Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer

Cinematic Excellence at 24 Frames a Second

How To Light A Film With Only 300w Of Light

The short film I shot recently, Two Wolves, exemplifies the principle of embracing your practical constraints and finding creative solutions within them. In this post, I'm going to take you behind the scenes of the film and show you the lighting setups (and diagrams) I used for the two primary scenes of the film. And the great thing about it is that we only used 300w for the entire film!

(I apologize for the stills; I grabbed them off of YouTube. So they have been compressed to death...)

Setup 01A:
The film opens with our lead breaking into a house through a window. Although a simple shot, it required a bit of visual trickery. The window and kitchen we wanted to use was in a different house than where the scene actually takes place. So as I lit it, I had to make it feel like the same place, while at the same time, not reveal too much detail giving away that the locations didn't match...

I only used one light for this shot- a 4' 4 bank MachTech 5600k LED through a 6'x6' frame of 1/2 grid. I had the G&E crew (2 people) raise it up as high as possible on the one combo stand we had. I then had them position it so that it gave some detail to the scene, but not too much.

The trick to making this shot feel connected to the next scene was in not revealing too much of the interior, and then coupling that with the action and movement of the talent.

Setup 01B:
The entrance of our lead screen right coupled with the camera movement helps to connect the two locations and make it feel like one location. The remainder of the scene takes place at the table and then moves to the window. I'll cover the lighting at the table first...

At the previous location I had the moonlight coming from screen right and projecting screen left. So to make sure that it felt like it was one location, I had to have the moonlight come from the same direction. And that pretty much dictated where the 4' 4bank MacTech & silk was placed.

To further connect the two locations, I wanted our male lead to have a soft blue edge coming from screen right. This edge would have been coming from the windows that he broke in from that are back in the kitchen- off screen. It's subtle, and it's not directly noticed by the audience- but it is felt. It is little touches like these that make for stronger images.

(I didn't get everything right in this scene. I've covered my mistakes in this post).

The tricky part about setting this light was controlling it. Even a 2' MacTech LED tube puts out a lot of light. Before it was controlled, light was spilling everywhere and completely breaking the illusion- it felt like sunlight... not the effect I wanted for the scene. To fix that, I had a 4x4 floppy put in to remove the bounce from the wall. And then I had a 2x3 flag put in to keep the light off of the far wall.

Here is what it looked like on set
The next key element was the lighting gag for the lantern. This ended up being more difficult than I had anticipated. The principle was simple- we rigged a 1' MacTech tube with  216 (thick diffusion), 1/4 CTO (Color Temperature Orange), and MS (Medium Straw). We arrived at this combination during our testing in preproduction.

The reason this proved difficult was because of the combination of the ceiling height, actor heigh, framing, and how the gag had to be manipulated. Unfortunately, the LED could not be dimmed, so that meant that our gaffer had to adjust the flag with the action. And he had to do this as the lantern made its way to the table. Adding this light in gradually made it feel like the lantern was providing the additional illumination. Fortunately, the dance everyone had to do ended up working.

The last touch I added to the lighting setup was a piece of foam core to our lead actress. This made the light more flattering on her as it brought up her fill levels. I kept the fill off of our lead actor, as I wanted him to be more menacing.

As the action moved to the window I turned off the gag lantern light and just let the "moonlight" play on the scene.  Now my goal became controlling fill levels. For our lead actress this meant carefully placing foam core to give her a flattering look that still fit the scene. And I kept the fill off of our lead actor to keep with the more menacing look.

One thing that I did forget to include in the lighting diagram is an extra light in the actors close up. I wanted to separate him from the background- I didn't want the side of his face to just disappear into nothingness. So I took one of the 2' MacTech tubes and had it slightly raise the levels of the wall behind him. The increased level on just the wall gave me the separation that I needed.

Setup 02:
The rest of the film takes place out in the barn. And since I was working with a small crew, and limited gear, it was all about working with the blocking and the environment to maximize what we had available to us.

So, to maximize our resources, I worked with AJ on blocking the scene around the key sources of light. This allowed me to set the key light once, and then just finesse the fill levels. The key light was our "moonlight" that was placed outside the window. To bring up the overall fill level to the the correct ratio, I took a 2' 2 bank MacTech Led and bounced it into the white side of a 4'x6' Sun Bounce. This light was kept high, and it always came from behind the camera.

By keeping the fill light behind and above the camera, it pushes the shadows it creates behind the talent. And by having it come from a high angle, it keeps the shadows off of the walls. So the result is that you get increased light levels without having to worry about double shadows. :) I then use 4'x4' floppies to control where the light fell on the scene.

For the closeups on our actress, I brought in the foam core and adjusted it to taste. Another subtle trick I did for the closeups was with the lantern light. In the story, our lead actress is actually dead. She only exists in his mind. In the opening of the film, I did not want to give this away through the lighting. So I made sure that all light sources played on her. However, when it came to the barn, I took the spill of the lantern light off of her. Removing the warm light form her, kept her character cold, and dead.

It was a subtle thing, easy to overlook, but I think it adds to the overall feel of the film, and helps to subtly communicate to the audience what is going on, without giving it away. I was able to keep our gag light off of her by having our grip hold and adjust a flag as she moved. That way the light would stay on the actor, but not on her.

Back at the bar I used the same gag light we used for the entire film, and then used a flag to keep the spill contained to the areas that I wanted it to fall on.

One last setup I'll quickly mention was the wide exterior of the barn. This shot was accomplished with only two 4' MacTech Tubes. One just of screen frame left, which provided fill to the front of the lower barn, and one hidden behind the barn that lights up the face of the top of the barn. Pulling off this shot was all about timing it correctly. We shot it just after the sun had set, so there was a little glow in the sky to provide depth to the frame, but it still looked like night. 

Oh, and I want to point out one other trick I used in this film. The astute reader has probably already noticed- but I set the white balance (WB) of the camera to 4000k. By placing it at this level, I was able to make the moonlight blue without gelling it, and make the lantern light just a bit more orange. The alternative would have been to gel the lights to where I wanted them to fall, and set the white balance at 5600k. But we didn't have the time or resources to go that route- and in the end it was unnecessary as we got the look we wanted through a simple camera adjustment.

And that is how I lit the entire film using only 300w of light. :)

Until Next Time - Get Out There And Shoot!

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