Ben Enke

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How One Light Lit Two Scenes in a Single Room – A Low-Budget DSLR Technical Breakdown

As you can tell, I’m not at all clever in coming up with titles for my blog posts, so expect to see very garish (is that the right word? It sounds like it might be) blog titles from here on out until I become a more clever person.

Last week, I broke down a shoot I was on earlier this year with a Canon C300 Mark II, shooting some low light shtuff with just a couple of fixtures. Today, we’re going to take it down another notch and go even simpler. I’m not even doing overhead diagrams for these because of how little stuff there would be to show.

One of my requests for material was to see what I could do with low-budget DSLR stuff, though, as you know, I insist the camera has very little to do with your look, and it’s more about how you block and light a scene. However, I started on DSLR’s, and was beholden to their intricacies and limitations, so this post (albeit probably a brief one) is entirely focused on a feature I shot that was funded out of the producers’ pockets, and all of our equipment was borrowed.

Here are the #framez from the two titular scenes.

Frank (Brent Latchaw) in "Solitude"

Donald (Glen Stone) in "Solitude"

Some background: These two scenes are from an anthology horror film, where a monster is haunting the same family throughout it’s generations. It’s a tribute to horror films of different decades, spanning from the 1930s to present day. The above scenes take place in the 60s (black and white) and 70s, hence the grittiness to the images.

We shot on a Canon 5D Mark II, before I even knew what Magic Lantern was, so this was about as barebones of a 5D as you could get at the time. I would be hard-pressed to tell you what exact focal lengths I was using, since this was years ago and my memory is only good for about a few days, but on the shoot we were rocking a 24-105mm f/4.0 L, a 50mm f/1.4, and an 85mm f/1.8. So your standard photo lenses, nothing too flashy.

What I can tell you is that these scenes were shot in the exact same room on the same day, and with a single fixture because most of the lights we had borrowed ended up being mostly defunct (knockoff third party brand). So we were left to a single 1K to light two scenes with.

We knew one scene would be daytime, and one would be night, so we shot accordingly, as you probably would. We knew for both scenes that our key was probably going to be the window, so during the day, key is the sun, and at night, key is the moon. What I was going to do about backlight and fill, I had no idea.

I knew that I wanted the window to play more so in the daytime scene than the nighttime scene, because I just didn’t have enough light to work with to create moonlight and make it look believable outside the window, but daytime is easy because it’s daytime and light is aplenty thanks to that beautiful ball in the sky. I just needed to shape that light, as opposed to create it entirely from scratch if I had set the nighttime scene with the window in the frame.

This is where I want to mention location scouting again. I hadn’t had the opportunity to scout this location prior to arriving there, but the production designer had been through it and had picked out props and set dec accordingly, and that was instrumental to the look of these scenes. The location itself was a beautiful, dark wood interior, so there wasn’t a lot of light bouncing off of weird places that we may have had to deal with had our location been tan or white walls. The props and the set dec (notably the desk that was chosen) fit those looks perfectly, and really complimented the rest of the room well. As much as cinematography is about lighting and composition, good production design takes it to that next level that so many student and younger filmmakers tend to forget about.

Anyway, back to the shoot. Our daytime scene was first, and it was easy enough to light knowing what I had to work with. The window faced east, and we shot this in the evening, so the sun wasn’t direct at this point, which was perfect, as it gave me the opportunity to shape the light coming through the window with my 1K without the sun casting any nasty shadows on our actor or inside the room.

If you look at the above image from the 70s segment, the 1K is the hard light that’s hitting the curtains, the trim around the windows, and his suit coat. It looks like the curtain is actually diffusing the 1K hitting the left side (camera right) of his face as well, but I could be mistaken. The reflectiveness of the desk is picking up some nice hits from the window as well, as is the shiny lamp placed camera left.

The final image is fitting our 70s horror film look, and overall, we’re pretty pleased with the outcome. Doing it all over again, I would maybe find a way to fill in some of the darker areas of the frame with just a little something, like the black void camera right, or the dark portion of the desk at the bottom of the frame. I think the contrast on his face and the hard hits on the curtain and window trim fit the look we were trying to emulate though, and I’m happy with the contrast points in the image overall.

The trickier one is the 60s segment at night.

We knew the position of the desk would change, so we flipped the desk so the window is camera right of the above black and white image. We’ve placed our talent, and set his desk to taste. That 1K is still outside the window, and I’ve merely tweaked it to now act as a key at a 45 degree angle to the talent, but doing that made it look like absolute horseshit, because he looks extremely lit, and there’s all sorts of ugly shadows hitting him and cascading onto the wall behind him.(I’m doing my best to paint you a picture, because I didn’t take any reference stills back then in case I were to use them for a blog about cinematography)

I had just started out doing cinematography (about a year into doing it for films when we shot this in 2013), but even I knew something just wasn’t looking right with this scene. So I tweak the positioning and barndoors of the 1K, probably for a stupid amount of time doing not much at all because in my mind, I’m thinking about all the lights I wish I had to create the look I want, instead of what I should’ve been doing, which is figuring out how best to use the one source I have, and makeshifting from there to craft a look.

So I go inside, and this is where I discover one of the techniques I’ve learned when lighting scenes, which is just to feel and imagine the scene around you. Now, I’m not trying to say that you feel lighting like it’s the Force flowing through you, but sometimes the best way to put yourself into a scene is to take yourself completely out of it for a moment. I find it very helpful to take a couple of minutes by myself, walk away from the set and the people and the chatter and the movement, close my eyes, and just imagine the way I see the scene, without thinking about sources, without thinking about what how it’s being lit on set, and just think about the way that it might look, what the talent is doing, etc.

This was an insanely small crew (I think the two co-directors, myself, and the production designer), and so I spent these couple of minutes in the chair the talent would be sitting in, and just pretended to be him for a moment. What is he doing? Writing in a journal. Okay, so he’s probably using a little desk lamp. I turn on the lamp that is currently on the desk and move it into a position that might be better for me as I’m writing in my journal. No idea how it looks yet, but oh well. What else? He’s also probably not just sitting in darkness by himself, so maybe there’s a light on in the house somewhere else. Already I’m starting to see the moodiness of the look I want, so I throw on an adajacent room light and jump behind the camera, run outside (except, don’t run, because it looks like you forgot something, and you could trip on a stinger or c-stand leg and die), tweak the 1K, come back inside, look into the monitor again, and what I see is pretty close to the final image above.

The 1K outside is now barndoor-ed so it only hits the background behind our talent, so the bookshelf, as you can tell from the hard shadows from the books onto the shelf. The lamp is now the key, as it would be bright enough to light his entire face, and we added some strategically placed white paper on his desk to help fill in some of the left side (camera right) of his face as well. The backlight is coming from the adjacent room light (the kitchen) I had turned on, and we simply used the door as a makeshift flag to cut off the light where we wanted it to fall, so you can see it hitting the shoulder and sleeve of his jacket, and the back of his head camera left, but nothing else really. The great thing about this scene was it would be post-converted to black and white, so I wasn’t too concerned about color temperatures here.

To add another little pop of detail, I positioned the chair at the bottom of the frame so that it caught some of that desk light and provided a little pop in that dark image of the frame, so it wasn’t completely falling into black, and since this was a push-in shot, it gave us some nice depth and dimensionality in the frame as we pushed in.

Extra tidbit – for the dolly we used to push-in on this shot, it’s literally two rubber hoses, a dolly track for your tripod you can buy for dirt cheap on Amazon, and some sandbags on both ends of the hoses to keep them lined up and in place. About as makeshift as you can get, but it gets the job done, and I guarantee it cost no more than maybe $50. If it works, do it. Doesn’t need to look fancy or cost a lot of money (although you typically get more quality and longevity out of those things).

Is this image perfect? Absolutely not. If we think about it, the moon probably isn’t just lighting the bookshelf, it’s probably flooding the room. And the highlights from the papers on his desk that we were using for that little extra punch are completely blown out. There’s dark pockets of the frame that look too dark for the scene maybe. But overall, I think we got our 60s look that we wanted. I hate to say this, but the grain and grittiness of the image, and the very high contrast, is sort of passable because of the era we’re trying to emulate, so I think it works in that regard. Maybe?

Again, I want to reiterate that this was done on the insane cheap (the producers who spent the money on the film might argue differently though). We didn’t have much in the way of fancy gear, lighting, or anything really, but made a decent looking image that fit the bill and made everyone pretty happy.

Remember when I said this post would be brief? Heh heh heh.

I hope this was helpful. I had a number of requests for these types of breakdowns, and I hope there’s some takeaways in there. I was just starting out, and had no idea what I was doing really, but trail and error really are your friends when you’re doing stuff like this.

What’s next? I don’t really know, honestly. I may start breaking out of my normal format and do smaller breakdowns of multiple shots, instead of bigger breakdowns of just a couple.

If you want to keep up with my work, my Instagram feed is the place to find me and all of my silly nonsense. 

Thanks for reading. Till next time!

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