Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer

Cinematic Excellence at 24 Frames a Second

Three Secret Lighting Tips For Next Your Action Film


Shooting an action film is a daunting task under the best of circumstances, let alone when you have a small lighting crew of three, and a tight schedule. In this post, I'm going to share with you how we pulled off a two day shoot in one day, and give you the three lighting secrets you need to know to make your next action film look amazing.

(You can watch the whole short film as well as the BTS video at the bottom of this post)

Secret Lighting Tip 01: It's All About The Preproduction
As I have mentioned in previous posts about pulling off high quality visuals with limited resources, the key to great lighting is determined during the preproduction process. And this is especially true when it comes to an action film.

The most difficult part of lighting an action film with a limited budget, a small crew, and a tight schedule is the amount of space that you have to light. Unlike a drama that takes place within the confines of a house, or small room, when I light an action film, I have a lot of space to cover. In this instance, that meant a 10,000 square foot warehouse. To light that amount of space meant that I would need large lights - think 18k HMI's, a large crew and a pre light day to rig them. And that was not going to happen...

Since I couldn't use artificial light to place the sun where I wanted it, that meant I had to embrace what was there and plan accordingly. The first step in making this happen was to scout the location to see what it provided me, and to see how the sun affected the light at the location. So I broke out my go to sun app- SunSeeker.


Fortunately for me, this location faced North/South, so that meant that the windows faced East/West. Due to the large windows on either side of the building, it meant that the sun would come pouring in during the morning and the afternoon, and it could do the heavy lifting. All I would have to do is point my camera in the correct direction. There would only be a small window of time (midday) where the location would not look great.

So the director, Shawn Nelson, and I, set the following plan in motion:
Looking East
In the morning we shot looking east to take advantage of the sun- which would be our key light. (It ended up being very "side-y" which was perfect for the look we were after).

Looking South
At midday, we would look south, and we would take our lunch break to allow the sun to continue to move westward. (There were only a couple of shots that looked good during the midday sun, as the sun only backlit some of the windows).

Looking West
In the afternoon we shot looking west, to again take advantage of the sunlight that raked through the windows.


Secret Lighting Tip 02: It's All About The Accents
While the sun did a lot of the heavy lifting for us, that doesn't mean we could just show up and shoot. The next step to crafting the light to how I wanted it to look for this film was to supplement it, add accents, and remove it from areas that I didn't want it appearing.

This is an element of great lighting that I am still mastering- knowing where, and when to place or remove accent light in the scene. For this particular film, we were shooting in a VERY large warehouse, and I did not want to lose that feeling of depth. Instead, I wanted to capitalize on it. So that meant that I had to place lights in the scene that would help me to show off the depth of the location, while at the same time not draw attention to itself.

Background Accents
And this is where having a small lighting package actually paid off- 95% of the accent lights in the background are from the 5x 4' MacTech LED tubes we had. Due to their high CRI, daylight color temperature, high light output, and low power draw, they were the perfect light to use. (Especially since we only had 3x 20 amp circuits to work with…).

More Background Accents
By adding in these background accents to the shots, I was able to add extra depth and texture to each shot. Without these accents, the background would have fallen off into black, and we may as well have been shooting in someone's garage, not a warehouse...


Secret Lighting Tip 03: It's All About The Location & Props
As much as I would love to say that it was my ingenious lighting that made this film look the way it does, the truth is that it would not have looked as good as it did if the right location and props had not been used.

And this is where I see the majority of indie & small productions failing. They don't put the time and resources into finding (or dressing) great looking locations. I could have had a 20 person lighting crew, 3 days of pre-lighting, and a $15,000 lighting budget, and if we would have shot this film up against a 20' x 20' white walled room with plastic toy guns, it would have looked like crap. And it would have made my job A LOT TOUGHER! Instead of accenting the location and embracing the texture, I would have had to hide and minimize everything as much as possible.

Location & Props Make All The Difference
The texture of this location was amazing- the walls were covered in paint, dirt, and dust; they were falling apart. We added some visqueen to the doorways, and spray painted that to add more texture. We had a briefcase of "coke," and all of the guns were real (but outfitted with the proper blanks, and handled by trained professionals, of course). It is all that little detail that added up to create what ended up on screen.

Embrace What You Have
By finding the proper location, outfitting it with the right props & set dressing, and then scheduling our day to take advantage of the light, we were able to maximize the one shoot day that we had to make this film happen. While I would have loved to have had an additional day to shoot, as we were pinched for time when we moved outside for the exterior car sequence, in the end it was about embracing what we had to work with and maximizing it to our fullest potential.

Bonus Tip: Know When To Cut Your Losses
One of the biggest time sucks on this project were the squibs. They ate up a lot more time than we had anticipated or planned for. This really made me concerned about shooting the exterior car scene- as that was going to be completely available light, and it was the last thing to shoot on our schedule.

So, after we got what we needed in the interior fight scene, I talked with Shawn about skipping the groin squib shot, and coming back to it after we shot everything else. While the groin shot was "cool," it really wouldn't matter if we had that shot, but missed the exterior car scene which would introduce the film. And Shawn, who was feeling the same pressure, agreed.
Pickup Shot - done after dark
Fortunately, I knew that since this was a close up, and I knew the tools I had available to me, we could come back and I could light it to match everything else. And when we returned to a completely dark warehouse to shoot our last shot of the day- I did just that.

Using a source four as the "sun light," I had it positioned to rake across his leg like the sun had done earlier that day. I then took a couple of MacTech tubes, had them bounced into a 4' x 6' white Sun Bounce, and raked that across the background. And, viola- an insert shot that cuts perfectly with what we shot earlier that day.

(SIDE NOTE: This is where having a light meter and a good memory come in handy. I remembered what the scene felt like, and my meter allowed me to dial in the proper light levels to match what we already shot).

[And for those of you who remember the tutorial I did on building a wireless transmitter for $275, this is the project that we used it on- and it worked great. :)]

What tips do you have for shooting & lighting an action film on a tight budget and with a small crew?

Until Next Time - Get Out There And Shoot!
Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer

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