Photo taken by Kinga Cichewicz. Munich, Germany. Follow on Instagram @kinga_cich.
Written by Norman C. Berns
Shoot and run. Grab the shot. Run and gun. Just shoot it!
We all know the drill. Technology has been condensed down to a camera we carry in our hands. And suddenly we’re shooting everything, everywhere. The world is all HD and we’re grabbing it on the run. That speaks well for immediacy, but it’s not doing a damn thing for the look of things. Problem is that eyes and film (or video) don’t see the same.
Our eyes let us sit in a darkened room while staring through a window to the sunlight outside and see both the darkened room and sunlight equally well. Amazing technology, these eyes of ours. Video may someday catch up, but it’s not there yet. Bright lights flare out, dim corners turn black. And film just doesn’t have the latitude to see everything. It can see bright. Or it can see dark.
But not both at the same time. DPs and gaffers know how to paint with lights. Dim the lights outside, boost the lights within. Get them within four or five stops of each other and film can handle both. Take the light off the things you don’t want to see, and add a bit to the things you do. Problem is, when it’s just you and your camera, the lady in the gray suit sitting in her dimly lit office with the faded brown walls looks, well, meh. Everything looks the same, everything is lit the same. You may have grabbed the shot, but the shot will never grab the viewer.
I’m not talking about pretty here. This ain’t just aesthetics. The viewer doesn’t know where to focus or what’s important to see. And that’s what you really want, isn’t it? Not just to get the shot, but to show that shot too.
That’s what lighting does. It helps the viewer focus; it helps the filmmaker make a point. Shine a light in the corner and everyone knows that’s the place to look. Suddenly the filmmaker who controls the action on set can control the viewer at home, too. That’s powerful stuff. Fortunately, for the most basic indie work, we don’t need to do very much. And we don’t need much to do it with either.
Here are six easy steps that will give you better shots, all without adding a single light.
Step # 1:
Move your characters away from that sunny window. Put them off to the side so the outside light doesn’t flare in the lens, but can still spill onto the actor.
Use a white card – usually a 24×36” showcard available from any art supply store. In a pinch, any white ‘anything’ will work. Now bounce that sunny window’s sunlight onto the actor’s dark side. Don’t flatten it out so both sides are equal – keep one side dimmer and you help shape the face.
Add a second showcard right in front of your actor. The first card fills in the light opposite the source, the second adds a soft fill.
Use a backlight (or a showcard) aimed at the back of the actor’s head. It helps separate the actor from the background.
Hide smaller cards where you need extra bounce light without adding any lighting. Use these to isolate a prop or fill in a toodark corner. In a pinch, 3×5” index cards work well. Don’t use tin foil; it’s too shiny.
Turn off the overhead (ugly top light) and turn on a desk lamp in the dimmed room. Now that cameras don’t need much light to see, just a bit can add dramatic focus. Keep in mind you may need a smaller bulb. A bit of light goes a long way in a dim room.
Be aware of mixing daylight and tungsten (light bulbs) and fluorescents. They operate at different color temperatures and can appear anywhere from green to pink to red to blue. And those are the colors that will shine on the actors. Either use a filter to change the color temperature or change the bulb to match the rest.
Norman C. Berns is teacher, writer and Emmy Award winning filmmaker. His documentary series, The Writing Code, aired on PBS and Norman was line-producer on television’s first almost-reality cop show, The Street, for Universal and the CBS series, Wish You Were Here. A senior producer at Fallon-Minneapolis, he was on the team that created the internet’s first web series, The Hire, sponsored by BMW.
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