Cinematography Mailing List - CML



Lighting With Practicals

Published : 5th August 2004

I am working on a shoot were I will need to light a large backyard at night. The size of the entire area is about 40 feet across and 100 feet deep. The primary areas of interest are a table in the foreground where 2 people will sit and a path to the right where 2 more people will walk directly away from camera -- the path is about 80 feet long. The biggest problem is that there are not many places to hide lights other than behind trees and behind sections of a gazebo on the left side of the yard. There is almost no existing light in the yard currently so I am trying to think of various ways to build lighting into the set. Biggest problem is the path in which the actors will walk at least 40 feet of.

Currently things I've thought of to light the path are Chinese lanterns run every 10 feet or so of the left side of the path and white Christmas tree lights in trees to the right side of the path. But I'm thinking that real hot sources in frame such as lanterns will cause major lens flare problems.

Any suggestions or experience in building lighting into the set is extremely appreciated.

Its a slightly stylised film, and the DP doesn't mind some areas of the frame being really hot. Some references to other films have been 21 Grams and Raising Victor Vargas.

Shot super 16 on 7218 for optical blow up to 35mm. DP wants to overexpose stock at least 1/3 of a stop.


Nick Anthony
Sometimes DoP ... This time gaffer!

Such a poor description of the location, the dramatic circumstance of the scene and the equipment at hand makes it very difficult to give any advice.

What is that backyard supposed to be in the film? What kind of yard? Does it have a wire fence around (so you can see the background behind)? If so, does the fence have any kind of practical attached to it (so it would be in frame)? Or is it surrounded by a wall or hard fence? If not so, is there any background outside the yard that can provide some illuminated background to the scene? Or do you want it to have an specific or specifically unspecific (if you understand what I mean) background? Are the background, the perimeter or the far action in the path in any moment a centre of interest or just a background to the foreground action? If limited to certain units, what kind and how many fixtures do make your lighting package? What is a gazebo? (I'm Spanish, you know)

Finally, out of curiosity: If you are not the DP why are you concerned about? The DP will have his/her own approach and resources to solve the challenge. Or are you asking on his/her behalf?

Arturo Briones-Carcaré
Madrid (Imperial - but starting to recivilise - Spain)

The equipment has not yet determined. But it is very low budget.

Mainly, I was looking for suggestions of ways in which people used practicals to help light sets and any types of fixtures that I have not thought of.

To be more specific about the location the far background is across the Bay and is of the Oakland coliseum and other buildings so there is something in the far background. The end of the backyard has a very large pier in which I can hide some lights to illuminate it. The main part of the yard is surrounded by a fence. To the right is the path which is about 80 feet long to the left is all grass with a kind of shack more than a gazebo(sp?). The immediate foreground, in front of the grass and path, is a section of cement about 40 feet by 40 feet. On this cement area will be a table big enough for 4 people to sit and have dinner. Later 2 people will walk down the path. The foreground is not such a problem and I don't think it will be too difficult to light. The problem is that since the yard is so big I am trying to think of various ways to light several areas so it will not be completely black, The path being the most important area to light.

As I've said there is no existing light within the yard. There are 2 fluorescent lights to the right of the cement area and that’s about it.

It is a dramatic film and dramatic scene, an argument between a couple in front of another couple.

This is the largest shot in the scene. The other shots are close-ups and face other directions which do not have such a large area to cover. The main thing I would like to have suggestions about is lighting the path well enough to see that people are walking down it. the only idea I have come up with is hanging Chinese lanterns every 10 feet along the path but think that anything bright enough would probably cause major lens flares.

Any other suggestions are appreciated.

These are the places of interest, the foreground dinner table and the path.

The DP doesn't know lighting and has left it up to me.

Nick Anthony

>Such a poor description of the location, the dramatic circumstance of >the scene and the equipment at hand makes it very difficult to give any >advice.

I'm sure there's a nicer way to say "More information please!" than to use a tone that could discourage further discourse. The tone of your entire post seems rather condescending.

Regarding leaving it all to the DP to figure out... that just seems stupid. That's what a gaffer is for. It's a poor DP who tells his gaffer what to do all the time in minute detail, because a gaffer may have cool ideas and better solutions than the DP does every time.

As a very well known DP once told me, "The more ideas you have the fewer I have to have." I want my gaffer to be involved. I have a lot of things to worry about on a shoot and if I can tell my gaffer what I want and turn him or her loose to accomplish it that's a huge weight off my shoulders.

It's a poor gaffer who shows no concern about solving problems in advance.

Back to the topic at hand :

My only advice given the information at hand would be to start in the background and work forward. Figure out how much of the yard you need to see and illuminate enough of the boundaries that you get a decent feel of depth behind the characters. Light some of the background and light the actors and you're probably done.

Art Adams, DP [film|hdtv|sdtv]
Mountain View, California - "Silicon Valley"
AIM: ArtAtoms

Your main concern seems to be that this back yard is going to go to black unless you add practicals to it. While practicals are one way to light your subjects you should keep in mind that there are an infinite number of ways to light a night exterior and practicals are only involved in half of them.

My personal suggestion would be to utilize practicals if they are appropriate to the scene and if they're not, then light the backyard for night and create a moonlit look.

Practicals should be something that's appropriate to the scene and not just objects thrown in to add light. If you're shooting in a library then you don't use a bonfire as a practical and if you're shooting a camping scene, you probably wouldn't want to use a crystal chandelier. But if it's a backyard party scene then it seems fine that there would be Chinese lanterns hanging around, mini Christmas lights in the trees, maybe even tiki torches stuck into the ground or the path-lights that people have staked into the ground around their homes.

As far as the conversation at the table. Use anything from candles to those table-light pillars that you see all the time. Or once again, don't use practicals at all. Have your subjects be lit by the house or whatever building is in front of the back yard. The light can be motivated from the building.

And remember, lighting doesn't have to be motivated. Just light your characters as you wish.

Your secondary concern seems to be lens flare. I'll just say this, having a bright object in the frame itself does not necessarily mean that you're going to have lens flare issues. Placing multiple Chinese lanterns in the shot should work fine for lighting the path.

The fact that the DP knows for a fact that he wants to overexpose the stock by 1/3rd of a stop but doesn't know anything about lighting makes me wonder if this is a student shoot. You might just want to scan through some of your favourite DVD's and take a look at how night exteriors are lit and try to emulate something you find appropriate.
Good luck on the shoot.

Jason Eberts

Arturo says :

>Are the background, the perimeter or the far action in the path in any >moment a centre of interest or just a background to the foreground >action?

I think what Arturo may be alluding to here, is the possibility of silhouetting the receding actors against the background. This could reduce your lighting needs substantially.

I also think your approach of Chinese lanterns strung overhead is a good one -- but for practicals as you say, not illumination. Consider placing some sockets inline, behind the lanterns, and fitting them with inexpensive reflector-type spot bulbs for exposure.

Chris Mosio

>It's a poor DP who tells his gaffer what to do all the time in minute detail, >because a gaffer may have cool ideas and better solutions than the DP >does every time.


Well said. The first time I worked with an seasoned gaffer was pure heaven.

I pulled him of to the side and told him quite openly this was my first time working with a gaffer and if I got out of line to come slap me. He just laughed.

It was so nice to tell him what I needed and where then let him work out the details. He also had great ideas and suggestions for accomplishing the task at hand.

Whenever possible I always work with him.

Tom McDonnell
New Orleans, La


How about shooting the scene just after sunset, and tweak the look at telecine? You'll have your detail in the yard, and can put in a few practicals to create the evening feeling. Best is if you test this with stills. Digital would be good, so you can tweak the look with Photoshop or Gimp or similar.


Martin Heffels

Filmmaker/DP/Editor/Filmschool Techie
Sydney, Australia

"The world is on the move. Adopt, adapt, survive."

Art Adams said:

>I'm sure there's a nicer way to say "More information please!" than to >use a tone that could discourage further discourse........because a gaffer >may have cool ideas and better solutions than the DP does every time.

Cool Art! You just did what you told someone else not to do...

Walter Graff
BlueSky, LLC

>I'm sure there's a nicer way to say "More information please!" than to >use a tone that could discourage further discourse. The tone of your >entire post seems rather condescending.

Sorry if I sounded harsh, discouraging and condescending. It wasn't intended. Have in mind I don't master English language, so, sometimes, subtlety in tone is just missed. In the other hand, many times we have been in the same circumstance in CML and it seemed to me the way to say "More information, please" in those occasions was not far from the way I expressed myself this time (and apparently it was O.K. then, so nothing gave me a clue it was the wrong tone). Now I'll take note.

Regarding Nick's questions, much of what I could say have been answered pretty well by others already, specially by Jason. I'd be concerned about having a big area of the background go totally black unless the framed far background is covered with lights across the bay. The shack (thanks for the synonym) could hide, say, a couple of redheads to provide some kicker for both the tree and the path, while, for instance a blonde fully flooded or even with diffusion, out of frame on the right (the farther, the better), outside the fence could provide a cross light fill for the path and some modelling to show the fence. You could also rig some cheap small 300 watt work floodlights at intervals on the fence to provide both small highlights in the perimeter and pools of light on the grass around them (I'd avoid lighting the grass overall too much, as IMO it kills the sense of darkness)

And, yes, I'm a poor DP in the literal meaning of it. I normally have to DP without (at least real) operator, AC, gaffer, and electricians (most of times they could only be regarded as "sherpas", as somebody once accurately called them), so usually I can't afford the luxury of delegating any creative tasks. Also, in Spain the role of the gaffer is not as creative as it seems to be in the States, here being just a kind of electricians' foreman who arranges distribution and rigging. Here the DP is also (at least that's what I've experienced so far) expected to know everything and have all answers at hand to solve any problem (actually, you simply can't have a problem to start with), or else you are considered a poor (in the sense you expressed) DP, so you have to be as omniscient and omnipotent (in your field) as a god (but your attitude has to be the opposite of a god's).

In any case, I'm always open to any idea from others when I'm the DP (or anything else), otherwise I'd be stupid. Though I'm extremely cautious in expressing any idea to anyone above me in the food chain when I'm not at the top, as most of times it would be (and sometimes has been) unhealthy for my career if I did, so I understand not being given ideas by others and I can't expect being given any (specially from intelligent people).

Arturo Briones-Carcaré
Madrid (Imperial - but starting to recivilise - Spain)

Arturo Briones-Carcaré .... wrote

>Have in mind I don't master English language, so, sometimes, subtlety >in tone is just missed.

Hi Arturo ...

I for one am impressed by your command of the "English" language ...and that you take the time to answer questions on lighting. It is also refreshing to get a different view point from someone whose native language isn't English.

There will always be cross cultural differences ..even between countries that speak relatively the same language.

Not such a long time ago, I e-mailed a lighting company in the U.S. pointing out what I thought was bad design practise in an electronic ballast. The return FAX I received started..."Well over here in the real world..." I had obviously (by written word) offended this particular Design Engineer. Which was not my intention, I was merely trying to be helpful.

'Another Foreigner'
Graham Rutherford
Gaffer Australia


You say that two of the characters will be walking 40 ft along the path. Is the camera going to be moving with them? You'll need to keep an eye out for camera shadows.

It seems Jason had alot of good ideas. I think if it's appropriate stringing a line of charismas tree lights along the back fence and then lighting the fence itself a little will give you a good starting point.

I worked on a western a couple of years ago where the DP created pools of moonlight by putting sheets of polly (4x4) up on stands about 25 ft up. He then bounced 2ks into them from underneath. He used about four of these. The rest of the scene was lit by practicals. It allowed him to give a good impression of moonlight without having to get the big guns out or cranes etc...

The other great thing about it was that it was very quick.

Finally. Will you be seeing off to either side of the garden or just looking along the length of it?

If none of the ideas you get off the CML work I would try to talk the director into some creepy music.

All the best with it,
Ruairi O'Brien,

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