Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"Something" *Clicked* Today

Some things come naturally to some people. For me, it is writing. Writing a screenplay - even more so. I just "get it". I "get" the "blueprint" aspect, I "get" the mechanics of how people read over a white piece of paper when they really just want to have the thing "read". I "get" how to represent a scene/action/emotion on a page with black courier font text. I "get" how annoying quotation marks are.

I "get" actors. I get how I often over explain their character to them, that I might have too many ideas to try. I get that they want need as little as possible from me in way of explanation. I "get" it.

I don't get cinematography.

Oh, I have the knowledge. I can relay the knowledge. I can have a conversation. I somewhat understand the math of electricity and bulbs. I know key/fill/back/kicker. I know you're supposed to paint with the light. But none of it ever added up. I didn't get lenses, I mean I know depth of field and composition, but when we start talking millimeters... uh-uh. I can't do it. Can not do it.

Anamorphic, widescreen, ratios... I know these terms, I still don't get why a TV will sometimes squish a widescreen recording and still cut off sides in a letterboxed dvd.

Until today.

I guess working around the lights recently, solving some problems here and there, talking bulbs and wattage and then immediately cutting the footage and seeing the results - a technical education if you will - made it click with me.

I get it.

I think I just stepped up my game folks.

For years, left alone in a world devoid of cinephilic friends and no money to buy those with a cinematographic green thumb, I was honestly terrified to experiment, knowing I had no chance of looking professional without lighting. If I couldn't get a DP on board on the day, I had no other choice but to shut a project down.

Then I thought, "If I just had the $500 it took to buy a light kit, then I could take my time and experiment on my own. Then I'd get it. Well I never had the practical need for lights. So I couldn't possibly spend the money.

So I cut my teeth on wedding and highlight videos. I experimented with framing and editing. With distance and movement. The only real thing I learned about lighting from that was what an ND filter did. And that stepped up my game. The ability to use real Cannon lenses on the XL1 was the first step in an evolutionary process. I learned the correlation between the clouds and F-stops and Frame Rates. Now I can do it in my head.

Then I suddenly needed a steady cam. I obviously can't afford that but there are so many fun looking tutorials online to build one for $10, I had to try.

It mildy works. But what I really gained was a true DIY attitude. What I previously thought was for amateurs, I now realize can actually be for a realists looking to keep working. I often run from "DIY" because my nose is in the air. Or rather, a chip is on my shoulder. I have a deep need to only make professional pieces, it's a problem that has kept me from directing more projects because of money concerns. Being in Oklahoma, people throw around terms like "barebones" and "Do It Yourself" and the dreaded "Independent Filmmaker" phrasing that is supposed to be some sort of excuse for shoddy work! And I'm too good for that!...

(okay... easy... I'm working this out guys - I'm admitting I may have a filmsnob problem - okay? I'm working it out.)

I looked at these lights I used on Player's Court. They were expensive. They were amazing for my project because we were just experimenting with shooting style and character work. The lights helped be something more than that - closer to a visually finished project - so it could now be used to be shown rather than just good pre-production. Kent (the DP) and I talked so much about bulbs that in cutting I now UNDERSTAND the relation between distance and watts and direction.

And I saw that the true value of the professional lighting kits were not the lights at all. It was the "brushes". The barn doors, the diffusion, the things that truly allow you to "paint with light" - or maybe now more accurately, "paint with shadow". And then not just those features - but the system. Want to splash light here? move the barndoor in. want to not be so bright? drop in another scrim.

I had a moment when I REALLY needed a "softbox". Then I doubled the diffusion over and it worked fine. I was proud of myself for that. So I admired my work and recognized for the first time that I understood what I did. *I slap my forehead*
But not just that, I was looking at a clothespin holding wax paper! That's not official film gear! In fact, the fill light was one of those $5 clamp lights from Walmart, except it was black instead of silver and had a really expensive bulb in it.

Then the $300 600 watt light started having problems after the $150 300 watt light's fuse blew.

Then I remembered a number from my last trip to Walmart buying a screw to fit through a pvc pipe cap and in to my camera for the steady-cam. I did some math.


500 watts.



Across the aisle from potential steady cam pieces in Wally-World - a pile of work lights. A variety of builds. Some built to hang, some with nifty stands and wires to keep your fingers out of the burn zone.

$30 will get me 2 lights and a six-foot tripod stand that detaches into this crazy handheld device... Options.

It dawns on me that video is not film. There's a problem with too much light when shooting with video, rather than the way my training with film taught me to see "painting" - a major difficulty with darkness. That means that if I could get a wide enough flashlight - I could probably light a movie with flashlights! Light kits are built from the knowledge of film - you need light. So do I need that if I'm shooting video where light is the problem and the paint is shadow?

TWO 500 watt lights I can point anywhere. PLENTY of light. Now on to the brushes.

Direction - where the light is not.
Diffusion - softening how much shadow falls from the light against objects.
Reflection - changing the quality of the light's direction.

Direction - I'll take ideas for barndoor solutions, but the worklights have lips on them, so thin black metal plates clamped on shouldn't be a problem. You can also use anything to block light.
Diffusion - needed an easy way to carry two lights and a tripod and extension cords. I bought a plastic tub. A white, non-see-through, plastic tub. If I set it in front of the light, the light will not pass directly through. It will be defused. Add layers of wax paper to taste(keeping in mind the potential of melting plastic though - 500watts is some fast heat).
Reflection - line that tub with foil, point the light the opposite way, and shine it into a box of foil. Line it with silk and get it close enough - you have an umbrella.
Color - line tub with color gel.


I don't have to pay to experiment any more. I can shoot a short as the inspiration comes to me and still look professional! It can still LOOK like a movie!

I spent $40 on a light kit.





  1. Professional lighting equipment is just the easiest go-to. Condensed versions Inspired by the DIY'ers who thought of lighting contraptions in the first place. Those who are able to use professional lighting without the experience of cutting their teeth on shop lights with notebook paper attached are faster maybe, but don't have the pure beginner's understanding of what they can do with light. Or what they can create with their own hands, they are missing a creative piece. (clamping shop lights are wonderful btw, and I don't recommend notebook paper).

  2. ha! notebook paper does seem mildly dangerous. and let's call it " 'official' professional lighting" :) It'll help me come to terms with being a "barebones filmmaker". :D

  3. Yes, Official-Professional lighting. But the point being they don't get a true awareness of the "bones" in the first place. You could call yourself a "roots filmmaker", it goes along with the green and organic trends going on.

    Own your roots as if you were the first to create "painting light with shop lights".

    Emoticon, Out. =D

  4. wait. did you just make fun of my overuse of emoticons? Ha! I always say we of the interwebs need to agree on Leet Speak symbols for tone of voice. The happy faces really aren't me.

    Also: You make an excellent point about the separation of knowledge and skill. This is certainly a perfect topic for my other blog - edtechspecialties. I'm going to explore that idea a little more. THANKS!