Real Lighting Situations: Creating Moods in an Environment

Update: I wrote this about 4 years ago but I'm moving it up the list as it's got some useful info : )

Great looking shots stand out from good-looking shots when the “whole picture” is taken into account.

More often than not, when I’m asked to light and shoot something, I have at least a day or more to prep. I work in commercial and corporate production environments so I typically shoot things, whether it’s commercials or interviews, that are “lit” as opposed to ENG where I’m running around capturing what’s happening right now.

Lighting experience is about 75% of the reason I get booked and it’s my favorite part of my job. The other 25% is Directing or as a DP that operates. As a Director of Photography I’m quite experienced with the latest cameras and of course I’m very knowledgeable about lenses but I still gravitate towards lighting. I think the reason for this, is that it’s never the same. Every location is unique, every face is unique. I’m drawn to lighting existing locations vs. lighting in a studio where sets are built. My goal is to enhance what’s naturally there or create a look that is appealing but in a way that makes it look like no lighting was added. I think I achieved that in both of the examples in this blog post.

One of my clients calls lighting “black magic” or “voodoo” because she finds it so amazing how a scene will look strange to the naked eye on set but on the monitor it looks amazing. I love it when a client says the shot looks perfect when I’m only halfway through lighting the scene and then when I make final tweaks they say, “wow, I didn’t understand what you were doing but now that I’ve seen it this way the other way wasn’t nearly as nice.”

As I mentioned earlier, great lighting is when you don’t see it but the scene feels good and communicates the intended message even when no words are spoken. If you achieve this you’ve done your job.

The idea for this blog post was a bit unexpected. I shot two interviews in a similar fashion, in the same location, about two years apart from each other. They have two very different feels. I had no intention of ever comparing them but after looking at them side by side it was a perfect opportunity to walk through my thought process for each.

Now I know I’ve been talking about lighting so far but if you revisit the first sentence of this post it’s the whole picture that has to taken in account every time and the comparison I’ll be showing is a perfect example of this. We’ll look at choices in lighting, wardrobe and art direction. I’ll try to keep is a brief as possible.

The first shoot was a testimonial interview about a drummers experience with creating a promo video as a promotional marketing tool. It was shot with very minimal lighting.

Cam A – Shot

Cam B – Shot

The second shoot was a testimonial interview about a woman’s positive experience with her veterinarian.

Cam A – Shot

Cam B – Shot

Both interviews were shot with two cameras and for camera people who may be reading this; the cameras couldn’t have been more different from each other. In fact 4 different types of cameras were used, two for each interview. It’s a subtle hint that for 65 – 75% of the jobs I’m on, the camera doesn’t really matter. Yes, there is a time when it does matter but my first concern on a job is never the type of camera. So let’s get right into it.

This location was a house I lived in. My wife and I had just moved to Seattle, WA from Scottsdale, AZ and I was really excited about the change of scenery. So with that in mind, for this interview I was excited to embrace a rainy, cool kind of feeling. The color of the walls in the house helped the sell the coolness and I had my talent wear gray, which further helped the calm tone. I also added umbrellas to the background to subconsciously push the “rainy day” tone.

I’m not going to make something out to be a miracle if it isn’t and this is a perfect example. It was overcast outside and because of that I had almost no shadows in the shot. I really didn’t have to do much to achieve my look. Always use what is naturally available and enhance if you can. And as a rule of thumb, that’s the whole point when picking a location, you want to make sure you choose a location that helps sell the tone and story. Otherwise you are adding way more work and most of the time it simply won’t look as natural. I only used 2 light fixtures for this shoot on my talent if I remember correctly. I used one 4ft Kino as the key light to carry the natural window light and a very subtle kicker on the fill side which I would assume was maybe an Arri 650 with ¾ CTB bounced off of  bead board. I also used an Arri 150 to put a little light on a bamboo plant that I placed in the foreground. That’s it. Here is a crappy behind the scenes photo.

Behind the Scenes photo

That’s it for this interview. Could I have added a bunch of little things here or there? Of course. Did it need it? Not for what I was looking to achieve. If you are new to lighting you might be wondering about 3 point lighting or other techniques you may have read about. I personally tend to avoid backlight and instead use the background to achieve separation either naturally based on a carefully chosen location or by adding background light. Is it the right way to do it? The answer is that it’s neither right or wrong, it’s simply an opinion and a lighting style. When I first started to grasp lighting, I used back lights and I still do sometimes. But if you think about it, many times a backlight is used for separation but it’s a completely non existent light source. Watch any Hallmark holiday movie and you’ll see it all the time. I simply prefer to get that separation a different way that feels more natural. Here is a screengrab from my favorite movie Amelie. See how the DP, Bruno Delbonnel uses the background to create separation for the actor to add depth. Looks great!

Amelie screen grab

So on to our second interview. For this one, I wanted to take it in a completely opposite direction. I was going for a very bright warm, colorful feel with visible “sun source” in the shot. This situation was way more produced and planned. All the props were carefully selected and placed. From the wardrobe to the furniture, everything was strategically selected. She was talking about this great experience with her vet even when her dog had surgery. I wanted it to be a bright, all is happy and good feeling. The previous interview with the drummer was a, “Hey dude, want to swing by for 30 min and let me ask you some questions?” It was VERY quick and impromptu.

Anyway, to create this sunny interview, once again I started with choosing a day that fit the look which was a bright day. I blocked out quite a bit of light off camera left from windows and a skylight and then added my “sun” to the background through the front door window on the right. I enhanced the natural window light on the right which served as her key and added specials (fixtures for specific items in the scene) to props like the flowers for Cam B’s shot. The goal here for me was to create enough light for the entire scene that even if the sun went behind a cloud for a moment it wouldn’t be noticeable. And it worked. Here are some behind the scenes photos and a behind the scenes timelapse of the setup.

My created “Sunlight” and the actual Sunlight that comes in the window in the morning. My fake sun is a lot softer and pleasing to look at.

Most likely waiting on a garbage truck to pass outside.

By not hanging the background prop on the wall it was much easier to move it into the right spot for the camera. Working smarter not harder!

Using the tools available. No HMI’s on this gig, so we put 1/2 CTB on a Source 4 to create our sun. Nets helped bring the dynamic range within reason since we were shooting directly out the window with a Canon 5D, a camera that’s not so great with blown out highlights.

It was hot that day. These two were troopers.

Panoramic shot of the room.

This was a shoot that was intended to be used for a pitch so there was no client. We took our time lighting it and we did a little extra because we could. Cameras were RED One and Canon 5D.

You probably noticed sliders/dollies and I want to make sure I mentioned something about that. Regarding camera movement, I have a very strong opinion that for a commercial or narrative film, the camera should move only when motivated to do so. I teach that to students and use that in my own work. However, I am a fan of the dolly creep for interviews. It gained popularity quite a while ago and some hate it, but I do like it. I think it makes the interview feel nice most of the time. Do I always do it? No. But I do like the look and feel of it most of the time? Yep!

Here is a looping video of the two interviews side by side.

Christopher MeurerComment