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David Seguin August 3rd, 2010 06:54 PM

Outdoors Lighting Dilemma
Okay, so here's my problem:

I'm currently developping a script for a feature film I plan on shooting next summer. Because I know this is going to be a very low budget movie ($2000-$5000), I'm trying to write the script around what I can afford. The problem I have right now is that there is a relatively long section of the movie (probably around 20 minutes or so) that takes place on the side of a lake where the characters are camping, and mostly at night. But since they're supposed to be out in the woods in the middle of nowhere, unless I find a perfect location on someone's property and get lucky enough for the owner to allow me to use it, I have no electricity. Which wouldn't be so much of a problem for most of my equipment which can run on batteries, but lights on the other hand......

So, my question is:
What's the best way to light a scene that needs to look like it's in the middle of the woods, for as little money as possible? Maybe I can set up some kind of rig using battery powered work lights from Home Depot or something. Any suggestions?

Bill Davis August 3rd, 2010 07:23 PM

Two words....

Coleman lanterns

David Seguin August 3rd, 2010 07:54 PM

Lol. Neat idea, but I doubt I would get enough light out of those to get a good image, especially considering I'm planning on using a DOF adapter which would cut down quite a bit of light.

Adam Gold August 3rd, 2010 08:46 PM

Three words: Day for Night.

David W. Jones August 3rd, 2010 08:55 PM

We shoot 30 second TV spots with a higher budget than you are spending on a feature movie.
I have to ask in all honesty, what's the point?

Rather than writing a script you clearly haven't the budget or resources to produce.
Why not write scenes you can shoot with what you have?

Perrone Ford August 3rd, 2010 09:02 PM


Originally Posted by David W. Jones (Post 1555208)
We shoot 30 second TV spots with a higher budget than you are spending on a feature movie.
I have to ask in all honesty, what's the point?

Rather than writing a script you clearly haven't the budget or resources to produce.
Why not write scenes you can shoot with what you have?

While I don't disagree, you know the answers to these questions as well as most here who've been on this path. Sometimes, things are just what they are.

Ian Dart August 3rd, 2010 09:25 PM

hi david,

you have two choices....do it or dont do it......if you do it then do it right.......

bite the bullet and hire a genny......

a red head or similar to reinforce the motivated light (campfire..lantern etc).

a redhead or similar with ctb to bash through the background for moonlight and give some texture to the background.

David Seguin August 3rd, 2010 10:25 PM


Originally Posted by Adam Gold (Post 1555206)
Three words: Day for Night.

What would be the best way to shoot realistic day for night in this situation? I would definitely want to get the light of the fire flickering on their faces, so I'm not even sure this would be an option... Maybe it could be shot close to dawn or dusk so that there is light, but just little enough to get shadows on their faces. That wouldn't give me much time to work with, but since we most likely will actually be camping there for the duration of the shoot, I could easily shoot night scenes at dawn, then day scenes during the day, and then night again at dusk.


Originally Posted by David W. Jones (Post 1555208)
We shoot 30 second TV spots with a higher budget than you are spending on a feature movie.
I have to ask in all honesty, what's the point?

Rather than writing a script you clearly haven't the budget or resources to produce.
Why not write scenes you can shoot with what you have?

To answer your last question first, that's what I'm trying to do in a way. I want to find out if there's a way that I WOULD be able to do it before writing the script. Right now I have only an outline of the story, so I would rather find out now that I need to cut something before actually writing about 20 pages for nothing.

As for "what's the point?", there are many reasons.
First and foremost, I want to make a movie, and I'm not letting money stop me. Maybe that's a little foolish, but it isn't so ridiculous that it couldn't work out. In fact, right now I'm reading a book about someone who made an award winning feature film for under $2000. I don't expect to win awards, hell, I don't even expect to make a profit. But at least by setting the bar high I might turn out something good.
Second, not everyone can afford to spend more than that on a movie. Considering this is my first feature, I'm not very likely to get much financing for this anyway. Whether I do it now or ten years from now, the results are likely to be the same. I may as well get my first feature out of the way so that next time around I have something to show what I CAN accomplish.
Third, I own most of the equipment I need, and know many people who would be willing to work for free. Maybe some of them don't have the most experience, but a large chunk of the budget would be going to hiring a more experienced DP. The way I've been planning everything, I should be able to manage with only a couple thousand dollars.
Lastly, as I've said, I don't expect this movie to go far. If it does, great. But what I'm really trying to do is gain experience, create a work of art, and most importantly, prove to myself that I can do it.
Yes it's a big project, but I would rather aim for "great" and only get "good" than aim for "mediocre" and get just that.

Perrone Ford August 3rd, 2010 10:55 PM

I think Mr. Jones' point is that you could make an INCREDIBLY compelling 15-20 minute film that would showcase everything you could do, and would likely stretch your rather meager budget a lot further. Anyone with experience watching and rating films and filmmakers can tell inside 10 minutes if you've got what it takes.

I think it's a LOT easier to get financing for a feature, if you show a KILLER 15 minute short. Look at that short like the writer looks at the outline of the story. All the basics are in place, and it comes together, but lacks depth. That's what a short is. Or do an episodic. Produce a series of 5-10 shorts that come together to make a cohesive story. And shoot them as you've got time and resources.

The idea of shooting away from electricity is somewhat romantic, but even for Hollywood is a daunting and expensive task. You have to bring EVERYTHING. Shooting day for night is really the best solution, and if you're lucky, you'll get maybe 30-60 minutes where you can make things really work. Assuming you can get some diffuse days. There's just so much grip work to be done to get it right.

Can you make a feature for $2k? Sure. Will it be any good? Doubtful. Maybe if you own all the gear, shoot in one room, don't pay anyone, do the post yourself, etc. But this absolutely flies in the face of why you set out to make a film in the first place. It's supposed to be a fun, collaborative experience where everyone gets something positive from it. If you go into it without adequate budget, you're just tying everyone's hands. I've been there, and done that. I loaned nearly $20k of gear to the last "filmmaker" who wanted to make one of these films with no resources. Never again. It creates just tremendous feelings of ill will on the set if you're not careful.

Bob Hart August 3rd, 2010 11:12 PM

1 Attachment(s)
Day for night seems to be your only go.

My personal preference would be to shoot the wides which include the burning fire around sundown so that the firelight burns brighter in the image and the forest environment background darkens down.

I am led to understand that late daylight on a subject is cooler but the sky backgrounds which include the sun become warmer.

To get the firelight flicker in day-for-night for close-ups, you might be able to use a mirror to harvest sunlight, a bit of diffuser and some orange gel to shine it through and a dingle between mirror and diffuser. It would likely have to be held close to the subject and you might have to screen the subject from direct sunlight with a diffuser to allow the mirror light to dominate as key and the sunlight as fill. You might need two layers of diffuser for the sunlight or even shade the sunlight off the subject and use a whiteboard for fill. The background would have to be dark forest.

One of those round flexible gold reflectors might be nice to try instead of the mirror and gel and mighty confer the firelight flicker by simple movement and rapid folding to concentrate patches of light or use the dingle as already mentioned. Dingle is as simple as a leafy branch being held or shaken gently in the lighting path.

You might set the camera whitebalance for tungsten lighting, use a deep red gel for the mirror light and balance the red back to orange in post to accentuate the blue, then desaturate or gain down the blue channel to lose most of the blue.

For tight close-ups in real darkness, you might get enough light out of 12V swimming-pool dichroic lights with 50watt globes in them. I have had adequate though not brilliant results using them in an aircraft cabin in flight for daylight fill. To be if any use, they have to be about between 12" and 18" from subject. To close and they hotspot the subject even when diffused, too far away and they are too dull.

I dressed the glass panels with 5 micron aluminium oxide in a water slurry on a sheet of glass to make a fine frosted diffuser surface.

Two will pull a car battery flat in about 40 minutes. You might be able to use CFL workshop lights with an inverter. Power enurance likewise will be your problem with them. There is an image of a small swimming pool light which I have linked to. In the image, the light has also been blue gelled.

Any of this you would have to shoot tests with beforehand as you will have enough on your hands shooting on the day without experimenting, frustrating yourself and the talent trying to make something bad work better.

Real cinematographers and DPs who may reply here, you should take heed of versus my comments as I have no qualification to make them.

Credit where credit is due in image.

Left. Cameraman. Steve Rice. Right. Actor. James With. Character car. GMH Holden HG Monaro. Camera on end of stick. SI2K Mini head.

Perrone Ford August 3rd, 2010 11:49 PM


Since we've advised you that this is probably not the best idea, here's how I would do it on a budget.

1. For the firelight scene, build a real fire. Duraframe logs. Buy about 2 cases worth. Build use 4 or 5 in a circle to get something to shoot across.

2. Everyone gets both a headlamp (Petzl or similar) and a Propane lantern. The lanterns will set you back about $40 each, and the Petzl's about $25 each. Now you have light on every actor's face, and you have handheld light on the actor's body that should be strong enough to read on a decent digital camera.

I'd hang a few lanterns on the treeline to give the suggestion of the forest and keep some shape on the background. I'd establish the master about 45 minutes before sunset so we can see everyone in camp, how it's laid out, etc. Do all your "heavy lifting" before the sun sets. Then you can get into close ups and mediums after the sun goes down and the drama begins to build. You won't have enough light to shoot wide unless you time your shoot for a full moon, and you live with the "pools of light" created by the lanterns.

Keep the camera movement to a minimum as with this little light, you're going to be wide open on the lens, maybe shooting with the shutter off, etc. It's not going to be easy.

To give some perspective on this, there is a scene from "The Dark Knight" (batman movie) that takes place on top of a building. On the room. The gaffer had to come up with a way to light this scene that allowed for a 360 degree camera move. They ended up building a counterweighted truss system from which he hung 4, 4-bank Kino setups. Now a single 4-bank Kino is typlically used as an interview keylight. They used 4 of them as an overhead soft source to light 3 people in a tight circle.

What you are trying to accomplish here is very difficult even with good resources. I'd like to try it just to see if I could pull it off. It's going to stretch your DP most likely, so be prepared to give them all the support you can.

Cole McDonald August 4th, 2010 01:40 AM

Sam's club (and I'm sure other places) have inexpensive gas generators that cost not much more than renting one for a week ~$800 for enough amperage to run 3000watts of light, which is pretty low for a night scene, but a light behind the actors hitting the trees and gelled to moonlight, then a two point setup for the actors to provide enough light to read, yet suggest darkness in the middles. Key gelled orange, rim gelled moonlight/blue... no fill. Flicker made by waving stuff in front of the keylight.

Brian Drysdale August 4th, 2010 04:15 AM

On these extremely low budgets, something always drops off the edge and you have to make smart compromises.

If you're fighting for light levels, I'd drop the 35mm adapter on the night scenes, you can drop in a light promist filter to match the slightly diffused look rest of the film using the adapter if that's an issue.

Clever use of practicals is a good method for shooting this and you can use the last moments of twilight (according to taste) for the wide shots. A generator would ideal, just be aware of noise if there's dialogue, so you may have to place it a reasonable distance away if it's not silent running. Batteries tend not to last that long for lighting, so you need to test them to discover how you're going to last through a night's filming.

Day for night is another option, but you have to decide if the flickering firelight is really that important to your story. The downside being the audience are aware of this particular trick and it doesn't always work, but it can be effective in the right scene.

Even with large budgets you don't get everything you want.

Marcus Marchesseault August 4th, 2010 04:47 AM

If you are in a very dense forest, day for night might work. If any patch of sky or thin forest gets in the shot, the effect is ruined. How much will it cost in time and software to fix all those shots with sunlight in the background? I would light it with fluorescents or LEDs powered by deep-cycle 12V batteries. I have an Optima marine battery that is non-spillable absorbent glass mat that can put out about 50 watts for several hours. Get a big battery and small inverter for each daylight-color light and you can then shoot at night with real fire and practical camping lights. This way it will look like night because it will be night. Get one 2700K fluorescent and shoot it through the fire at your talent. You will need to gel it down with full CTO to get closer to the color of fire. Put a couple of lights on trees in the background coming in from the side and backlight your talent with a daylight hairlight to fake the moon. Watch out for reflections or hot spots on shiny objects like cars as any really bright highlight will give away the source and the fact it isn't really moonlight.

Forget the 35mm adapter at night. You would be better off not using it and just opening the iris on your cam. Underexpose a bit to make sure there are no blown highlights at all.

If you are shooting by a lake, you can fake moonlight coming off the water by having a super large soft daylight source come from the direction of the lake. It will spill on the foreground so this will only work for medium or tight shots.

Gary Moses August 4th, 2010 06:22 AM

Cart before the horse . . .Again? The story/script is king. Without a complete, interesting and dynamic story everything is guaranteed to suck. Why or how would anyone try to save money on scenes that have no content or story to portray?
Write or get the story first. If the story doesn't stand on its own (without production) what's the point?
After the story is in place and the scenes are decided, then get creative, very creative, in how to produce those scenes with little or no budget. You might be surprised how much a good story helps the scenes.
Crap that is produced cost effectively is still crap.

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