A cucoloris is a device for casting shadows or silhouettes to produce patterned illumination. You may sometimes hear it referred to as a cookie or even a kook or a coo-koo.
Why do we use them?
The cucoloris was created to give artificial lighting a more natural look. Cookies break up the light from a light source to create various patterns. In film, theatre and still photography, they are used to imply the presence of objects like trees or Venetian blinds — think Film Noir — or to add drama to an otherwise flat lighting setup. A cucoloris can also be used to make it look like there’s moving shadows or light passing over the scene.
Types of cookies
Cookies can be divided into three groups: hard cookies, soft cookies, and brancholorises or dingles. Let’s go over each one individually:
Hard cookies are made from hard poster board or thin plywood. The desired shapes are cut into this hard, opaque material to create shadows with more defined outlines.
On the other hand, soft cookies are made from plastic screen with the desired shapes cut or burned out. This more translucent material creates softer shadows that aren’t as clearly defined.
Lastly, we have brancholorises or dingles, which are actual objects like tree limbs that can be placed between the light and the subject in the frame to create the desired shadow effect.
Cucoloris vs. gobo
To some, cucolorises are a subset of the gobo category. A gobo is a stencil or template that is put either inside or in front of a light source to control the shape of the light. While it is true cucolorises are used to shape and direct light in a specific way, they are used further away from the light source than a standard gobo is.
Gobos need to be very heat resistant because they’re constantly near hot light sources. Cucolorises don’t need to be that heat resistant because they’re not used near light source and are instead placed somewhere between the light source and the subject.
Additionally, when you use cuculorises, you usually get a much softer edge than you would with a gobo. That is why cuculorises are used to create a more natural break-up of light. They tend to create soft edges.
The origin of the cucoloris starts with the cinematographer George J. Folsey and his crew. According to the American Society of Cinematographers, Folsey needed a way to separate an actor’s skin tone from his white shirt. He has his grip hold a stepladder in front of a key light, and that created a shadow on the actor. They noticed the closer the ladder was held to the light, the soft and less defined the shadows became. However, holding the ladder was getting tiring, so the grip cut a grill with the same pattern into a sheet of light wood.
Later, while visiting Hal Rosson, Folsey was on another set with an actress lying on a bed swathed in white sheets. During the shoot, Rosson used Folsey’s wooden grill to create some shadows. It made the scene much more dramatic.
After that, on another shoot, Rosson asked Folsey, “Where’s that kookaloris thing?” Clearly it was a hit with Rosson, kicking off its use throughout cinema.
How you can make your own cucoloris
While you can buy your own cucoloris online made from things like metal and wood, it really isn’t hard to make your own. In fact, you could probably make one right now. All you need is some cardboard, a ruler, pencil and an exacto-blade.
First draw the pattern you want on the cardboard. Make sure to leave some strategic points in your pattern connected, as you would for a stencil. Then, simply cut your pattern out. Hold it up in front of a light source to check your pattern and make adjustments until you’re satisfied.
So now you know what a cucoloris is. While there are many high quality premade versions, you can also make one yourself. Experiment with a few of them and find the best cucoloris for the scene you’re shooting.