Lighting the Story: Cinematography Techniques in my Short Film

Aug 03, 2023

Having the task to inspire you to create artful and cinematic shots with a small team and a modest light setup, I want to share the full production process of my latest art project. I'll demonstrate how to achieve a contrasty image using both natural and artificial light, and I'll also guide you through crafting a captivating night light setup with LED tubes and a single light source. Additionally, I'll share some insights on camera movement and the essential tools for achieving interesting visuals.

During shooting, I had only 7 hours at my disposal, a limited production budget, and a few light sources:

  • Nanlite Forza 500 II
  • Nanlite Forza 300 B
  • PavoTube 30C (2 units)

On top of that, I had the opportunity to rent a Red Komodo camera paired with an Atlas Orion anamorphic lens. To achieve dynamic movement, I opted for the versatile Dana Dolly slider. A critical objective of this project was to experiment and showcase the potential of a limited light setup in both night and day interior settings. I'll reveal these techniques and share them with you.



Location scouting / preproduction

My philosophy of working with set design revolves around discovering textured and authentic locations that perfectly complement the story. These places can evoke various emotions – from the eerie and captivating to the charming and intriguing, depending on the mood we wish to convey and our artistic preferences.

For this particular project, I stumbled upon a hidden gem of a location that looked stunning as is, requiring minimal effort for a visually captivating shot. The abundance of beautiful windows, paintings, plants, furniture, mirrors, and practical lamps provided the perfect elements for storytelling. Not to mention, the spacious setting allowed us to play with different focal lengths, utilizing both the 40mm and 65mm lenses to our advantage.


Shots from the scouting

During our scouting phase, I meticulously captured several pictures, noting every interesting detail and angle for our shots. This preparation helped me devise a well-thought-out shooting plan, ensuring that I could position the camera precisely where I envisioned before the actual shooting day began. By carefully curating our set design and having a clear vision in mind, we were able to work fast. 


Scene #1

Before filming, I carefully selected camera angles on the location. I chose one that featured a key light source—the window. I liked the idea that we could show the window as the primary light source and use this visual information to create additional side lighting. By suggesting to the viewers that there might be another window on the right side, we could enhance the scene's depth.



To achieve a more volumetric look, this native light wasn't enough, so I decided to intensify it and create a larger contrast ratio with deep shadows and bright lights. This allowed for a rich variety of light gradient tones, ranging from black to the white point of the light. To intensify the window light, I used a nanlite forza 500W as a direct light source. However, since I didn't want to imitate harsh sunlight, I matched the exposure of the window light with the additional light for the character, using a 500W backlight with soft diffusion.



For the characters in this scene, I opted for a side light with double diffusion, considering the limited space available for the close-up shot. Using direct light with diffusion or bouncing reflection would have made the light appear harsh. Instead, I employed both together — bouncing and reflection with dense frost diffusion using Lee 216, which resulted in a soft and beautiful light, providing a pure gradient of light and shadows.



Scene #2

In the next scene, two characters engage in a nice conversation with each other. I divided this scene into 3 shots: one long master shot and two close-up shots for both characters. I chose this beautiful window as the backdrop for their dialogue.



When positioning the characters in the scene, I made sure that the shadow side of the main character was not blending into the dark background. To achieve this, I used a careful backlight to separate the character from the background. However, I made sure the backlight wasn't too harsh or bright since we already had the key light source, the sky, in the frame. Adding an unmotivated backlight with a more powerful light than the sky would look odd.



With the bright and expansive sky serving as a backdrop, I decided to create a silhouette effect for the girl character. However, I also added a small gradient of light on the floor and legs to introduce some additional lighting and create a contrast gradient. Playing with the contrast of light and dark areas adds depth to the scene.



By the way, if you're interested in learning more about simple cinematic lighting schemes like this gradient and silhouette, feel free to check out my free cinematography guide. It's absolutely free, and you can start using my secret lighting techniques in your projects right now. 


For his close-up shot, we employed an extra negative fill by setting up a T-bone stand with black fabric in the frame. This simple technique helps enhance the volume when we have plenty of lights by adding shadows for contrast. The backlight from the Nanlite 300b is still in use, albeit with reduced power for this shot. As for her close-up shot, we also used the same negative filling technique and achieved a captivating glow in her eyes using foam board. By placing a big white reflective object near her eyes, we created a beautiful glow effect. The Nanlite 500W light positioned behind the girl is directed towards the outside of the window and its reflection from the foam board adds to the glow in her eyes.



Scene #3

The lighting scheme here remains consistent with a backlight, but I introduced an additional side light to illuminate the character's face and capture their emotions. We used a silver board outside the window to reflect the light from the Nanlite 500W, creating the desired side light effect. Personally, I prefer bouncing light because it results in a softer and more diffused illumination, offering a broader range of lighting possibilities. It works exceptionally well for close-up or medium shots like the one we're currently creating.



Scene #4

As for the light setup, we used the same scheme as in the first shot. However, to be honest, I'm not entirely satisfied with the result. I would adjust the side light by moving it more to the side and reducing its intensity. To make additional shadows area on the girl from the camera's perspective. Moreover, I believe the side light would benefit from being softer here, by using a larger diffusion textile. The bigger the diffusion source, the softer the light it produces through diffusion.



Scene #5

In backstage videos, I may appear completely confident and knowledgeable about what I do, but that wasn't the case in this particular scene. Originally, I had planned to film it with natural daylight, but unfortunately, I ran into delays while filming a few previous scenes, and by the time I got to this one, the daylight had disappeared. In a moment of quick thinking, I realized that we had a balcony adjacent to the window at the location. So, using a junior boom avenger, we set up a Forza 500W light on the balcony to mimic the effect of daylight and provide a backlight for the scene.



It took us around an hour to find a solution for the lost natural daylight issue in the room. While I attempted a few other setups, the backlight turned out to be the best option. Additionally, I love the look of practical lamps in the frame. To utilize this visual element, I had to control the exposure of the light coming from these lamps. I used a simple paper wrap to dim some of the over-bright areas from the practical lights. To enhance the scene's depth and contrast, I employed an LED tube as an additional backlight for the girl. I set it to a daylight temperature to create the illusion of light coming from another room.



Furthermore, we turned on the Nanlite 300B to add a daylight fill to the background. This was crucial as without it, the far-away room appeared too dark. We wanted to avoid a dark look and instead, convincingly portray to our viewers that it's a natural day.



Scene #6 - Night light

As the shoot went on, our time became more limited, leaving us with less time to set up each shot. To keep things moving, I aimed to simplify the light schemes for the next scenes. For instance, in this particular scene, I had already planned a composition with a mirror beforehand, so setting up the camera angle was quick and straightforward.



In this angle, my focus was on illuminating the girl while also highlighting the characters in the background. We achieved a soft overhead light by hanging an LED tube over her face. Additionally, we made use of all possible practical side lights, excluding the top light, of course. To add warmth and a streetlight effect to the window, we introduced an additional warm light using the Nanlite 300B.


Scene #7

Since I lost daylight, I had to shoot this scene at night. The main challenge was to create the illusion of daytime, with the windows serving as the primary light sources. To achieve the desired effect, I came up with a rather unconventional solution that surprisingly worked. I placed an LED tube on the windowsill to increase the exposure on the tulle, making the windows appear bright as if it were daytime outside.



For the rest of the lighting setup, we used a book light scheme with soft diffusion to create a side light effect. Additionally, I added a backlight to separate the character from the background. This backlight served as motivation, simulating light from the bright window behind the girl. The window light on the right side was also overexposed, thanks to the second light source, a Nanlite 300B. To ensure consistency, all light sources were adjusted to have the same 5600K color temperature and power level.



Scene #8

The darkness of the night is not merely black; it carries a specific tone. In movies, this tone typically falls within a cold temperature range of 6000 to 10000K. When working in dark spaces to depict nighttime scenes, I make an effort to incorporate this night tone in the shadows, even when a primary light source, like warm light in a hallway, is present. To achieve this, I prefer to diffuse the night light tone throughout the entire shadow area by bouncing it from the white ceiling.



Alright, that concludes the full breakdown of our art project. 

Feel free to implement these lighting techniques in your work to enhance your visuals.

Cheers, and see you next time!


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