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Old May 17th, 2006, 03:24 PM   #1
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I was watching a short behind the scenes segment on the set of the O.C. the other day, and I noticed that in the indoor set there were chinaballs, everywhere. I was thinking that this would be a good idea for lighting a feature Im DP'ing this summer. It's my first feature and its pretty nerveracking trying to figure out how to light the scenes. So what Im wondering is... is this a good way to light indoor scenes? It seems to me like the china balls provide good fill and a good backlight and maybe all I would need is a good key light (Im thinking a 2k fresnel). They also seem like if they were used with daylight bulbs they would be good for a party scene outdoors at night that I need to light. Any help would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!
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Old May 17th, 2006, 04:02 PM   #2
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My thoughts:

I have a few of these, and yes, they are good for certain things.

However, please keep in mind, a china ball will provide you with an omni directional soft light. The bigger the ball, the softer the light (the ones that are 2 feet in diameter will be much softer than the ones that are 1 foot in diameter, except very close to an actor). So what this means is that your light will be thrown all directions. Good for fill light, not so good for trying to do controlled lighting. Now, you can spray (black/brown spraypaint) the china ball to cut the light out except in one direction, if you want, and then it's like a cheap chimera. You could also make a duvetyne skirt to do the same thing.

I don't think a china ball would make a great backlight unless it was real close to your actors. Like a few feet away, and even then, another light source could easily overpower it so that the "backlightiness" doesn't read on camera (by definition, your backlight has to appear brighter than whatever's lighting the front of the face/subject in order to look like a backlight).

Also, you'll have color temperature issues unless you use some kinda specialty bulb that I'm not at all familiar with. Using regular household bulbs, you will get a very warm light once the light has come through the china ball paper. Maybe you want this, maybe not. Yes, daylight bulbs cam be used, but if you want it really blue, it may not come out as blue as you think it will.

Another issue is the fire hazard. You're going to have a source of heat within close proximity to paper, which is always risky. Now, I've used 100w bulbs inside 'em with no problem, and I think I used a 200w inside one of the 2 foot balls. I have a 300w bulb, but always been a little afraid to use it.

For that night scene you mentioned, Those aren't gonna do too much unless whatever you're lighting is pretty close to the balls, or unless you have an assload of 'em. And I mean a real assload. They might look nice in the background for your party scene, but I wouldn't count on 'em to do much lighting (maybe for the closeup or medium closeups)

Also, think about your electricity need, if you try to use a whole bunch of 500 or 300w china balls, be wary of tripping a circuit breaker.

So, to sum up--your biggest issues while using china balls:

-low light output
-control of spill light
-fire hazard
-color temperature.

Also, the statement about using a 2K fresnel as a keylight troubles me. Usually, one wants a soft key light. So you'll have to bounce it off something, or diffuse it through something. Even if you wanted a hard light, that's pretty powerful to just blast at someone, except from a distance, or if you were stopped way down. Again, going back to electricity needs, with a 2K, you'll have to be careful using regular power outlets, as that 2k will be about the only thing you can plug into one, and that's only if nothing else is on that circuit. Otherwise you'll trip the circuit breaker. Now, I've heard kitchens and bathrooms are wired for 30A instead of 20, so you might try plugging in the 2K there. Maybe someone else can chime in there.

Not trying to discourage you, but realize that those china balls are a) weak (this is somewhat dependent on what wattage bulb you're using, but in general, they're still just pretty low output lights) and b) hard to control, so maybe do some tests with them before hand to see if they'll work for you. It's all about the right tool for the right situation.

You'll also need a way to rig those china balls to a stand. I've come up with a decent low budget solution, and I'm sure other people have others, and of course, if you have C stands handy, you're set.
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Old May 17th, 2006, 05:36 PM   #3
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Josh has given a good survey of the cons of using china balls, and I agree with his points.

There are a few positives, too.

These things are light. A grip or pa can hold one on the end of a boom if you're moving fast. Rig it to an existing household chandelier or chandelier hanger. Use lightweight stands (if you have counterbalance or booms or those gadgets that keep a ball extended if you turn it upside down). Rig 4 of them on a jib bar or batten, etc.

They're small - you could light a large scene with what you could fit in the back seat of a small car.

They're low-wattage. As Josh pointed out, this can be bad, but it can also be good. If you can quickly (front) light a dinner table scene with a jib, two stands, and two china balls x 200w each... why bring out the light kit that's 500w per instrument and doesn't have the wide coverage you need? (talking about modern prosumer cameras here, they don't need a lot of light, and you usually want to run them wide-open to take advantage of the limited shallow depth of field they have.) Then use your conventional instruments for backlights. White balance to the china balls and throw some 1/4 CTO on the backlights, or use photo-flood lamps for a tungsten balance.

They're cheap. You can buy a half-dozen for what one day's rental of an inexpensive light kit would cost.

But I do agree with Josh that they aren't even close to a general-purpose complete solution. They can be a decent substitute for a soft-box under many circumstances, providing either fill or a soft key with wrap.
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Old May 17th, 2006, 06:36 PM   #4
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Yeah, for sure they have their uses. I didn't think about having someone else hold one. . .I'm used to being the only guy on the "crew". My bad.
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Old May 17th, 2006, 07:02 PM   #5
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My guess for what they were doing on the OC was to use the china balls to light the set/environment, not the talent. That approach would give you soft light everywhere, so the set is lit evenly with little shadow. You may want that... or not.

2- It may make more sense to figure out the look that you want, and then figure out how to get that look. The best way to learn that would be to light a lot... and/or watch other people light stuff. You could get some basic lighting gear and just experiment with different setups.

Another good thing to do would be to PA on a professional set... it'll save you a lot of time from figuring stuff out on your own.

3- You can scout the location and figure out what the existing light is like. Take a camera and just film the existing light to see what you like and don't like.

When you don't have that much gear + an experienced crew for extra hands, you're going to be limited in how much lighting you can do. So a good approach can be to augment the existing lighting. Use a nice soft light for key, let the existing light do fill on the actor, and create some interest by throwing a light pattern on the background or hitting the talent with (colored) back light or kicker.

One thing to watch out for is daylight streaming through the windows, and fluorescents. Then you may run into color temperature issues, and daylight may change throughout the day.
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Old May 17th, 2006, 08:03 PM   #6
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If you're trying to create a "base light" (an overall soft, even light everywhere), you're going to have to hang those china balls, or else they'll be in the shot. Good luck with that.

Also, that PA thing. . .how much time you have to study setups and whatnot entirely depends on what you're doing on set. I've PA'd where I was barely ever near the camera, running errands or whatnot all day, and I've had ones where I was bored off my ass. So it's not a guarantee. An easier way to do the soft even light thing might be to bounce something off the ceiling (totas are good for this).
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Old May 18th, 2006, 02:33 AM   #7
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I think the china balls are being used to cover large areas to account for the talent moving to unexpected locations. On a free-flowing or live shoot, they acts as multi-directional softboxes that don't look too bad if they show up in the shot. I've seen them light the audience during comedy shows and I think they are used on Late Night with Conan O'brien. I once saw one in a "making of" where a guy ran in front of Chris Rock and a steady-cam running up stairs. The ball was large and on something like a short fishing pole. It was a night shot, so the ball in front of the actor was a fill with back light provided by lights on tall booms above and behind.

I've had one too many bad experiences with china balls since they are so fragile, even the ones made of a fabric-like material. Actually, I think it would qualify as felt since it isn't woven but rather pressed like paper. They should just make them out of Tyvek and they would last for many uses.

Concerning the flamability of these lamps, I use compact fluorescents as they are much cooler. I've ordered a proper softbox kit to replace the china ball. For $12, I will go get another ball, but will leave it in the box until it is really needed. I like the ability for softboxes to have control with grids too much to rely on china balls for all soft light needs. Softboxes with the diffusion removed and grids in place can also be used to control big fluorescent coils into a semi-hard light. Big fluorescents don't fit into conventional fixtures easily.
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Old May 26th, 2006, 11:13 AM   #8
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China balls can be used with bulbs up to about 500W. I use larger 24 inch or 33 inch balls, so they don't catch fire :~). I have lit a set for film, using either 500 watts or 1000watts per ball, I forget which. We cooled them down after every few takes and I just made sure to keep and eye on them. We also had duvetyne teasers to prevent the light from going all over the place. There is a fireproofing spray that can be applied to the paper, but I'm not sure where to get it. Perhaps Rose Brand, or any good theatrical supply house.

I also had my Chimera 20 inch lantern on the end of my Gitzo monopod with a 250W bulb on it, following our lead actor through a group of Bavarian dancers.

There are many types of bulbs that will screw into a regular, household type Medium Screw Base sockets:

(Sorry about the clunkiness of the table)

Column 1 Bulb type, or 3 letter ANSI code.
Column 2 Bulb wattage.
Column 3 Bulb color temperature in degrees Kelvin

  1. PH-211........75........3200K
  2. PH-212.......150.......3050K
  3. PH-213.......250.......3400K
  4. BBA(No.1)...250.......3400K
  5. BCA(B-1)....250.......4800K
  6. ECA...........250.......3200K
  7. BAH...........300.......3200K
  8. EBV(No.2)..500........3400K
  9. EBW(B-2)...500........4800K
  10. ECT...........500.......3200K

Some of these lamps have short lives, 3 hours, but they seem to last a little longer, in my experience. I usually use ECT and ECA bulbs. I've been carting around the same ones for a couple of years, but then again, I'm not using them on every job, but they do seem to last. There are others, R-40, mushroom bulbs. In fact, I still have the Lowell light kit that has the barn doors for mushroom bulbs. I use the bases a lot and put various bulbs in them.

I usually wire up my own hand dimmers using common 660W Lutron, or Leviton dimmers. This is a good way to turn them on and off because you start at minimum voltage and then raise it, so the bulb isn't getting hit with the full inrush of current every time you turn it on, thus prolonging the life of the bulb. I usually have a few of these in my light kit to control practical bulbs on set. Especially handy when I'm on location, doing interviews and whatnot.

When using photofloods, it's best to use ceramic sockets, especially with bulbs greater than 100 watts. I wire up my own and use black, or white 18/2 zipcord. For the higher wattages, I use white and make a short pigtail. I think the white may absorb less heat, being white, but I haven't done any tests.

All of the sockets, dimmers, plugs and sockets are available at any good electrical supply house, or Home Depot. NYC's China Town has a few places where you can get all of the fixin's for China Balls. They're fun to make, but I don't use them all the time.

If you make your own, I'm not responsible for anything that happens, especially if it's bad. When in doubt, have a professional electrician check your work.
Mark Sasahara
Director of Photography
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Old May 26th, 2006, 01:36 PM   #9
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Fire retardant spray

I to have used up to 1000 watts in a 30" China Ball and I also watch them like a hawk.

This is the one I am using.
Flamex is a unique water based liquid blend of a proprietary formula, suitable for use on a wide range of substrates.

I set one up spray it and when it is dry put it away till needed.
I suppose you could also spray as needed I just have not done it that way.

Cinematographers Bring Shadow To Light
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Old May 31st, 2006, 06:02 PM   #10
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Just another vote for making your own. I tend to make a load of china balls up before a shoot, using components from my local DIY store. They cost about 5 each including 36" paper china ball, 100W bulb, mains lead, plug, and a 2m long plasticised stick thing from the garden section that I use as a boom.

They are pretty fragile and I consider them disposable, but they're invaluble: 100W in a paper china ball is fine as long as you're careful (they can obviously be sprayed with flame-retardant goo if you like); they weigh nothing and can be operated like a boom during a shot to give a subtle lift to a particular character or group of characters and finally being actual consumer china balls they can be hung right in shot and look passable.

One final note: I was disappointed the first time I tried one about how relatively non-soft the light was: don't expect china ball paper to make your 100W pearl bulb look like it's gone through 2 sequential sheets of grid cloth. Try using them as a softish kicker rather than try and do some flattering 3/4 key light - that's where you need the book light :)
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Old May 31st, 2006, 07:23 PM   #11
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For China Balls I use two 12" plastic lamp post replacement globes I picked up at a home improvement store. Generally use them with the ECA bulbs (which is the most I would put in them). They are very durable since they are hard plastic. They could conceivably melt if over lamped (ie above 250 watts) but much less fire worry than paper. Usually hang them by a short chain from a boom stand. Of course they dont fold up like paper so they are bulky to store. But the 12" diameter is easy to manage on the set. There are plans for this set up floating around on the web for anyone who is interested.
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Old June 2nd, 2006, 01:53 PM   #12
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What I use for Chinese Lanterns

I have a special fixture I made to use a 200w Compact Fluorescent 8u bulb (with mogul base). It works well in both softbox hood speedmount rings as well as the 24" and 36" nylon chinese lanterns i have. You can see the fixture on my website I have published a video showing how to make your own fluorescent lights for video and film use. You can see an excerpt of it on the website and it has a glimpse of the fixture I am talking about. I would post the picture here but I don't see a way to attach jpgs to these messages. I will also be having lots of special, hard-to-find parts for sale on the site to back up the designs I show in the video. Things like attractive sheet metal and cast aluminum boxes, reflectors, ballasts, wire, sockets, clips, yokes, barndoor kits and of course, fluorescent bulbs in 3200K and eventually 5500K color temps: at first i will offer the 55w biaxes and also the 200 or 250w monster CFL bulb in these color temps. Also on this subject of chinese lanterns. When I was in L.A. recently I was on the Paramount lot and saw that many of the shows they shoot there use chinese lanterns hung on their grids. So they are definitely used by pros--no one should be ashamed of using them.
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