Lighting Realistically: Day and Night Interiors, and Unique Lighting Challenges in The Astronaut Farmer by M. David Mullen, ASC

Reference: StudentFilmmakers Magazine, April 2007. Lighting Realistically: Day and Night Interiors, and Unique Lighting Challenges in The Astronaut Farmer by M. David Mullen, ASC. Pages 22 – 25.

Learning how to light scenes is a never-ending experience for a cinematographer; you are constantly picking up new techniques yet also refining or changing your basic aesthetic notions of how movies should be lit.

Most scenes in contemporary cinema are generally lit in what has been called romantic realism – source-motivated lighting that recreates natural light at either its most attractive moments or when it creates the proper mood for the story. Sometimes it veers into what in literature is called a pathetic fallacy, when the exterior mood symbolically represents the internal emotions of the characters. The most common example is when it is overcast and raining when a character is sad.

My last three projects as cinematographer have been the features The Astronaut Farmer (recently released by Warner Bros.), Solstice (a supernatural thriller shot in New Orleans), and the second season of the HBO series Big Love. You find as you work more and more often that some recent lighting lessons transfer readily over the next job, while other times, you light in an entirely new manner to handle a radically different situation or to create a new look. One tool that you thought you could never live without becomes quickly discarded on the next show for another tool. Sometimes these changes in lighting are brought about by the influence of the particular Gaffer and Key Grip hired for that show, or they are the result of budgetary restrictions that force to come up with new solutions.

When it comes to lighting day interior scenes, I try to be true to the direction and quality that the sources in the room suggest – this usually means lighting through the windows. And when I want to create the effect of a hard slash of sunlight, it’s important to me that this light feel very hot, especially when it is concentrated to small areas in the frame. There are a couple of ways to create this look. One method is to use a “soft topper” – basically a diffusion frame cutting into the top part of a very strong beam of light so that you create soft light with a hard slash of brighter light below. Sometimes I clip a warming gel (like 1/4 CTO) to the bottom of this diffusion frame so that the hard spill is gelled warmer than the soft light, to recreate the natural effect where the skylight is cooler in color temperature than the direct sunlight.

Another method is to create a very soft source using large frames of diffusion, or bouncing the light into large frames of reflective material, and then adding a separate light to create the hot spots in the frame. In this case, I often either use a PAR light (if shooting on a tungsten-lit stage, I’ll use a narrow-spot PAR64; on location in daylight, an HMI PAR with a narrow lens), or a projector-beam unit like a Xenon or a Leko-type ellipsoidal called Source-4 (which are normally 650w tungsten lamps but can be configured with a 575w HMI Joker). The advantage of these beam-projector type lamps is that they don’t spill beyond the area they are directly hitting; this is especially useful in backlit applications where you won’t get as much of a lens flare problem as long as you stay out of the direct beam. In fact, the other nice thing about the Source-4’s is that they are fairly small units and can be used inside the room to put some bright window pattern on the corners of furniture, across a tabletop, on some vase of flowers, etc. I started using these lamps a lot for this effect after Bill Wages, ASC, was brought onboard to be my co-DP on the “Big Love” TV series – he’s been using this technique for a long time now and I learned a lot by watching him on the set.

Sometimes an actor stands in a place in the daytime interior where his face is turned away from the light, and there is no easy solution to getting some fill light on him because of the distance to the camera. One solution I’ve found is to direct some strong overexposed sunlight effect onto part of the room that will naturally bounce some light back into an actor’s face in the shadows. You can sometimes augment this by hiding some white cards or cloth behind some furniture to catch the light and reflect it back towards the actor.

Also, with fill light, it’s not always necessary that it come frontally from the camera’s direction. Sometimes it will look more natural to bring up the indirect ambience in the room just by bouncing a little light off of the ceiling or floor. Again, draping white cloth or hiding white cards can help increase the exposure from this bounce.

For night interiors as well, it is helpful to respect the real sources in the room. I like to start out with fairly bright lightbulbs in practical lamps so that they naturally light up some of the surrounding. I don’t mind that they look very hot on the film image because this reinforces the feeling that they are really doing the lighting in the scene; however, it gets trickier when shooting in video because they can burn-out too quickly. Sometimes you can get around this by using ND gel on the side of the lampshade facing the camera, or a spot of black tape on the lightbulb itself behind the lampshade. I’ve even used an ND grad filter vertically in the camera to handle a bright lamp or window on one side of the frame. After starting out with a bright practical, I usually add some soft light coming from the same direction as the on-camera lamp. It’s not always important that this light be at “key” exposure on an actor’s face – someone standing several feet from the lamp should feel a stop or more dark, depending on the mood you are setting.

A common problem involves a shot where someone switches off the lights and then is only seen in “moonlight” (or by the light of an outdoors streetlamp) in the room. I had scenes in my last three projects like that. The trouble is that in a real-life situation where moonlight is the only source of illumination, your eyes would somewhat adjust to that level – but before the room lights are turned off, the moonlight is very dim in comparison, if visible at all. Now one could light the scene to simulate the (warm) room lighting mixed with extremely weak (cool) moonlight, and then once the room lights were switched off, do an in-camera lens iris change to adjust for the dim moonlight. Trouble with that is that you may already have been shooting the scene at f/2.8 with the room lights on, and have to open up to a less-than-practical f/1.4 when only shooting by dim moonlight. Another technique is to put the room lights and the moonlight on separate cues so that when one switches off, the other switches on – but this often looks exactly like what I describe: the moonlight suddenly switches on.

What I like to do is put the moonlight on a dimmer cue, so when the room lights switch off abruptly, the moonlight fades up — quickly, but not so it “pops” on. This way I can control the balance between the room lighting and the moonlight, letting the moonlight be maybe three or four stops underexposed when the room lights are on, but only about two or one and a half stops once the room lights are off. Of course, this means that my moonlight has to be created with tungsten units (usually with 1/2 CTB gel) in order to be on a dimmer.

Another common problem is when lighting a heavily wooded area at night for moonlight. You try and start out with a very large light on a condor crane to backlight the scene; the first trick is finding a field or road behind the woods to park the crane. And often you need a clearing in front of the scene to put the camera, especially if it moves on a track.

So for this reason, one of the ideal situations is a narrow strip of woods with empty space in the far background and in the near foreground. Because everything falls off to black at night, or the far background can be obscured with a little smoke, you don’t need very deep woods. However, once you get the big light in the air on the condor, then you find that it doesn’t penetrate very deeply into the scene, blocked by branches and leaves. The solution is then to hide some lights up high on the tree trunks in the near background to augment the backlight. I find it useful to use something like Kinoflos mounted up high to provide a soft backlight, or a string of Chinese Lanterns with blue photofloods inside them (which are around 4800K, so the effect is not too blue.) Or if I want a harder backlight, then small fresnels or PAR’s up in the trees. Smoke can do a lot to spread the light and increase the feeling of exposure.

On The Astronaut Farmer, I had some unique lighting challenges involving the aluminum and steel Atlas rocket inside the main character’s barn, and the tiny interior of a Mercury space capsule. The rocket was over sixty feet tall and in both day and night scenes. I had discovered an old color NASA photograph of an Atlas-Mercury sitting inside the vehicle assembly building at night, and it was lit-up like a Christmas tree from all the small worklamps surrounding it, which reflected over the surface of the missile. So I instructed the art department to install tungsten-halogen worklamps in vertical rows alongside the pillars of the barn surrounding the rocket, and this provided a beautiful but practical source for every scene. In another set containing just the bottom third of the rocket and engine nozzles, I noticed when visiting the set under construction that a single fluorescent tube near the top of the rocket was reflected down the entire length of the cylindrical surface, which was acting like an anamorphic lens to stretch the single line of the tube. So when I shot the scene, I simply hung a couple of Kinoflos near the top of the cylinder to create the same effect. Then around the base of the rocket, I placed yellow hardware store worklamps pointing at various spots in the frame. This allowed me to shoot scenes with hardly any supplemental lighting at all.

In the tiny Mercury space capsule, I had to deal with the fact that the curved faceplate of the spacesuit helmet reflected every light source in the scene. So I lit the interior mainly with a tiny fluorescent hardware store lamp taped to the ceiling, visible in all the shots and reflected realistically in the helmet. I also had some tiny Kino MinoFlo lights taped to the console that looked like more instrumentation lights in the reflection. For the passing sun through the tiny window just above his head, I placed a large 12’x12’ frame of black to hide the stage ceiling in the reflection, and then swung a downward-pointed PAR64 lamp on a black-draped piece of speedrail pipe mounted to a big stand (what’s often called a “menace arm” rig).

For the re-entry scene, again, I knew that any firelight gag I tried to project onto the actor’s face would be reflected in the helmet, so that ruled out my normal techniques like shining two Tweenies with orange gel through a frame of diffusion and putting each light on a flicker box. I decided to blow smoke past the small window of the capsule and then try and bounce very bright orange light off of the smoke itself, using the smoke as a bounce surface to illuminate the face. Then all that would be reflected in the helmet would be bright orange gasses streaming over the porthole window. The varying densities of blowing smoke would provide the flicker effect; the main problem was getting enough exposure of the face with this technique, since as the smoke thinned, the amount of bounced light fell off and the face became very underexposed. But by shooting wide-open on the lens and pushing the film one-stop, we got a realistic effect with enough exposure.

On every project, you hopefully find some scene or moment to light that is so different from any previous experience that you are forced to solve the problem and learn something new in the process. On Big Love, it was being faced with an enormous interior set consisting of three full-sized houses sitting under the roof of a soundstage connected by one large backyard area that had to be realistically lit for exterior daylight… but I think I’ll save that for a later article.

M. David Mullen, ASC has earned two Independent Spirit Award nominations for best cinematography, for Twin Falls Idaho in 1999 and for Northfork in 2003, and has photographed over thirty films, including The Astronaut Farmer (2007), Solstice (2006) Akeelah and the Bee (2006), and Shadowboxer (2005).
Photos courtesy of Director of Photography M. David Mullen, ASC.