Cinematography Mailing List - CML

Where Does Lighting Start


I am gonna assist a D.P. in lighting a set which is suppose to be a modern bar. The set is still in a raw stage now. it will be done in a week.

I was just wondering how should you start regarding lighting when you enter the studio and you see this vast bar set - obviously unlit-.

I would generally prefer to play with the set lights -ambient light- first and then go for lighting characters or props.

Any new ideas would be appreciated?

Sanket Shah
AC, India.

Where to start is always the hardest moment. I recommend beginning with the script. Where in the world is this bar, which city, which neighborhood. Who are it's barfly's, it's regulars, does it have any?

Think about your particular place as being the result of so many real factors i.e., time, money, history etc.. What are yours? Do some thinking and research about this place as it truly exist (and it does somewhere). Think about where the light in this place actually comes from, how is it really lit? What kind of fixtures, where are they placed?

I would use this as a starting point. If your story is more fantastical..., you can take liberties. I'd start with the truth, and do my best to recreate that for my story. Ultimately anything that works, works. Have fun.

Tony Cucchiari

Start by thinking about where the light would be coming from if it was a real location. Are there any windows? Is it day or night? Bars tend to have a lot of practical lights because there is not usually a lot of ambient light. See where that takes you then fill in the gaps.

Jesse Dana
DP | Gaffer

Start with the background. You're always going to need a background to shoot against, you can light the people later.

It's a bit like layers in Photoshop. You always need a background layer. You can create the other layers later, and they'll always be smaller layers than the background. Build the hardest layer first.

-Art Adams
Director of Photography
Film | Hidef | Video

San Jose, CA, USA

I would say have a chat with the art department and get them to include as many practicals as possible. That is, think about what lights you would find in a real bar and get those going. That should be a good start.

Ruairi O'Brien,

My very first question is; What stop am I lighting for... usually it's a f/2.8 or wide open but occasionally they show up with a movietube and a zoon lens neglecting to mention it to me. Most of the time in video world its 320 ISO and wide open, which is helpful because its very close contrast-wise to how my eye sees, like working in film w/ 500 stock.

2nd Question is what is happening in the scene, roughly. You need to know where talent will be, how many, etc. The more you know about talent and coverage (how many cameras, etc) the better you can plan your attack. In this question I would include the mood and tone as well, which will guide your color palette and contrast.

John Roche,

Gaffer NYC

Art called it about lighting the bar. What makes it look like a bar is the props, and the props are usually the neon beer signs. These have a specific light level and that establishes the level you light everything else at. If you light your characters and action area too bright, it will burn the color out of all your props. That's why backlight is your friend. Keep your ambient down and backlight your people.

Marty Mullin
Los Angeles
818 712-0272
305 606-1262

I say go to a it research! Everybody else has come up with good ideas - such as reading the script, looking at the location - where are the windows/where would the window be etc. Then do the "architectural lighting" - e.g. light the set - you can light the people later. With a bar you will get a lot of practical lights fitted into a bar - the pumps often light up on lager pumps (not on ale pumps mind you!) and lights are often placed on shelving where the glasses are - these can be small strip light type fixtures.

Anna Carrington
DOP & Focus Puller
Think I've spent too much time in bars!

I was going to suggest smoke.. heh heh, but it would not look real would it, not in the UK now anyway?

Most bar rooms are awfully lit for various reasons, often to hide the dodgy furniture and to give an impression of apparent safety and secrecy to those seeking it. The bar itself is often brightly lit and as has been pointed out, 'littered with advertising. Above many bars are down lights, often with a wide spread. Go look at a bar you like and then add some. If there are practical lights dotted around or above the bar, replace them with as big a bulb as you dare. Pool tables are lit well and give a motivated 'source' for side or back light.
etc etc etc...

Look at Edward Hoppers paintings too....


Chris Maris
Director of Photography

Start somewhere, you'll soon know if its wrong.

Start with what's most important to you in each scene/shot - I find it can vary quite often. what things do you definitely need? A nice key for the talent (perhaps only at the end of a move) which needs to be "just so"? Or is the actor's light-complexion and nearly a lightbulb - nearly "lighting themselves" from ambient and you need to negative fill to get any shape. Are you moving through space and lighting that instead ?

I like the analogy of Photoshop and working in layers of depth. I also think the analogy of sculpture is apt in terms of giving shape to things, and lighting tends to be a bit of 3D chess at times, which is really true when you move the viewer thru space - so whether you'll have to hang some fixtures, or is there a way to silhouette someone for a beat, against a brighter BG as you arc around them to 180 to the other side of the set... things like that. what can you get away with to get the camera to move and not pan through 3 light stands.

Is talent wearing glasses, or a hat which needs some light from lower - perhaps motivated by sun bouncing off the floor. If the glasses are not AR, can you bounce light off desk to naturally light them ?

Look for variations in the light, where the space can go darker and lighter which is often more interesting. Lighting evenly is often not the best way. The light that needs the least falloff is sunlight and such, which should often be the biggest unit as far away as possible.

The great thing about lighting is that there really are no rules written in stone. Backlight can be your best friend, but there's times when its better and more pure to turn all of that off too. It really depends - a process of continual discovery. Asking "where does lighting start" is a great way to re-calibrate your good and bad habits too !


Mark Doering-Powell
Director of Photography
Mobile 818.259.0112

>> A nice key for the talent (perhaps only at the end of a move) which >>needs to be "just so"?

Funny you should mention this. I always lay dolly track starting from the end mark and working backward. The end of the move is the payoff for me and just seems to be where everything needs to be perfect. I can always find a way to start the move, it's the end that requires precision.

-Art Adams
Director of Photography
Film | Hidef | Video

San Jose, CA, USA
Skype: ArtAtoms

Don't over light it!!! Add one at a time to the BG as Art mentioned until you like what you see.

Use practicals left right and center...color is something to consider. I notice varying colors in bar lighting all the time (I'm talking real bars not movie bars).

Good luck!

Kevin Rasmussen
Toronto, CAN

Where does light come from?

In a bar, or club? Anywhere you want it to.

The nice thing about bars and clubs is that you can do whatever the heck you want. I've stuck colored bulbs and Kino tubes all over/in/under things. Great excuse to put a cool looking colored edges on someone. Have all sorts of fun.

The view from the bar floor is pretty good, albeit sticky.

Been drinking at home lately. Passed out twice whilst writing this.

Mark Sasahara

Very good question.

Look at some bar scenes in movies to get a feel of what you do and don’t like.

You could start with the background and the practicals in the bar. Tubes are good (Kino, or flouro's) dedos, or neon's or practicals, use dimmers?

Are you shooting any slo-mo, what speed stock are you using?

If you will need to do any of this factor it in.

Find all this out first, then light to a stop.

You'll find most people in drama would light between T2 and T4 depending on the skill their focus puller and the complexity of the movement and what the format is. On video and S16 you can manage T2, but 35mm, s35mm and anamorphic it is progressively harder to focus.

Don’t over light and try and light with your eyes, and take some stills to give you an idea of your balance.


Daniel Bronks

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