Approaching The Lighting Of A Scene


I like to start by thinking how BIG (as in the area of the Fresnel or silk or soft box) needs to be for the look I want-- then how big an area I need to cover-- then what wattage fixture I need to accomplish that.

Steven Bradford
Film HD Program Chair
Collins College
Tempe Arizona

Whether you're lighting a set or a practical location, you're rarely presented a truly blank canvas. There is usually some given - either a look "It's night" or an effect - "I want the explosion to read yellow not white" that determines you choice of exposure and units.

I just lit a plane interior for a scene where the sides of the plane are ripped off in flight. The set had built in fluorescents that we augmented with single bulb kenos. This determined my base exposure (2.8+ @320) Therefore my sunlight effects through the windows had to be 5.6, The effect of the new light when the roof came off was 4.

Now comes the choice of unit. If you remember the thread about what a DP wants from a Gaffer, here's where I depend on my gaffer. "Our base is 2.8. I want hard light coming through the windows in say...4 different places. I want all 4 to move in unison as the plane "turns." What do you think? Maybe 1Ks on a goal post with wheeled stands?" Frequently the reply is something like "why don't we use 2K’s and wire them down if they're too much?" If the gaffer is tuned in to your concept, this sort of give and take is invaluable as you pick your units.

Then comes the hard part, sitting down and trying to keep your mouth shut as they hang the lights. And you think "I hope it works." But if you and the gaffer have done you jobs well, usually all that's required is tweaking.

Marty Mullin
Los Angeles
818 712-0272
305 606-1262

>Just wondering if anyone could comment on ways or systems that you >have developed to approach a scene.

I try to follow the sources in the location, if possible.

When in doubt, backlight. When you can't backlight, sidelight. When you have too much light, unlight. (I use a lot of negative fill.)

Light the background first, if possible. You'll always need a background to shoot against. People aren't too hard to light once you know where they are.

Sometimes the only place you can put a light is the right place.

Sometimes the right place to place a light is the opposite of where you normally would. My gaffer and I lit the background of a small set and then had to figure out where to put the lights for the single actress in the scene. The obvious answer was above, so we tried from below on apple boxes. It worked really nicely.

The most obvious thing for me is that I think in layers. How can I separate this layer from that layer? Do I need to separate this layer from that layer? I had a shot in a commercial recently where I had to shoot a couple salsa dancing in the entryway of a house. There was nowhere to hide lights to light them except for one hallway door, so I cross-backlit them from that one door with an Image 80 and then lit the back wall in the dining room behind them. I realized that I didn't have to light them to know what they were doing, so I lit the background instead and let them play against it.

An extension of that is to light in areas, and don't be afraid if the areas don't segue into each other perfectly.

The better a set is decorated the easier it is to light. There's nothing worse than being stuck in a blank white-walled room with windows... except to not have the windows.

>Assuming a blocking has taken place, and you are aware of the time of >day reference, etc. what usually happens after that in your mind as >lights start to be brought out.

I usually stand there for a minute or two looking thoughtful and competent while I run all sorts of different scenarios through my head. "What if I smack a hard light through that window? How do I avoid that white wall? What if I build a big soft source right over the camera?" I'll play all sorts of crazy games in my head.

Most of it revolves around how faces will catch the light (I'm all about lighting faces) and experience working in other locations. I'm also thinking about how malleable a set-up is so that I'm not locking myself into shooting just one direction and having to relight to shoot others.

A lot of how I think about lighting these days is psychological: not so much "How do I light this?" but "If I light it this way will it play right?" More often than not I find the simplest answer is the best, but every once in a while a setup comes along and kicks my butt. Fortunately I usually have a great crew that will tear something down quickly and redo it if necessary. I don't do that too often anymore, fortunately.

>Also, how much in your experience is trial and error happening >on set? How often do you get it wrong and swap fixtures? >How often are you compromising your vision, due to time >constraints or other problems?

I think every setup is a compromise, but in a way it's also an adventure. You're playing "beat the clock" and you're hoping your guesses are right. One thing I've noticed is that my ideas used to be more dream than realty : they felt like they should work, but rationally they weren't quite there yet. Experience solves that, as does a good gaffer. It's important to have a good gaffer to rely on, someone you can bounce ideas off of and take advantage of their greater experience.

As much as I shoot, my gaffers do nothing but gaff for different DP’s all the time so it's foolish for me to tell them exactly what to do. If I can describe the look I'm going after and a basic game plan they can take that and run with it. And sometimes they'll say, "Hey, let me show you something we did last week on a shoot..." And once in a while I get to show them something new, too.

I don't judge my setups by whether they are "perfect" anymore. I usually judge them along the lines of, "Ain't it great how we did such nice work so fast!" It's art, but it's also craft, and the craft can be fun too.

It's important to have a gaffer you trust, who is on your side and isn't competing with you. Then you can trust them to know what you like and you can turn them loose once in a while. It's very important to let your crew contribute in their own areas, as long as you're all on the same track. It's not necessarily entirely up to you to have all the ideas; it's usually better to have the key ideas and then manage the contributions of others. (Just make sure the contributions come to you quietly and out of the director's earshot so you can veto the dumb ones before someone higher up falls in love with them.) As a DP I was operating for once told me, "The more ideas you have the fewer I have to have."

It's nice when you don't have to micromanage everything. I've got a couple of gaffers that I work with regularly and it's nice to have a discussion about a setup and then just see them put it together. Then I can deal with other issues or just stand there and watch the lights come on and decide whether it's going the right direction or not.

As for trial and error on the set…well, probably more often than not. The nice thing about having a good gaffer is that you approach things from different perspectives and you can troubleshoot each other before you start setting up big lights. I don't find us swapping fixtures very often but it does happen once in a while. Sometimes I see something happen when a light is being swung into position that I didn't expect and I'll repurpose it. You find some pretty amazing lighting effects that way.

I've gone into situations blind so often, and come away with pretty nice looking footage so often, that I don't sweat it anymore. And even if the shot doesn't meet my highest standards it usually exceeds those of the people I'm working for. Just keep doing it. And doing it. And doing it. And don't let on if you're not happy with a setup.

Most likely the bosses won't know that you've done anything less than stellar. Being pleasant and fast can get you through a lot of learning situations. I once saw a gaffer saying loudly to a DP, "This setup sucks! I hate it" The DP responded, "You only make yourself look bad by saying that." That was a good lesson.

I find that location scouts are very helpful. Often I'll come up with a plan while I'm there, and then I'll mull it over for a while and come up with something different and much better. The mulling process can be very important to lighting strategies. I have great ideas in the shower. Before some shoots I take several desperate showers a day.

The important things to remember are :

(1) Keep a good attitude.

(2) Work as quickly as you can. Prioritise your shots. Light the
hallway shot faster so you can get to the love scene and spend more time on that.

(3) Don't beat your crew up unnecessarily. There are DP's around who will pull every light off the truck for every setup. I don't do that unless absolutely necessary. I hear stories about DP’s who have large pre-rigs and then, on the shoot day, they go in and turn most of it off. That's not the way to get a crew on your side. Some DP’s think they only need to keep the director and producers happy but if you can keep your crew happy they'll watch your back. If you screw up and cause your crew to do a lot of work, apologize profusely and they'll continue to help you. Otherwise they'll sit back and snigger when you screw up, and you'll see them sniggering and you'll know they knew it was coming for the last hour.

I shot an HD video-game style piece recently where we had to shoot 71 pages in four days. (Originally 60 pages in three days, but things changed.) I knew what kind of shoot it was and I focused on simple and fast, making the most out of whatever was at hand. Some setups looked pretty nice, some were bright enough to shoot. Ultimately the director was thrilled because it looked vastly better than he expected, and one of my electricians came up to me during the shoot and said, "Thank god we're working with you. This would've been hell with some other DP’s." It's good when both sides like what you've done. I'll get chances to do better work with all of them again.

Art Adams
Director of Photography
Film | HiDef | Video

"Cognoscens Me,
Cognoscens Te-
Aha!" -Alan Partridge

In reply to...

"Just wondering if anyone could comment on ways or systems that you have developed to approach a scene."

...Art Adams wrote
"I try to follow the sources in the location, if possible...I think inlayers...don't be afraid...stand there for a minute or two lookingthoughtful and competent...have a good gaffer to rely on..."beat the clock"...keep your crew happy... get chances to do better work with all of them again."

Just want to say thanks, Art - this is a wonderful description of so much more than lighting...

Ira Tiffen
Stowe, VT

Thank You very much, Mr. Adams. I enjoyed reading Your thoughts a lot and it’s really lifting me up. We’re just starting to shoot a feature next week, and if we weren’t already as excited, Your words put a deep and genuine smile on our faces and make us ready to roll.

Yours sincerely

Daniel Schellhase
Best Boy Electrician, Berlin - Germany

>Thank You very much, Mr. Adams. I enjoyed reading Your thoughts a lot >and it’s really lifting me up. We’re just starting to shoot a feature next >week, and if we weren’t already as excited, Your words put a deep and >genuine smile on our faces and make us ready to roll.

You're very welcome. It should all be fun, even the running around trying to catch up to the schedule bit. :) Each set is a puzzle waiting to be solved, and I like solving puzzles.

The best part is there's no one right way, so feel free to invent
some new ones and post them here.

Art Adams
Director of Photography
Film | HiDef | Video

"Cognoscens Me,
Cognoscens Te-
Aha!" - Alan Partridge

Thankyou all for responding. I know this question probably comes up a lot, and you see it in books too, but it always brings out different responses that are very interesting to hear.

If there is more advice out there keep them coming

Thanks guys

Darryl Augustine

>If there is more advice out there keep them coming

Another thing I like to think about is the balance of the lighting as a compositional element in the shot. How the light adds to the composition.

Just a thought...

Jim Sofranko

Dear Mr. Adams,

Thank you so much for the enlightening post

Vidu Gunaratna
Prague, Czech Republic

>Just wondering if anyone could comment on ways or systems that you >have developed to approach a scene

I'm lucky enough to have been a Gaffer for awhile. It really helped me, working with good DP's, average DP's and some really bad DP's.

It definitely helps to be able to just sit on the set for a few minutes before the crew starts asking for lighting placement. Try to get there early and have a cup of coffee/tea on the set.

I usually approach the scene with storyboards or a shot list in one hand.

Try to visualize the action or camera movement.

Just look around. What comes to mind first? Is it a dramatic scene? Comedic? Scary?

Imagine yourself in the scene as a character, what comes to mind?

Think about problems you may encounter with different styles of lighting (Hard source vs. Soft source) such as light pollution, exposure variances, size of lighting instruments encroaching on the set and the action. Is your setup achievable in the timeframe given to you?

What’s going to be easiest? A single large key? Multiple lights choreographed to become a single source thru dimming or "Hollywooding" flags and nets? A China ball lantern on a pole walking with the talent?

What's going to happen when you turn around for coverage? A 2 hour re-light or will your current setup facilitate a quick turnaround? Think thru every angle and setup.

Look at the limitations of the room if you are on location. Think 3 setups ahead to see if you are going to "bone" yourself by establishing a look that you can't consistently keep.

One really valuable thing is to be friends with the Production Designer and Wardrobe Person. Being able to paint walls and tint clothing is key to pulling off some good looking setups.

I try not to get too bogged down in motivation for lights. If you are shooting a single candlelit scene that’s one thing, but in everyday life there is light coming from practically every angle. Bounce off of floors, clothing, walls...Day skylight coming thru windows and brightening the shadows...The sun coming thru a door crack. Is it more powerful to play a scene in silhouette? The permutations are almost endless.

IMHO, I don't think there are many lighting "rules" anymore. Everything is fair game if it is appropriate to the scene. Even basic 3 point lighting still has its place.

Lately I find myself using varied instruments for every gig.

Just did a spot that was to mimic "The Graduate" and I only used what was available then. Keyed it with a 4K ziplight, something I haven't used in years and it looks great.

K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid) is a good place to start, but sometimes you may need 20 lights to make a scene work.

Everyone who mentioned observing lighting in the real world really hit the nail on the head. It really helps a DP to watch what happens in different lighting situations with many different variables happening.

I think its really exciting to learn about lighting. I learn something on almost every job. You'll learn whets appropriate for each job and what isn't really quickly! If you make a mistake, catalogue it in your brain for future reference.

One thing to remember, part of being a DP is looking at your work afterwards and saying, "Jeez, I wish I could've done this or that..." even when the lighting looks great and everybody's happy and the check is in the bank.

Take it easy,

Kurt Rauf
Las Vegas, NV

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