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Lighting for Depth

How to Improve Your Lighting

Here’s an article for cinematographers and videographers to help them to start thinking about ways to improve their lighting.

One of the challenges in lighting is creating depth.   After a while, lighting the people in front of the camera becomes fairly easy once you learn what kind of light works for your actors’ faces, but the real fun is lighting the background.   This is where you can create mood and depth on your set.  The way to this is as varied as the sets you’re working on, but let’s cover a few.

I highly recommend that you scout the locations out before the shoot and if you can and bring the art director along.  Working with the director, your job can be made easier by deciding on angles and knowing what kind of props like lamps, paintings, furniture other decorations you have available to set in your background.  You will get an idea of what kind of light comes in from the existing lights and from the windows if there are any and how you can use it for the lighting schemes.

Let’s start in a living room in a house.   Your director has two people standing and chatting away.  Consult with your director on how you can stage them to create a deep background and not have them stand in front of a flat/blank wall.   Maybe one has the front door behind them and the other person has the house’s dining room in the background.

We’ll talk about the person with the door behind them.  You could have a lamp on a table by the door which cast some light on the wall.  This is called using a practical.  Maybe this can be a warmer light than what’s falling on your subjects.   Using different color temperatures is a good way to create depth.   You can put this lamp on a dimmer to control the light levels.

Another trick is to shine light through a window to cast the pattern of that window on the wall.  If you need more breakup, you can dangle a tree branch in front of the light to create more shadows and shapes.  Don’t depend on the sun unless you can shoot very fast because that darn earth rotation will move a cool pattern out of your shot.

When shooting a “Letter From Death Row”, we had Martin Sheen visiting his son in prison.  The problem was, Martin’s angles were shot months later in a studio 2000 miles away from the original prison we used in Nashville.   We didn’t have a big budget to create a full prison set, so I was forced to light the location carefully so I ended up putting a slash of light on the back wall to create depth.

Now, maybe there is no window.  Don’t let that stop you.  Talk with the director and ask if you’re ever going to see all the walls of this room ever in the movie.  If the director says we’ll never see, let’s say the wall on the left, then you are free to create your own window.  Take a piece of foam core and cut a rectangle and place some gaf tape on it to make the different window panes.  Place that foam core in front of one of your lights and aim it at the wall.  Viola, you have an interesting pattern on your wall.

For the film “King of Irontown” (directed by Mickey Fisher, creator of the CBS series “Extant” starring Halle Berry and produced by Steven Spielberg) I had a locker room which was very plain, so I used the barn doors on a light to create a pattern on the back wall to give a sense of depth.

On the horror film “Season of Darkness” I used Venetian blinds to create a nice pattern on the wall of the set.  The key is to find ways to use whatever you have at hand in your lighting to form a sense of depth.

On the film “Foreign Correspondents” I had Melaine Lynsky and Will Wheaton sitting on the front stoop of an apartment building at night.  We ended up leaving the door open so we could use the ceiling lights in the hallway to create depth.  I added a slash of light on the exterior wall of the building to give some middle ground.

Now, we can move to a restaurant location with a couple having a conversation over dinner.  You light your actor and it’s time to look at the backgrounds.   Again, work with your art director to have some items in the background.  Maybe there’s a bars sign on the wall if it’s that kind of place.   Maybe you can string up some white Christmas lights to have some sparkle on a back wall.   This works great if you have limited depth of field so the lights good out of focus.  You can use some of your lights to create slashes or pools of light in the backgrounds.

Also, don’t forget about color temperatures.  If it’s a cheesy (pardon the pun) pizza place, maybe there are fluorescent lights.  You can let them go green or add green to give the room a sick look, while keeping your actors in white or warm light.   If it’s a romantic place, maybe keep the lights warm and soft.   Let the background go a little darker with a few slashes of light.  This will make your actors stand out from the background and make the audience focus on them.

Exteriors are harder on a low budget because you may not be able to afford the big guns like 20Ks or Musco Lights.  Again, a location scout will be helpful.   If you’re shooting in an urban local with lots of buildings, work with the director to line up shots using the lighting that is already there.  This is like interiors where you use a practical lamp as a source, except it’s a security light or display window.   Here you can use different color temperatures to create depth.

In the background of one shot, I was doing there was a parking garage with fluorescent that had a green tint that was great for separation.  Today, most street lights are sodium vapor which give off a very orange light.  If you use tungsten light for your subjects and balance to that, then you have great separation.

For shooting in the woods, I like to get a fog machine to lay a blanket of smoke in the background which I backlight to create depth.  Another option for the woods is backlighting a tree to create depth.

In general, always think about ways to create depth in your shots using angles and with lighting.   As I said at the beginning of this article, lighting people gets easy, but the fun is lighting the background.

Scott Spears is an Emmy winning cinematographer and owner of Production Partners Media which provides video production in the Columbus, Ohio area.   You can learn more about him at www.productionpartnersmedia.com


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