The name of my movie that I never actually made was “The American Dream is Bagels.”
The story follows an all-star high school basketball player, Jason Newhouse, dependent on his skills as an athlete to get into college. When he finds out he isn’t offered any scholarships, and his single-mother can’t support a college education, he’s forced to take on his part-time minimum wage job at a bagel shop full-time. I don’t want to spend too much time delving into the story beyond each scene’s context. If you are more interested, I will post the treatment later.
I undertook this project over the span of a week during spring break. As a result of my procrastination, my classmates got to all the Arri light kits as well as most of the Lowell light kits. I was left with the last Lowell light kit, which featured their V-Lights. Here’s the equipment I was working with:
- Two Lowell V-Lights (500 watts each)
- One Scoop light (200 watt bulb)
- Homemade reflector board (tin foil taped to foam core)
- Blue cellophane (they were out of blue gels)
- Panasonic HVX-200 HD camera
With the equipment I had, I knew I was limited in a few areas. I couldn’t really do more than a three point lighting set-up and the v-lights aren’t easy to control. The barn doors on them don’t have much movement.
However, there were some pros to my equipment: it was portable, it was good for low-key lighting, and it simplified the process of lighting since I only had so many options. Plus, one of the main things I learned doing this project is that it’s not about the equipment, it’s about knowing what you want to see.
But enough of me blabbing on, let’s get to the images, right?
Story context: Jason is practicing his free-throw shooting with his little brother Dustin outside of his high school.
I considered not even including this image in my project, because I figured it might be cheating. I used no lights to do this. I simply chose an overcast day and put the reflector board at my feet under the frame. But then I thought this was a good example of a good rule in lighting: if there’s a simple way to do it, do it. Ockham’s razor.
And while this may limit the depth I get from the background, I created that by putting Jason within the frame so that he’s much larger than the school. Also, my teacher Paul pointed out that part of this is the stark contrast of the school with the costuming.
Story context: Jason has to go into the storage room in his house to find a wrench for his mother. He accidentally stumbles across his father’s photo album and peruses through it.
So what I wanted out of this scene, in terms of the lighting, was a dark, moody aura while also conveying a sense of nostalgia. That way I can showcase the duality of Jason’s memory of his father. He enjoys looking at the pictures, but it’s going to make him sad in the end. Let’s take a look at the lighting diagram:
I also snuck a light in behind the door with the blinds on it to light it up. For this light I had to mount the V-light vertically so the light would spill up and down on the door and not just horizontally across one part of it:
I thought this was one of my more successful set-ups. I was pretty giddy that I managed to use the scoop both as a hair-light and a fill-light for when it bounces off the reflector board. Also, this set-up was simple enough that when I wanted to do a close-up, all I had to do was hold the reflector board at my face instead of the photo album.
As you can see, my face is slightly brighter in the close-up than in the medium shot. As it should be.
Story Context: The scene takes place outside, in Jason’s neighborhood where he plays basketball on his neighbor’s hoop. He has just missed the winning free-throw shots for his team against their rivals.
By far, this is my favorite still. I took the camera outside and figured I’d start with natural light since there was a lampost near the basketball hoop. I was wrong, the camera just saw inky blackness. I tried to mix color temperatures here, simulating the light from the streetlight and from the moon. I used my cheap blue cellophane on one of the V-lights and snuck a scoop behind the basketball hoop to give that more attention. Here’s the diagram:
For this set-up I also took the time to capture stills of each individual light so you can see what effect each one had on it’s own. Pools of light, if you will.
Like I said, this one is my favorite. It’s dark, but light enough. There’s the inky black background that seems so brooding and yet every part of the image that needs light, has it. Jason, the basketball, etc.
Story context: After being turned down by the four other colleges recruiting him, Jason learns from a phone call that the fifth school cannot offer him an athletic scholarship.
In my head, I had designed this lighting set-up so that there would be moonlight spilling down the stairs, and that light from the hallway would create a prison bar shadow effect on the wall. Sure, the motivation for the light coming from below is unrealistic, but I didn’t care. It would help evoke the mood of the scene. Plus, I kept remembering what I had been taught: lighting doesn’t have to be realistic, just plausible.
Here’s the diagram:
As well as a light at the top of the stairs with a “blue gel” aka cellophane on it.
And again, here are the “pools of light”
This is one instance where my makeshift blue gel failed me. I wanted moonlight and instead got this weird aqua marine color. To me, I enjoy the image when I take it out of it’s context. But in it’s context, and especially with the other images, I’m not sure it works.
The other images are much more realistic, whereas this takes an expressionistic tone. I would justify it by saying that I enjoy the surreal lighting with Jason having to deal with this surreal abstraction of a situation he didn’t think would happen, but I don’t know how that holds up.
Either way, I do think I got the prison bar shadows just how I wanted them.
Story context: Without money for college and out of high school, Jason asks to work full-time at his job at a bagel shop.
The idea behind this lighting set-up was to have Jason un-lit so that he blends into the background of the bagel shop, as if he is permanently a part of it now. Also, that his boss is lit very nicely to evoke her mood of excitement from gaining Jason as a full-time employee. Here’s how I did it:
This next shot will give you a better idea of the kind of windows/practicals I was dealing with:
Personally, to me, this image feels underexposed and not fully explored in terms of light. Yes Jason does retract into the background but something feels amateur about it. I think part of this reason is the bagel shop was closing up and I was rushing myself trying to get the shot in time. If I had to re-shoot this, I would change it a lot. With that said, the lighting did work for just the boss when she’s talking to Jason as he’s approaching.
Lighting Lessons Cheat Sheet
So what did I learn? Quite a bit actually. And I’ve organized it into a nice little tip sheet for you:
Lighting takes time
Don’t assume that because you know how you want to light it that you can do it instantly. Even if you get it right on the first time, you spend a lot of time unpacking equipment, taping things down, adjusting the stands and setting the frame.
It’s not about equipment. It is about knowing what you want to see.
I know I said this earlier, but I think this is the most important advice I can give. I did not have the best or most expensive light kit, but I did know how I wanted to light, so I didn’t have to depend on my lights to give me my options.
If you know what you want, you can make your lights give you that. And further, if you know what you want, then you are more able to tweak what you wanted into what’s acceptable with your lights. Having that control over the image in your head allows you much more easily to troubleshoot.
Don’t trust your eye, unless it’s looking into the viewfinder.
When I set me camera up outside at night, I could see everything I was doing fine. The camera saw blackness with the aperture all the way open. Don’t trust your eyes as indicators for what you’ll be able to film. They see so much more than the camera does.
Keep it simple.
Ockham’s razor is a phrase that refers to “chopping up” something complex to simplify it. Don’t use a bunch of lights if all you need is a scoop and some daylight. Don’t waste your time setting that key light perfectly if all you have to do is open the window.
On my last movie, Doppelganger, we needed the effect of a flickering TV so before we filmed we ran our hands across the blinds in front of my window and let them sway. Problem solved, no set-up required, and nobody knows in the end.
So that’s it! Lighting isn’t as intimidating as it seemed and I learned a lot in the process. Let me know what you think in the comments!