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Old January 24th, 2011, 02:07 PM   #1
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Advice on lighting an indoor, nighttime scene

Hello everyone,

In a little less than a month, I will begin production on a short horror film. I'm hard at work preparing for the shoots and planning lighting designs, but how to execute the opening scene has me somewhat stumped. Here are the details:

The movie starts at night, in a one bedroom apartment. All of the lights are off. The protagonist is trying to sleep when he is startled by a loud noise outside. He proceeds by touring the apartment, looking out the each window for the source of the noise. And here's the catch: the scene is almost entirely one continuous shot.

I am a bit puzzled on how I should light this. Due to it being a one take, there aren't many places we could hide lights. However, I realize it is impossible to shoot the scene with no lighting and expect to get any acceptable footage out of it. My current thought is to leave all of the apartment lights on, and cover them with gray gels. I understand that the lightbulbs in fixtures are not nearly as powerful as the tungsten bulbs I will be using to film daytime scenes, but I figure with light gray gels covering them, it might just produce the level of darkness I am looking for.

As far as what I want from the scene, I want it to look as realistically dark as possible without losing all visibility. If it is hard to tell what is happening in the scene because it's too dark, then I have failed to achieve what I want. I figure if the footage comes out too light, I can always darken it in color correction.

I know the only real way to know for sure will be to do lighting tests, which I plan on doing. However, I'd like to know right off the bat if there are any potential problems with a lighting set up like this. I'd also love any suggestions lighting experts here might have on how I could more effectively light the scene. Thanks, I appreciate it!

Edit: I probably left out some key information that is vital to answering my question. I was trying to post this before I had to leave for work (my day job) so I can have a number of responses by tonight. If you need me to elaborate on anything, ask me too, and I'd be happy to give more details as soon as I get the chance.

Last edited by Jim Rudolph; January 24th, 2011 at 02:13 PM. Reason: Elaboration
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Old January 24th, 2011, 03:35 PM   #2
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My initial thought would be light the interior with soft overhead blue-green/moonlight and/or moonlight/streetlight motivated harder sources through the windows. If the talent turns on any practicals in the scene as he walks around the apartment, you can do that as well and probably dim the practical but augment its throw with a tungsten-balanced source mounted near/above the practical out of frame.

How blue/saturated you go is up to you as a lot of people have differing views on this, and how you achieve it will probably depend a lot on your budget and the details of the location and blocking etc.
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Old January 24th, 2011, 03:46 PM   #3
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Hi Jim:

To clarify: "gray" gels are ND, or neutral density.

My approach to this scene would be to light from outside the windows. I hope the apartment is on the first floor! A common approach for night exteriors is to use blue gels to suggest moonlight--this is a somewhat dated look. If this is a city setting, you are more likely to experience streetlights as the predominant light source which could be achieved by with orange and possibly a little green (I use 1/2 to full CTO, and if desired, add 1/8 or 1/4 plus green), or there are some existing gels such as Roscoe's Urban Vapor. Set the lights high on the stands to simulate the height of the streetlights; this should also give you a nice diagonal cut on walls. Having venetian blinds on the windows will give you a pretty effect, however the blinds will glow from the backlight and may look a little unrealistic. If there are windows that will not be seen in frame, this may be perfect (you just see the venetian blind pattern on a wall etc but not the hot window itself).

Since your subject is looking out the windows, this will be a nice look as he will be edge lit at a given window. You'll have a certain amount of highlight in the room but overall it should still play as dark. You might have one or two practicals on but dimmed down very low (use inexpensive household dimmers) . The key to a good looking dark night interior is that the majority of the frame is dark, but you have splashes of highlight here and there, preferably as edge light.

If the effect is too contrasty, an ideal situation would be that the overhead lights are on dimmers and you can dial up just a little ambient fill to taste. Theoretically you could use ND gel but it's a time consuming process to tape up to the ceiling over can lights and you have to pick exactly the right strength.

Think silhouettes, shadows, contrasting light and dark. If you are able to get a window pattern across a wall in the background, having your actor walk in silhouette against that background. Much more scary and visually interesting than have a muddy low ambient fill where you see a little of everything.

If you have a limited number of lights, I would suggest breaking the sequence up up rather than trying to do it all in one shot. You can do any number of tricks and transitions to make it seem like it is one shot, such as whip pans or moving through a dark wall or having the actor pass close to the camera. Perhaps you can elaborate on the specific reason visually or story-wise that it has to be one shot as that complicates everything, from performance and timing to the elaborateness of the lighting setup.

Stills of the location would help; an actual walkthrough of the space with someone duplicating the path of the actor would be even better.
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Old January 24th, 2011, 04:35 PM   #4
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As Charles mentioned, we could probably help you more if we had a better sense of what budgetary and lighting equipment limitations you have. What tools are you working with, and what effect are you going for?

Regarding what you mentioned about grey gels, assuming you are talking about ND gel, im still not sure I understand what you mean you hope to achieve from them. Are you saying you'd just not bring in any movie lights and put ND gels on all the house/practical lights that are already in the apartment? Do you want it to look like all the lights in the house are left on around the house, or are you saying you'd just have the actor turn them on as he enters the room? If those are the only lights in play, NDing the camera, closing your aperture, or otherwise lowering your sensitivity would be a lot easier than NDing all your lights. For the most part, if you just use the house lights, you will likely find that the fixtures they play too hot on screen if they are seen and they will not light your scene enough. This is why we usually add hidden movie lights. If you are really going for home video look, maybe it would work, though.
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Old January 24th, 2011, 09:47 PM   #5
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Thank you for the responses. Let me attempt to answer the many questions you all have raised.

I understand it seems unnecessarily complex to try and film this as one shot, but it is very important to me that it be this way. This is the opening scene of the movie, and much of the film takes places in this one bedroom apartment. I want the audience to become familiar with the setting, and one shot following the character's movements is, in my opinion, the best way to do it.

Something that makes the lighting of this scene especially tricky is the apartment is located on the 2nd floor. This is an low budget short, and we do not have the money to rig lighting from outside. My intention with gray (or as I have just learned, ND) gels was to achieve a darker image that was still visible enough it could be altered in post. My background is primarily in student film and projects I did in college. I have used blue gels in the past to achieve a nighttime look, but I was not at all happy with the results. It looked too cheesy.

The way I have the shot planned, you would not see any of the light fixtures within the shot. I only wanted to use these as opposed to "movie lights" as it seems too difficult/time consuming/out of my budget to secure fresnels to the cieling and hide them and the various wires from view. Let me further clarify how I want to light this scene. My hope is to essentially bathe the set in gray. That way I could take the footage into final cut and darken the gray or play with the aperture on the camera until I achieved a night time look. There are orange streetlights outside all the windows of the apartment, and when a subject gets close enough to windows, it does illuminate their face (this much I have tested). Because there is some light already coming from these streetlights, the scene would not be entirely one shade of dark gray.

I realize my way of going about it is probably not ideal, but that is why I came here. My lighting plan is only the best I could think of in such difficult predicament. I really want to keep this one shot and so any advice anyone could give me is much appreciated. I could probably post a crude (handheld instead of steadycam) version of the shot by the end of the week if you would like see the location in detail.

Thanks for all the help!
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Old January 24th, 2011, 10:33 PM   #6
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What camera/format are you shooting on? The light sensitivity of your camera could make a big difference in your approach. If you are shooting on a 1/3" or smaller video camera format or do not have a fast lens, you just might not have enough light to avoid very noisy and underexposed images if you follow the no-lighting approach.

There are many nice ways to light that dont necessarily require having access to "real" movie lights. I've occasionally lit in small apartments using simple clamp lights from home depot with CFL bulbs also from homedepot, they are light enough you can hang them on a wall or ceiling with just some gaff tape. I've also used a normal china lantern skirted with garbage bags and used CFLs put in disposable silver baking pans with diffusion over it as a great little soft light you can tape anywhere. I do recommend using screws or nails instead of tape to be safer, but I have done it with tape as well, these are all light fixtures that cost <$10. I think it is a mistake to assume you cannot light at all just because you do not have thousands of dollars worth of fresnels and grip gear.

Also, keep in mind that ND gels will not necessarily make your scene look "grey". Grey is relative, ND gels will not desaturate colors in your scene, they will only lower your light level. Remember that grey to a camera could look white or black instead depending on how you have your exposure set. Definitely test first, since I have a feeling if you do not add any lights, it will still be rather dark and you will not want to add ND to any lights especially when it is easier to just stop down your lens, lower your gain, or ND the lens.

Especially since it is a horror film, if you are not familiar with it, you may want to explore how to make your lighting look not darker but more low key. Often what looks "dark" to a viewer is actually illuminated by very bright lights, but they are just placed in such a way that they only illuminate the subject in a particular way that leaves a lot of shadows and un-illuminated areas visible. For example if you know where your camera is going, you may want to put your lights more toward behind or left or right of your actor rather and not anywhere near where the camera is, so the actor falls in shadows more often. This can take a lot of practice getting exactly the look you want especially with complicated blocking, but I do recommend you consider it.

In the end, if the most important thing to your scene is that the camera is moving, maybe the lighting will not seem important to you. Lighting for that scene certainly may not be as important as the camera move, but I still feel that if you place your light sources carefully, you can get a lot more out of your images, as it will help you convey the mood and help avoid distracting the audience from the story. It is still certainly worth at least working with what you DO have available to you and making it work to your advantage.
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Old January 25th, 2011, 04:14 AM   #7
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I know the old moonlight can be a bit cliche these days but a recent feature I shot as a modern day tribute to hammer used it all the time, we had one redhead with dichroic daylight filter outside the farmhouse window lighting out to in and as in this shot a Pag light with an HMI bubble hidden in the window frame:
YouTube - 50 watt HMI Paglight - iPhone.m4v
This shot shows the redhead outside on the building: YouTube - Night shot with daylight redhead - iPhone.m4v
And this is what it looked like for the inside shots with the paglight to get the shadow effect:YouTube - HMI 5o Watt Paglight 2 - iPhone.m4v

We also did quite a lot of day for night:YouTube - Day for Night - iPhone.m4v
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Old January 25th, 2011, 05:29 AM   #8
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As indicated, "gray light" is not a very substantative description. Cameras read light as a function of the light itself plus the surface that it hits. If you have a red pillow, no ND gel will make it read gray (theoretically, lighting it with the complementary color cyan should reduce the appearance of red--but it still won't read gray). You'd either need a set that was void of color to begin with, or color correction that knocks out the saturation.

Since you can't light from the windows, I'd recommend bringing light in to various points in the background. You may not have to do any rigging for this--if you can place lights down unseen hallways that play across walls in the background, particular broken up by shadows from gobos or doorframes or blinds or curtains etc., this will add to the contrast. Think shadows and highlights, not an overall midtone gray.This sort of thing is a little hard to describe. Seeing the location will help.

Regarding the one-shot opening. Even though it may seem logical that if the camera moves from room A to room B to room C the audience will "become familiar with the setting" as you say, in reality the audience may not "feel" the geography enough to be able to truly register it as if they were walking through it themselves. It also may not be that interesting to simply follow the actor from a fixed distance and again, may distract them from getting the space. There's an extensive history of Steadicam shots that do what you describe (God knows I've shot plenty of them myself) and many of them fail to achieve that stated goal. Having said this, I'll reserve further elaboration until I see a handheld walkthrough of the shot.
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