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Lighting a Forest at Night

lighting night forest trees

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#1 Jack De La Mare

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Posted 27 November 2015 - 06:12 PM

I'm working on a short film and the main location is a forest, at night. Most of it is set on a muddy road with trees surrounding either side, but there is a little section where our main character is running through the trees.

 

My question is in regards to lighting, and what is the suggested method of lighting for this type of location?

 

On previous projects, we have blasted 4 x 2Ks through the trees from a distance and used a smoke/fog machine for different looks and to help spread the light. We also used smaller lights for tighter shots, but I have found that this can often lead to quite harsh lighting and create ugly shadows. This setup has allowed for some great shots, but I'm wondering what other options there are?

 

I have read a few other threads which suggested lighting a background road or something to give the shot some depth, but also have read that using paper lanterns up in the trees can provide great soft lighting. The only problem then is wind!

 

Would love to hear some suggestions! Will likely be shooting on the BMPCC.

 

Thanks! :)


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#2 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 27 November 2015 - 06:40 PM

Paper lanterns can be dangerous in the woods. They are a fire hazard on a normal set, so you could easily create a large fire if one were to fall to the ground or even tip over and allow the bulb to contact the paper for a few seconds. This is almost certainly a bad idea.

The nice thing about fresnels and pars is that you can go with direct backlight or sidelight, or front light the deep background and allow the near foreground trees to play in silhouette (which works great for close ups with shallow depth), put them up high on a nearby hill, or even put them low behind a berm and uplight some smoke so that you just have a soft glow in background.

Other things people do are lighting balloons or other soft sources overhead for foreground ambience. That can require a lot of time and professional tree climbers on ropes to go up and secure the diffusion to the trees themselves. If you had them put up a large Ultrabounce rag without the frame, you could bounce some Lekos into it for the soft toplight. If you can afford it, putting a large HMI on a condor from a nearby service road would give you moonlight from a higher angle.
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#3 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 27 November 2015 - 06:47 PM

Just noticed that you said you were mostly shooting on a road. In that case, it would be a lot easier to use a few large lights up high at either end of the road and hopefully around a bend. You would switch on one or the other depending on your coverage to light the background and use your traditional lights (Kinos, Chimeras, LEDs, whatever you like) to light the foreground. HMIs on Condors would be ideal, but you could also do a cluster of Parcans or a Maxibrute type of light.

*if you wet down the road, it will pick up more shine from your large backlight and read brighter.
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#4 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 27 November 2015 - 08:50 PM

I got the idea to use paper lanterns in the woods after reading about Stephen Burum using them for a scene in "Casualties of War" -- it works pretty well.  The trick is to get the cool tone -- when I did it in 2004, I think I used blue-dipped photofloods but today I'd try Cool White compact flos or LED bulbs that were daylight balance, and there is less risk of fire with those.  

 

I've also use rows of Kino tubes above the frame line mounted to tree trucks for a similar soft toplight effect.  This is just for the subject, you probably still need some big backlights for the background.  I once planned on using string lights with daylight compact flos in them but never had the chance, I was denied permission to get up into the trees.

 

With a lot of smoke and low backlights from the ground behind a low rise, you can get a nice silhouette effect, which is how Shelly Johnson lit a lot of the woods in "The Wolfman" and the second "Percy Jackson" movie.

 

wolfman1.jpg


wolfman2.jpg

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#5 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 27 November 2015 - 09:04 PM

I lit a big stretch of road with two 18K HMI's on a 125' condor, but at that distance, the lights weren't high enough to get out of frame, but luckily the road had a bend in it, so the condor ended up just off camera on the left side of frame.  I ended up hiding a little HMI Joker in the bushes on the right to create a cross-edge, just because otherwise I couldn't make out the figures clearly.  I asked for the road to be wet down, but once the truck passed through, the water made the road pitch black!  Because the backlights were more from the side, I didn't get a kick off of the road from them that I expected, so in the end, perhaps it would have been better to leave the road dry and dusty, though the blackness is sort of creepier:


jb47.jpg

jb48.jpg

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#6 Jeff L'Heureux

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Posted 28 November 2015 - 01:30 AM

That's the perfect lighting for a night exterior.  It's lit, stylistic, but looks entirely natural to an average audience member.  I'd much prefer seeing a film shot like that with some 500T film rather than footage in available light on some new fangled digital camera at a high ISO setting.  Maybe it's not happening in forest scenes, but it looks like it's going that way a lot for urban/city night exteriors.  With available light, you lose this controlled, crafted look of cinematic lighting.


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#7 Robin R Probyn

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Posted 28 November 2015 - 08:05 AM

Well I dont know.. a scene that would in reality be pretty much,if not pitch black very dark.. any lighting is not really natural.. and its not blue either.. but that is now part of cinema grammar .. and audiences are used to night/moonlight being blue and back lit.... La Nuit Americaine   :)

 

I really like The Wolf man look.. although its a totally un natural light source .. being low like that.. but a great moody look.. 

 

I read about a DP who was once asked .. where would the light come from in a night scene.. and he said same place as the music .. :)

 

Not to say Dave,s lighting is not good !.. just that I think you can get away with "un natural" lighting at night for a look you are after.. as in the those stills .. 


Edited by Robin R Probyn, 28 November 2015 - 08:08 AM.

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#8 JD Hartman

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Posted 28 November 2015 - 08:30 AM

Well I dont know.. a scene that would in reality be pretty much,if not pitch black very dark.. any lighting is not really natural.. and its not blue either.. .......


Not to say Dave,s lighting is not good !.. just that I think you can get away with "un natural" lighting at night for a look you are after.. as in the those stills .. 

 

Where would it come from?  Sunlight reflected off the moon, unless it it was the dark of the moon.  Even in that case, there would be some light, some light pollution from nearby buildings, streetlamps, towns, etc., unless you were in a very deep forest or an area designated as Dark Sky: http://darksky.org/idsp/ 

"Real" moonlight is silvery.


Edited by JD Hartman, 28 November 2015 - 08:35 AM.

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#9 Robin R Probyn

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Posted 28 November 2015 - 09:06 AM

Yes well the brief was a muddy road in a forest with trees all around.. and yes I know where moon light comes from.. if there is a enough moon and no clouds.. but that light never looks like "movie" night.. its not backlight the whole time.. not blue..

 

But my point is that I dont think it has to be "natural" anyway..as in all the pic,s above.. actually I like the low backlit shots.. totally un natural but looks great.. and sets a mood.. which is what lighting is all about ? 


Edited by Robin R Probyn, 28 November 2015 - 09:08 AM.

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#10 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 28 November 2015 - 11:09 AM

These are two photos I took of my car years ago in actual moonlight:

 

Underexposed three stops with the camera set to 3200K:

moonlit2.jpg

 

Not underexposed:

moonlit3.jpg

 

The moon is a big sharp daylight-balanced light in the sky that produces hard shadows.  It can be coming from a back, front, side, or dead overhead angle just like the sun.  Movies tend to keep it to a backlit angle to maximize the amount of shadows the light creates in an open space.  How dark it is depends on how dark you expose for it.  How blue it is depends on the color temperature setting of the camera (because of our eyes adjusting to the color and the fact that our cones work less well in dim lighting, the moon seems silvery rather than blue, but it is definitely cooler than tungsten sources in the landscape).

 

When I was out in the desert that night, the moon was quite bright, it felt like I was in a bad day-for-night scene in a movie.

 

The thing is that half of what we do for scenes at night with no practical source other than the moon is just to see the screen action.  It may be "unrealistic" but of the director says that the audience won't see what is going on, can't see the performances, etc. then you're going to have to add more light or exposure.

 

Now in the case of my movie, we were referencing 1980's horror movies, which had a lot of blue HMI night lighting in them. I could have easily timed it more grey-ish silver in the D.I.


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#11 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 28 November 2015 - 11:17 AM

Sometimes, not always, I subscribe to James Cameron's theory of night lighting, which is to light the heck out of it and then print it way down.  This will give you an "open" quality to the shadows rather than heavy black shadows.  But the main problem with this, other than the amount of lighting needed, is that as soon as someone lightens up the image in post or presentation, it looks overlit.


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#12 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 29 November 2015 - 01:58 PM

You know--- I do wonder, would it not be rather interesting to use something like the A7S, with it's very high ISO to use actual moon-light and then maybe augment with tiny Christmas lights. Granted, this is rather rather insane to do-- but might be a new option when time or location doesn't permit rigging.


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#13 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 29 November 2015 - 07:10 PM

The trouble with shooting by real moonlight with the Sony A7S is the scheduling more than anything, the moon is full only a few days per month and you have to hope that the weather is clear on those nights.  The light levels get a lot lower if it is only a quarter moon on a hazy night, for example.  Plus on other nights, the moon might not even be in the sky for part of the evening.

 

On the other hand, assuming you can light this location, the Sony A7S would allow much smaller units to be used.


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#14 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 29 November 2015 - 07:12 PM

Very true-- though even discounting the real moon-light, though it would be interesting, such high usable ISOs do open up a whole new range of possibilities-- I wonder even what a cloudy  night would look like in a city park with just the bounced ambiance of streetlights-- or even just throwing up a large china-ball with some 100W LEDs in it,  that type of stuff. 


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#15 Guy Holt

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Posted 30 November 2015 - 12:02 PM

You know--- I do wonder, would it not be rather interesting to use something like the A7S, with it's very high ISO to use actual moon-light and then maybe augment with tiny Christmas lights. Granted, this is rather rather insane to do-- but might be a new option when time or location doesn't permit rigging.

 

Milestone_City_Scape_MoonLight.jpg

 

It is not as insane as you think. Cinema 5D just posted demo footage shot in near total darkness with a Sony A7S II with a Sigma 20mm F/1.4 Art Lens.  As you can see in the grab frames, at an ISO 50’000 the camera/lens combination is capable of getting an image under nothing but moonlight (use this link to see the complete video.)

 

Milestone_Towers_MoonLight.jpg

 

 

That's the perfect lighting for a night exterior.  It's lit, stylistic, but looks entirely natural to an average audience member.  I'd much prefer seeing a film shot like that with some 500T film rather than footage in available light on some new fangled digital camera at a high ISO setting.  Maybe it's not happening in forest scenes, but it looks like it's going that way a lot for urban/city night exteriors.  With available light, you lose this controlled, crafted look of cinematic lighting.

 

I have to agree with Jeff. A scene lit in a style that furthers the narrative is much preferable to shooting under available light, even if it is moonlight.  Given the continueing progress in camera technology, the moon is rapidly becoming  what the sun is today – something that has to be reckoned with.  As David pointed out, the moon rises and moves through the night sky, which means that you will need to chart its position in the sky and stage your action accordingly as we do with the sun.  If not, you will need to fly overheads to diffuse or block the moon as we do sun if it is not in an optimum position for the effect you are trying to create. And, because it  too will go behind a cloud, you would be better off lighting your scene for continuity.

 

Milestone_Volt_Set_WS.jpg

Set of Chevy Volt Spot powered by nothing more than a Honda EU6500

 

The low light capability of cameras like the A7 does not mean that we will not have to light night scenes, it just means that we will be able to use smaller and fewer lights. In fact, something of a milestone was recently set when a commercial for the Chevy Volt was shot with nothing more than Hive Plasma lights operating on batteries and a 60A generator. Normally, sets for car spots are cluttered with diesel generators, large feeder cables and the multiphase distribution boxes required to power big lights, cameras, and base camp trailers. A proof of concept spot for Hive, the spot was the first car commercial ever made where everything was powered by batteries and a 60A Honda EU6500is generator. Use this link to see the commercial and the behind-the-scenes “making of” video.

 

 

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#16 Jack De La Mare

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Posted 30 November 2015 - 06:39 PM

Paper lanterns can be dangerous in the woods. They are a fire hazard on a normal set, so you could easily create a large fire if one were to fall to the ground or even tip over and allow the bulb to contact the paper for a few seconds. This is almost certainly a bad idea.

The nice thing about fresnels and pars is that you can go with direct backlight or sidelight, or front light the deep background and allow the near foreground trees to play in silhouette (which works great for close ups with shallow depth), put them up high on a nearby hill, or even put them low behind a berm and uplight some smoke so that you just have a soft glow in background.

Other things people do are lighting balloons or other soft sources overhead for foreground ambience. That can require a lot of time and professional tree climbers on ropes to go up and secure the diffusion to the trees themselves. If you had them put up a large Ultrabounce rag without the frame, you could bounce some Lekos into it for the soft toplight. If you can afford it, putting a large HMI on a condor from a nearby service road would give you moonlight from a higher angle.

This is what we have done in the past - a line of 2K blondes far in the trees as high as we could get them. Thanks for the suggestion, it would be a good idea to have a large HMI up high but would a 2K HMI provide enough light? I'm trying to figure out some sort of plan based on what I have available.

 

I got the idea to use paper lanterns in the woods after reading about Stephen Burum using them for a scene in "Casualties of War" -- it works pretty well.  The trick is to get the cool tone -- when I did it in 2004, I think I used blue-dipped photofloods but today I'd try Cool White compact flos or LED bulbs that were daylight balance, and there is less risk of fire with those.  

 

I've also use rows of Kino tubes above the frame line mounted to tree trucks for a similar soft toplight effect.  This is just for the subject, you probably still need some big backlights for the background.  I once planned on using string lights with daylight compact flos in them but never had the chance, I was denied permission to get up into the trees.

 

With a lot of smoke and low backlights from the ground behind a low rise, you can get a nice silhouette effect, which is how Shelly Johnson lit a lot of the woods in "The Wolfman" and the second "Percy Jackson" movie.

Certainly a fan of Shelly Johnson's work on The Wolfman, and even though the lighting is not from a "natural" source, it fits the film perfectly. Here are a few screens from a previous project where we lit using the 2K method, as high as we could to replicate moonlight. Shot on a 550D so I was doing my best to keep the ISO low. 

 

Kn65Lqt.jpg

 

nOYwryC.jpg

 

RgDnG8h.jpg

 

So you'd recommend keeping the 2K/HMI's to replicate moonlight in the background, further down the road/through the trees, and then a softer light as the key light on the subject which we'd adjust as we go? I'd assume it would have to be very soft so it's not obvious to the audience that it is lit. We could diffuse some redheads or attempt to source a Kino locally. And I assume this key light would be more for the audience to see our action and characters rather than to replicate a "natural" light source?

 

I lit a big stretch of road with two 18K HMI's on a 125' condor, but at that distance, the lights weren't high enough to get out of frame, but luckily the road had a bend in it, so the condor ended up just off camera on the left side of frame.  I ended up hiding a little HMI Joker in the bushes on the right to create a cross-edge, just because otherwise I couldn't make out the figures clearly.  I asked for the road to be wet down, but once the truck passed through, the water made the road pitch black!  Because the backlights were more from the side, I didn't get a kick off of the road from them that I expected, so in the end, perhaps it would have been better to leave the road dry and dusty, though the blackness is sort of creepier:

That's the perfect lighting for a night exterior.  It's lit, stylistic, but looks entirely natural to an average audience member.  I'd much prefer seeing a film shot like that with some 500T film rather than footage in available light on some new fangled digital camera at a high ISO setting.  Maybe it's not happening in forest scenes, but it looks like it's going that way a lot for urban/city night exteriors.  With available light, you lose this controlled, crafted look of cinematic lighting.

Agreed - that's some beautiful lighting David! And that's purely from the 2 HMI's and the HMI joker you had in the bushes to pick out the characters?

 

The thing is that half of what we do for scenes at night with no practical source other than the moon is just to see the screen action.  It may be "unrealistic" but of the director says that the audience won't see what is going on, can't see the performances, etc. then you're going to have to add more light or exposure.

I've been looking at Dean Cundey's work on Jurassic Park and of course Kaminski's work on The Lost World. How do you think this and this were lit? It's similar to the look I want to find for my own short. It's very different to this shot, which always looked like it was lit by the park's own "service" lights at the side of the road, much like street lights. 

 

Thank you all for your help so far, it's really interesting to see how the A7S is handling moonlight. It's going to change low-budget filmmaking, that's for sure. Love the look of that scene David - what project was it from? :)


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#17 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 30 November 2015 - 07:09 PM

The size/power of the HMI's will depend on the ASA of your camera and the distance of the lights.  These days with digital cameras, a 1.8K HMI ARRI is pretty useful at night, similar to what you'd do with a 4K HMI on film, but this is assuming you can rate your digital camera at 1000 ASA or higher.

 

The other problem is the height -- the more you want to get a backlit effect, the higher the light has to go into the air to get out of the shot.  If you are stuck using light stands, then it is better to go for a side-light effect, unless you are lucky with a convenient hilltop nearby at the perfect spot for a backlight.

 

That race along the road with the T-Rex is a perfect example of having to side-light because the length of travel would be too great for a backlit angle, you'd end up driving towards the light and seeing it in the top of frame at the beginning and ending up at the base of the condor within a block and a half of driving probably.

 

That low shot of the jeep pulling up was backlit from high to light the rain but also edge/back lit from the left on a stand to highlight the side of the car.

 

The low wide shot of the jeep at the top of the waterfall was edge/back lit again from a light on a stand behind the hill but a huge light on a condor probably was side-lighting the hillside waterfall.

 

My shots were from "Jennifer's Body".


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#18 Jack De La Mare

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Posted 30 November 2015 - 08:55 PM

The size/power of the HMI's will depend on the ASA of your camera and the distance of the lights.  These days with digital cameras, a 1.8K HMI ARRI is pretty useful at night, similar to what you'd do with a 4K HMI on film, but this is assuming you can rate your digital camera at 1000 ASA or higher.

 

The other problem is the height -- the more you want to get a backlit effect, the higher the light has to go into the air to get out of the shot.  If you are stuck using light stands, then it is better to go for a side-light effect, unless you are lucky with a convenient hilltop nearby at the perfect spot for a backlight.

 

That race along the road with the T-Rex is a perfect example of having to side-light because the length of travel would be too great for a backlit angle, you'd end up driving towards the light and seeing it in the top of frame at the beginning and ending up at the base of the condor within a block and a half of driving probably.

 

That low shot of the jeep pulling up was backlit from high to light the rain but also edge/back lit from the left on a stand to highlight the side of the car.

 

The low wide shot of the jeep at the top of the waterfall was edge/back lit again from a light on a stand behind the hill but a huge light on a condor probably was side-lighting the hillside waterfall.

 

My shots were from "Jennifer's Body".

Intending to shoot on the Blackmagic Pocket, likely RAW. The native ASA for the BMPCC is 800 I believe, and I've seen some fantastic results from it at 1000 ASA. 

 

There is a short driving sequence in my script, so the side lighting used in the Rex chase in JP would be good to replicate as best we can? I assume it's multiple lights for as long as they need up the road, hidden in the trees to the side? 

 

Thanks for the info on how those shots were lit! Really helping me to understand the various setups to gain very similar results. Can't wait to do some experimenting with this before the shoot. Is there anything else you'd recommend/suggest for a night exterior shoot like this?

 

Great work on Jennifer's Body and thanks again for all of your help. :)


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#19 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 30 November 2015 - 09:13 PM

I'm not sure on your budget you should be planning on lighting a long stretch of road for a driving shot - you still need HUGE lights even if coming from the side because the further you get down the road, the more likely you are of seeing the start of the row of lights unless they can be hidden from camera with black flags and greenery, or if they can be backed way up.  Take a look at "Fargo" and "Sicario" -- both have a long driving sequence and Deakins doesn't even attempt to light the whole length of the road for moonlight, he lights the scene as if the spill from the headlights were lighting the actors and the sides of the road and lets everything in the distance fall off to black.

 

It might be different if you can light the road with a series of spots or pools as if from streetlamps, then you can get away with a spottier effect.


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#20 John E Clark

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Posted 01 December 2015 - 05:44 PM

This is a frame from a short I shot for a 48 hour film project... ok it was 77 hours, titled "4 Points Film Project"... but anyway...

 

BMPCC ISO 1600, RAW, f/2.0 on a 28mm Nikon lens, using street lighting and light from iPhone...

 

 

23159506820_7bdba634e6_z.jpg


Edited by John E Clark, 01 December 2015 - 05:45 PM.

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