Cinematography Mailing List - CML

Shooting On A Train

Hi all,

I'm going to shoot (video) casual interviews on a train with an interviewer and two cameramen. I think I'll take 2 to 3 800W open-face (redhead or Arri-lite) with CTB and frost gels.

My problem is to compensate for light coming trough the windows.

I will have constantly changing lightning condition (direct sunlight, shadow from outside) from mid-day until sunset. I obviously can't carry bulky instruments as there is not enough room and I will change seats almost every hour.

What is, in your opinion, the most versatile lightning setup?

Has anyone experience with this kind of shooting? Any suggestion??

Fabio Perroni
Dop/Dir, Rome, Italy

>>I think I'll take 2 to 3 800W open-face (redhead or Arri-lite) with CTB >>and frost gels.

Make sure that you can get power on the train to run your lights.

Many trains only have 48 volts or some other low voltage for their lights.

Some trains have inverters to power their fluorescent overhead lights, but may not be able to provide enough power for 800w. lights.

Sometimes they have the power but there is no one to give permission to plug in or they use a different type of plug which requires an adaptor.

Something else to think about is that many times the windows are heavily tinted and you may not need quite as much light to balance to the outside as you think you need.

I suggest that whatever lights you bring, you also bring scrims or neutral density filters so you can reduce the output of your lights if necessary.

You might want to bring some white card and a white bed sheet that you can tape over the heads or on the wall out of frame or behind seats or somewhere so you can bounce some light to make it softer than your lights with diffusion. Maybe bring a roll of drafting paper (we use 1000H paper here a lot) which you can tape up and bounce light onto or tape to the window to use the sun without the high contrast.

If you are setting up a shot where the window is not in shot, you might want to put a big piece of diffusion on the window if the sun is on that side of the train.

Trains are terrible places to use light stands - if you can bring some various types of clamps so you can clamp lights to the luggage racks or things like that it will be easier.

If you have access to a suction cup like the ones that people use to mount cameras on cars, you can use that to mount a light on the window (inside of course) which allows you to get the light much closer to the wall than you could with a stand.

Sometimes, putting white paper or a bed sheet on the lap of the people you are interviewing helps get a little fill light into their faces - a bed sheet is better for sound than paper is.

Also, if they are eating, they will not get food on their trousers.

Good luck

Mark Weingartner

>>Many trains only have 48 volts or some other low voltage for their >>lights.

Mark is right on about train voltage. Actually, the diesel engines on trains power large generators to create electrical energy because the motors that run the wheels are electric. So the voltage is primarily designed for that use. Finding 120 AC volts on a train is often rare.

In the past I've mounted geni's on board the train to avoid having to use the train's power. The geni can be mounted outside the train in a position that it won't be seen by the camera for any exterior shots or train drive-bys. Once we even mounted a geni inside the engine compartment to avoid having it seen in any exterior shots. It was a nightmare getting it in there and then the heat buildup was considerable. But it can be done.

In either case, train yards have a piece of machinery like a fork lift with a boom which can lift heavy objects onto the train. Be sure to clear any geni or light mounts with the train operators to be sure they meet clearance and rigging specs. Safety is very important on a moving train.

Hope this is helpful.

Jim Sofranko

I was a spark on John Sayles' "EIGHT MEN OUT" and was on 2nd unit for a while where we lit a steam engine for night & dusk shots.

These were on-board exterior 'drive-by' shots thus the interior of the passenger cars were to be lit to show bright interiors with extras travelling in period costume.

We used 4 50amp Honda geni’s lashed into the mail car and ran stingers from train car to train car thru the walk-thru's.

In each passenger car, we mounted 2 or 3 2K mighty moles and crossed them to create a fairly even spread to back light the faces/heads of the extras and to back light the pull-down shades that art dept made...which were simple brown craft paper [butcher paper] run length-wise down the entire length of the car. They simply took matte knives and cut different lengths upon each window to suggest that the passengers had pulled some shades lower than others. We left the 2K's tungsten so they had a nice warmth to the colour.

The geni’s had their exhaust vented out of the train car with flexible dryer hoses....which worked a little but left a lot of exhaust in that, it stunk! But, we had a fun time backing the train up 5 miles to allow it to get up to speed for the shots!

Plus, we had the grips dig a pit in the center of the track and sunk a 35-3 to have the train roll over top of it.

Jeff Barklage, s.o.c.
US based DP
View reel :

>>Plus, we had the grips dig a pit in the center of the track and sunk a >>35-3 to have the train roll over top of it.

Oh those grips, always get the fun jobs!

Jim Sofranko

Shooting on a train ... Second Thread on Trains


I am preparing a feature length documentary which will be shot entirely on a moving train using HDV camera. My question - What are the stabilizing options? How do I avoid making my audience dizzy with an hour of shaky-cam?

I cant use tripod ( too intrusive) so I was thinking monopod. What are other tricks and options?

I will appreciate any advice, notes or stories.

Thank you

Mariya Prokopenko
DP ( Toronto, Canada)

Mariya Prokopenko wrote :

>>What are the stabilizing options? How do I avoid making my audience >>dizzy with an hour of shaky-cam?

My 2 pence:

1) Test, test, test! Spend a day testing out as many options as you can get your hands on. Try to do the test as far before the actually shoot as possible.

2) Talk to your post-production team: you can do some quite impressive stabilisation in post production (but you'll sacrifice some sharpness).

Just this afternoon I've been playing with 2d3's "SteadyMove" plugin for Adobe Premiere Pro and it can do some very impressive stabilisation.

Best of luck with your project, do tell us how you get on.

Jack Kelly

Mariya Prokopenko wrote:

>>I cant use tripod ( too intrusive) so I was thinking monopod. What are >>other tricks and options?

Hi Mariya,

Easy solutions to think about are steadybag and magic arm. Depending on the type of train a magic arm might allow to clamp your camera almost everywhere. Get a quick lock system with it.

As far as the monopod is concerned depending on the type you may want to add a ball head. My monopod I added an additional handle similar to the ones you can find on those microphone shotguns (cannot remember the proper name). Manfrotto has come out with a new monopod design. Don't know it but it looks interesting.

There is also the fig rig.

My two cents,


Emmanuel, Munich

Assistant Caméra - Camera Assistant - Kamera Assistent
BVK- European based
Mobil# Munich +491608036889 - London +447910034443 (please use German number)

I did a scene in a train last year for a short independent feature (DV).

Stability is not such an issue, as you might think. But do make some tests as Jack suggested, it helps. I had a small custom made steadicam on the scene but did all the shots hand held at the end. The director wanted it so anyway. A monopod, as you suggest could be a good option, depending on how smoothly the train moves. Anyway, keep in mind that shooting in a train is rather tiring and slow.

Far more tricky is lighting. I used reflector cards and they did a good job. No other lighting involved. You just have to watch for reflections in the windows. But setting the right exposure hits a nerve at times. As the train passes trees and open landscape, the light changes dramatically and shooting becomes more a "waiting for the right landscape"...

Lots of stuff depends on what kind of train you are going to shoot in.

There will be significant difference between the shaking of a high speed train and a small local line that takes it's own time...

Good luck!

Vidu Gunaratna
Video Camera/Edit
Prague, Czech Republic

I shot two weeks of a Feature on a train in Durango, Colorado.

I recommend using a tri-pod.

It is NOT too intrusive. By the time you add your own body behind the camera you mine as well be standing tight against a skinned up tri-pod. I was shooting 35mm so naturally your tripod will be very small in comparison. Just skinny it up. A stable image will make your piece 'look' more professional unless you are going for a shaky Cam look and that does not sound like what you want. You can skinny up your tri-pod and really use no more space than what your own body will consume. You can quickly fold it up and move to your next position. You don't even need to bag it.

David Rakoczy
LA/ Florida


Maybe this goes against the intrusive thing (not TOO intrusive, though), but I've seen an "overkeeper" used on a school bus (similar staging I would think) and it was positioned over the backs of two seats (parallel with side of bus) to allow stabilizing the camera while allowing some dollying/panning without the use of a dolly.

Maybe the same thing could be done on a train?

Just an idea...

Sean Smith
Calgary, Alberta

>>I cant use tripod ( too intrusive) so I was thinking monopod. What are >>other tricks and options?

I think that if you are shooting HDV, subtle vibrations will be more of an enemy than anything else in regards to image quality. I would strongly advise that you test the magic-arm or mono-pod ideas and look closely at the results.

I did some shots on HDV in a car with a magic-arm which was mounted with a heavy-duty suction cup to the windshield (from the inside).

It allowed for some very creative shots in regards to camera-placement. But even after re-enforcing it, the resulting vibrations were too much for the HDV to handle (even with the use of the camera's stabilization system) since all of the vibrations were channelled from one pick-point to the other. A tri-pod will probably serve you better, and is less intrusive than you might think.

You could also consider the possibility of a mini-steadi-cam system... Or if you have a budget there are other options... But in the very least, do a test before committing to one solution.


Toby Birney
DP / Camera Operator
Vilnius, Lithuania

Toby Birney wrote :

>>even after re-enforcing it, the resulting vibrations were too much for the >>HDV to handle

Hmm... I wonder if anyone makes a Magic Arm with some form of shock absorption / suspension built in? If not, I wonder if it would be possible to hack something usable together?

Also : have a look on eBay for Magic Arms: they're the sort of really useful kit that you can pick up for about £60 (~$90 I guess). Magic Arms are really good things to have in your own kit bag.

Jack Kelly
Dir / Prod / Camera

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