Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer

Cinematic Excellence at 24 Frames a Second

How To Create A Lighting Diagram

Preproduction is king in the projects that I work on. As demonstrated by the 48hr Film Fest I competed in, the better prepared you are going into a project, the better the end result and the easier it will be to deal with any challenges on set when they arise. (And believe me, they will happen). One of the crucial parts of preproduction for the projects that I am involved with is the creation of the lighting diagram, and I'm going to share with you what my process looks like...

The most important step to creating a successful lighting diagram is the location scout. Do whatever you can to make sure that there is time to scout and that you are a part of it. Sending a PA, or someone else from the production is less than ideal, as they will (most likely) not gather all of the information you need. The best case scenario is that you will be able to scout the location with all of the department heads. At a minimum it should be yourself, the director, gaffer, and key grip. Each of you has a different perspective and it is by utilizing each of those perspectives as a team that you will come up with the best game plan possible. If you want to know what you should be looking for in a location scout, check out my Cinematographer Series as I go into depth about it in lesson 201. But for the purpose of creating a lighting diagram, the three key parts of that process are: talking over the blocking of the scene, figuring out the path of the sun, and discussing the schedule. With these three pieces of information, I can make plans that will best fit the needs of the production. (For example, I can suggest the best times to shoot or to avoid shooting, which could result in significant savings in time and equipment.)
Frame from SunSeeker
I use two different programs to plot the position of the sun when I location scout. The first one is SunSeeker. This application uses your phone's GPS & camera to overlay the path of the sun on the screen as you rotate around the location. Point it in any direction and you instantly see where and when the sun will be. I have found the accuracy of this app to be good enough for figuring out the general location of the sun. If you are looking for exact times, and specific locations, this app is lacking, however it will get you in the ballpark. (Which is helpful when you are pressed for time during a scouting session). The second application I use is Helios. This is a fully featured, data rich application with precision. If you need to know exactly where and when the sun will be, need to calculate how long shadows will be, or need to know when the sun will clear a building, this is the app for you. However, the learning curve is steep, and it is not as quick or as easy to use as SunSeeker. So many times I find myself using this app back at the office after the location scout to pull up exact times and measurements. (As long as I've taken the correct measurements, and gotten my bearings while at the location this hasn't been a problem for me). Now that I know what the sun will be doing, where the camera will be pointed, and when we'll be there, I can head back to the office (or my local coffee shop) and start creating the lighting diagram.

(You might also like: How to Build a 4x4 Frame)

Here is an example of how this information can be applied as I create my lighting diagram. Using the picture above, let's say that the camera will be looking out that window, and the scene calls for a natural daylight look. According to my app, I have roughly from 8:30 am until about 10:00 am where the sun will be streaming directly through the window. Assuming that the camera can handle that much light, we could schedule the shots we need for that time frame, and use smaller lights or reflectors to augment what is occurring naturally. Alternatively, if the camera cannot handle that much light, and we have to shoot at that location during that time, I know that I'm going to have to either bring in some big guns to balance out the exterior light levels, or spend time rigging modifiers to the exterior to bring down the levels outside. Or better yet, if the schedule allows for it, we can use a smaller lighting package and shoot in that location after 10am, when the sun is being blocked by the building. By knowing the camera system, location scouting, and planning ahead I have at least three different solutions that I can apply and recommend all depending on the budget, crew, and schedule for the production.

OmniGraffle is an application I've been using for awhile now to create lighting diagrams like the one below:
Lighting Diagram using OmniGraffle
OmniGraffle is great as it has a myriad of templates that you can download to create your own customizable charts & graphs. For the example above, I used a mixture of architectural elements to create the floor plan and film light elements to rough in where I want the lights, what color temperature, and what style of lamp I want to use. (These additional templates were free to download). After scouting the location I developed a game plan to capture the look we were after based on the needs for this production. For this particular diagram, I wanted the interior light to be warm, and the exterior light to be cool.

An added benefit of creating a diagram like this is that I can play around with light positions and camera positions without wasting time and resources on set. In the example above, the scene took place at night and the blocking called for the talent to enter the moonlit room toward camera. So I placed a daylight Kino camera left. I knew that the next shot was going to be looking around the room, so that meant the only place left to put the Kino for that shot was the fire escape just outside the window. (Which you can see already placed in the diagram. Thinking and planning ahead can be a huge time saver). I also knew that due to the length of the hallway, the two hanging bare bulbs would provide a nice rim/edge light on the talent, but they would not provide enough shape on the background walls, so I brought in two 100w tungsten units to rake the dilapidated walls. (That brought out their texture which made for instant production value). Now all that was left was to make sure that the doorways in the hall did not fall into complete darkness, which is why I added the two 200w daylight figures, and the daylight kino deep in the background. As I move all of the elements around in the diagram I can pre-visualize the lighting, and make my camera and lighting moves as efficient as possible. The more efficient I can be on set, the more time I have to finesse the close-ups, get the shots we need, and stay on schedule.

While I still use OmniGraffle, and I still recommend it, I have found it frustrating to use from time to time. If you haven't caught on yet, I have a "Type-A" personality. (I'm very detail-oriented). As you can see in the diagram above, not all of the corners are straight, and doorways do not light up quite right. These little things bug me. Unfortunately, in OmniGraffle there are no options for snapping, or to make sure that everything connects neatly. It is all freehand, and each wall has to be drawn individually which leads to the "errors" that you see above. While this freehand approach allows for a lot of flexibility, it also result in added time since you have to draw the floor plan piece by piece.

Shot Designer
Shot Designer is a relatively new application, so I have only used it on a couple of projects to date, but so far, I'm really enjoying it. Here is a lighting diagram I created for a recent project:
Lighting Diagram using Shot Designer
Shot Designer has been designed from the ground up for use in the film community. Creating the floor plan is quick and easy as everything snaps into place. (Which makes my Type-A personality happy). And you can link items together so that it is just one click to adjust more than one item at a time. That means I can quickly get to work on the important parts of the diagram- the camera and light placement. Adding in camera moves, blocking, and light fixtures is painless, which I appreciate, as it allows me to experiment with with many different options without consuming a lot of time. For the diagram above, production provided me with storyboards to be used as rough guides, so I made a copy of each frame and integrated it into the diagram. Shot Designer also allows for the easy addition of labels and notes within the diagram. With all of this data, I was able to send this diagram off to my 1st AC, Gaffer, and Key Grip and we were literally working off of the same page, allowing for more efficient communication on set.

The scene above took place at night during World War II, and the primary light source for the interior were lanterns, while the exterior light came from the moon. I like my images to have depth and shape to them, and that means that the light needs to come from 3/4 front, the side, or the 3/4 back position so that the shadows fall toward camera. (Full frontal light tends to make for very flat, uninteresting lighting and images). Knowing that, I placed a key practical lantern behind the center bunk. This would give me a nice edge light on the guy in the bunk, and it would be a nice edge/side light for the Medic and the Chaplain. By knowing the blocking and camera placement in advance, I could plan accordingly and make the best use of the space possible. It also allowed me to communicate my needs to the set designer in regards to the placement of the lantern in the scene. (The other two lanterns could be aesthetically placed in other areas of the set on the day of the shoot).

Shot Designer is primarily a camera/blocking tool, and not a lighting tool. Because its emphasis is on the camera department, the selection of lights and light modifiers is very limited. OmniGraffle has a much better and more intuitive selection. However, by changing the color of the fixture to yellow or blue you can indicate a daylight or tungsten source, and by adding in some notes you can clarify what type of fixture or modifier you want to use. I also highly recommend upgrading to the pro version, as it allows you to share your documents, as well as have access to the desktop version of the application. And being able to use the extra real-estate of the desktop screen comes in handy as the diagram gets more complicated.

Working With Your Team
Creating lighting diagrams not only gives you the opportunity to try out different approaches, but it allows you to effectively communicate with your crew. As a cinematographer, I am familiar with a lot of lighting tools, grip gear, and even set design elements, but I'm not an expert in any of these areas. By showing my plan to the rest of my team, and more importantly, communicating my desired results, my Gaffer, Key Grip, and Set Designer can make informed decisions and recommendations about what tools to use to get the job done. There have been many times where my crew has made recommendations that were a lot better than my initial idea. And that is precisely the point of planning ahead and working with professionals who are better at their job than you are. They know the gear, and can get you the results you are after.

Do you create lighting diagrams? If so, what are you using and what do you like about your approach? Are there any other tips or tricks that you find helpful as you location scout, or create your diagrams?

Until Next Time - Get Out There And Shoot!
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