneling and the floor. Sand until smooth and then paint. You’ll need a couple of gallons, but any flat (matte) white acrylic wall paint will work.
The lighting is actually really easy, especially with modern cameras with good low-light capabilities. The easiest way to light the background is with 10 (or so) clamp lights from your favorite hardware megastore, probably about $7 each or $70 total, plus a dozen 23-watt compact fluorescent bulbs.
Another solution is a couple of banks of 4-feet fluorescent tubes, which will cost about the same, but will require a bit more work to install and be less flexible to use. Either way, we’re talking about fluorescent lighting here. Fortunately, modern fluorescent tubes have very quiet ballasts and come in a variety of “white” color temperatures.
Kelvin Klein Colors
If you select lights with a color temperature in the 3000 Kelvin range, you’ll be able to match the warm look of traditional incandescent lighting. Honestly, it’s what many seem to prefer – it’s much more important to match all your lights than to worry about the “right” color temperature. Just make sure you white balance your camera.
Finally, we’ll need to light our talent. A simple 3-point setup will work here, with a soft keylight, a fill light that’s about half as bright and a high kicker (hair light/back light). The last one is important to pop your talent off the background and will look especially nice on the shoulders. In practice, this is going to be easy, since you’ve already got so much light bouncing around from the background that getting a fairly professional (if flat) lighting look is built into the setup.
One potentially tricky part is the floor: watch out for shadows, especially right between the feet.
One potentially tricky part is the floor: watch out for shadows, especially right between the feet. Moving the hair light back a little can help, but I often need to add another small light to the front aimed right at the feet.
The trickiest (and most expensive) part of our set is figuring out how to make the set look seamlessly infinite.
Probably the biggest problem with this setup is audio, especially if your studio doubles as your garage. A concrete floor, untreated concrete walls and a broad metal door probably make this one of the worst small-studio setups for audio. There’s only one solution and that is to treat the
space in some way, either with acoustic foam or hanging curtains. Both will require some money and time, but you are going to find it necessary. Getting the right mic will also be a big step to making your endless white set complete, and a hypercardioid mic should do the trick.
The real magic happens when you bring your footage into your software and key out the background. The advantage to doing this is you can replace the already very nice solid white background with a digitally generated perfectly infinite white background. I know it sounds like a subtle difference, but it looks amazing. Plus, since we’ve been shooting wide for full-body shots, I’m sure you’ve noticed that the 8-feet wide background is not wide enough: a simple garbage matte or even a crop will take care of that. Add a simple fake shadow and the illusion is complete.
Dress for Success
Since we are keying our infinite white footage based on luminance, it’d be best if the talent wears darker clothing for contrast. Also make sure you pay attention to exposure and absolutely do not overexpose your subject. You can, however, blowout the background lighting and the key will still
work just fine. Once you’ve keyed out the background, you can now put just about anything into your composition and even float graphics and text into the background. You can also slide your talent to the left or right to give your composition more room for graphically presenting information. It’ll be more difficult to get a perfect key than if you shot on green, but if you stick with light colored digital backgrounds, the soft white halo around your talent should be invisible. And the real advantage here is that the imperfections in the keying will be white and the spill and reflections will also be white: final color correction is so much easier than trying to remove the sickly green spill you inevitably get with small-studio chromakeying.
The permanent infinite white cyc wall setup is really the ideal foundation for a small studio. Once complete, you are ready to shoot video with simplicity and clarity, but you can also take it a step further with optional digital compositing. Or turn off the smooth background lighting for a slightly different look. Or turn off the background lights and add in some colored lights for an interesting real-world gradient. The studio is even set to grow with you into the future, too, for example, you can add a roll of green vinyl for alternate chromakeying if you absolutely need a second option.
The total cost to get started with a basic infinite white studio is about $350 and a day of work. This is a fraction of the cost of setting up a professional studio and although it’s not inexpensive, especially for a hobbyist, it’s worth it. Videography is all about light and, dollar for dollar, there isn’t a better way to improve your video than upgrading your illumination.
D. Eric Franks is an Emmy Award-winning producer, the video guy at Hard Rock International and the raconteur behind Videopia.org.