Cinematography Mailing List - CML

Chinese Lanterns


Regarding Chinese lanterns:

I occasionally use Chinese lanterns and have always felt that they were a little awkward because of the way that they have to hang straight down so that the bulb doesn't swing and touch the paper.

Well, every time I see a photo of Phillipe Rousselot using his Chinese lanterns (you can see one in the Panavision catalog), I've noticed that the top of the lantern has a solid plastic cover with a plastic rod sticking out of it. The power cord runs through this hollow rod and keeps the bulb at the end of it rigid. This allows him to hold the lanterns at an angle or even just lay them on the floor.

Where does he get these fixtures? I'm not even sure how to make one, since lanterns have this wire frame to hold them in shape, and the wire hooks at the top hole - so making a cover plate with a rod for the bulb doesn't seem possible unless the lanterns are rigid without needing the wire. Since Rousselot works often in England (the photos shooting this rig are from "Interview with a Vampire" and "Mary Reilly"), I was wondering if you (Geoff) knew about his lanterns, or had ever talked with his gaffer.

(BTW, I know about the new Chimera Chinese lanterns, but they seem too expensive.)

David Mullen

I can't say I'm a great fan of Chinese lanterns. I think the same quality of light can be achieved with better control a variety of different ways.

However, as a gaffer I have made many specialty lights per a D.P.'s request, or often when I find that nothing commercially available will do just what I need. I'd guess Phillipe Rousselot's gaffer made him a set of Chinese lanterns that work the way he wants them to. That's how Kino-flo got started, and DecaSource, and Xenotech and so on. Chimera makes a variety of Chinese lanterns now that are pretty well thought out and should stand the rigors of production, but they aren't cheap. You might check them out. Otherwise, go to the garage/shop and take baby nail-on plate (pigeon) and drywall screw it with 1 inch screws to a piece of 1 inch thick wood the size of the nail on plate's base, but leave about a quarter inch gap. Screw a porcelain socket to the other side and wire it using a gauge appropriate to the wattage of light you desire.. Take a beach ball or large balloon the size you want, construct a stiff wire frame around it and deflate it and pull it out. Insert the ends of the wire frame between the nail-on plate and the wood and screw it down tight. Now wrap it with paper, muslin, whatever and wala! A rigid Chinese lantern! Just bear in mind the temperature of a 150 watt or higher bulb might brown your material if the ball is too small. You can get a variety of fire retardant materials at a fabric shop, or you could use Rosco shower curtain or spun or any type of diffusion--go crazy. Test it in the garage for a few hours to make sure it won't embarrass you when you whip it out in public. (we can't have that!) With a 213 (3400K 250 watt bulb) in it you'd have a pretty beefy lantern, and you can easily put it on a "hand squeezer" (a 600 watt dimmer sold at any hardware store), and dial into perfection. Make a bunch of them and tell production they have to rent them for enough money to make back what they screwed you out of your rate.

Good luck.

Every tool has it's application.

Recently I was put in a situation where I had to light seven woman in various different settings, around a table, in a living room, in a den etc. The catch is three cameras had to roll on them in opposing directions simultaneously, and two had to be on moving dollies. In other words, light 360 without seeing a stand, and have virtually shadowless lighting, so there was a place for the two overhead mic booms to float without casting a shadow. The dialogue was all spontaneous, so the cameras had to be prepared to be on any one person, at any given time without shooting the camera in the opposing direction. I don't know how, but somehow it worked. The one thing I do know is that it would have been more difficult, if not impossible without the lanterns. I was able to have a simple over head grid supported with easily camouflaged polecats with aluminum cross beams. Because of the light weight nature of the lanterns and the low profile zip cord that could be strung to the lights I could get away with a lot.

The other key factor, which is a hot tip, is to use black rip stop nylon to skirt or turban the lanterns. It is light weight (unlike duvateen) and wraps and pins to taste. Personally, I love the way the light falls off on a face, particularly when it can be used close to the subject.

Just remember, if the Queen had balls, she'd be King. Enough said.


Even I would have opted for Chinese lanterns in that situation.

A nail on plate is a metal plate, usually about 4x6 inches with a 5/8 inch "baby" stud, (perfect for inserting into the largest hole in a gobo head) sticking out from the middle of one side. It's a common item on any grip package, often screwed to a pancake to put a small light on the ground (a rig we affectionately call a "directors chair"), but I couldn't tell you what baby plates are called in German. Remember the discussion called for a rigid Chinese lantern. You could easily screw two pieces of wood together and use a screw in eye-bolt for a hanging lantern, the most popular use. The wire could be non-insulated solid copper or aluminum around #8 gauge, which is pretty easy to find in hardware stores or electrical supply stores, but if I was desperate I'd use coat hangers, or fence wire from a farm supply store.

You could tape, glue (consider temperature), or even solder the wires at the "south pole".

You asked what I prefer? I have often used a little MR-16 bulb Soft-box which I make myself using a QVC projector housing on a little piece of wood.

I make them with foam core "snoots" or "Croney-cones", black side in, and usually 216 diffusion about halfway between the bulb and the end of the snoot. There are a bunch of MR-16 bulbs available (they're projector bulbs) and I've used 12-volt DC bulbs as well as 110 volt AC versions. Pick your wattage and color temp, but be careful not to make something that will go up in flames on set. I make the snoot size per application, and I use black paper tape to control the spill, or wrap the light right around the talent's face. They're light enough to hang, tape, or clip about anywhere. You can clip gels, scrims and half scrims to them. If you think about it, they're just extremely small light weight chimeras built specifically for the shot.

They won't flare the lens, and in most applications I'd vote for them for quality of light, ease of use, and versatility over a Chinese lantern.

An interesting idea, but it seems like an awful lot of trouble. I'm not really sure why you would want it to be rigid in the first place (and that's not exactly what was requested in the original post). I kind of like being able to squash my lanterns into a 2000' film can at the end of the day and carry it away under my arm. Wouldn't rigid lanterns take up a disproportionate amount of space in the truck in relation to their usefulness?

How about this :

Ever notice the fixture plate that covers the ugly hole in the ceiling over hanging household fixtures (like chandeliers)? Some of these plates are very lightweight and the right diameter to cover the opening in the top of a lantern. They usually have a hole in the middle for the wire already, and sometimes the hole is threaded. They also usually have two holes on each side for mounting the thing to studs in the ceiling.

If you can get a piece of aluminum or rigid plastic conduit the size of the threaded center hole, you're halfway there. If not, drill out the hole.

Thread the conduit, screw it in, and you have a cover for the top, very similar to what David described in his original post.

The challenge would be to find the perfect fastener to use the existing mounting holes to attach the plate directly to the lantern's wire support frame. Preferably you would use something that would hook around the top of the frame and extend through the mounting holes, allowing the user to tighten the plate down against the frame. Maybe a pair of small-gauge eyebolts with wing nuts? The eye bolts could actually live on the frame when the lantern is squashed.

I think I would also want to find a way to brace the bottom end of the center conduit against the middle of the lantern frame for extra stability.

A bit of wire twisted around in there somehow would probably do it until a more permanent solution could be devised.

It seems as though all the materials I've mentioned here would be available at your friendly neighborhood hardware, lighting, and electrical supply stores. In fact, I think I'll start looking.

Anybody have any improvements or criticisms of the idea?

Chris Ray

Hi, I was Phillippe's focus puller on Mary Reilly - (where the pic in the Panavision catalogue comes from) and can tell you how these are made.

There's no trade secret here, his gaffer John Higgins had these made up and quite a few people are using them in the UK - I've got a few in my garage! It's not the fixture, it's how you use it.

In the UK - don't know about elsewhere I'm afraid - you can buy threaded quarter inch steel(or brass)tube which will accept a standard metal light bulb fitting with a threaded hole in the base. Two nuts and large washers are also required. Cut a piece of tube about 12" to 18". Attach the lamp holder at one end. The Chinese lantern that you should be able to buy in various sizes will have a simple internal wire frame to hold it open. At the top there should be a piece of the wire frame designed to loop over the cable in a domestic situation. Just clamp this in between the nuts and washers, positioned so as to hold the bulb in the centre of the lantern. It's a good idea to use a 2-3 foot flying lead on the lantern so it can be quickly replaced via a cheap connection block in situ, rather than wire them all up to expensive lighting connectors - they don't have a long life!

At the bottom of the lantern cover the hole with a small piece of diffusion material, F3 or similar, secured with paper staples. Gelling the lantern was a perennial problem - large pieces clipped to the outside are awkward to secure and noisy. If you use them inside they tend to burn due to the heat of the photoflood. Best compromise would probably be inside on a wire frame constructed from a coat hanger or similar stiff wire in a cylinder shape and secured via nuts and washers on the tube. To minimise spill you can paint the back half of some of your lanterns black with a water based paint.

It's also a good idea to spray all your lanterns with a fireproofing compound before use - they burn very quickly otherwise and can introduce an undesirable orange flicker on your subject - and the director probably won't use the take anyway because of the look of faint alarm on the artists face...!

Seriously though they can be hazardous and should be treated with respect. The cabling and the lantern aren't really up to constant use and it's best to make up a batch at a time.

But the light they produce is terrific, n'est pas?

Chris Plevin


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