69.9 is the magic number.
It’s the maximum weight for luggage that you can haul across the world from airport to airport without incurring any fees. In our case, it’s 69.9 lbs. of gear and workshop collateral, usually multiplied by 6 bags.
But sometimes that magic number ends up being far less. Not for the sake of our backs or Goose’s (who packs the gear) sanity, but because extreme situations call for it.
Such was the case earlier this year. As we mentioned in the 4 Best Practices to Up Your Audio Game, in August we set out to tell a story in Uganda as a way to give back in the best way we know how—through story.
In preparation for that we had lined up a fixer, a local from the area who is in the film industry to help us with locations, casting, permits, gear rental, and everything else that comes along with international shoots.
In the months leading up to the trip he’d sent us preliminary search results for the people and places that could help with the story we were telling, and while we didn’t have the story locked in yet (we planned to listen for the story once we got on the ground) there seemed to be good options for us to explore upon arrival.
All of that looked great until about 48 hours before we were to head to the airport, we started to notice some red flags.
Our contact over in Kampala, Uganda started asking for information about the gear we were bringing, including how much we had and what the costs would be. It seemed innocent at first but soon as we mentioned some of the items he said that we’d need to pay a mandatory 60% VAT (that’s government terms for crazy taxes) on what we’re bringing in.
Other filmmakers that we spoke with who had traveled to Uganda and landed at the same airport noted that it’s entirely probable customs wouldn’t even stop us—that customs officers are quite friendly and more than likely wouldn’t be an issue.
Our original fixer said we could either pay the VAT upon arrival or we could pay a fee (bribe) to the local police, who would escort the gear through customs, ensuring that customs didn’t impose their own fees.
It was difficult to discern how the tax would be imposed without this fixer’s meddling.
It’s worth noting that we actually had two contacts in Uganda, the sheisty one we’ve been talking about, and an honest one.
The honest one, who came recommended by a friend, confirmed our suspicions that our fixer may actually be working with the customs officers at the airport to target us upon arrival.
“We’ll be ok so long as they don’t know when we’re arriving, right?”
“Yes, except I just sent along our travel itineraries to him a few hours ago.”
After weighing the pros and cons it was pretty apparent that we couldn’t take the chances of having to pay the outrageous bribes needed to get our gear through customs.
Twenty-four hours out from departure, we ended up revising the gear list quite considerably, bringing down that magic number.
Instead of a Red Epic and the pile of accessories that come with it, we decided to go ninja-style with smaller cameras like the C100 and Sony A7s plus some external Atomos recorders. Instead of bringing different camera stabilizer tools we brought just the monopod and a MoVI M5. Instead of a Kino Celeb and heavy, high-powered lights, we went with a solid Westcott kit of Flexlights, reflectors, and Scrim Jim.
We knew that less gear wouldn’t mean a lesser story, but we did know that with a slimmed down gear list we’d have to stay agile and make a number of quick adjustments.
This article is all about becoming more agile with our gear—specifically lighting.
We’ll break down four lighting hacks that we learned for a recent story in Uganda—a trip that meant a simplification of gear and a new versatility in the face of a number of challenges.
These are those 4 light hacks.
1. Cheating Day for Night
Cheating sounds like a dirty word sometimes but you hear it all the time in film. And it’s not a bad thing in this sense, it just means we’re working smart rather than working hard.
As part of our story we had to illustrate how hard a father works to put his girls through school. Everyday he would rise at 4 a.m. to load vegetables on his scooter to bring to the market to sell. He had hopes of making a few dollars each day to pay for their school fees.
The challenge then was that to capture just one scene (that would take approximately 5 minutes to shoot), we’d have to have a 2:30 a.m. call time, travel for an hour, shoot the scene, then return back to our accommodation, maybe sleep for another few hours, then wake for the rest of that day’s shooting schedule.
With only two shooting days, we couldn’t risk ruining one with a disruption that could potentially negatively impact the rest of the shoot.
Instead, we had to figure out another way to shoot it later on in the day so it made more sense in the production schedule.
We didn’t need to shoot at 4 a.m., we just needed it to look like 4 a.m.
At 4 a.m., before the sun rises, the light is dim, cool, and rather flat.
The most opportune time in our schedule for us to shoot this scene was around 3:30 p.m. in the afternoon, with the sun beaming bright warm light overhead.
So how did we make it look like early morning when it’s mid-afternoon?
At the location, we found a spot that was fully in the shade. This was in front of his house where the sun was on the other side. That gave us relatively flat light.
From there we ran the white balance in the camera about 1800 Kelvin cooler than standard “daylight,” bringing us to 3800K. That made the scene look considerably bluer than it really was, and made it feel a lot like early morning light.
In post, we dropped the overall brightness of the scene so it looks dim. Note that we shot it properly exposed so that our image would be clean (and not noisy should we decide to do more with it in post-production color).
And voilà: flat, cold, dim light on a bright, hot, mid-afternoon day—a direct result of understanding the different properties of light and knowing what we want to say.
We didn’t even have to use any lights or modifiers!
2. Be prepared to scale up or down
The reflector set is great when you need to be super quick or if you just need to bounce light, but what if you need to diffuse light, cut light, or block light? And what if we needed way more oomph out of it, or you needed to cover more area?
There aren’t a lot of grip houses in Kampala—in fact there’s one. It’s run by a Belgian named Patrick, and he runs it out of his garage. He had a small selection, including some small LED lights, and a few options for large modifiers.
While the reflector is great for some things there are times when we needed much more than what the reflector offers.
This is when we break out the 8’x8’ Westcott Scrim Jim. It’s a collapsible plastic frame with velcro that allows you to attach any kind of lighting modifying fabric to it.
When we needed a lot more bounce during our story’s grand reveal with our main character (which was shot in the shade) we set up the Scrim Jim with the white reflector and pushed in a good amount of light from off to the side.
We also used the fabric to help diffuse the light coming into the window on the side of the school by simply clamping the large fabric onto the roof and letting it hang off to the side.
In all, we had a tool that we could scale up or down depending on what we needed.
The Scrim Jim comes in 4’ x 4’, 6’ x 6’ or 8’ x 8’ and the frames are all the same, you just add more pieces to go from a 4’ x 4’ to a 8 ’x 8’—which mean that all we had to do was bring some different sizes of fabric and we can go as small or as large as needed.
In practice, we often bring a couple of 4’ x 4′ diffusion fabrics (in case we’re in a small space) and all the options for the large 8’ x 8’. In this case we used the 8’x 8’ but we were prepared for either size.
There’s a great sense of relief in such versatile options—especially when you’re in the middle of nowhere and you can’t just call a local grip house and send a PA over for more gear.
3. Don’t fight the light, work with it
Lighting may seem complicated, but remember this…
Whether you’re on a huge produced set with a 10-ton grip truck and a lighting team of 20, or a small documentary production with a total crew of six, it’s still the same physics of light you’re dealing with.
Light is light.
For this story, we certainly didn’t have the bandwidth to bring massive HMIs to combat the 90% cloud coverage on the first production day.
Unfortunately for us and for the story we were telling, we needed the sun.
It needed to look bright and hot like our main character was toiling under the blistering African sun. Instead, we got 45- to 90-second pockets of light when the clouds would break every 10 minutes or so.
So what did we do?
We could try to fight the light—try to overpower, overcome the existing conditions, or we can work with the light that’s already available to make the most out of the situation.
We worked with it.
We went early enough that the direction of the sun was still off to the side. We didn’t encounter a lot of it, but when the light did come around it was enough.
The solution was that we just needed to be ready.
We couldn’t block out the sun, and then recreate the light, we had to work with what we had and the light that was available.
To get maximum results out of what we had, we were ready with me in the field and Ahmed (one of the Musers on our team) with a 48” Westcott reflector in hand.
We brought the 5-in-1 reflector that came with silver, white, gold, and some other options so that we could pick and choose exactly what we wanted.
As soon as the clouds parted, I ran in for the shot while Ahmed used the silver side of the reflector to push harsh sunlight onto our subject, giving him that edge we were going for.
Because we had such a short window every time, and only a handful of tries before the rain came down, we really had to make the most out of the opportunities we had.
By using the reflector we were able to stay quick, nimble, and a step ahead—watching the sun and moving with it as much as possible to get the light we needed with what we had.
Once we accepted the light was available (an ornery sun), we then brought in the tools that would amplify what was already there. We found tools to help us work with the light, not against it—and in this case, that was the reflector.
4. Be flexible—literally and figuratively
We saved the best for last, as this is one is a doozy.
For years now the Kino Celeb has been our go-to light. This is particularly true for international travel because it’s LED and packs a punch. But there’s a new kid on the block and it blows the Celeb out of the water.
It’s the Westcott Flexlight.
It’s a lightweight, dimmable, LED light that’s quite literally and figuratively the most flexible light in the industry.
These panels are completely pliable and can be hidden, clamped, mounted, velcroed, and placed just about anywhere.
Not only that, but they can be powered through batteries as well a standard d-tap connector.
For this trip, we had to strip down our gear significantly, but we still had to go in with some lighting gear, so we went in with the Flexlights.
But Flexlights are only 1’ x 1’. And at that size, they might not provide enough power. And at that size, the light might be a bit harsh.
In order to get a larger and therefore softer light, we built a custom bracket out of aluminum. We packed it with the Scrim Jim kit so that we could bank multiple Flexlights together for a larger source. On that frame we also added some velcro on the side and made it collapsible with just a couple of screws.
From there we ordered a 4-up d-tap hub from Amazon and some extra cables so that we could wire up to four Flexlights together and have them be powered by one large v-mount battery.
And so with a little engineering and a little ingenuity we made ourselves a large 2’ x 2’ LED panel powered by battery that we could use anywhere we wanted!
Because we were able to replace the Celeb with something so lightweight and versatile, we were able to overcome a number of lighting challenges while avoiding bringing a huge lighting case of gear—one that we couldn’t bring anyway.
We were able to throw the Flexlights and their power source in a regular suitcase along with a bunch of odds and ends like the reflectors and just breeze through customs.
Heads up, if you want to get a Westcott Cine Flex 1’ x 2’ Bi-Color Cine Set, Westcott has a special sweepstakes where you can win one. You can also win a 6-month membership to Story & Heart’s Academy of Storytellers, and a $100 rental credit to LensProToGo, among other goodies. Enter this sweepstakes until Dec. 31, 2015.
Our experience in Uganda, including what occurred before our arrival, underscores this notion that comes up again and again in our conversations around here.
Creativity is born of constraint.
No shoot is going to go perfectly, but the more we embrace the challenges that arise when they don’t, the more we’ll push ourselves to better understand the craft at hand.
This is true whether it’s understanding the physics of light or understanding the potential of the gear we already use.
Let’s shift our focus from the problems to the possibilities to innovate solutions. Not all constraints are limitations, sometimes they’re invitations to think differently.
And the quicker we overcome these challenges, the quicker we can get back to the fun stuff—the story.
How about you? How have you overcome lighting challenges in your productions and what tools did you use?
As a DP I’m kind of a lighting geek and really dig seeing production photos from other filmmakers—I’d love for you to share your favorite setup with everyone here in the comments.