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Joseph Lavender January 3rd, 2010 03:10 PM

Lighting a feature film.
I'm shooting a feature length horror film starting at the beginning of February. We just got done with casting and plan to spend the entire month of January doing screen tests at the locations.

We are shooting with a Canon HV40 + 35mm adapter combo and Canon FD 1.4 50mm lens and a few pentax takumar lenses.

I own 2x 800w (between the pair) CFL's with stands/umbrellas.

My DP has 5, 500w cfl bulbs but no stands. I have 2 extra stands, but no recepticles for them.

I was looking at getting 2 more recepts, and also purchasing 2 of those chinese 800w red heads.

I've got gels, and will have sand bags on set.

What direction should I go in, to get the best look at the lowest cost?

Andrew Dean January 4th, 2010 08:25 AM

I'm always frustrated by posts like this because I'd like to help, but most of the stuff i could say comes across as either unrealistic or smug.

I'm not sure whether this will sound smug or unrealistic... possibly both, but here goes:

If you have somebody calling themselves a DP, then they are exactly the person that should be telling you what fixtures they want. Chances are your "DP" is probably more of a cameraman, which is cool... but you really want somebody thats spends their time thinking about lighting and framing and the big picture visually... somebody like... a DP.

Soft lights have their place, but its really easy to make them look lifeless and flat and you usually need a box of gear just to control their spill. You can always soften a hard source, but not the other way around. The cheapy redheads are a good idea so you have some hard light sources, but what you buy should be dictated by what you are shooting and where and what the DP want to happen visually. A "complete kit" is a myth. Even the guys with major lighting trucks have wish lists. Your lighting kit on this film should be based on the needs your storyboards and locations as interpreted by your DP.

You are shooting horror... It depends on the genre of horror and location, but I'd definitely be wanting some hard lights.

Imagine this scenario:

"I'm going in to the studio next month to record an LP. I have a cymbal and a few bass strings, and my guitarist has an amp. I guess we need a guitar so i'm buying a cheap chinese fender knockoff. Aside from the guitar, what kind of instruments do you think I should buy to make the album sound awesome?"

I don't want to be one of those guys that discourages you. I think everybody should make indie no-budget features. Heck, thats exactly why i have a production truck filled with lights, dolly, crane and sound gear... I want to help people with great ideas make no-budget features too.

But the very first question you should ask the music recording scenario guy is "um. what kind of music do you play?"... along those same lines, here are the beginning of questions you should be answering:

What kind of horror film are you shooting?
---This determines the style of lighting which in turn determines what kind of lights you'll want. Old school zombie? Blood spurting slasher? Intellectual thriller?

Indoors, outdoors or both?
--- If your film is all outdoors, then thats a whole different set of gear than if its all indoors. If you are shooting outside during the day low-budget you want diffusers and reflectors. Big pieces of foam core and rigs to hold up sheets/diffusers whatever to cut the contrast off of faces. If its all indoors, then...

Day, night or both?
--- If its night then you need to provide all the light. You can then control everything, however, if its day...

Using sunlight or not?
--- If you use sunlight coming in windows, then you'll need your other lights to compliment that. You'll either need a crapload of interior lighting, or possibly a way to cut back on the brightness of windows. It can be as simple as mosquito netting, or a sheet... but if you want to look like a feature, chances are that blown out windows and unbalanced lighting isnt the look you are after.

is your shoot fully scouted and "light-scheduled and light-located"?
--- On the smart no-budget features, scenes are carefully scheduled to take advantage of the existing light. You avoid shooting exteriors from 11-1 (or really, from 10-2), if you are shooting lots of scenes over many days supposed to take place in a short period of time, you schedule those scenes to take place during the same time of day each day so you dont have shadows jumping from long to short and relative intensity shifting madly. Exterior romantic scenes are shot during the golden hour... etc.

Sometimes it makes more sense to just split a shoot up and use the same time of day over several days. Other times it makes more sense to black out the windows and rent big HMI to blast in the windows so you have a constant and steady source of light that doesnt change as you shoot. Other times it makes more sense just to say "maybe this scene takes place indoors at night" and go for it.

Are you shooting sound or replacing it later?
--- This can make a major different in fixtures. I did a 4 day shoot that took place in a tiny apartment at night... shot during hot summer days with tungsten fixtures and sound sync. This means a tiny apartment with all the windows blacked out, the A/C turned off and 2 redheads and 2 blondes blasting away. I was absolutely drenched in sweat after 20 minutes and dehydrated and delirious at the end of each day. At the end of that week i placed my order for the cool-light HMIs. I will never allow myself to be baked alive again. (i had sunburns from the blonde right behind my head. ahhh)

I've seen some experienced DPs make magic with what seems like useless and impossible thrift store fixtures. I've also seen people use a $10,000/day lighting truck to create completely mediocre scenes. Just like a music cd, it really is the talent of who is using the gear, which is why everyone should want to find a talented DP, then turn all the gear decisions over to them.

Ignoring the previous paragraph (which, to me is rather important), in my opinion your shopping list you should be looking at should start with this:

buy light stands. They are cheap and even the crappy ones can last awhile if you treat them well. Have at least one really tall one.

Buy at least one super clamp and at least one grip head. Its still a talent thing to know when/how to use them, but when you need them, nothing else will work as well. A piece of galvanized pipe in a grip head can turn a light stand into a back light or overhead... I've bought a few of the cheapy ones from b&h and found them to be quite serviceable for the price.

Borrow a ladder. You'll find a use for it.

buy plenty of extension cords.

buy way more snacks, drinks, bottled waters and food than you think you'll ever need. Seriously, this is the absolutely most essential and most often neglected part of shooting a no-budge feature. The people on set are worth FAR more than the gear. If you starve people they get grumpy and make poor decisions... and are less likely to come back. If you feed them well (not fancy, just "well") then they are far more likely to take a bullet for you and say "lets go for it." I'm not talking about a single bag of chips and a 6 pack of budget "dr. cola". You need to make the snack table look like the snack table at a really bitchen party. If you do that, people will loosen up like its a party and everything will flow smoother. You deny caffeine and delay a meal for some bogus reason you run the risk of a mutiny. Seriously. I've seen MANY productions die a quick and painful death due to lack of craft services and I'm sure other people will back me up on this. For a one day shoot, you can get away with it. A Feature??? Thats a huge favor to ask of people. You can get away with a lot of abuse but skimp on food and they will abandon you. If you ignore everything else in this post, heed this. Zero budget films are MADE by the snacks and food served to the crew. It can be peanut butter and jelly on white bread if it has to be, but if you have some form of food ready at all times to hand to the crew the second they get peckish, you will have a 10,000X higher probability of actually finishing your film. It sounds lame, but no matter how old you are, ask your mom. She has the greatest power to help you make a great no-budget film and chances are will love to help out in this way.

If you are shooting with the sun streaming in, buy some scoop lights, some high wattage (200w) bulbs, some low wattage (20w?) and some daylight spiral fluoros. Scoops are what, $10 and worth it if you dont have nicer fixtures to give you a bit of control over where to point some light. The bright and dim bulbs are fantastic for practicals. If you are shooting a darkish scene, put lamps around the room and populate them with dim bulbs. This way you get lots of varied light without overpowering the scene, and not looking all red like you dimmed them. The super brights are if you are shooting a shot with lots of ambient spill and you want the lamp to compete with/compliment some moderate window-light.

You are shooting a 35 adapter on a not-terribly-low-light-friendly camera. Go back and buy even more practicals and scoop lights. It depends on genre and where your film is set, but in most "dark horror" you want many little light sources around the scene. Its not about actual blackness, just lots of contrast. Plus, once you iris up to 1.4 to try to avoid the camera noise you'll realize that all but a tiny sliver of the screen is out of focus and thats when having lots of points of light in the background of a scene will keep it interesting. Heck, drag some old christmas lights out of the attic and find any reason at all to drape them in the background of scenes. lots of blurry lights is cooler than "blackness" and chances are you'll need all the light you can get.

If the window light is extreme, you may need to cut it back. I've had great luck just hanging lace curtains outside the house. Cuts the light back in a nice, but believable manner... I'd troll the thrift stores for lacey curtains, old "misty" shower curtains... really thin sheets. It can all work great in the right situation. If you come up with a way to rig them, they can be overheads if you are shooting in harsh sun, window diffusers/cutters/blackouts, big reflectors and even direct diffusers if you want a really big soft light source for a shot.

Buy a big sheet of white foam core. its a reflector, its a flag. Chop it up and its a cookie. Its both magical and cheap.

Buy a china ball. You can get amazing results just slapping a china ball over the existing ceiling fixture. Its handy to have in lots of different indoor situations. Definitely worth a try for the price.

Its not like all these are the absolute necessities, but they are all so cheap and can be so useful that i think its worth having them around just-in-case. Once you evolve past needing them you can still find uses for 'em and you didnt spend too much money along the way.

So THATS the direction I think you should go in. I'm no lighting expert, so take what i say with appropriate salt. On the other hand, I've done most of the typical and notorious "trial and error" purchases working my way up from a scoop lights to britek to cool lights/arri/kino, (and also from mop-handle boomed atr-55 to oktava to schoeps.) I learned the hard way what works and what doesn't and probably spent $30k to get what amounts to $25k in gear due to my stubbornness/mistakes. I reckon that plus the fact that me and my evolving gear have helped out on lots of no-budget shoots gives me particularly useful insight into the zero-budget gear acquiring process.

If you wanna be a rock band, you need to find a guitarist. If you want to shoot a feature that looks nice? Find somebody to DP that has a strong, cool vision and is willing to cross you to make their vision happen. When everything hits the fan, you want a DP that is willing to fight for the image... and a boom operator willing to fight for mic placement.

Thems my 2c. hope it helps!


Brian Drysdale January 4th, 2010 08:50 AM

You should try renting some lights. A few Fresnel spots can make all the difference and the rental houses will give a deal for longer periods and even for shorter time it's worth asking for their best price. Also, one big light can be a real time saver compared to lots of little lights trying to create the same look.

The food is important and is ignored at your peril.

Matthew Overstreet January 4th, 2010 10:41 AM

Good lighting can be had with one or two lights if you're VERY careful. If you have more to work with than that, you're ahead of the game.

Perrone Ford January 4th, 2010 10:55 AM

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Garrett Low January 4th, 2010 11:04 AM

Hi Joseph,

Andrew has a lot of good information in his reply. Most of which I would agree with but some I have a different opinion on. A little of my background so you'll know where I'm coming from. I've been DP on 5 short Independent films and am going to be DP on another one (maybe 2) being shot in February and March. I started out as most on this sight, as filmmaking being a hobby and now I am in the process of building my own production company.

One question I have for you that was not apparent to me is, what is your roll in this project? Are you the Director? Producer? 1st AD?, etc? You mention that you have a DP with some lighting equipment but it would help if we know who the rest of the crew would be. The reason I ask is, it will do you know good to have a truck load of lights and the only crew you have is the Director, DP and maybe one PA. You'll never use all of it and your time would be much better spent worrying about other things and just use some very basic lighting techniques.

I've spoken and worked with some pretty accomplished DP's and one thing is apparent. They don't try to do everything. They know what they want, they have a very good idea of how to get what they want, but in the end they rely on their specialists to give them the various elements and then they put it all together. As an example, if I know I will be having to use the sound from the take and we won't be doing ADR or VO's I'll let my sound man know what type of sound I want (i.e. mabye if the tension is high I might want the dialogue to come through with a little more air in it or if it is suppose to be a motivational monologue I might want a little more of the lower registers of a males voice emphasized). I won't tell them how to achieve it, I'd just let them know what I'd like and then listen to their setup.

The same thing applies to lighting. There are times when I have to also act as lighting director but in most cases I'll ask that there is at least someone who is knowledgeable about lighting on set so they can be responsible for setting up the lighting. If I have a lighting person on I'll discuss what look I'd like to achieve and give him/her general parameters such as maybe achieving a 4 stop difference between the brightest areas and the darkest. I'll let them decide exactly how they are going to give me what the scene needs. Then during test shots we'll tweak things and again once we get the actual actors in place we may need to do a little quick adjustment but in general once the actors are on set we're ready to roll.

Of course, all of this is done working closely with the director.

As far as what you've said you have available I couldn't imagine trying to light a horror film with cfl's. as Andrew mentioned the spill will be an issue and I think you'll find that they won't have enough throw to give you the look you want. Before you buy anything I would recommend renting first. It will give you the chance to test what equipment you like working with and give you an idea of what you really need. I have a basic kit that I use which consists of 4 x 650w Fresnels (HMI equivalent daylight balanced),1 300w Fresnel, two soft boxes for the 650's, scrims for each light, stands for each light, furniture clamps, spuds, 3 large black foam boards (for flags), 3 medium white boards, two circular 50" bounce cards, about 300' of extension cords, various 2 to 3 adapters, a few 3 ways, some very basic gels (mostly diffusion and CTO), and about 200 lbs of sand bags. With that set up I can be pretty sure I cold light a small scene that doesn't involve too much movement. It won't light a large set but I could do a pretty good size living room with that. So you can see, just as with everything else in film making, you can go crazy on lighting equipment.

You mentioned that you were going to be doing test shots in January at the various locations. So I'm assuming that you've got your shot list together and you have the shot order done. Also, I'm guessing that you've blocked each shot with your director. Getting your shot list and blocking done, at least in my experience, is crucial to being able to determine what equipment you'll need. You might be able to get away with two lights and a couple of bounce cards or you might need 20 lights. It really depends on what is going to happen in each scene and the angles you'll be shooting each scene from. One of the things that I learned really quickly is to try to limit the amount of equipment on set. It would be great to have a ton of lights and mics all over but they could also just get in the way of your shot. So, you'll have to look at each shot, figure out blocking, then place your camera, then your lighting and sound equipment. And, then you'll have to work with the director on what he's willing to compromise on because they always want something that is impossible to do within the budget you have (money and time wise).

So after all this rambling, the way to get the best look at the lowest cost is to: first determine what look you want to get for each shot; then try to find someone who is knowledgeable enough with lighting who also might have the necessary equipment; and finally rent what you don't already have within your collective crew.

That's just my take on it and what I'd advice to someone in your situation.

Good luck and keep us posted on the progress of your film.


Matthew Overstreet January 4th, 2010 11:26 AM


Originally Posted by Perrone Ford (Post 1467821)
How is it even possible to say this? Really.

So if a scene requires an actor to walk through three rooms of a house and out to the car, only one or two lights is needed.

I watched HBO bring a full Semi worth of lighting and grip to shoot a film at my building. Do you think they were just not "being careful"?

I've lit scenes with a single light, and then with 5 fixtures IN THE SAME ROOM, depending on what was required for the look we wanted. Telling a newer filmmaker that they only need one or two lights is irresponsible, and frankly just wrong.

I'm really surprised at this response. Several directors got their start with only a single light or two.

What's worse, telling a new filmmaker that they can get away with only one or two lights, or telling a new filmmaker that filmmaking is an unattainable goal because of the cost of the same lighting setup an HBO production uses?

Who said anything about having an actor walk through three rooms? Of course in that situation you'd need more lights (if it had to be done in one long take), but the guy never actually detailed the circumstances of his production. If you didn't have enough lighting to cover three rooms, there are ways to work around that. It would be a little extra work, but you could MAKE it work.

I think some people just don't get it... the only people that really care about image quality more than a good script is the person shooting the film and other dp's, camera guys, etc etc.

I stick to my original statement... if you have more than one or two lights, you're ahead of the game. Just don't go crazy with the lighting just because you have a lot to work with. You can really screw an image up if you don't know how to use multiple lights... throwing shadows in every which direction and what not. Sometimes simple is better.

Perrone Ford January 4th, 2010 11:46 AM

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Perrone Ford January 4th, 2010 11:52 AM

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Matthew Overstreet January 4th, 2010 12:06 PM


Originally Posted by Perrone Ford (Post 1467844)
NO ONE HERE knows enough about his scenario to give an accurate response. That is exactly the point. He may well be shooting under huge bay windows and not need ANY light. We don't know.

But to say he can shoot a FEATURE FILM with 1 or 2 lights is just setting people up for failure.

You may well think it's discouraging to tell people that they can't get their film made on a zero budget. You know what? I am ok with that. If my words cause a new filmmaker to sit back, and re-think their process rather than going forward with an understaffed, under budgeted, under developed product, then I'm ok with that too.

While I know nothing of the OP's scenario, these forums are littered with people who have 1/10 the knowledge necessary to make a short, yet talking about making feature length movies. What's wrong with starting small? Make a 10 minute short. Learn the craft. Understand the basic departments. Learn about post, and distribution channels. Get your short into some film fests. Maybe by the time you start getting some screenings, you'll be ready to do a short feature or a mid-length film.

How is shooting a feature film with 1 or 2 lights setting someone up for failure? Kevin Smith did it with Clerks. Robert Rodriguez did it with El Mariachi. David Lynch did it with Eraserhead. Countless early noir films were shot with just one or two lights because of budget restraints.

All I'm saying is, there is more than one way to make a film. If you think you need to mimic the latest HBO production method, you're just being close minded.

I agree that everyone should start with short films. But, I think most people will quickly find that they tend to get more footage than they know what to do with on those films and over stuff their productions with unnecessary equipment, lighting, locations and footage. They put more effort into the look of their set, camera and equipment than what goes into the story.

If you have $10 million to work with and a 50 man crew, things will naturally fall into place. If you have $500 and a couple of friends... do the best you can.

John Stakes January 4th, 2010 12:53 PM


Originally Posted by Perrone Ford (Post 1467846)

I just noticed that you are two hours away from me. If you want, come down and visit. We can talk and I can take you through a 1-day lighting seminar so you can see what you'll need.

Not trying to muscle in...but Joseph, if you make the trip, let me know. I would love to gain the info given from you Perrone, just to listen in.


Perrone Ford January 4th, 2010 09:20 PM

Message Withdrawn

Dean Sensui January 5th, 2010 04:38 AM

I only worked on one feature film (where I had the opportunity to work with a very talented DP) but did a lot of higher-end product photography.

All I can say is: Consider carefully what you want your shot to look like.

Then figure out how to make it happen.

Might take a 1k HMI. Might need just a flashlight or reflector. All depends on what it is that you're after.

David W. Jones January 5th, 2010 08:38 AM


Originally Posted by Joseph Lavender (Post 1467542)
I'm shooting a feature length horror film starting at the beginning of February. We just got done with casting and plan to spend the entire month of January doing screen tests at the locations.

We are shooting with a Canon HV40 + 35mm adapter combo and Canon FD 1.4 50mm lens and a few pentax takumar lenses.

I own 2x 800w (between the pair) CFL's with stands/umbrellas.

My DP has 5, 500w cfl bulbs but no stands. I have 2 extra stands, but no recepticles for them.

I was looking at getting 2 more recepts, and also purchasing 2 of those chinese 800w red heads.

I've got gels, and will have sand bags on set.

What direction should I go in, to get the best look at the lowest cost?

First things first, so we can sort this out and give a little more refined answer...
You say you own "2x 800w (between the pair) CFL's with stands/umbrellas."
What exactly do you mean?

And when you say "My DP has 5, 500w cfl bulbs"
What exactly do you mean?

I have NEVER seen an 800w nor a 500w CFL bulb.
What is the actual wattage of the bulb?
For example... One of my lighting instruments is a Kino Flo Diva containing 4 x 55w lamps for a total of 220 watts.

All the Best!

Bob Hart January 5th, 2010 09:16 AM


I too have not run into a 500watt CFL light.

I have two 200watt incandescent equivalent daylight CFLs in old portrait photoflood lamps with 1.5ft diam open parabolic reflectors. The fixtures are edison screw batten holders.

They do not work as well as the original globes as there is now a mix of direct light spreading in all directions from the front end of the CFL tube cluster and the forward throw from the parabolic reflector. The original incandescent globes were a bit like PARs except the front is obscured by an internal reflector which throws the light back onto the parabolic reflector.

They are not ideal. Proper lights are far better but you do best you can with what you can. I lit this audition clip with them as rather primitive cross keys, plus the coleman lamp which is in the shot as a kick light.

The 50mm f1.4 and 58mm f1.2 on the 35mm adaptors were wound in to f2 as the shed the actors were in was meant to be gloomy. The lens on the SI2K from memory was set on f4.


The close-up and reverse were shot with groundglass adaptors on Z1s. The wide two-shot was a SI2K.

If you are going to buy the chinese redheads, maybe consider going a little more costly and getting their 650watt fresnel lights. Take care though. On eBay, some lights being described as fresnels are open face redhead style lights.

As a sort of more robust china lantern for local soft fill light on close-ups, I have used porchlights on plastic conduit with a combination weather resistant socket and switch for caravans on the end of the conduit. You can see it in use at the tailend of this clip.


If your curiosity is now whetted and you want to see what the cadillac thing is about the trailer can be found at

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