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Let There Be Light part 2
by Patrick Storck

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Continuing our look at lighting, this time we're going to go over some tricks you can ply with the lighting, some of the equipment, and so on. First let's look at color.

Besides using colored lighting to establish time of day or night, subtle hints of color can affect mood, and bright washes of color can give otherworldly exaggerations of mood. Some examples would be Tim Burton's early work and the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series. Bright splashes or washed out areas of red and green create a sense of heat, slime, filth and dread, blue washes push an idea of tranquility, and pink can give an idea of either innocence or, in odd contrast, sexuality, depending on the context and the rest of the scenario.
The way to color the scene is simple. There are thin colored plastic sheets called "gels" that you put in front of the lights. The light comes through in that color. You can mix and match gels to get the exact color or shade you need. Some gels are more opaque than others, which can affect how deep the color change is, how much colored light actually gets through, and if the light is pushed hard on the targeted area or cast softly around the room. You can get uncolored ones if you want to diffuse simple white light. Generally I suggest you cover color with the most translucent gels, and diffusion of light with different gels, sheets, silks, etc. That way it's easier to mix and match with less total sheets to sort through.

If you're wondering where to find gels, and you can't find a local store that carries them, go to the closest college or high school. Very few do not have some sort of theater department. Ask their theater teacher, drama club moderator, etc., where they get the gels for their plays. If they somehow don't know, check the next school. Sometimes they'll even be willing to give you extra sheets they don't need, old ones they want to replace, or scraps left over. Free is free.

Do not try and just use plastic you find that has color tint to it. Blue static cling, the lid to a sealable container, that sort of thing. That plastic is meant for sealing. It is not made to stand up to long exposure to intense heat, and can easily melt, burn, and either stick to a bulb or pop it. One is an annoyance, the other a serious safety risk. Any time you spend trying to think around this problem is time you could have spent just getting the right thing that's safer and works a lot better.

For diffusion, don't use paper. I mentioned the heat just a moment ago. If you can't do the math, have fun. Using non-theatric diffusion means you should keep anything you use at least six inches from the bulb. Regularly check to make sure it isn't burning, smoking, browning, etc. For the theatrical stuff still keep a good distance, really. as much as you can and still get coverage.

Go to a craft store, sewing store, etc., and pick up some silk sheets of cloth. Silk has shown to work best because it holds up fairly well against the prolonged warmth, it has a nice level of transparency, and it has a good, tight weave. Cheaper but more coarse fabrics can allow pin hole spots to pepper your scene, and areas where the threading bunches up can give you dark patches. Again, save some trouble and get the best option first. If you want to experiment with other fabrics and have the budget, you might find something to your taste, but for standard coverage, go ahead and justify the existence of bugs.

If you can afford a proper lighting kit, great. If not, for a few dollars you can hit a decent hardware store, get some nice clamp fixtures that handle standard bulb screws, the bulbs, some metal and wooden poles, duct tape, and extension cords. The clamp fixtures should have a metal dish around them. This is good for absorbing heat, bouncing the light to a broader area, and they're cheap as hell. The poles and duct tape (and screws and clamps and such if you want to make something sturdy, I guess) are to build a light grid. High, low, pointing in any given direction you need. Get a lot of it all. You buy it once, you own it for every project you do from here on out, so this is someplace it pays not to be cheap. Well, buy the cheap stuff. Just a lot of it.

There are halogen bulbs, filament bulbs, soft bulbs, high-wattage, low-wattage, all sorts of bulbs. Get a couple of each. Besides being able to experiment, you'll have spares if one or two pop. Since each situation calls for different lighting, you'll find they all eventually serve their purpose. Read the boxes for any information on the life of the bulb, the power it uses, and any heat information. It's on the box for you to know.

Now test each bulb, untouched by any color or diffusion. Find a big wall, preferably with a flat paint rather than gloss, and darker in color. Set up the light and the camera, and watch through the view finder. See what sort of coverage they give from side to side, how much they wash out the color of the shot, and how big any hot spots are. Move the light closer and further, light from the side, really mix it up. Get a feel for each light, then start combining them. Write down your findings. When you're shooting it's easier to look it up then it is to spend a few minutes experimenting and trying to remember. Eventually you'll remember it all.

Now for two tricks to play with.

One advantage of digital video is that it captures color better, and gets a truer and more vibrant look. It captures better in natural light, for one. Since brighter lights do white out some of the color, if you were to over light a scene properly, then adjust the aperture as discussed last time, you could in-camera flatten out the color of a shot overall, giving your digital video a more film-like look. It doesn't affect pixels, artifacts, blur, and other DV issues, but it does help as a subtle trick.

If you're shooting outdoors, or you haven't found gels, or you want a stylistic tint to your entire shot, or you just need to correct some source light that it giving off the wrong color (like a street lamp with a yellow casing, as an example I had to deal with), there's another in-camera trick. Before any shot, you should white-balance your camera. White balancing basically sets the camera to process white as white, and all other colors properly based off ot that. Due to quite a few different factors, your camera may not be set exactly right when you turn it on, so doing this keeps a consistency to your shots. If things change through the day, or you take a break and shut the camera off, or whatever, this can save a lot of color correction time in post.

That wasn't the trick. The trick is that you tell the camera what white is. If you want a slight nighttime look, get a sheet of off-white paper that tints toward a very light orange, a soft peach maybe. Balance the camera toward that, and it processes everything else accordingly. You fake the blue tint without any gels, filters, or other equipment. A benefit of this is that if lighting situations change, that paper is always the same starting point. If you're doing two separate days of the same scene, this means you don't have to worry about how many gels were on which lights where. Light the scene, tint it, shoot. The white balance only has a certain range it can adjust, so you probably won't be able to get bright green construction paper to zero out. If you try, though, you might get some interesting effects for a trippy dream sequence or something. Another thing to play around with.

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Other Columns
Other columns by Patrick Storck:

That Should Be In a Movie

2010: A Year We Could Make Contact

Bad Movie Christmas

Suggested Reading

Thanks again!

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Patrick Storck
Patrick hails from Baltimore, MD, where playing by the rules is frowned upon. Only average things come from playing it safe.


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If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Patrick Storck by clicking here.


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