Cinematography Mailing List - CML

Replicating Police Lights

Anyone know where to rent lights designed for replicating blue and red police lights? Something that rotates 360 degrees and can be placed just out of frame?

I've done it before by swinging gelled 2k or 5k tungsten’s around but it takes a man per light, which is hard to spare on a lower budget.

Also, any tricks for creating a fake helicopter search light on the ground? I figured a medium size HMI with no lens or spot lens, mounted on a roof or condor. But anything else?

Jeff Dolen

Easiest way how to substitute a police red/blue lights for our needs is to take a cheapest type of citrus juicer, throw away a top cup and a bowl for juice to be collected in and use only a motorised base. Build a cube, out of the timber and ploystyrene, with a receptable for spinnig rod of the motor base at the bottom (usualy six-way) and cover the cube sides w/sharp mirror foil (a kitchen foil, if in trouble). Place the juicer motor base with a mentioned mirror cube at the top onto a center of a tripleheader holder and hit it with a PAR 64 on each of offsetted arms, filtered PrimeRed and DeepBlue respectively. Advantage of the juicer motor base is, whenever you will hit it onto the top, it will change the direction of spinning. Works perfectly.

For a police helicopter search light use a Xenon 2, 4, 7Kw (depending on the distance given) mounted on the condor or tall scaffolding and (as mentioned here) make a lamp operator to shake it for a take, to substitude a heliocopter movement
Andy Arnautov
Prague, CZ Rep.

>>I figured a medium size HMI with no lens or spot lens, mounted on a >>roof or condor. But anything else?

Used a 4k HMI PAR with a spot lens a little while ago. From 3/4 back it was very convincing. The trick was to shake it a little to add vibration.

Art Adams
Director of Photography
Film | Hidef | Video
San Jose, CA, USA

Hi Jeff,

Whirly-gags come to mind as the exact type of light you're looking for. 1K pars bounced into spinning mirrors, with gel-able sides (you can put red and blue gels on them. Get a couple of them. Easy to find these items for rent from your lighting and grip house.

You could do this with 12" tile mirrors by hand, by pointing the light straight up and having someone hold the mirror over the light. If you need it to go on for a lot of shots, I recommend the whirly-gag.

Graham Futerfas
Los Angeles based DP

The thing about the whirly-gag is that you can only get one color in any one place out of each unit.

In other words, one unit will only flash red, for instance, on, say, our foreground talent. If you want another color somewhere else, or combined with that one, you need a 2nd unit to do it. The color itself stays stationary, if that makes any sense. If you add a 2nd color to the other window of the whirley gag, the light of that color will be shooting off at a 90 degree angle to the first color.

I like Royce Dudley's version better, although it takes more time and TLC than just running around with a couple of whirley gags. In Royce's version you can put as many sources as you want into the spinning mirrors, each with different colors.

But if you have a lot to do and a lot to cover, the whirley gags work really well because each unit is all self-contained and you just put them exactly where you need them for each shot, each mounted on its own stand. Just get a bunch of them, I'd say at least four for most scenes where there's any depth. You'll want two alternating colors in the foreground and the same in the background and chances are that's at least four units. If you just want red, say, it's much simpler.

Just my two cents worth.

Phil Badger
gaffer, Los Angeles


There is a lamp, I believe it is called the spinner (I've seen it on the floor at HR I believe) it basically is a clean police cherry. You can simply wrap a gel around it or whatnot.

Also, a small xenon or beam projector would work for the helicopter action. If needed, you could probably get away with a follow spot as well.

Jared Hoy
Cinematographer || Gaffer
Los Angeles, CA

We have "motorized" our spinning mirror rigs by chucking a drill onto the
threaded rod that extends from the plywood base through the mirror gag then the 5/8 hole on an extension arm. It does require a dedicated operator though and a bushing to hold the drill off the extension arm head..

Steve Staley
Louisville, KY

Regarding building a spinning-mirror gag, this setup already exists, and can be easily rented from a lighting rental house such as Hollywood Rentals, Cinelease, or Acey-Decy. Check your favorite rental house, and if they don't have it, they can probably sub rent it for you. Most catalogs will have it under "FX" or "Gag lights"

It's called a whirly-gig, or whirly-gag, and it's like you describe : a 1K PAR bulb that bounces into a spinning mirror. The spin rate \speed is adjustable on a dimmer, and it all comes in a rectangular box housing that mounts with a Junior spud onto a combo stand. The four sides of the housing are gel-able with frames, usually red and blue for your purpose, and there's also a black-out frame for one of the sides. We used these on "CSI" all the time, as well as many other shows I've worked on when a police gag was needed.

Note that while the whirly-gig is not super-loud, there is some noise involved with a spinning mirror. Having a couple of them on hand is a good idea. The mirror itself can be angled a little bit, in order to properly focus the light where you want it (tilting it up and down).

Best wishes,

Graham Futerfas
Los Angeles based DP

For the every-day, run of the mill police / fire / ambulance lights* :

I always use a spinning mirror rig- gaffer Mike Booth made one for me ages ago...but it does take one operator you could certainly motorize it.. I
never had the time to monkey with it. If anyone has the fast and easy motor solution, let's hear it, please.

It's simply a baby triple header with a 12" extension in the middle. You stick a baby or a PAR 64 or whatever you want on each of the side spuds with whatever gels you want, and the middle carries three 12" mirror tiles gaff-taped together facing outward; they are in turn taped to a triangular piece of plywood, which is at the top of the thing, the bottom is open, and there's a baby receiver plate screwed to the plywood up inside. I've used it with scrimmed-down Midgets at lower light levels for a subtler effect- worked great too.

The lights face each other, with the mirror rig between them.

It works by proximity in effect like the real thing, and you can shape or "sharpen" the throw of the light by setting a couple flags; soften it with diffusion, stick it on a dolly or a pickup truck bed and have it drive up or away.

Anyway I have it all packed in a plastic tub, with a stinger and a cube-tap, all it needs is juice and a c-stand and sets up in 2 minutes.

*Now of course emergency vehicle lights vary a bunch, by country, era, and use. Strobes, higher speed rotations, and other things come in to play. So then you have to either use the practical on the picture car in question, or engineer it's multi-component replacement... half the time I use police lights, a mere cop car was out of the budget, so the rigged lights and the uniforms and the sound design sell the thing.

Royce Allen Dudley

The easiest way to replicate the police lights would be to rent a light bar. Short of that, ask yourself what time period you're trying to replicate. Old style "gumball" lights haven't been used in "big city" police departments for some years, but I've got a trick to recreate that look if you want to try it.

Take an old record turntable. Mount a mirror (or two) at a 45 degree angle (to the platter) on top of the platter. Point a light straight down into the platter. Pick a speed that feels right. The rotating mirror will give you the rotating beam on a horizontal plane. If you want more "hits" off the beam, add mirrors along the beam path you're not using to re-direct the light back on your subject. Mount the whole trick at car-top height and have fun.

If you want a more present-day look, go for strobes. That's what many light bars are using. Gel to taste. The one thing that would be hard to match would be the pattern that you would have on a real light bar. Controlling that may be too fancy a fix for your application, but a slow speed should work. You can probably pick these up for as little as $10-$20 a piece, so use multiple units. Keep in mind that some of the flashing may occur with the shutter closed.

Good luck!

Bruce Aleksander
ABC / Disney

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