Cinematography Mailing List - CML

Filming at night

Being a graduate film studemt, I have enjoyed this list to no end. With so much to learn in this field, every outlet of information I can find is a major plus. I've been waiting for an opportunity to post a question and take advantage of an awful lot of expertise. So, here goes... I am about to shoot a graduate thesis film here at FSU and I'm confronted with a standard situation but one that I have never shot in. We will be shooting some extensive night exteriors in a large setting- an old-style carnival wintercamp with about 12 to 15 motor homes placed in the middle of a cow field. At my disposal I have 4-6 1.2k HMI's and a bevy of tungsten lights. We'll be shooting Kodak's Vision 500T on 16mm. I know this is asomewhat nebulous question, but is there anyone who might be able to offer advice on what steps I could take or guidelines to follow to light this scene? I know there are a million answers to this, I'm just looking for a little sage advice.

Andrew Millians

Most common mistake with inexperienced "night lighters" (excuse my half-assed pun) is overlighting the scene. Think about your motivation at night and what night looks like to you. If it is a motor home park in an open field you probably don't want to light it up like a football field. Allow things to fall of 1stop, 2 stops, 3 stops, blackness, etc. To me, a night scene needs good blacks as much as it needs highlight (practical) areas.

My 2 cents


Assuming the field is quite large and the shot is somewhat enormous given you have so many motor homes, you could try ... 1) dusk shots (to supplement your lights) or some sort of Day for Night to do the cover shots then use your lighting arsenal to supplement the MS's and CU's. 2) Build a big fire in the middle of the compound and let the tungstons support the fire (similar color) and allow the HMI's to give you the overall bluish effect of a moonlight night. 3) Push the V500 one stop to give you some additional latitude. This will of course increase the grain significantly - but given the piece could be beneficial. About 3 years ago one of FSU's graduates did a night shot in a wide open space using the same equipment you are now faced with. I saw the impressive film which was called, Demetrious the WerClown, I think. Why don't you contact him to get a pointer or two.


Without knowing what the camera angles are and if there are any dolly moves (in other words, what's the biggest area you have to light at one time), it IS a nebulous question. Plus, how many areas will you have to light during one night? Do you have a generator? How big is your electrical crew? How many pages & set-ups are you trying to accomplish? And the most important thing is - what do YOU want it to look like? My suggestion: go to town on the practicals - just as Cameron added twice as many practicals to the deck of the Titanic, you should have as many porchlights and light coming from windows as possible (unless everyone is supposed to be asleep.) The practicals will do a lot of the lighting of the trailers, leaving you to concentrate on lighting the actors. As a film student, I used to light night exteriors with 1200 watt HMI pars on high roller stands (tied down for safety) or on top of big trucks or on rooftops. If you don't want blue light, you might consider using PAR 64 tungstens - the ones with narrow spot bulbs throw out a lot of light at a good distance. And they're only a 1K. Besides high roller stands, you might consider getting some parallels. Also, Kinoflos are great for hiding a soft source behind something - plus they use very little power. In general (I'm REALLY oversimplifying) you'll want to work in backlight or crosslight with a minimal amount of fill when needed to maintain a sense of darkness and a night atmosphere. Don't try to light everything up - try to balance areas of darkness with lit areas. When you are really stuck, remember Nestor Almendros' advice - when a scene is very underexposed, one hot area of overexposure (like a bright lantern) will seem to balance the lighting to your eye, making the dark areas seem less murky. In the '70's, William Fraker used to put a tweenie in the distance during a night scene just pointing at the camera - the little hot spot helped hide the underexposure.

David Mullen Cinematographer/L.A.

"setting- an old-style carnival wintercamp with about 12 to 15 motor homes placed in the middle of a cow field." Since it is a winter camp can snow be on the ground? If you can have snow then you may have too many HMI's for the scene. Snow will act like a huge bounce card and could adequately light your scene for you. I'll bet your local ice house could help you find someone who could blow in snow - maybe expensive - but maybe worth looking into.


I think all the responses were really great suggestions although I'm not sure I'd push one stop. Too much grain. But I believe that creating some depth at night when possible is very helpful. Light up some trees far in the background. Lots of practicals. I'd be more inclined to use your HMI for background lighting and keep the tungsten for the trailers and foreground elements. Kind of the opposite of Jim's idea. - Sorry Jim

But everyone's idea was great and all just as valid as the others.

Best of luck with it.

Regards, Jim S.

It's not clear how large an area you plan on shooting, but one of the ways to cover a relatively large area is to scatter the area with practicals and small sources throughout the scene to give it dimension. Don't be afraid to let parts of the scene go black, use shadows and silhouettes. I'm not a big proponent of drowning an area with heavy blue backlight, it rarely looks good. A fire, or multiple small fires scattered throughout can help, as well as lanterns, maybe some strings of small lights to help guide the audience's eyes where you want it to. If you can use small units (1ks and 2ks) to light some bushes, trees, fence whatever in the far distance to give the scene some depth, by all means do so, and keep 'em at least 1 stop under so it doesn't call attention and overwhelms whatever you're covering. You could consider shooting day for night, but I feel that when there are a lot of practicals involved (buildings, streetlights, etc...) it usually is hard to pull off well. If you do decide to go day for night, check the position of the sun at the times you'll be shooting. Day for night works best when the sun is used as a backlight and/or side light. Talk to the production designer/art director if there is one and your gaffer to discuss other ideas for practicals and light sources. Above all, be creative, prepared and enjoy yourself.

Good luck.

Kino's are great...but expensive. It is AMAZING what you can do with off-the shelf "light-sticks" those under the kitchen counter fluorescent fixtures, as well as the two bulb electronic ballast shop light fixtures. You can buy Optima 32 (tungsten balance) bulbs or Chroma 50 or Vita light (daylight balance) or you can use cool-white or any of a range of better CRI (color rendeRing index) bulbs now on the market. You can have fun putting little glows under or behind things if, and only if they add to the shot (which is trying to help tell a story) or in trailer windows. I've lit lots of things from hardware store shopping runs We once lit an entire 747 (all three cabins) with rock& roll PARS through paper on the windows and shop lights taped and wired to the center console overhead baggage compartments. Millions saw the shots every year for about 5 was an IMAX film on flight for the Smithsonian...Total lighting package cost was a fraction of a typical commercial.

Good luck! Mark

Remember, too, that effective "day-for-night" illusion also means replicating the "night" shooting conditions, so have your ND 9 and ND 1.2 filters ready, so you can shoot at or near wide open on the stop. Hate those deep-focus "night" shots! (which is why MY preference is to put the HMI units inside the trailers... so the windows can still blow out with an ND 9 on the lens!)

Jim Furrer

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