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What would you do? DP Mentality

LIghting a room on the spot

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#1 Tony Sanchez

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Posted 12 August 2014 - 02:41 PM

Hey guys,

 

This is kinda of a mental slash technical question. What steps do you go through mentally when lighting a scene on the fly, with no prior prep to the location. All you have for information, is the scene is going to be....lets say two people arguing? What goes through your mind when you only have limited gear. How do you deal with this situation and how do you know you have done the best you can and its time to roll camera? Do you have a mental check list that you go through? Do you try a amny different things until something works? I know this is a little out there but I feel so many people have such different approaches to this. I would like to know more about the way expereinced cinematographers think.

 

Thx Again

Tony


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#2 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 12 August 2014 - 04:43 PM

You generally bring the actors in and block the scene, but before they arrive, you try to arrange the space so they will be standing near practical light sources if possible. Otherwise, if it doesn't work out so conveniently for the actors to face off with a nice lamp or window beautifully lighting them, then you watch the blocking rehearsal and start to light the space in your mind, thinking things like "if the light is coming from THERE then this actor will be lit and won't shadow the other actor... But maybe it would be better from above than from the side, etc."

I basically light the space in my mind several ways and then pick the best option (and best may also mean fastest depending on my priorities at the moment). Generally I start with one source for the scene in my mind, move it around the room in my mind, and then add more sources if necessary. Of course there are several considerations that affect your choices, from stylistic concerns to needs of the actors' faces to time and equipment, plus where the camera will be looking. You also have to factor in all the potential coverage for the scene including turnarounds. You don't want to spend an hour lighting a master and then have to spend a half-hour fixing the lighting for the coverage. (However sometimes it's smart to spend a little more time lighting the master IF it will make shooting the coverage go faster because the lighting more or less works even as you go tighter).
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#3 Michael LaVoie

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Posted 12 August 2014 - 06:00 PM

Do you try a amny different things until something works? 

 

 

There's rarely time for that.  Unless a prelight team is sending you shots as they go that you can yay or nay while you're filming the current scene.   David's approach is thorough and familiar.  When I have no time or opportunity to prep and it hasn't been pre-lit, I usually fall back on what I know has worked in the past for that particular location, time of day/weather/year look.  

 

When you have experience, you can "wing it" way easier. In those cases, the challenge is to make sure that if the director asks me for creative input, I make  choices which are appropriate to the look of that film and I don't just go on auto-pilot with what I know would work for any film.


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#4 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 12 August 2014 - 06:24 PM

It's a bit like playing three dimensional chess -- I try several lighting approaches in my mind, letting the scene play out in my mind until I spot the potential problem with my approach, then tweak or start from scratch.  I only have a few minutes at most sometimes to do this mental lighting but it is a critical time and my crew knows not to bother me until I've figured it out.

 

Then I usually give the gaffer and key grip all the notes for the set-up, and if it's a big set-up, I maybe have time to go to the restroom or the craft service table, and when I'm away from the set momentarily is usually when something occurs to me (like "oh sh--, forgot the actor will be wearing glasses and a baseball cap"), at which point I hurry back to the gaffer and key grip with my correction or adjustment... It just points out that you have little time for reflection about your choices.

 

One of the most time-consuming things when lighting a master is when there has to be a big cue, like the character has to start the scene by entering the room and turning on the lights.  When blocking the scene, you sometimes forget that the characters are arriving to the house for the first time that evening story-wise so probably the practical lights should be off when they enter... well, you forget that maybe once and after that, you never forget to check!


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#5 Tony Sanchez

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Posted 12 August 2014 - 09:37 PM

Thx guys these are great responses. I dont have the ability to assist on shoots often. I do own a small lighting package. How should I go about practicing to sharpen my skills? I can probably get one to two actors or just friends at a time to play out a scene. What would you guys suggest I could do to keep challenging myself until I can get on a set to assist ?


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#6 PL Charron

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Posted 13 August 2014 - 07:37 AM

What I'm about to say may sound creepy, but bear with me: I've been practicing lighting, in between shoots, by using foam mannequin heads (the cheap $3 kind, used for sunglasses/head wear displays, found on a major online auctioning site). Got the idea from watching LightFilmSchool.com tutorials.

 

I do quick 30-45 minute exercises, from time to time, standing one or more heads on cheap light stands and trying different lights/modifiers/moods.

 

It's not perfect, but it gives you a simple way to evaluate lighting and shadow characteristics of your setups.


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#7 Tony Sanchez

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Posted 13 August 2014 - 09:45 AM

PL Charron,

 

Thats a good idea. Im gonna look into some of those . Hey you never know ...one may come to life as a hot model.


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#8 Bruce Greene

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Posted 13 August 2014 - 12:25 PM

I've bee shooting comedy lately, and I often don't know what to photograph until I see some kind of rehearsal.

I know that we'll do some kind of wide shot that will allow them to play the scene with as little limitation as possible.

After deciding on the scope of the widest frame, I usually end up thinking "where can I put any light that is not in the frame?"

And that's where I start the process. What's out of frame? How can I deal with that limitation and still fit the story and mood? And make it 3 dimensional.

And I'll start from "how does it look with no movie lights?" And work from there. The coverage can have improvements, and we'll start getting that ready on stand by so it can be added quickly after the "masters" have been shot.
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#9 Guy Holt

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Posted 26 August 2014 - 05:36 PM

It's a bit like playing three dimensional chess -- I try several lighting approaches in my mind, letting the scene play out in my mind until I spot the potential problem with my approach, then tweak or start from scratch. ...Then I usually give the gaffer and key grip all the notes for the set-up.

 

It’s possible to take David’s “3-Dimensional Chess” a step further and actually set levels and balance your fixtures in advance. As a starting point a DP will choose the exposure of the key tone at the outset  - say T5.6 for deep focus.  Having chosen his exposure he can then calculate how many Foot Candles (FC) he needs on different elements of the scene.

 

To figure out how many FC you need for exposure, all you need to know is that it takes 100 FC to get an exposure of 2.8 with an ISO 100 film with a 180 degree shutter at 24 FPS (1/50th of a second shutter speed.)  If your digital camera is 2 stops faster than an ISO 100 film, you will need 100 FC to get a stop of 5.6. Once you know how many FC you need for exposure you can simply calculate how many FC will give you the effect you see in your mind’s eye. Of course, it helps to have done a lighting test of what effect over and underexposing a subject will give.

 

camtestsubjecthor.jpg

 

Such a lighting test for talent (you may also want to do one for key props or sets) would consist of testing in a systematic fashion the effect of Key, Fill, Back Light, Kickers, Hair Lights, and Liners that are over and under exposure. For example, to test the effect of your key light on flesh tones, set your exposure with two doubles and a single in your key light. Then remove them a half stop at a time (without changing your camera exposure setting or exposure of the chip chart), and systematically note on a slate in the frame what you are doing. Once you have removed all the scrims, your flesh tone will be two and a half stops over exposed (since you have not changed the camera setting.)

 

camtestsetuphor.jpg

 

Put all the scrims back in and now, using single and double nets, systematically under expose the flesh tone in half stop increments (remember rotating a net relative to the light source will make it "fatter" or "thinner", which will enable you to "dial in" the exact level you want from the light.) If you want to play on the lower register continue to under expose the flesh tone until it becomes a pure silhouette. Do the same for Fill, Back Light, Kickers, Hair Lights, and Liners in isolation and in specific combinations that you plan to use them. Having systematically tested each light, you can now see the effect that different ratios of each has on the scene and can even use the test as a reference on set when lighting the scene.

 

camtestprojectorvert.jpg

 

An example of this type of pre-visualization would be say you are shooting a couple conversing at a bar. After working through in your minds eye that you want a low-key look with selective (shallow) focus you might settle on a stop of 2.8. Say the script calls for the guy to be somewhat mysterious and distant and the women to be very open and receptive, then you may choose to keep him in deep shadow with just enough of a liner to separate him from the subdued background of the bar. This type of lighting on him could be motivated by a practical fixture you establish behind him, which would be consistent with the more frontal key you want for her, since you would want to light her more frontally so that her character is clearly apparent, but not him to retain some mystery to his character.

 

Having roughed out your style and light placement you can begin to set your levels and balance your lights based on lighting tests you have shot over the years. For instance, if your camera is two stops faster than an ISO 100 film, you will need 24 FC to properly expose your key tone (mid gray) at a T Stop of 2.8. 24 FC would then give you a “properly” exposed flesh tone on her. But this is a bar with subdued lighting, so you don’t want full exposure on her. You liked the feel of a half key (1 stop under) in your lighting tests so you would light her with 12 FC from a high frontal key. Again, because the scene takes place in the subdued lighting of a bar, you don’t want to over fill her. Going back to your lighting tests you like the look and feel of an 4:1 key to fill ratio so you would give no more than 3FC of fill light. You need to separate her from the dark background of the bar and so you might give her a backlight of 6 FC because that's what looked appropriate in the lighting tests to separate her hair color from a dark background without looking over-lit.

 

You would want to make sure you flag her back-light off him since you want to play him in near silhouette and so have to keep any frontal light on him to under 1 FC because four stops under exposure was a near silhouette with just the right amount of detail in the lighting test. For the liner to separate him from the dark background of the bar you will need a fairly strong fixture capable of delivering 48FC from directly behind him since your lighting tests established you need to be at least a stop over exposure for the liner to read.  Once you have figured out how many FC you need for the effect (a liner in this case) you can figure out which lights will give you that using the photo-metrics that manufacturers provide on their websites, or you can download Arri’s handy photometric calculator (be wary of the photo-metrics given for LED lights.) With a little experience you begin to develop a feel what light will give you what you need in different situations.

 

You wouldn’t want to try to use the practical fixture that you are flying in behind him to motivate this lighting scheme as the source for the liner on him because, first of all it’s placement in the shot may not be far enough around his back to serve as a liner. But, also to deliver 48 FC on him, it would be screaming hot in the shot.  For this reason it is better to use a separate light to light your talent and treat the practical so that it looks realistic in the shot. I find that practical lamps never look convincing unless one treats the lampshade as well as boost the bulb wattage. Unless it is completely opaque, you typically need to treat the shade to keep it from burning out (remember stopping down to keep it from blowing out will throw off the balance you have set with your other lights)  You can put a lower wattage lamp in it,  but then the output of the practical on the bar will look rather anemic. I find you get a more realistic look if you boost the wattage of the bulb and line the inside of the shade with ND gel. It is a delicate balance to achieve.

 

You can achieve this balance without a monitor, by using the old school method with incident and spot meters and a selection of practical bulbs including PH 211, 212, and 213 bulbs. Years ago Walter Lassaley, BSC, instructed me to balance practical’s such that an incident reading of the direct output one foot away from the bulb is one stop over exposure which in this case would be 48 FC. I have found that rule of thumb gives a realistic output to the practical. After establishing the practical’s output using an incident meter, you then use a spot meter to determine how dense an ND gel is needed to line the inside of the glass shade.

 

You can do all of this pre-visualization, setting of levels, and balancing based upon a location scout, blocking with stand-ins, and your lighting tests. In other words, almost everything can be worked out ahead of time so that when you arrive on set you know exactly what you need to do. This is especially helpful on low budget projects since, generally the time spent with minimal crew in scouting and blocking with stand-ins, is considerably less than the time wasted working these things out on set with a large crew and principle talent.

 

Guy Holt, Gaffer, ScreenLight & Grip, Lighting Rental & Sales in Boston


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#10 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 30 August 2014 - 01:33 AM

The lighting ideas and plans you come up with in these sorts of situations will largely be based on what you know how to do, using the tools you have at your disposal. I know that when I started shooting, my fellow students and I were handed an Arri Kit, a small selection of tungsten fresnels. So that's what I used for everything, along with colored gels and diffusion. Kinda like the parable about the man with the hammer who only sees nails.

Then I worked on a movie where the DP used Dedolights on Polecats and Cardellinis for almost everything. So I learned how to use those and added that to my tool kit. Then I learned about HMI Pars and Kino Flos. I learned a little bit about electricity, grippage and rigging. Started using bounce lighting and playing with colored fill light. Then practicals and china balls. Transferred to a film school with a sound stage and learned how to use large units like 10Ks, 5Ks, and 2K zip lights and stage connectors like Twist-Lock and Bates. By that time, I had started AC'ing with the idea that I could learn by working for more experienced DP's. Ended up learned a lot from watching experienced gaffers, grips and electricians. Diffusion frames, egg crates, and floppies were a revelation in terms of creating and controlling soft light. Started paying attention to eye lights. Negative fill, passive fill, coop lights, book lights, chimeras, how to read a waveform; all part of my continuing education.

My point in telling you all this is that you should learn and master the kit you have until you start getting into situations where you can't get the look you want. Then pick up a new tool that does what you want and learn that. And on and on. In a few years, you'll have a decent tool kit to pull from when you have to improvise.

I had to improvise the lighting on a 4 minute handheld one-er on a sound stage today and ended up using almost everything I have ever learned. In and out of four rooms with a lighting transition from day to night and complex choreography with 5 actors. I don't think I could have pulled it off a year ago, at least not as well. I keep thinking how I would have done it 10 years ago, 7 years ago, 4 years ago and see how far I've come. It's a long, never-ending road but as cinematographers we all have to walk it.
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