Here is part two of our ongoing series regarding the go-to lighting package that I use in the field. Many of you commented on part one of this post that the lighting package was huge. That was only a 20th of it! I am asked to slim it down all the time and I love it because it challenges me as a DP to not always look to the obvious light package, but to use the natural light in a space to serve me well. I wanted to break it down into a much smaller package that will be great for a short film, documentary, interview, and/or corporate media.
The Basics of Light
When you have a small team to tell your story, you need to find lights that do many things and provide many color temps. You need some that can focus and ones that are a broad source. I am on a web series right now, and it is not the blow-up action that I have done in the past. It tells a story about families, friends, upbringing, values, morals, honor, integrity, and courage. These interviews are personal, intimate, and revealing.
Deliverables from the DP Viewpoint
The director and executive producer are Maurice Marable, an incredibly talented artist from NYC. We have been working together for over 15 years.
Maurice said, “I want to tell stories, not just cover them.”
Look at the line above. This is what all of you have to find in your soul. Be a storyteller, not just a shooter. There is a difference between being a Director of Photography and a shooter. A shooter asks the director how he wants it to look and feel and is constantly asking for guidance.
A Director of Photography takes the treatment and visually dissects it, looks at what the story is and how he can best tell this story and presents a visual landscape to deliver the director’s vision. A DP has a point of view; a shooter needs the director to give him the point of view.
So with this in mind, how am I going to put together a package that will be small, nimble, versatile, and inexpensive? We have a smaller budget and still need to deliver the visual landscape that I pitched to Maurice.
Lighting Ideas for Small Spaces
I knew that we were going into family homes and that they were not going to be palatial mansions; they were working class. We needed a B-Roll run and gun package that required no generators. We had to plug this into walls and not blow circuits.
In thinking this all through, you need to be very versatile with your lights and be able to react to things that are thrown at you. We knew that we were going in without seeing many locations ahead of time. I wanted to give Maurice a much bigger look than expected, but keep it real.
Here is the deal. We can go for a stylized look, shallow focus, swing a tilt, contrast in lighting, pool lighting, top light, etc. But is that conveying the message? We want to present these people as real people, in their family homes, so anything other than natural lighting will fail to tell the story.
Start with the Key Light
I like to start with my key light first. With limited space, I need a light that will have a punch. So if you are in a situation where you have to balance the inside with the outside, it works. Something that is not long, so you can put it in a small room and still have the space to diffuse it.
I will need a daylight source option as well as a tungsten one. Looking at the photos, I see a lot of windows. One thing that says corporate videos more than anything else is warm key lighting and the light out the windows goes a cobalt blue. Don’t do this. Bring a light that you can gel or make it daylight-balanced so that you don’t get this effect.
Suggestions for Daylight Key Light:
1200 Watt HMI Par:
You can plug this into the wall, 5500-degree color temp. This light has four lenses — Narrow, Medium, Wide, and Super Wide. It is a very resourceful light. We are looking for lights that multi-task. This can also cheat sunlight through a window, be a hard backlight, or to be used as a book light.
800 Watt Joker:
Same as the 1200-watt HMI Par except for lower wattage and cheaper to rent.
575 Watt HMI Par:
Same as the 1200-watt HMI Par, just half the wattage and cheaper to rent. This is about as low as you can go in the wattage and still be able to do all the things that I described above. You will have to go much harder with your key light in trying to balance the inside to the outside. That is why I like the 1200 par. I can shoot it through thicker diffusion.
Suggestions for Fill Light:
If you are going with a daylight key, which I had to do, I try to use the natural light first. I prefer to orient the talent in a way that works with the natural light in the location. Turn off the lights in the room and see which direction the natural window light is going. Then make that side the key. Try not to fight what is already happening in the room. Embrace it. If you go against it, you will find yourself using many more lights to overpower what is already there and burn time. Open up a window, a door, etc. Use anything that is already there. The natural light will look so good. It takes a lot to create the look of natural light and you will not have that arsenal in your package. So go with it.
575 Watt HMI Par:
This is a great compact source that will be perfect for a bounce to give you soft light fill onto your talent.
Lowel 1000 Watt Tota Light into a Silver Umbrella:
This is a great fill light to clip your CTB gel to it. Nice color contrast with your daylight-balanced key light.
1K Open Face:
You can use bead board or foam core for a bounce, or sometimes if you have white walls, you can just use the wall. I try not to select rooms that have white walls, but most of the locations had white walls. How do you attack this? I try to light through windows because you will not have a big grip package to control your light.
By shooting it through a window, you are using the physical attributes of the home to assist you in controlling your fill or key light source. This is critical. Diffuse your light outside of the room as well so that the source doesn’t fly all over the white walls. If you can use some flags, then go for that, but in most of these rooms, if you set a flag, it is probably in the frame.
I always bring some utility lights that help take my visuals that much higher and help tell the story.
You can replace Daylight and Tungsten balanced bulbs in existing fixtures. Cool White and Warm White bulbs added to your Kino Flo fixtures balance your key light and fill light with what is in your location.
One Light Fay:
This is a great little light that offers a ton of punch for 650 watts. I use these to bounce a splash of hot tungsten light in the background.
Buy the One Light Fay:
Home Depot Clamp Lights:
I use these to place in the BG sometimes to give out-of-focus bokeh if the story warrants it. They are also great for splashes of tungsten light. You can use flood or spotlights in them.
Read the posts on Home Depot lighting — Part 1 and Part 2.
Shaping the Light
The lights are important to your look, but a particular mood comes from lighting control. This is your grip package.
Having a small flag package is essential. Use some 4 x 4 empty frames or flex fill diffusion for your key lights. Remember, flex fills are cool, but they have no way to support themselves. They require much more grip support to be able to use them for traditional lighting.
C-stand is probably the most useful piece of grip gear I have ever used. There are not many things you cannot do with that stand. That is why they call it a Century-Stand — because it has a hundred uses.
A few ladders are needed to be able to get to the lights, rig sources in the ceiling, etc. Cartellini clamps are another grip rigging essential. These things will grab onto anything and are useful for light rigging as well as camera support and car mounts.
Last but not least is a Chimera softbox. I usually get the medium bank with a 1200 par ring and a tungsten open-face ring so that I can use this soft quality of light either daylight or tungsten. Just because you have a daylight source doesn’t mean you need those Chimera daylight banks. They are too big and cumbersome. They would never fit into these tight locations.
A Few Ideas from Camera
In the lens department, for interviews, I feel it is absolutely essential for zoom lenses to be in your package. This doesn’t make you a lazy filmmaker. It makes you a proactive storyteller. It enables you to react to serendipity moments from the talent.
Reacting to these moments with a fixed focal lens can be impossible with the restrictions of the space. In these tight spaces, I rarely find a prime lens that makes the right frame. So unless you want to carry a large number of primes, I suggest a few lightweight zooms. I am using the Canon 15.5 to 47 and the 30 to 105mm.
Camera motion was very important to Maurice. He wanted the camera to be in constant motion. For this, I employed two different devices. Why two different ones? Again, we did not know what cards we would be dealt at our location.
I selected a Cineped for stability and versatility. These allowed me to be able to take off the slider and put it on apple boxes for low slides. I knew this would be huge for all the B-roll footage.
The second motion device was the Dana Dolly. The reason to use this tool was that I could go longer than three feet.
What are your ideas about lighting packages that have worked well? How have you been creative with a small footprint?
Looking for mentorship in the film industry? Schedule a 1-on-1 meeting with Shane Hurlbut, ASC today! This is where you can get expert advice from an industry professional on your career or a particular project.
About Filmmakers Academy Cinematographer Mentor Shane Hurlbut, ASC
Director of photography Shane Hurlbut, ASC works at the forefront of cinema. He’s a storyteller, innovator, and discerning collaborator, who brings more than three decades of experience to his art. He is a member of the American Society of Cinematographers, the International Cinematographers Guild/Local 600, and The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Hurlbut frequently joins forces with great directors: McG’s Netflix Rim of the World and The Babysitter, plus Warner Bros. We Are Marshall and Terminator: Salvation; Scott Waugh’s Need for Speed and Act of Valor; and Gabriele Muccino’s There Is No Place Like Home and Fathers and Daughters. His additional film credits include Semi-Pro; The Greatest Game Ever Played; Into the Blue; Mr 3000; Drumline; 11:14, which earned Hurlbut a DVDX nomination; and The Skulls. Notably, his television credits include the first season of AMC’s Into the Badlands.