Tackling a scripted short is a challenge for many reasons. One of them, is that you lose a lot of your excuses. If you’re shooting an event and something is soft, over-exposed, or you just missed it, we can always say that it was just too darn fast. But on a scripted piece, all those reasons go away. In this case, we had months to prepare.
Then the question becomes, if you could light the scene however you want, what would you do? Here is our challenge as artists. We can often see so much further than we are capable of achieving. How do we stick to that vision and push our skill set as much as we can inside a given shoot?
And that too is one of the greatest opportunities in filmmaking. You can surround yourself with people who are better than you, people who can take your vision and find a way to execute it in ways beyond what you could imagine.
With My Utopia, we had the opportunity to bring in some amazing help. I’ve probably learned more being on set and paying attention to field audio, gaffers, or directors more than anything else.
Armed with a gaffer, grip, and a 4 ton truck full of lighting gear, we were able to pull off some pretty spiffy lighting tricks. And of course, we tried to be very intentional in how those spiffy tricks pushed the story.
My Utopia is a very personal story that is both bright and dark. The whole concept of My Utopia is that of a dream, yet as we follow this dream we learn what is hiding in the shadows. Our approach to the lighting was to embrace both sides; the light and the dark. Being such a personal and strong story, we wanted to push the lighting to also help carry this drama.
Here are 2 of our favorite scenes when it comes to the lighting, one light and the other dark. We’ll breakdown the lighting setup as well as the motivation behind each.
1. The Light // Lighting biggest scene in the film with…one light.
We wanted this scene to have a warm summer feel. This embraces the idea of My Utopia without hinting at where the story is headed. Much of the narrative takes place in the classroom and we wanted it to feel warm and safe – a place where Stephanie would feel comfortable sharing something so intense and personal.
When we were scouting, I wanted to make sure we found a room that had a wall full of windows to the left or right of the classroom. I knew this would give us a good overall ambient lighting level and mean we would need less lighting to achieve the warm summer day feeling. We found classrooms that may have been strong, but if the windows were to our backs, it would have been to much to block them, only to recreate that large soft source from the side.
Half of our lighting was done in simply choosing the right location.
As we were adding light, we had a few main things we were looking to do;
- Light Stephanie so that she stands out visually. Ideally split lighting (half her face in the light, half in the shadow) to embrace the split personality of the overall film.
- Add a slash to the chalkboard which adds to the summery feel, brings the attention to Steph, and also gives a natural spotlight feel. Fitting to read an essay in front of a class.
- Have enough overall light to maintain a 5.6 aperture for our opening shot. We didn’t think we could pull focus with anything less, so we needed to make sure we had enough light.
Take a look at our original lighting plot and then we’ll break it down.
Keep in mind – these our our actual lighting plots and they do vary from the final lighting setup, which we’ll discuss below.
While our original lighting plot saw two HMI’s in the scene, one on Stephanie and another just for the chalkboard, our amazing gaffer was able to pull it all off with one. One Arri M18, an 1800 watt HMI with a whole lotta modifiers.
The overall concept would be to split the light into two beams; one that hits the chalkboard and creates the light streak, while the other lights Stephanie.
Since we were going on split lighting on Stephanie, we could have the HMI close enough to the chalkboard to make it work for both. The light on the chalkboard was shaped using a series of flags. By leaving the light harsh, with no diffusion, we got that distinct shape you see.
The light headed towards Stephanie needed some heavy diffusion to be be soft enough for our warm summer feel. A stand was put up with some thick diffusion and angled just right so it only softened the light heading in our talents direction. Our big issue was then the overall ratios. We wanted the light on the chalkboard to be roughly equal to the key side of Stephanie’s face. In other words, we didn’t want the chalkboard super bright and distracting. Since the light on Steph was diffused, that then cut the amount of light that reached her. We then added a double net to the light heading to the chalkboard to bring it down and provide a better ratio.
As we were setting up the lights, we made sure to have our camera setup. This is an often overlooked step as nobody wants to fall behind schedule. Always seeing your picture lets you know what each light to modifier adds or takes away and what you can hide both inside or just around your frame. In this setup of our wide shot, we had the flags and modifiers pushing the edge of the frame. You can also see above the chalkboard how the gag is given away with all of the light and shadows – we had to make sure that was all out of our frame.
We also hid one more light right inside the wide frame above. It’s not on the original lighting plot, as we hadn’t thought of it. While you won’t see the light itself, you can see what it’s lighting, While it makes sense at first glance, it doesn’t make as much sense when you think about it. The first person to guess what the light is doing and where it is wins a KNOW Field Guide. Post any ideas in the comments below and first one to get it wins! (EDIT – looks like Richard guessed it right. Check out the comments if you want to know the answer)
We had a couple things that didn’t work. The particles in the air you may have noticed on the lighting plot was something that we just couldn’t pull off. We needed a light to come from behind and cut through the dust to illuminate it enough to show up on camera. While we could somewhat pull it off, it was taking way too much time and work to show up just a tiny bit. I knew that would slow us down way too much on our first shoot day. We also had planned a small light streaking across the back of the classroom floor to add some depth to the opening shot. Ultimately we just ran out of time and never got to it on our day of prep and rehearsals.
2. The Dark // Adding darkness to our villain.
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This was one of our toughest scenes to shoot overall. Everything in this scene is based on a real memory of Stephanie’s. Mike Butters, our talent, pulled it off with incredible conviction. We knew we had nailed it when the whole crew was repulsed in playback. By the way, if Mike looks familiar, that may be because you recognized him as the villain in the SAW horror franchise.
We only have two scenes in the film that show us the villain and we wanted to make sure you felt the horror and disgust. We designed these scenes to have a lot of shadows, to add to the horror, while also using colder background tones. While this scene looks simple enough in the final film, it has about 6 lights setup to pull it off.
Here we needed to add light in the following places;
- the far background which helps illuminate his silhouette as he enters and gives us the opportunity to bring in cooler tones that aren’t overwhelming (which would make it feel like the middle of the night)
- the second doorway in the background to give the background depth and also give our talent an edge light as he walks up to camera
- a light coming in through the window (to the right of this frame) which would light the wall that takes up much of the frame
- a key light for the talent to step into as he arrived at the cake which would both reveal him from the silhouette and make him look menacing for his tight shot
This lighting plot is fairly close to how we ended up in the final scene. Two hours of setup and we ran through this whole scene, the three shots, in no more than 10 takes total.
You likely noticed on the lighting plot the heavy use of color within this setup (lots of Kelvin settings or colored gels scribbled down).
- Our key light was a Kino Celeb, which is an LED that let us dial in the exact temperature of 4,400 Kelvin
- We had an Profoto Daylight Air 800 Watt HMI coming through the window, which is 5,600 Kelvin. We added a 1/2 CTO to have the color closer match our key
- Another HMI in the far background, but this one with a CTB to make the temperature even cooler and further separate it from the foreground.
- The light on the middle doorway was a Kino Diva with two tungsten and two daylight bulbs to match out foreground.
When it came to lighting our stepdad as he steps up to the cake, there are a couple things worth noting. We certainly wanted a more dramatic ratio than most of the other scenes – we had that planned as an 8:1. But we also wanted to broad light him, which will make him feel bigger. We avoiding using any diffusion on the Kino Celeb to also make him look harsher. The light was positioned slightly below to give a horror feel without pushing it too far that it brings you out of the story.
This is what I LOVE about scripted work. The idea of combining all of these decisions makes a huge difference on the tight shot below, but none of those would have been my first instinct had we shot quickly and without pre-production. Sitting down with each scene and asking what we wanted to communicate, then working through every facet of our lighting – temperature, direction, quality (harsh/soft), and intensity – to further the story.
In looking at the lighting of the film overall, here are some key take-aways, that making this film absolutely reinforced for us.
- Don’t fight your locations. Try to find locations that give you a head start and always listen to the light that’s there.
- Always setup your camera first. Know what each light adds (or takes-away) and keep a constant eye on your frame.
- You absolutely don’t need a lot of lights to light a great scene.
- Remember the four properties of light and try use them all within each scene (temperature, direction, quality, and intensity).
Up next, we’ll show you how we pulled off a pretty nifty lighting trick using some lights I stole from my living room.
Any questions about the lighting of My Utopia? We’d love to chat.