Whether you’re new to filmmaking or a seasoned veteran you’ve found yourself on a poorly budgeted set. Sometimes this is a matter of circumstance. A client doesn’t have enough money to shoot what they have in mind, but you’ve taken the gig regardless. Sometimes a poorly budgeted set happens by accident. Inexperienced producers exist and we must forgive them for learning! Regardless, the job of a director of photography is not to wish. It is our job – as the late John Alton A.S.C. has put it – to “[capture] bits of light at rest on things of beauty”, no matter how mangled and mutilated the budget may be.
Take the set of Honest Work (2019) for example. In lieu of the Dakota Film Dash, midwest directors of photography Joe Greening and I teamed up to do two things:
1. Get some hands on experience with the RED Camera operating system.
2. Make a great looking film.
With a RED Raven rental gobbling up a whopping 80% of our budget, Joe and I decided to spend half of the remaining $400 on combo stands to give us some versatility. Our studio has four LEDs on hand, but making them work was going to be a stretch. C-stands would allow us to reach across the set and get those low-power lights as close to our actors as possible. Director Steven Warkel wrote a script that called for a dingy office belonging to a stoner private detective as well as a concert venue filled with “twenty or more people.” Having some versatility with our lights would be key. The remaining $200 went to the costume department.
From day one, we knew it was going to be a “just make-it-work” filmset. Planning accordingly from the start helped us hit the ground running.
We stacked our shoot to get the hardest scenes out of the way early in production With a nine day deadline for screenings, we gave ourselves three days of principal photography. By front-loading our shoot, we would be able to see whether the most difficult shots would work, and if not, leave writer/director Steven Warkel some time for rewrites.
Two (2) Aputure Amaran Bi-Color LEDs of 600 watt tungsten equivalence
Two (2) Neewer Bi-Color LEDs of approximately 350 watt tungsten equivalence
Four (4) Light stands
Two (2) Combo stands
The Big Show
Our first day on set ended with the most difficult challenge: lighting a lounge to look like a concert venue. It was important for our setup to account for twenty-five members of the crowd as well as the band, but most importantly, give some emphasis to our supporting and lead actors.
The venue lended itself to a DIY concert feel, which we played to our advantage. There was no need for elaborate concert lights, strobe lights, or color changing lights. We just needed for the majority of the crowd to be lit well enough that we wouldn’t have to push our camera into dangerous levels of ISO.
It’s important to note that we are lighting for the edit, not for the camera. While the scene may look great through the camera’s LCD, we will not be doing the editor any favors by dimly lighting a scene. Instead, we wanted to create ratios of dark to light with all indexes partially exposed throughout. The ratio depends on the scene, in this case a concert. A very low-key lighting setup was in order which was great, because we would only have to reach minimal exposure levels in our shadows.
Using our two strongest lights as key lights, we backlit the band. This cast quite a bit of light onto our crowd. Due to the lights proximity, the movement of the band in front of the lights gave a great texture of moving light on the crowd. Big-time happy accident, and something we loved. Four small practicals (concert lights the venue supplied) gave enough fill on the band to bring their levels up to a “good-enough” place.
While the key lights were doing a great job of reaching most members of the crowd, the back couple rows of people were falling into some pretty muddy shadows. We bounced the remaining lights off the low-ceiling. This brought the rear of our crowd of twenty-five to pretty great levels. We knew Steven would be placing his supporting characters on the near side of the crowd (in relation to the camera) which meant any fall off on the far side would create a pleasantly dark backdrop for our well lit antagonist.
For our lead character’s entrance into the venue we placed a lamp near a ticket vendor which served as our key (we’ll call this our practical). Since we were doing a reverse-dolly with our lead as he marches towards the crowd, we wouldn’t have to show the concert. This freed up a couple of lights. Our Aputure was put to use as a key light for the first half of the shot, motivated by and color-matched to the practical. We then placed a 600w Aputure with a soft box right behind our final camera mark which would become our new key as our lead found his final mark. This was motivated the light behind the band. A flag, wielded by a grip was waved in front of the 600w to simulate the crowd moving in front of the light.
As we moved into coverage of the confrontation that ensues between our protagonist and antagonist, things became easier. Motivated by the concert lighting, the Aputures were used to short-light the actors, while the Neewers were bounced off the ceiling for a soft fill light. Again, our main concern was to bring overall levels up so that we wouldn’t have to push our camera beyond 2000 ISO.
Mastering the Master Shot
Networking in the film world is incredibly important. In the case of Honest Work, it landed us our strongest location. Our protagonist – the cheapest private detective in town – spends his working hours in his office/garage/possibly his home (it’s not canon, but it’s probably canon). Luckily, Al Schirado – leading actor – rents a shop with some of his friends. They had already turned the space into a Wayne’s World-esque hangout spot. It was a perfect location for a broke, stoner detective to call home.
We knew we wanted to create something that had the essence of our favorite detective films of the 1950s/60s. Deep shadows, and heavily motivated, dim lighting. We began by lighting for the master shot because our lack of equipment made lighting for a wide-shot the most difficult. This would afford us the luxury of knowing in advance the limits of our lights and allow us to set a bar for lighting ratios. That is, we’d know the contrast between highlight and shadow on our scene. With this baseline, we were able to match our lighting from a closer proximity once we moved into coverage.
For our motivator, we placed a 60w practical lamp in the center of our shot. This would effectively short-light both our lead and supporting actor throughout the master and coverage. This light was supported by a 600w Aputure on a combo stand with a soft-box placed beyond the supporting actor.
At this point, the scene was looking like something out of the Godfather. Which may have been great, but Honest Work falls more in the category of comedy than heavy, gangster film.
In support of the motivating practical, another 600w Aputure was boosted on a light stand with a flag on a combo stand to shape it. This casted a nice glow off the back wall. The bounced light did a surprisingly great job softening our shadows.
From there, we took a look at our ISO. Remember, lighting is designed to look great in the edit, not necessarily the camera. While our overall levels were looking good on the deep end of our scene, we didn’t have much detail showing in our foreground shadows. Our 300w Neewers were set to either side of the camera and directed across the scene to softly light the oppositely-seated actor. This brought our actors’ camera-side levels to nearly our desired lighting ratio. Since we knew we weren’t going to live on the master-shot, the lighting would be solid enough to establish the scene.
But What’s the Point?
The point is go out and do it! And more importantly, to do it well! There are no excuses for poor lighting designs or uninteresting compositions. The equipment you own will not define the film you make. As a director of photography, it is especially easy to fall victim to the “if only I had better equipment” mentality.
Fortunately, for all of us aspiring cinematographers, there is no piece of equipment that will tell a story for us. If there was, I imagine most of us would be out of jobs. It is up to you to master the equipment at hand and push it to its very limits. Every set, in some way or another is a “make-it-work” set. It’s about getting creative and solving problems with what is available. If you can’t do that then you probably won’t be able to create a masterpiece with a massive budget. As a director of photography, the goal is always to paint the best possible image any way you can.