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Old October 5th, 2003, 11:14 AM   #1
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Lighting dark skinned actors

We have a shoot in December that takes place in a restaurant and I'm trying to figure out what equipment we're going to need. The dining room is very large, and lit by chandoliers. Overall, its pretty dim in there. I had originally planned to light the table where the actors will be sitting with two Tota's and RUD umbrellas, and let the background go very dark, almost like a blackbox kind of effect. I thought we would put candles on the tables in the background (the actors' table will be more less in the center of the room) and Christmas lights around the windows so you could see something back there. Last night the director and I were talking over casting, and the actress we really want is black, and very dark skinned, so obviously I'm going to have to throw extra light on her. The guy she'll be playing opposite is one of the blondest, white guys on the planet. I can't afford to spend a whole lot of money here, and was thinking about buying an LTM Pepper 100 to spotlight her from the front, and a Smith Victor A5 Adapta-Light as a hair light from behind. Does this sound like a workeable system? Another inexpensive fresnel I'm looking at instead of the Pepper (they're about the same price) is the Photogenic mini-spot. There seem to be better accessories with the Pepper, and I've heard good things about them. I've never heard anybody rave about Photogenic, but that doesn't mean they aren't good lights. Does anyone have any advice for this shooting situation?
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Old October 5th, 2003, 11:27 AM   #2
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On the dark skinned girl, make sure you use a good powder base to cut down shine. I set up once for a group of singers, all were very dark. But because of the heat of the lights, they started to sweat, which caused a serious shine, washing out around their faces. And go with manual settings, of course.
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Old October 5th, 2003, 02:08 PM   #3
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I have a problem with using the totas and umbrellas, but first the matter of the dark skin. This is a very common problem, with no easy fix. The DP of the "Bernie Mac Show" has often commented on how difficult Bernie is to light with his dark skin that sucks up the light. He basically follows Bernie with a "special" everywhere he goes. A "special" is a light effect that has a particular purpose in the scene. In this case, to bring Bernie up to an apparent level equal to the other players in the scene. Similar to what you want to do.

For your special I would recommend something stronger than a 100 watt light, which is very limiting. I would say at least a 300 watt fixture, such as the LTM Pepper. But here is the gag that will really work for your purpose; a snoot. These are available in different sizes. This will help you focus the light on the young lady so as not to spill on other areas. If you cannot get a set of snoots, you can use black wrap to make one. Simply shape for the effect you need. But the snoots are better. If you set this up and find the lady is too hot, you can drop a scrim or two between the light and the snoot to knock it down. You have to do this to eye. Look at the relationship between Blondie and the young lady on a monitor (if you don't trust your eye) and adjust the light to what you see. Another way to control the light would be with an in line dimmer. This would allow you to make small corrections better than a scrim.

Speaking of make-up, it might be better to knock down Blondie, rather than trying to lighten up the dark skin. At the very least, some powder to knock down the reflective quality of his skin. But these are minor fixes.

Quick comment about the totas. Your clue on how to light this room is the overhead chandoliers. This is where your light sources should come from, if you want to imitate reality. One way would be to hang the umbrellas above the chandoliers, so the soft light is directed downward, like the chandoliers. Try to use only one. Umbrellas spray light everywhere, so if you want to keep it off the background, you may need to hang a "teaser" around the edge of the umbrella. This is black duvetyne cloth which will keep the light spill off the background. Save the other umbrella for close-ups or tight overs. Light from the side of the characters so the light doesn't spill on the background. Set a bounce board opposite the umbrella for fill. I would suggest china balls instead of the totas/umbrellas. Lighter weight, easier to hang and you can use the teasers on them also.

Sorry, but I don't know anything about the Smith-Victors.

Wayne Orr, SOC
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Old October 5th, 2003, 03:59 PM   #4
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Seconded on Bernie Mac, he was the lead on the feature I worked on this summer, and we couldn't seem to pour enough light on him. We also had a "special" for him, known on our set as the "love light" (which was a Gyoury) that followed him around.
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Old October 5th, 2003, 04:27 PM   #5
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Ah... the infamous Bernie Mac.... Watch Ocean's Eleven last night
on DVD in which he stars
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Old October 5th, 2003, 05:16 PM   #6
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Another way to light a special item is to use a 35mm slide projector with a mask to restrain the light to just where you want it. One can actually make a B&W slide with grayscale to control how much light goes where. Or if you are up to it, a color slide for color correction.

When you think about it, a 500 watt 35mm slide projector is just a really good columnated light source. Better than a single fresnel lens at controlling light. Gotta control the fan noise but there are some projectors, especially the film-strip type projectors that are convection cooled.

I've also used an overhead projector because one can cut out some black construction paper with scissors to mask the light.

Overhead projectors are also great for lighting backgrounds with a pattern.

Neither of these types of light source are very popular any more so they are cheap on the used equipment market.

One could also make a traveling light masked for control with a computer and a LCD projector.
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Old October 5th, 2003, 09:42 PM   #7
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Everyone here is missing the point, incl. the DP on the Bernie Mac show (is that Victor Nelli?) who should know better.

Given the contrast between the two actors, you do need to pour more key light onto the dark subject. I would key each individually. BUT THIS STILL WILL BE UNSATISFACTORY.

Definition on dark surfaces, whether they be dark skin or dark suits or dark automobiles or a black VCR product shot, is not created by frontal lighting, but by specular reflections. That's why they use a giant Chimera over auto shots or wait for magic hour.

For close and medium shots, position a big softbank -- or a white foamcore illuminated from underneath by one of your totas (this is called a "frog") off to one side, somewhat behind the subject. Definition in the dark skin will be created visually by reflecting this large white card, not by bouncing photons. The larger the better.

If there is a white wall, use it as a giant bounce card and position the black actress to catch the light from it -- while of course keeping the wall out of frame.

I'd say you are desperately underequipped for this setup. However, Totas are great fro this sort of "bounce" work.
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Old October 5th, 2003, 11:30 PM   #8
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"Everyone here is missing the point, incl. the DP on the Bernie Mac show (is that Victor Nelli?) who should know better."

I am not implying your solution isn't doable, just not the only way to proceed. In your first scenario light will bounce off the card into other areas of the scene. A good deal of work will need to be done by the grips to eliminate undesireable spill. The card will have to be close to the actor, and will not work in wider two-shots.

Again, in your second "solution," you are bouncing a large amount of fill light into the scene which may destroy the original lighting scheme. More work for the grips, but not impossible. But I would agree that bringing in a soft bank fixture, such as a small Chimera would work very well in close-ups. If that umbrella is transparent, use the silk side for a similar effect.

Wayne Orr, SOC
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Old October 6th, 2003, 12:32 AM   #9
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I was about to say much the same but Wayne beat me to it!

About lumping dark skin in with dark reflective surfaces--the difference is that a large flat source like a Fisher light reflected in a black car is appealing, but it may not be on an actor. Skin such as Bernie's can show a Chimera reflection as a big shiny spot in the forehead, as oppose to a smaller source that may cause a specular highlight which will more likely "disappear" within the countour of the face.

The other difference is that actors move more than products, and the light sometimes has to move with them.

Similar to the small Chimera Wayne suggested, we used the Gyoury with some light gridcloth on Bernie for some setups, and the Gyoury China Ball setup for some travelling shots when needed.

But back to the original setup. If I may throw my thoughts in on another way to light this:

The setup Marco describes sounds like a 50-50, with the two actors facing each other in profile. Let's imagine the scene as viewed overhead, with the camera at 6 o'clock and the actors to either side of the center position--for this illustration, let's place the man on the left (closer to 9 o'clock) and the woman on the right (closer to 3:00).

Place the totas/umbrellas at approximately 2:00 and 10:00 so that they crosslight the actors. The one at 2:00 can be backed off to knock down the man's relative level (or you can use a net, if available). You will need to significantly net down the lamp right side of the 10:00 unit so that the man's hair doesn't get too hot. There may or may not be undesirable spill on the background, depending on how far away it is; this can easily be controlled with solids (flags) on the far side of each light. Finally, solids on the near side will help with potential lens flare. You can start to see how much grip equipment is required when you use soft light in a moody/dark environment!

Now, a bounce such as John described from a position off to on side of the camera (might as well put it on the woman's side, since she needs more of it) will help with a bit of front fill; this should be dialed in to taste. Angling the card and the light can achieve this. Also switch the light on and off to make sure you need any at all, you may prefer the more "down" look with the light off.

Finally, a special can be worked from around 8:00 to give the lady a bit more punch if needed. Take care to keep this from spilling on to the gent. The 100 watt pepper sounds underpowered for this--I would recommend at least a 300 watt unit. That way you can use a little diffusion to take the curse off, and skinny the barn doors to help with the spill. Even better would be a small soft source as described earlier, but you're getting into a whole other grip forest of stands and flags to keep it off the rest of the scene.

If you plan to cover the scene in singles or over-the-shoulder shots, you are essentially lit for these. It may be nicer to move the keys (the totas) off axis, towards 11:00 and 1:00, and you have new backgrounds to deal with, but it should be close.

Obviously this is just one way to approach this setup. Hope this helps!
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Old October 6th, 2003, 08:05 AM   #10
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Wow. What incredibly detailed responses. Thanks everyone, and especially Mr. Papert.
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Old October 6th, 2003, 08:44 AM   #11
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Great responses on this challenge, but there is one more to consider . . .
THE CAMERA!

I had a shoot that starred two dancers. The man was very dark skinned
and the woman was as white as flour. Because of limited budget we
were shooting with a variety of cameras.

We had an XL1, a VX2K, a VX1K
and a DSR-500. The DSR-500 got the best results because its processing
allowed more detail in the blacks and had more control over the whites.
This is an amazing camera.

The JVC DV500 also has very good processing and is able to handle contrast
better with its 12bit processing than most small DV camcorders.
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Old October 6th, 2003, 08:48 AM   #12
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Jacques:

Without question, a better camera head will assist with handling contrast. Certainly for a dance situation with the subjects all over the place, that's probably the only solution. In this example that Marco has described, the two folks onscreen seem to be isolated enough from each other that the contrast can be entirely controlled by the lighting--somewhat of a rare luxury!
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Old October 6th, 2003, 10:27 AM   #13
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I'm sorry to hear the 100W isn't going to cut it. Might as well go the whole hog and get that Arri 650W I've had my eye on. I was hoping to hold off on that for a while. I see a lot of people get the 300W, and I've wondered why they don't just spend another 20 bucks and get the 300/650. Is there an advantage to the smaller light? I know this was asked before in this forum, but I don't think it was ever properly answered.
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Old October 6th, 2003, 09:20 PM   #14
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Wayne and Charles, my suggestion was in keeping with his low budget and limited lights.

Chris Gyoury's stuff is great, esp like the china ball (wonderful for doing quick close-up changes!) but Marco ain't got the budget.

Large bouncecards aren't the only way to go -- a fresnel kicker will also do wonders with a very dark face.

Marco, the smaller lights (tho' I would use a 300) might serve in this capacity. Place one to the rear and off to one side, on the opposite side of the face from the key. Adjust the position until you get a nice effect that makes the detail of the face visible on camera.

Jacques is right on aboiut the camera, too. The extra bucks buy a significant improvement in contrast handling. We shoot with a couple of 5 year old DSR 300s, and I still have seasoned pro cam operators come in to work with us that are amazed by the contrast handling. The newer versions (370 and 570) are a squinch better.
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