INSIGHTS: M. DAVID MULLEN, ASC Q & A on Lighting

Over the years I’ve answered many questions from students regarding lighting. One thing I want to emphasize is that what matters most is developing a visual imagination so that one can “see” the lighting in one’s mind. I don’t think one should tell someone how to light something, just as I wouldn’t tell a painter what colors to choose; I can only make suggests on how to physically accomplish an idea, but I can’t provide the creative idea itself. Another issue that comes up repeatedly: like how much seasoning to use in cooking, there is a point where how warm or cold or bright or dark a shot should be (or whether a stock is “too grainy” or not) comes down to personal taste. And that taste is used in conjunction with what you determine to be the visual needs of the scene in order to enhance the narrative. So you may have a personal opinion as to how blue moonlight should be, for example, but you may also have an intellectual reason on a particular project to play moonlight even bluer or less blue than you normally would.

The following is a sample of the range of lighting questions I have answered over the years:

Q: I’m a DOP for a short film in pre-production which will be shot on 16mm. The film is set in one room where six people are having a candlelight dinner. My problem is lighting everybody without creating lots of multiple shadows. Is there any way of lighting the set to make sure each character has a back, fill and key; or if not, what is the best way to make the group look well lit.

M. David Mullen. ASC: It depends on how accurate you want to be in terms of making the table look lit only by the candles, but if you’re trying to create a back-key-fill light on everyone, it sounds like there is some leeway for deviating from strict realism. It also depends on how close each person will be to each other, if they are spread far apart at a huge table or bunched together around a smaller table. And if the table is long or round (i.e. are they sitting in a row or in a circle.)

If you can find them, there are things called “theater candles” which are candles with two wicks in them — these produce a larger flame that puts out more light, which may only be important if you really wanted a lot of real exposure from the actual candles. You can also get two-wicked candles made especially for your production. Just be aware that one of the main problems with using lots of candles in a scene is that they burn down over time, creating a continuity problem and requiring lots of spare candles.

But assuming that you don’t need to have the table lit only by actual candles, I would probably go with a warm soft top light over the table, skirted on the sides to let the light fall off in intensity and not make the walls look too bright. A simple method for a small round table would be a large Chinese lantern, perhaps with a 500w photoflood (use a porcelain socket, not a plastic one) on a hand dimmer to make it warmer. A black skirt of duvetine taped to the ceiling surrounding the Chinese lantern will flag the light.

For a bigger table, perhaps use a couple of Chinese lanterns in a row, or build a foamcore softbox with a sheet of diffusion at the bottom, and multiple lightbulbs inside, with duvetine skirting. The soft box idea assumes a way of rigging this to the ceiling, like clamping to a solid beam or something.

I wouldn’t overdo the backlighting because it can start to interfere with everyone’s face as the light crisscrosses the table from all directions. You’d want to use small lights snooted (maybe with blackwrap) to keep the backlight only on the hair of each person (and you’d have to rig these lights somehow around the perimeter of the room.)

Dedolights, Pepper 150’s, are good small lights for this — they can be spotted in a little. If the overhead light is soft enough, I wouldn’t worry about fill too much, especially if you have a white table cloth to bounce some of the top light back up into their faces. For close-ups, you can use a small light over the lens for the eyes if needed. You can also hang a Chinese lantern lower to get a softer light on the face for the close-ups — just be aware of where the candles are because of the hazard if they catch a paper lantern on fire.

You could also rig diffused & gelled Kinoflos over the table instead of Chinese lanterns or softboxes, but again, you’d have to be able to rig them to the ceiling. A final option would be to bounce some light off of a white card on the ceiling, but it can be hard to then skirt & flag the spill all around the card and yet find an angle to aim the light at it. If the table has some big set pieces, it may be possible to hide some lightbulbs on the tabletop instead of light from overhead.

For a more stylized look, some people will point an overhead hard spotlight (like a PAR 64) straight down on a white tablecloth, creating an overexposed center to the table, and lighting people by the glow from the table bounce.

Individually spotlighting each person with a hard light rather than going for an overall soft light for the table is a more complicated approach; it’s easier if there are fewer people at the table and they are separated by some space. For a lot of people sitting closely together, I think a bunch of individual key lights would get rather messy and time-consuming to rig as well.

Q: I went on the net and checked for hardware stores in my area and found one place where they sell cheap lighting at a high quality. So I went to the place, told the guy what I need, and he suggested Minifloods, Athena Series. Now since since I don’t know anything about lights, I am here to ask, will this 150w light be good enough for my needs? Maybe get 2 of them and mess around with them? I want to go the DIY way since it’ll be cheaper, is this the way to go for a guerilla filmmaker like myself? If not could you recommend a more efficient way?

M. David Mullen. ASC: The lights [you are refering to] are gas-discharge lamps like mercury vapor or sodium, not really a good idea for filmmaking — they produce an odd color with missing wavelengths.

First of all, lighting is more than simply shining brighter lamps on actors to get more exposure. It’s a real art and you have to consider the color, texture (soft or hard), direction, etc. of the light to create the mood you want.

For starters, you could create a mix of DIY lamps. I’d get a porcelain lamp socket from the hardware store and buy a large Chinese lantern (like at Ikea or an import store like Cost Plus, Pier One, etc.), and then get some bright lightbulbs for it. You don’t want to use a plastic lamp socket that comes with some Chinese lanterns because it can melt when you use bulbs that are brighter than 100w or so, and you may end up using 250w photofloods or something.

You can also get reflector dishes at a hardware store with a lightbulb socket and clamp. They may also have some tungsten worklamps. And you can use fluorescent shop lamp fixtures for lighting as well.

Eventually you want to be on the look-out for some used quartztungsten movie lamps, something like a 650w or 1K. These are very bright, but useful for bouncing off of a white wall or ceiling, shining through a frame of diffusion, giving you a big strong backlight, or creating a big light effect through a window or from a distance.

The point of having these various types of units is that you need to basically do three things with them:

(1) You need small lights that can be focused on small areas of the frame;

(2) You need something bright & punchy for big lighting effects, or for shining from a distance, or for creating large soft lighting effects through diffusing or bouncing; and

(3) You need lighting units that naturally create a soft-light effect with a limited amount of grip equipment necessary.

Q: Each project I am working on is going to create very different looks and therefore need individual items, but without directly knowing what I am shooting can you recommend the bare essentials for a lighting kit for someone not using a generator?

M. David Mullen. ASC: (This ties into the previous question.) You need the brightest lights you can get that can be plugged into a household circuit for large spaces or strong effects like sunlight, and you need small lights that can be rigged easily.

You also need different ways to easily create soft light.

Most modern household circuits are 20 amps. Brightest lights that use 20 amps or less include 1200w HMI PAR’s, 1K Xenons (not cheap but if it saves getting a generator…), tungsten 1K PAR 64’s with spot or narrow spot globes, and tungsten 2K open-faced units.

The Xenon is a luxury item… but 1200w HMI PAR’s and the 1K PAR 64’s are very useful. Small lights include the Dedolight, LTM Pepper, Arri 150w, etc.

Softlights would include Chinese lanterns with a variety of bulbs, and Kinoflos or other fluorescents with daylight & tungstenbalanced tubes.

I’d also get a few fresnel lamps if doing any hard lighting effects where you need clean shadow patterns, like some Mole 650w Tweenies or 1K Baby Babies, or the Arri fresnel equivalents.

I also have a large collection of light bulbs for various jobs, special things like narrow-spot 75w PAR bulbs that screw into ordinary sockets for super spotty downlight like from recessed fixtures in the ceiling, plus photofloods (normal and blue-dipped), etc.

You might want to make up some 4’x4′ frames of diffusion of various strengths, like an Opal, 250, 216, Lt. Grid, and Full Grid. If you can only make one, try a frame of 216.

Gels can be clipped to barndoors unless the light is so hot as to melt or fade the gel too quickly.

The softness of a light is dependent on the SIZE of the source (the diffusion in front of the light, not the light behind it) relative to the distance to the subject. So no matter how heavy a piece of diffusion you clip to the barndoors of a light, it will hardly create much of a softlight effect because at the most, you’ve created a 1’x1′ diffusion.

4’x4′ diffusion frames will give you a softer effect. If moved closer to the subject, it will give you more exposure.

Softness is all relative to distance to the subject. A 4’x4′ frame up close will create just as soft a shadow as a 12’x12′ frame farther away if from the subject’s perspective, both frames are the same relative size.

The difference then between them is fall-off; a larger light farther away falls off more gradually in brightness than a closer light. With a close frame of diffusion, leaning a foot closer to the frame can cause a visible increase in brightness, whereas with a huge frame far away, creating the same soft shadows, leaning a foot towards or away from the light won’t create any visible change in brightness.

Q: I have a question about different gels to cover lights with during a dramatic scene. My short movie’s theme is suspense/horror. I have an interior shot that is one shot that goes up stairs to a bathroom then a bedroom, then back down stairs to a kitchen where there are 2 people conversing. What is the best color gel for this type of scene? How much light should be used (contrast)? How can I keep the house lit for this one shot without the camera noticing? Also, I have an exterior shot that consists of 2 people walking up a driveway. This is a suspense/horror, what is the best color/lighting for this shot?

M. David Mullen. ASC: Color is a creative choice based on the dramatic needs of the scene. I can’t tell you whether the scene should be gelled warm or cold, or how blue the moonlight should feel or how warm a lamp should look, etc. Would a fashion designer ask someone else to pick the colors for a dress? You should be deciding what color scheme you want. Same goes for contrast. How much contrast do you want? How dark do you want the shadows to be? I can help you with technical questions but I can’t tell you how to creatively shoot the scene in terms of color and contrast — you have to exercise your visual imagination and come up with those answers.

In terms of hiding lights for long camera shots, it helps if most of the lighting is coming from the real sources of light in the shot, i.e. practical lamps, maybe with brighter bulbs installed in them. After that, it’s a matter of figuring out all the areas where the moving camera isn’t looking to determine if that’s a good place to hide a lamp. Just remember that it isn’t always necessary to have light on everything in the frame, especially in a dramatic scene where dark areas actually help create more mood.

If you look at the long Steadicam shots in “The Shining,” you’ll see that most rooms are lit with just their practical lamps, usually with brighter bulbs (higher wattage) installed to get more exposure.

If something has to have light on it and there’s no logical or creative reason for a practical lamp to be on, then you have to decide where the light is coming from. If it’s supposed to be moonlight, then you may have to shine lights through a window, or at least, make it feel like it’s coming from a window. Same for the exterior shot – you can decide that the source of light is the moon or a streetlamp, and then pick the color you want for that effect.

Moonlight is usually portrayed as somewhat cold and blue, but a streetlamp effect could be a sodium-vapor color (yellow-orange) or mercury-vapor (blue-green), or just white.

Q: I’m shooting a scary movie that is taking place out in the middle of the country with very little light to begin with. I have a few interior shots, a graveyard shot, a car scene and a bathroom scene all taking place at night and with the intentions of it being scary. What type of lighting is best for my situation, and where can I find these lights?

M. David Mullen. ASC: The look of horror films tend to either be realistic or expressionistic, or a combination of the two. A realistic look would be one where scenes looked like they were lit with natural sources.

Expressionism tends to be more theatrical, with exaggerated shadow patterns created by harder lights – which is possible to motivate realistically too if you design the sequence around natural light sources that would create dramatic shadow patterns.

First you should study the scary movies you like to see how they are lighting these scenes. For a bathroom, for example, is there a window? Do you want to see a waving pattern of tree leaves in blue moonlight on a wall with someone silhouette against it? Do you just want someone lit by a bare overhead light bulb? There are many ways to light a bathroom.

For a graveyard in the night, it gets much harder if you have no money for big lights and a generator because if you want a moonlit look, you’re talking about a big powerful light up high (usually backlighting the scene), like on a crane. Otherwise, you might have to fake moonlight by shooting day for night, or if it is a brief shot, at twilight for night.

If you don’t need a big moonlight effect, you could have a pitch black space lit only by a flashlight or lantern, or perhaps the effect of an overhead streetlamp. In which case a few practicals (like a lantern) and maybe a few small lights (like a Chinese lantern overhead) may be enough.

The real issue is power supply. Can you afford a generator? If not, do you have access to electricity where you are shooting? Is it a normal household circuit, often limiting you to 15 to 20 amps (i.e. nothing more powerful than a 2K tungsten or 1200 watt HMI PAR on one circuit)? If you don’t have any electricity where you are shooting, it doesn’t matter which light you take to location, unless it is battery-powered.

Just remember that big night exterior lighting in the middle of nowhere with no natural sources is often beyond the limits of a student or someone with a limited budget. You simply won’t have the resources to light a large area. So you have to think about ways of justifying smaller light sources in the scene unless you want to shoot it day-for-night.

Q: I’m going to be working on my first student film. Are there any lights/bulbs that can be plugged into ordinary household lamps that will create the most natural light possible? There isn’t much of a budget but any advice/help you can give is appreciated.

M. David Mullen. ASC: “Natural light” is too broad a concept (since it covers everything from sunlight streaming through a window to something lit by a practical lamp at night) to answer that question. Obviously it’s hard to recreate natural sunlight / daytime window light effects with a single light bulb. But you can certainly augment practical interior night lighting with additional bulbs, like inside a Chinese lantern.

Q: I want to shoot in an attic using a DV camera and would like to portray the attic as dark, but want to be able to see the actor with his flashlight. What equipment would I use, and where would I place them?

M. David Mullen. ASC: If you’re shooting with a consumer camera, the first thing is to make sure it is completely in manual mode, because what you want to do is shoot at 0 db to keep the noise down, lock the aperture to a wide-open setting (close to f/2.8) and then light the attic to an overall underexposed level so that the flashlight reads as the brightest source of light in the room. If you didn’t lock in the manual settings, the camera would attempt to make the underexposed room look normal by boosting the gain once it reached maximum aperture.

It helps to have some justification for the light in the attic, like some moonlight leaking through ventilation grills or something. You don’t have to be too logical about it but this can help you justify some cold edge or back lighting, or a pattern of light on the far background. This will help define the shape of the actor in the darkness.

As for seeing the actor’s face, there are two approaches:

Moonlight coming from one side, soft or hard, underexposed enough to barely read the facial expressions without looking “lit”.

The other approach is to suggest that the flashlight is bouncing off of what’s in front of the actor, reflecting some light back into his face. Sometimes if the flashlight is bright enough, you can do this for real by placing some white cards and boards off-camera for him to pan the flashlight into, bouncing light back into his face. If that’s not enough, you can time his movements with the flashlight with someone panning a small light onto the bounce card to create more light reflected back into his face. But it should still be an underexposed light.

Smoke in the air helps a lot to see the flashlight beam and bring up the shadow detail, plus create more opportunities to silhouette the actor against a hazy background.

Q: I’m interested in why lights cost more money as the wattage goes up. I think that more watts make a brighter light, but I don’t see the advantage there… If it’s too bright, then the light would be ruthlessly hard on the actor/actress’s face (not to mention the loss of subtlety). Why would you want more wattage, instead of sticking with 150 or something?

M. David Mullen. ASC: Most movie lights are not shone directly on people unless motivated (faking hard sunlight, a stage spotlight, track lighting, etc.) or you want an old-fashioned studio style.

Soft light techniques (bouncing, shining through diffusion, etc.) are notoriously power inefficient. If you want a T/2.8 at 500 ASA, for example, a 650 watt Tweenie shined directly may be too bright, but shined through a 4’x4′ frame of heavy diffusion may be too dim. A 150 watt light is definitely too dim if you put a Chimera on it or shine it through a frame of diffusion unless it is very close to the subject.

Distance of the lights also affects choice of light. A 6,000 watt HMI is incredibly bright in a small room, but may barely be bright enough to light a block-long alleyway for “moonlight” if up high on a rooftop or crane.

So combine distance AND softlight techniques and you understand why some of these lights have to be HUGE. For example, you want to light a large loft space with a single softlight as if it were a big window, it may be something like a 12,000 watt HMI shining through a 12’x12′ frame of diffusion outside of a window just to get a decent shooting stop in the room.

The more you start working with soft light and the larger the spaces and the farther the lights have to be, the more you will be wanting more powerful lamps.

Most students using movie lights for the first time make the mistake of shining them directly on the actors in small rooms and going “wow, that’s too much light!” But try lighting a whole living room by bouncing a single 150 watt off of the ceiling and you’ll probably find that it’s barely enough light.

Congratulations to M. David Mullen, ASC on winning the Emmy Award for Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series (One Hour), The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, “Simone”. (www.davidmullenasc.com)

David Mullen, ASC, was an Independent Spirit Award Nominee for best cinematography for Twin Falls Idaho in 1999 and for Northfork in 2003. His filmography consists of over 30 film titles, including Akeelah and the Bee (2006), The Astronaut Farmer (2006), and Shadowboxer (2005).

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