Cinematography Mailing List - CML

Action At Night


I am directing a low-budget science fiction,zombie action movie here in Ireland.I have to shoot complicated multiple fight sequences at night.

I know my D.P will need at least three or four H.M.Is, as its a pretty big area all this stuff takes place in.

Anybody got any tips or hints on how to get Hollywood -style effects on a low budget.


Shane Sheils


You should first always begin with WHAT DO YOU WANT IT TO LOOK LIKE, rather than worrying about how a typical Hollywood movie would light a night scene.

Think art and work backwards to the technology, not the other way around.

You can begin by deciding what the source of light would be in the scene, and if you should create some (let's say, having characters with torches or flashlights or car headlights, etc.) This will determine whether you go for a big moonlight effect, or suggest some other source.

If you decide on moonlight as the probably source, how blue it should be, or how soft, etc. again, that's an artistic decision. I don't worry so much about how much blue in moonlight is realistic; instead I consider how much blue does the particular story benefit from.

And if you're shooting an action scene, you should consider using enough light to stop down the lens a little -- it can be very hard to shoot action with the lens wide-open. And hire really good focus-pullers...

Either way, if it's a big night exterior, think big in terms of lights -- hopefully your budget can handle this.

Recently, I thought "Donnie Darko" had some great night exterior work in terms of using Vision 800T and some big light (Musco, Steve? BeeBee Night Light?) to create moonlight across a large area -- it was atmospheric and natural, with a lot of depth. I liked how the background was lit sometimes more than the foreground, as opposed to the typical low-budget look of having a lit foreground and an unlit background. Nice work.

David Mullen

Cinematographer / L.A.

You know, you have just perfectly described a recurring nightmare that I have been having for years.

As to how to light it I totally agree with David says. You should first think why, then figure out how.

Then again you are doing low budget fight scene. Which generally means you need to shoot as many shots as you can afford to as quick as you can.

Night is dark so seeing as much black in the frame as you can is good, as long as you can still see what the actors are doing.

I suggest the radical concept of back light.

And I always thought blue is a nice cool night time color. I know pretty outrageous.

Then you could bring in a side light to make your actors faces visible when you need to.

( As to the zombies' faces, seeing less is more, why actually show it to the audience when their own imaginations can do a better job, and cost at lot less.)

Make it not blue so the blue backlight is balanced. Maybe you could motivate the light by having a bunch of burning cars scattered around the abandoned streets. Yeah and then you could put your main actor, a mercenary called snake in a mullet. And then ....

Anyway basically how many units you use totally depends on how much area you need to cover in your wide shots. Also the lay out of the street will also determine how many.

If you're lucky you can make do with on big back light and some smaller foreground units, its not like I haven't spent entire shows with a smaller package. { I DON'T MEAN THAT!!} You don't necessarily even need to use HMI's, big dino's, wendys and 9lights can also work, you just tend to need more man power, not to mention electrical power.

You really need to go scout your location with your dp block out your shots make a plan and count.

What do you guys think about lighting it by flying up a helium balloon or tube HMI as the moon source? cost effective?

I've seen some low budget success as well, by going guerilla style with a lights/gennie combo trailer, from a construction rental company

I would be very cautious with the helium balloon idea. I used one a few years ago and night one was great, no wind. Night two the wind came up and it was unusable.

I like the idea of one high, large source (color to taste) as a back or 3/4 back and some smaller fixtures as side or front soft bounces. My personal preference is to use buildings and trees to create depth by either lighting or not lighting them as the shot requires. The bigger the area, the bigger the package, the more manpower.

I have seen some incredibly effective uses of 800 iso film used on low budget shows where we did light the foreground and then sent a couple of hard sources deep into the BG to pick off a couple of buildings or signs or trees or whatever...

But all lighting aside, I would take some time to speak with the DP about your look and what kinds of shots you need to achieve to make the scene work. Once you know what you need to do, communicate it to your DP, trust him (and the crew) to get what you need.

All the low budget shows I've worked on demand a commitment to an approach ahead of time and the ability to turn on dime if something changes. Given that this is all fight stuff, it will likely take a lot of shots to make the scenes work. A solid plan will give you more time in front of the camera for shooting...


Andrew Gordon

Gaffer, Regina, Saskatchewan

"T. Hunter McCann" wrote:

>what do you guys think about lighting it by flying up a helium balloon or tube HMI as >the moon source? cost effective?

Cost effective no, well, only in certain cases.

Did one tv shoot where it was going to be all one long take with the camera hand held running in and out of a farm house.

It was all on video, and the op wasn't too steady, basically saw the world. The 4k ballons were very expensive for the amount of light they actually put out but easy to set up in mild wind and cause all that was visible below, with no supports, was the cord and guide ropes the camera could pan right thru them and not notice.

Even when seen in back ground kinda looked like a slightly bobbing moon. Nice soft nondiscript light, perfect for naturalistic video. But they really need to be right over the scene, no real cast distance at all, and the cost of the gas every night, even though we didn't empty them during the day, and the units themselves, owww eee mamma.

They fill certain holes and solve certain set up problems very well but have a long way to go before they become standard lighting tools, if ever.


i have come across the same situation once.i created a mild smoke allover the background and gave a lit from a high level.the smoke will give u a negative value and use very minimal light on the subject to get a semi silhoutte image.make sure the smoke level and check the wind and its worked for me pretty well.try and let me know.


d o p india

>Even when seen in back ground kinda looked like a slightly bobbing moon.

I've thought of using those construction lighting rigs, but couldn't quite motivate that sort of source.

Well if it WAS the dramatic source... I shot a scene with them once moving in the shot, but that was for a surreal sort of idea, you couldn't see any humans operating them.

Watching "The Fast and The Furious" last night (hey I'm the parent of a teenager) you can see a Musco rig in one of the long shots - sort of blends right in there, I mean it's LA after all...

-Sam Wells

I love the moonlight effect in Cast Away when Hanks walks down to the beach for a night piss and catches sight of a light (ship) on the horizon. The softest feeling in quality of light and monochromatic as well as allowing large areas to remain on the edge or unlit, and I admit I am a sucker for the star effect, waves rolling... all combined to create a true to life theatrical experience. I wonder about the mix of cg and principle photography. This line reminds me I must look back and see if I can find details.

David Campbell


I don't have the AC article in front of me but I think they did day-for-night and used skyline replacement for the sky.

David Perrault, csc


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