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Talking Heads In Close Quarters

Published : 7th March 2003


What's everyone's favourite ways of dealing with interviews that must, unavoidably, be shot in close quarters where you can't pull the subject far enough away from the back wall, and can't yank the camera back far enough?

The context is a Mini-DV documentary production (PD-150) where depth of field is excessive at best, and setups must be done fairly quickly. It's not quite a run 'n' gun situation, but time and resources must be used as wisely as possible, and production values must be fairly competitive with decent, mainstream TV journalism. Total crew consist of 2 people: Interviewer/grip and shooter/lighter/soundman (me). A PA might be available some of the time but can't be counted on.

Here are some possible approaches -- some of which we've already used -- and their pros and cons. Refinements, tricks, additional strategies and so forth will be most appreciated.

- Insert a neutral or black velvet backdrop. (Easy to make look good, but subject is taken out of any real-world context. Too many of these can get sterile and boring.)

- Do your best to flag the back wall off -- keep it as dark as possible. (Time consuming, fussy and sometimes not even possible, i.e., when applying flattering front softlight to certain faces that really need it. May require large flags & cutters, and extra stands -- too much for a small lighting kit and quick setups.)

- Frame as tightly as possible. (Easy to do, but ECU's can seem unrelieved after a while, and can emphasize undesirable facial details.)

- Go wide and just keep the scene informal. (It looks like shit, or it doesn't. A crapshoot at best.)

- Compose your shot so the unavoidable background elements guide the eye to the subject or are at least as unobtrusive as possible. (Fussy, and another crapshoot.)

- Hang some interesting (but not too busy) fabric, bandana, etc., on the back wall, to fill the negative space in front of the subject. (Can't use the same bandana more than once in a given production!)

- Shoot from a low, high, Dutch or otherwise unconventional angle, to disorient and distract the viewer's brain. (Hard to do consistently without its becoming annoying or looking gratuitous or pretentious.)

- Shoot against a window, to burn out the background. (Personally I don't much like the look, but sometimes it works nicely. Glass without curtains can give you weird sound reflections. Changeable exterior light can be a bugaboo, especially in winter months.)

- Shoot outdoors. (Changing light, neighbours' dogs, traffic, wind, etc.) ???

Thanks, and best holiday wishes to all..

Dan Drasin
Producer/DP
Marin County, CA



I've got a formula down that works pretty well for talking heads. I have a client that I shoot these for all the time, and we're always moving very fast and the interviews always have to look pretty.

I put a 4x4 piece of white foam core on one side of the subject and a 4x4 of black foam core on the other side (as negative fill), sandwiching the subject. I hide a 650w Arri fresnel behind the black card, so the subject can't see either the lens of the fresnel or the barn doors (both will contaminate the dark side of the face and make it too bright) and direct the light into the white card, filling it up completely.

The result is a nice soft source wrapping around one side of the subject's face with deep, dark shadows on the other side. That's usually enough to pop them out of a generic background. No back light or scratch needed. Setup time for lighting, camera and sound with two person crew: five to ten minutes with a decent Betacam package.

I regularly do this setup everywhere from hallways to small hospital exam rooms to offices. It's fast, simple, and always looks nice.

I use 4x4 sources on faces because small Chimera video banks just don't wrap around enough for my tastes, and medium Chimera banks are too bulky for this kind of shooting.

Art Adams, DP
Mountain View, California - "Silicon Valley"
http://www.artadams.net/



Dan Drasin writes :

>What's everyone's favourite ways of dealing with interviews that must, >unavoidably, be shot in close quarters where you can't pull the subject >far enough away from the back wall, and can't yank the camera back far >enough?

Place a mirror behind the interviewee, observe and include the questioner in the shot. By careful zooming it becomes very interesting as the interviewer has to be on his toes, not looking down at his notes etc. Too often the interviewer has little interest and doesn't follow up, just reads his lines. This way it becomes very natural and informal. You have to angle it so the camera is not seen, obviously. It works very well in close quarters. With video you have far less focusing to do. I used this system for the first time in 1958, was a huge success.

Robert Rouveroy csc
The Hague, Holland



>I use 4x4 sources on faces because small Chimera video banks just >don't wrap around enough for my tastes, and medium Chimera banks >are too bulky for this kind of shooting.

What I will often do is take my Chimera small bank (with grid) and set up a larger bounce card (4x6-ish) on the opposite side...Then feather the Chimera off the subject until it becomes the fill, and the bounce becomes the key.

Your technique sounds interesting Art, I'm going to give it a try next time I'm looking for a slightly more dramatic look in an interview like this!

George Hupka
Director/DP
Downstream Pictures
Saskatoon, Canada



I used to light talking heads for tv in location with a KinoFlo as only key light and sometimes a small fresnel as a backlight. The other important thing in order to use the KinoFlo is that you don't need too much power, and you can plug it in everywhere. and in a small package you can have daylight and tungsten balanced lights. And BTW if you don't have assistants... the kinoflos are lighter than other equipment

Pol Turrents
Spanish DP.
www.directordefotografia.com



> (It looks like shit, or it doesn't. A crapshoot at best.)

With all due respect, strictly speaking it's only a crapshoot if it looks like shit.

I tend to fall in the Chimera + reflector camp, either keying and filling or filling and keying respectively (though Art's white+black foamcore sounds like it's worth an experiment or two: thanks, Art!). If I don't like the wrap from the small Chimera, I egg-crate it and aim it past the subject against a larger silver or white reflector.

As to the too-close background, if pushing the key + fill closer in to better isolate the subject doesn't work (and there are limits : when the subject knocks over the stands every time he sneezes, or when he catches on fire), you seem to have covered the gamut. I tend to prefer leaving the background as-is instead of dropping in a limbo background, but I may have watched too much Italian Neorealist cinema in my younger days.

Adam Wilt / Video Geek / Menlo Park CA USA



OK, I was hired to do an (1 min) talking head, interview with Colin Powell. A VNR, for his "Red Wagon campaign" (charity). We would only have him for one take so everything had to be lit and waiting...The room was white and small. I had all the goody grip equipment but when we opened the Arri combo kit there was only one head in the case--the 300.

"F&*#ing GREAT, we're screwed," said the director , 'cause we only had an hour to score another kit. So, in the meantime I opted for an old still photographer "single strobe" trick. I took the fresnel lens out of the 300 and used a piece of the beam as a rim (netting it a bit) I let most of the beam (non netted part) fall over the shoulder so it could bounce off a reflector (soft silver) in front of the camera through some opal to key his face.

The background was a white banner with a red wagon on it. I use a mirror clamped to the (key side) reflector with a bit of gaff tape to angle it to cast a slash for light through the banner. All in all it looked quite nice and we went with it. The replacement kit showed up, 5 min after the interview.

Richard W. Gretzinger
Director of Photography
www.richgretz.com



Richard writes of his resourceful solution to a one-light interview setup :

>I let most of the beam (non netted part) fall over the shoulder so it could >bounce off a reflector (soft silver) in front of the camera through some >opal to key his face.

Great minds think alike!!

I attended a Local 600 lighting seminar in which Roger Deakins put on a wonderful show using a model, a single fresnel and three soft reflectors. In 10 minutes he constructed any number of very good looking lighting schemes.

Jerry Cotts
DP/LA



>Great minds think alike!! I attended a Local 600 lighting seminar in >which Roger Deakins put on a wonderful show using a model, a single >fresnel and three soft reflectors.

Hopefully the local will allow Northern California members to attend this year's workshop. They've kept us out for the last three for some strange reason. Guess us "oakies" don't count.

I would have killed to see that demo. It would have been something small, like a spider or a wasp or a large clump of algae, but I would have killed it for the chance to see Roger Deakins work his magic.

Art Adams, DP
Mountain View, California - "Silicon Valley"



Thanks, guys, for your suggestions.

Art -- with the 4x4 foamcore spilling light everywhere, how far from the back wall (when there is one) do you need to pull your subject?

Call me old-fashioned (go ahead, do it. I can take it...), but I've just never found high-ratio face lighting (including scratch or scrape lighting) to be my cup of tea --- unless I'm trying to convey a brutal or melodramatic look. (And with women's faces I try to keep ratios on the low side and the main sources soft -- unless I want them to look... well, never mind) But I'll play with your suggestions and see how well I can adapt them to my preferred look. I'll grant that single-source lighting is certainly fast to set up.

George, your setup sounds a little closer to what might work for me. How big is your Chimera?

A friend of mine lugs a shoji screen around, and shoots a 1K Tota through it to illuminate talking heads. It certainly is soft, and you can turn one or two of the three panels into a sort of barndoor by throwing a blanket or tarp over it, to flag off the background. Too big and klutzy for my purposes, though...

Rob -- Your mirror trick sounds audacious! What happens if you blow a camera move? (Not that you'd ever do that, of course....)

Dan Drasin
Producer/DP
Marin County, CA



>Art -- with the 4x4 foamcore spilling light everywhere, how far from the >back wall (when there is one) do you need to pull your subject?

Depends. I've done it quite close to walls in the past. There is some spill, but when I'm in a hurry and in a confined space I focus on making the people look good first. Going with a harder light to make the background dark but sacrificing facial modelling isn't a compromise I like to make. Hard light on faces requires more control than I usually have time and equipment for.

The inverse square law helps some. The 4x4 key is rarely more than 2' away from the face. Bottom line: I try to get as far from the back wall as I can... but sometimes that's not very far. That's when facial contrast helps pop people out from the background, which is why I let the fill side go so dark.

Recently I've been solving a number of problems by putting people in doorways with hallways behind them. By keeping the camera, lighting and subject in the room I'm able to control the lighting, while shooting down the hallway allows me to build in some depth and throw the background out of focus. If there are lights in the ceiling I'll drop a little lower and include them. Fluorescents trailing into the distance can be very pretty.

>Call me old-fashioned (go ahead, do it. I can take it...), but I've just >never found high-ratio face lighting to be my cup of tea --- unless I'm >trying to convey a brutal or melodramatic look.

I see it in commercials all the time. It's not brutal if it's coming in at the right angle and the quality, or softness, is appropriate. I just shot a public service announcement for one of my clients where I lit all the people this way, including elderly women, and it worked marvellously. Instead of using backlights I occasionally lightened a dark background to make the dark side of the face pop out. It was fast and very pretty. The fast part was important as I had to do four of these in an hour and 15 minutes. The pretty part was important so they'll hire me again.

Sometimes the bounce card needs to be low to get into eyes, and sometimes it needs to be higher to throw the nose shadow down a bit. It all depends on the face, just like with hard lighting. But as the transition from light to dark is so gradual, it gives a really polished look in a short period of time. As long as the background isn't flesh coloured and isn't black, the face will pop out on its own.

I don't let the whole fill side of the face go black, by the way. I make sure I always get some light into the far eye while allowing the far cheek to drop down as close to black as possible. Even with a 4x4 source I find myself bumping it an inch one way or the other at the last minute to finesse the look.

I guess I've been wandering towards simplicity and contrast in my setups lately: simplicity for speed, and contrast because that's what my eye likes.

Art Adams, DP
Mountain View, California - "Silicon Valley"



Hi,

Anyone I ever have to light for sit-down interviews always seems to have a large and shiny bald head, or extremely large and rounded spectacles, or often both. There's only a limited amount you can do.

Phil Rhodes
Video camera/edit
London



Phil Rhodes writes :

>Anyone I ever have to light for sit-down interviews always seems to have >a large and shiny bald head, or extremely large and rounded >spectacles, or often both. There's only a limited amount you can do.

Phil that's why I always carry several cans of Ronco Spray on Hair in various colors. With a little practice you can shade even the largest pate down to a more normal size.

You should always carry a box of assorted spectacles to exchange for your subjects' high diopter versions. If it's an interview they don't need to see properly, just look good.

Brian Heller
IA 600 DP



>Anyone I ever have to light for sit-down interviews always seems to have >a large and shiny bald head, or extremely large and rounded >spectacles, or often both. There's only a limited amount you can do.

Sure. You can use a large soft backlight and some makeup, or stage the interview against a background that sets the person's head off without need for a backlight. You can look for an angle where the source doesn't reflect in the subject's glasses but is still flattering, or doesn't reflect badly, or use a soft key with a tiny touch of specular light to reach into the eyes for a little glint without creating a huge reflection. Or you can simply face them away from the key, which can look quite good depending on the face and background.

Honestly, Phil, don't ever teach in a film school. Every single person in your class will drop out, if not die by their own hand, after a semester with you.

Art Adams, DP
Mountain View, California - "Silicon Valley"



Art Adams writes :

>Recently I've been solving a number of problems by putting people in >doorways with hallways behind them.

That sounds like an interesting approach visually, and it'll certainly help the DOF situation.. How often does it give rise to sound problems?

>I see it [high contrast ratios] in commercials all the time.

Right. But commercials have to be more punchy and trendy, whereas in documentaries (mine, at least) the personal elements and subtleties of expression take top priority. That comes through more naturally and less self-consciously with more easygoing, natural-looking lighting. Finding the right balance point, though, isn't always easy, with people and locations varying so widely...

>Sometimes the bounce card needs to be low to get into eyes, and >sometimes it needs to be higher to throw the nose shadow down a bit.

How do you usually support the card, when you're working fast? Clamp it onto a C-stand arm? Do you just let it hang vertically (which requires less futzing) or clamp it so it can be angled?

>I don't let the whole fill side of the face go black, by the way. I make sure >I always get some light into the far eye while allowing the far cheek to >drop down as close to black as possible.

Gotcha. But do you ever get a bit itchy about all those home receivers that are more likely than not to err on the side of high contrast? (Not to mention those off-the-charts chroma settings we all love so much, which fill every shadow with noise)

Anyway, thanks mucho...

Dan Drasin
Producer/DP
Marin County, CA



>How often does it give rise to sound problems?

Quite often. But as my regular sound guy says, "Hear a dog, see a dog." As long as the background noise doesn't overwhelm the interview, and we can see the source of the background noise, we let it go.

>But commercials have to be more punchy and trendy, whereas in >documentaries (mine, at least) the personal elements and subtleties of >expression take top priority.

I shoot a lot of very touching interviews on health care issues, with patients and with doctors. My key wraps around most of the face and expressions can be easily seen. The shadows, where they occur, go very dark, but they don't cover much of the face.

Evenly lit faces, especially on video, put me to sleep.

>How do you usually support the card, when you're working fast?

Vertically on a C-stand. No fancy clamps or nuttin'.

>But do you ever get a bit itchy about all those home receivers that are >more likely than not to err on the side of high contrast?

No. If I shot for the worst TV set out there I might as well become an accountant. I always aim to do the kind of work I'll be most proud of, and which will look best in the editing room. That's where my client is going to decide whether they are going to hire me again. If I do compromise it's more to do with staying on schedule than it is being concerned about the vagaries of NTSC and old TV sets. I always assume everyone is going to see it roughly the way I shot it.

I don't make compromises for poor transmission quality or poorly set up TV's. I don't see a reason to play towards the lowest common denominator. If I do that I might as well become a TV network.

Art Adams, DP
Mountain View, California - "Silicon Valley"



>George, your setup sounds a little closer to what might work for me. How >big is your Chimera?

Video Pro Small, so it's 24x32.

Earlier today I found myself in a small hotel room doing 3 interview setups in a half an hour... Ended up keying with the softbox bounced from a mirror. Talk about feathering!

George Hupka
Director/DP
Downstream Pictures
Saskatoon, Canada



Art Adams writes :

>Evenly lit faces, especially on video, put me to sleep.

Waaaal... I'm not talking flat-lit... though some faces, either for structural or surface reasons may desperately call for something close to that, and sometimes a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. For example, for some weird reason on a recent shoot we had several older female subjects with very odd jawlines that looked positively grotesque unless we softened the hell out of the lighting. A little extra backlight on one side (not a scrape light, which would have emphasized the problem) put some zing back into the picture. We could have fuzted with other approaches but there just wasn't the time....

>If I shot for the worst TV set out there I might as well become an >accountant.

Natch. But I'm not talkin' extremes. Just want to make sure the subtleties of expression don't get diluted.

Saw a PBS doc last night about Elia Kazan and Arthur Miller that had a nice range of interview lighting approaches, from very high ratios to very soft, natural-looking frontal lighting, as befitted the subject. Thought it was well done overall. Some of the setups looked very much like your approach -- broad source on one side with lots of wraparound. Worked best with a titch of backlight on the dark side.

Dan Drasin
Producer/DP
Marin County, CA



>Worked best with a titch of backlight on the dark side.

For the sake of future generations of shooters, can you quantify "titch"?

Really, its a joke, no really.

Steven Gladstone
Cinematographer - Gladstone Films
Cinematography Mailing List - East Coast List Administrator
Better off Broadcast (B.O.B.)
New York, U.S.A.



>For the sake of future generations of shooters, can you quantify "titch"?

And was it a full titch or a half titch?

Jessica Gallant
Los Angeles based Director of Photography
West Coast Systems Administrator, Cinematography Mailing List
http://www.cinematography.net



Steven Gladstone writes :

>For the sake of future generations of shooters, can you quantify "titch"?

Somewhere between a 'smidgeon' and a 'tickle'.

Tom Townend,
Cinematographer/London.



Did anyone see portions of the interview with Michael Jackson on ABC?

Talk about terrible lighting. I'm not a Jackson fan but how he was lit was just plain cruel. Maybe they were going for a certain look- like really, REALLY accentuating his make-up. In the wide overview, talking with Ed Bradley, you could see they had two very bright lights, low and right next to him.

It was sort of what some folks would call monster lighting. Well...that was not intended to be a comment.

Edwin Myers, Atlanta dp



Edwin Myers wrote :

>Did anyone see portions of the interview with Michael Jackson on ABC? >Talk about terrible lighting.

That was very disturbing to me as well. It looked as if he had his own lighting person or there was lot's of "discussion" about the lighting because the setup appeared to be so very specific. But it did not flatter him at all especially with the large hair shadow falling over his right face.

I recall seeing an interview with Warren Beatty on Larry King awhile back and he had his own "lighting person" for the interview. It was very specific as well but Mr. Beatty kept leaning in and out of his small keylight which proved to be very distracting.

Celebrity lighting can be tricky because the celebs have lots of experience in how they look best and the star power to make very specific lighting demands. Sometimes those demands don't get translated too well.

Best Regards,

Jim Sofranko
NY/DP



I just saw a video clip of the "60 MINUTES" show with Michael Jackson... they had a 'behind the scenes' shot of Michael being interviewed.

Well, besides Michael looking just plain weird [as he usually does!] I noticed a VERY bright Joker or small Tweenie just inches away from his face...and it was lower than his eyes making for a very harsh and uncomplimentary 'nose' or chin light.

I have no idea why you would ever place a unit in that vicinity [unless you were doing a horror film] and the way this lamp appeared in the clip, it had a wad of black wrap clipped in a very unprofessional way as well as clips and it's power cable in such a state of dis-array I am supposing that Mr. Jackson himself more than likely ripped this unit away from the hands of the gaffer and placed it in it's spot seconds before the interview.

Anyone else see this clip?

Cheers,
Jeff Barklage, s.o.c.
US based DP
www.barklage.com



I saw a couple of minutes of the interview, including the shot with the light in question clearly visible. I have no idea why anyone would deliberately choose to light him in such a manner.

Jessica Gallant
Los Angeles based Director of Photography
West Coast Systems Administrator, Cinematography Mailing List
http://www.cinematography.net



>I have no idea why anyone would deliberately choose to light him in >such a manner

I wonder if he has a personal "style book" for interview lighting that his handlers enforce, but enforce badly.

For example, "He always has a beauty light below the lens. No, make it brighter! Brighter! BRIGHTER!" And the network crew just says, "Okay, sure, whatever, as long as he talks to us."

Art Adams, DP
Mountain View, California - "Silicon Valley"



Jessica Gallant writes :

>was it a full titch or a half titch?

A titch-and-a-half, to be exact.

5 titches = 1 smidgen
10 smidgens = 1 skosh
100 skoshes = 1 tad
1,000,000 tads = 1 megatad
... and so forth.

Dan "titch for tatch" Drasin
Producer/DP/Keeper of Weights and Measures



Steve,

Just to quantify and provide clear understanding, a titch is one half of a tad. As in, a tad more, please. Oooh, just a titch less. ...there!

Hope this helps,

Nick Mueller
Director of Photography
Washington, D.C.



>I wonder if he has a personal "style book" for interview lighting that his >handlers enforce, but enforce badly.

The one and only time I worked with MJ, about ten years ago, we spent two days lighting a *very* large bluescreen shot, and once he was on camera (and looking good, for MJ anyway), I was stunned to find that his makeup person had the contractual authority to demand lighting changes.

We tried, in vain, to explain that the lighting was ideal, made him look good, and matched the backgrounds which were going to be inserted, but it was a waste of time. She had us seriously mess up his look to fulfil some criteria she alone seemed to understand.

I can't imagine things have changed much.

Bob Kertesz
BlueScreen LLC



>5 titches = 1 smidgen
>10 smidgens = 1 skosh

>Dan "titch for tatch" Drasin

Where exactly does a "bees dick" or a "gnats nasty" fit into this.

Nick Paton
Film & Digital Cinematography
www.npdop.com



Nick Paton writes :

<Where exactly does a "bees dick" or a "gnats nasty" fit into this...

Microsexual issues should be moved over to cml-diopter.

Dan "close quarters, indeed" Drasin
Producer/DP
Marin County, CA



Was just browsing Office Depot, and for seven bucks walked out with an X-ACTO Display Board. It's a corrugated board, matte white on one side, 3 feet high by 2 feet wide, with side-wings that fold out like a tryptich to bring the total size to 3'Hx4'w. Open the wings halfway to make a squarish U-shape, and it will sit nicely on a table or chair. You can also attach it to a stand, of course.

If you position it right, one of the side panels becomes a flag that can control background spill. In that mode you direct your light into the opposite corner of the U, which you can open out until it's almost flat with the centre panel. You can use a small binder clip to keep it opened out. (This board is thinner than foamcore, so a small clip will do.)

Some adhesive-velcro patches and some Velcro Get-A-Grip strapping should provide various elegant ways of supporting it, attaching it to stands, and locking it shut for storage.

Used with a 500W Lowell V-light, this board produces very soft, even, wraparound light. Unlike a lot of white foamcore boards, its surface is really matte white, not semi-shiny, so there are no pesky secularities to deal with.

They make a deluxe version for nine bucks that's black on the back instead of "natural" brown.

Dan "eschews pesky secularities" Drasin
Producer/DP
Marin County, CA



>They make a deluxe version for nine bucks that's black on the back >instead of "natural" brown.

I've never seen that one, here in the burbs we just have brown. You must live in an artsier area than I do.

Well I could go up to Pearl Paint in the Apple...

Sam Wells



Yesterday I used my new X-Acto corrugated display boards (from Office Depot) as reflectors in a difficult talking-head situation, and they were just the ticket.

Folded (like a tryptich) they're 2x3 feet, so you can carry a bunch of then under one arm. The totally matte white surface is inside, so it's completely protected from gouges and schmutz.

Opened, they're 3x4 feet. The fold-out wings can be opened flat, or kept at an angle -- for spill control and wraparound. I've equipped mine with velcro patches and straps so they attach to stands instantly without any clamping hardware, and stay either opened or closed (or in between) as needed. (They also stick to each other when folded up, to make them easier to carry.)

To flat-light a very hard-to-light subject (a late-fortyish woman who's quite self-conscious about some deep facial lines), I used a symmetrical arrangement of two of these boards -- one on either side of her, and both wrapping around the front a bit. This arrangement required no front-fill, and her glasses reflected no light sources at all. A touch of backlight from one side helped relieve the flatness.

The light heads were Lowell L-lights with 100-watt MR16 reflector bulbs on short extension arms clamped to the same stands, aimed up at the boards. So the boards themselves were not uniformly lit, but with the light coming from below I could wash the boards quite broadly enough, even with these small and somewhat spotty bulbs. (And to add just a bit of modelling I simply barndoored one light to cut the level down a tad on one side).

The low overall light level gave me a fairly shallow depth of field -- but with some shutter speed to spare -- on a PD-150. It was *very* easy on the subject's eyes, and the results looked like a zillion bucks.

Dan "a zillion here, a zillion there, and soon you're talkin' real money"
Drasin
Producer/DP
Marin County, CA



George Hupka wrote:

>What I will often do is take my Chimera small bank (with grid) and set >up a larger bounce card (4x6-ish) on the opposite side...

OK, it was a long time ago but I've been busy so wading through 560 old posts but...

I tend to use my Chimera video pro plus with a Tota as a key. I find it wraps a lot nicer than a Fresnel for obvious reasons. Usually with a reflector and back light.

That said the other day I shot a Dedo through the Chimera, used a A3 drawing pad a reflector and Dedo as a backlight - and looked lovely.

Michael Sanders
Website & CV at :  www.glowstars.demon.co.uk