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Sparklers

Published : 15th September 2003


Ok everyone, here's a something to ponder over.

A friend who's away shooting on location has asked if I can find out how to produce an effect with sparklers (the magnesium based Halloween variety). What he wants to achieve is the trails in the air that one gets when one waves them around (remember writing your name in the air when you were a kid?)- he mentioned a reference to a documentary in which Picasso 'drew' with a torch.

I'm a little unclear myself as to what he's after but to the best of my knowledge the effect only works on the eye because the burning magnesium is very bright, the background at night is very dark and the retina is momentarily 'damaged' enough to retain the path of the sparklers burning tip. Film can't be fooled so easily and the relative contrast range of film stock, projection or a TV monitor isn't extreme enough to reproduce the same retina scalding effect.

My hunch is that the only way to get the trails to 'hang in the air' as it were, would be to do it in post. Shooting & transferring at a slower frame rate (i.e. 6 fps) would enhance the effect to some degree as each frame would have more motion blur on it.

I'd love to be able to give him a range of responses/ideas off the list though.

The CML brain trust is THE resource!

Tom Townend,
Cinematographer/London.



Tom Townend wrote :

>A friend who's away shooting on location has asked if I can find out how >to produce an effect with sparklers (the magnesium based Halloween >variety).

Somewhat humorously, get an Ikegami HL 79e tube camera and shoot it wide open. Make this the last thing the camera is every used for!!!

This almost sounds like a go-motion project. I did something like this once that was a stop motion animation project that I exposed with 3/4 sec exposures and had the actor move every time a frame was exposed. Somewhat painstaking but the effect was created. This was shot with my Mitchell/Norris rig, and I set the exposure time and just hit the run switch on the camera so the camera would run continuously at 3/4 sec exposures. The actor still needs to move slowly and then you bring it all back together with the transfer speed.

I think big trails will still be hard to get.

Mark Smith DP
Oh Seven Films Inc.



Mark Smith wrote :

>I think big trails will still be hard to get.

Well, you might be able to take each frame, pull a key from it containing only the torchlight (need to light the subject and background so they're much darker) and keep stacking each successive frame on a separate track of video, so that you have an accumulation of the torchlight frames that keeps getting longer superimposed over the current live frame. That should work, it'd be cheap and shot in real-time, but would take some time in post unless you came up with a macro to automate it.

I thought the Picasso pictures were just time-exposed stills with a flash fired to get an image of Mr. P.

Jeff "not in a blue period" Kreines



Long exposure probably…If I went the post root.

Stick a small ping pong ball on the end of a stick. Wave violently in air. Track it in post. Now you can apply whatever FX you want to that path. Have it tail off etc...

If ya need any more info just mail.

All The Best

Simon Blackledge - 3Sixtymedia
www.flameop.com



I've seen this effect before, and it's done with very long exposure stills at night.

The artist is not visible because he's dressed in dark and is constantly moving through the frame. The sparkler (or other light source) is bright enough to create a streak of light.

A very bright flashlight (LED variety?) might work better by producing a more focused light source than a sparkler.

Jessica Gallant
Los Angeles based Director of Photography
West Coast Systems Administrator, Cinematography Mailing List



How about using a beam splitter? You would have to put it before the shutter, so it would be in front of the lens, similar to shooting front projection or with a teleprompter, only facing the other way so that the split goes in, not out.

Light from talent w/ sparkler goes to beam splitter. Half of light goes to movie camera shooting scene, half goes to still camera with shutter locked open for duration of effect. Blend the images in post. The camera would have to be locked off for the duration of the effect. You may also need to track the motion of the sparkler, but this shouldn't be hard to do since you have the camera plate as a guide. Titles are done with simple tracking all the time for cursive lettering.

Mitch Gross
NYC DP



Mark Smith wrote :

>Somewhat humorously, get an Ikegami HL 79e tube camera and shoot >it wide open. Make this the last thing the camera is every used for!!!

Except it likely wouldn't work, oh you might get some residual burn, but you won't get the residual trails you're thinking of. Not with a late model diode gun plumbicon camera. You need a Saticon camera. Off the top of my head, an RCA TK-76, The first Sony Betacams, or an Ikegami will do this quite well, and there were enough of them made that there might be a chance of finding one that is still in good enough operational condition. But would it be okay if it was a video shot?

Too me, the do it in post suggestions sound most promising. As someone else mentioned, the shot you're trying to emulate was done as a still, with a strobe.

Steven Bradford
Ex 79E owner
Seattle



Mitch Gross wrote:

>Light from talent w/ sparkler goes to beam splitter…

It's a great idea but the problem I see is that the talent is always lit, so will be grossly overexposed in the still and ruin the time exposure of the sparkler, at least wherever they overlapped..

Jeff Kreines



If you light steel wool and move it around it makes some terrific sparks. More like a rooster tail actually. Of course it can also burn, so be careful. Put it on the end of a stick, light it and move it fast through the air.

John Babl
“Pyromaniac when I was a kid”



The post route mentioned seems solid. If you want to go the in-camera way this could possibly work :

- Get the "Crazy-Horse" rig from Clairmont which lines up two cameras onto the same optical axis.
- Shoot one of the cameras regular speed (24/25) and expose the performer wherever deemed necessary for the mood of the scene.
- Set the second camera at a very low frame rate (tests necessary, depending on look/length of trail desired) and stop camera way down and expose just for the flame, so the performer and the rest of the scene falls to black.
- Transfer the low frame rate footage at its shooting speed (step-print)
- Superimpose the trail footage over the normal pass.

Disclaimer: I haven't tried this but think it could work.

Florian Stadler
Cinematographer, L.A.



Jessica wrote :

>I've seen this effect before, and it's done with very long exposure stills at >night. The artist is not visible because he's dressed in dark and is >constantly moving through the frame.

Well, someone has done it in motion--probably video--because I saw it a couple of nights ago on a cable promo for something. Wasn't really watching it as I worked on my computer until I noticed this artist drawing an abstract light picture in front of him with some sort of torch. The streaks lasted long enough to see the entire picture and the artist was in motion and I believe talking.

I didn't catch what the promo was about and can't even recall which channel (sorry!) but the effect is exactly what Tom is describing he wants.

So it can be done. Maybe someone else saw it who can recall the details of the promo.

Wade K. Ramsey, DP
Dept. of Cinema & Video Production
Bob Jones University
Greenville, SC 29614



Mitch Gross wrote:

>How about using a beam splitter? Half of light goes to movie camera >shooting scene…

I tip my hat to you sir. I don't know if it will serve the purposes of the chap who I was asking for but non the less, a genius piece of lateral thinking.

Some day I intend to try this simply because it is such an elegant idea.

Tom Townend,
Cinematographer/London.



Mitch Gross wrote :

>Light from talent w/ sparkler goes to beam splitter.

Bugger. You're right of course…

*reaches for drawing board & pencil sharpener*

Still it would still be a useful guide for post tracking I guess. Sparklers are pretty darn bright at the burning end so if the 'time exposure' was sufficiently stopped down perhaps the talent wouldn't produce an overly obtrusive blur in frame (and perhaps could be scrubbed out with crafty photo shopping).

Tom Townend,
Cinematographer/London.



Wade wrote :

>..someone has done it in motion--probably video--because I saw it a >couple of nights ago on a cable promo for something...I noticed this >artist drawing an abstract light picture in front of him with some sort of >torch.

These are promos for Turner Classic Movie channel. Shot at 6 fps with Arri 435 and transferred at 6. Heavy post CG help. The talent uses a "Scorpion" flashlight with a little diffusion in the lens and draws in the air looking at a still from one of their favourite classic films displayed on a large-screen monitor next to the camera.

The idea is based on a 1949 photograph by Gjon Mili of Pablo Picasso.

Rod Williams
Motion Picture First Camera Assistant
Petaluma, California
U.S.A.