LIGHTING, ADVERSITY AND DOCUMENTARIES
5400K is an important number to remember. It is the Kelvin scale color temperature measurement of sunlight. The sun was our first light, the light that our eyes evolved to see in and the optimal standard by which to guide your lighting decisions. Consider it pure illumination. Lighting kits often boast selling points that include the ability to mimic daylight. Other kinds of lighting can be easily reproduced cheaply or added in post production with filters and color correction. The camera needs light to produce an image, even “dark” scenes in movies are shot with more light than in your average room. So next time you see John Wick fight his way through a dim club dance floor, just imagine all those carefully placed spot and flood lights placed above the action and behind the camera.
Most people look their best in sunlight when the sun is no higher than about a 45 degree above the horizon. When the sun is higher it will cast shadows, on faces and other elements of your composition which, unless intended is preferably avoided by cinematographers. I interpret this fact as “try to schedule shooting outdoor scenes between 9:30 – 11:30am and 2pm – 4:30pm.” I know what you are about to say: “What!, that is crazy! I can’t work under these limitations, I need to shoot all day…I can’t just have people standing around.”, well there are a couple of ways we can cheat. The shadows cast by backlight and sidelight can be brightened up with fill lights and reflectors.
Reflectors are materials like boards covered with silver paint or foil that reflect sunlight onto the subject and remove shadows caused by conditions that are not optimal. Fill lights are powered lights that are independent of the suns position and can be used to light your subject.
In short, avoid shadows unless it is part of your horror story, film noir theme or other moody treatment. The same principle applies to interior lighting. Interior lighting consist of three types of lighting:
- Focusing Quartz – Basically a theatrical spotlight where you can control the range (wideness) and intensity (brightness) of the light. You can reflect these types of lights off surfaces or cover them with softening materials to diffuse some of the harshness of directly pointing them at your subject.
- Broads – Non-focusing lights designed to put out wide even light over a large area.
- Spotlights – Are portable bounce light where light bounces off a curved surface like an umbrella towards a subject. They can be used anywhere and offer the most flexibility when lighting a scene.
Utilizing these three types of lights provides sufficient options for complex to basic lighting setups. In a basic lighting setup you first want to set up a main or key light next to you camera at about a 45 degree angle above your subject (sound familiar?), this mimics natural lighting and is the primary source of light for the camera to produce the image. No area in the frame should be brighter than the area lit by the key light.
Next step is to add your fill light, on either side of your subject, whose purpose is to remove any shadows created by the key light. It should be placed in a way that it leaves just enough shadows on the subjects face to give a feeling of depth.
Finally, you add a backlight to illuminate the background just enough to give the whole scene depth. As a general rule it is good to have your background a little darker than your key area. To avoid unnatural looking shadows on walls, keep your lights high and subjects away from them. This also helps to place the background out of focus and give some depth of field to your captures.
Check out this great video overview on setting up a basic interview or portrait lighting setup:
As with creating compositions, lighting is an art unto itself. Arrive early and experiment, use trial and error with a willing stand in or a dummy. Put up one light at a time and see what happens. Remain in control but turning them on and off so you can study how they change the scene and look on camera. So, when you hear “Lights, Action, Camera!” it is no mistake that lights come first.
Below is an example of a more advanced lighting setup where you are illuminating two subjects with a fill light, both the interviewer and interviewee.
Notes on working in uncontrolled situations
As you begin your journey into filmmaking, adding video production to your communication strategy remember to stay organized. It will really help maximize your time, meet deadlines and get the job done. Use slates before each scene, these are just tablets or signs that record the scene information before each take. Keep a log and create a storyboard that lists the shot types. See my post here for detailed descriptions of shot types and compositions.
Storyboards are plans that allow you to visualize your piece before any production takes place. They are extremely helpful in helping you focus on what you need when you are out in the field. Think of it as a map.
Knowing what you need lets you shoot out of sequence, so you do not have to create the same set up multiple times if capturing similar sequences or same locations. If circumstances allow, efficiently shooting out of sequence will save you time and energy. A good plan goes a long way.
What happens when the plans of mice and men fall asunder? Do the best that you can! Remember your training young jedi knight. I will end this part with Tom Schroeppel’s best advice to those who find themselves in an uncontrolled situations:
“You can always try for a decent composition. You can construct basic sequences by regularly changing your camera angle and image size and by grabbing cutaways whenever you can. You can maintain your screen direction and cover yourself with neutral shots when you cross the line. You can let your subject enter and exit the scene cleanly. You can still shoot great sequences – you just have to hustle more to get them. Shooting in uncontrolled situations can be exciting and fun, especially when it’s all over and you know that in spite of everything you’ve got footage that works.”
So, do not panic, breathe, step up to the challenge and tell that story. Journalist and documentary film makers are often shooting in adverse conditions. The next portion of this blog post provides some examples where interview lighting, composition and champion storytelling all merge into one.
Mini-docs that Rock
Well, I discovered in my brief, unscientific and unthorough research, browsing a handful of sites that there is no agreement on what a “short” documentary is. As I was really looking for examples of really short documentaries, specifically documentaries that included all the elements presented in our class: Narration. Interview(s), B-roll and Stand-up and under 5 minutes. In general, “Short” documentaries may mean a video length of anywhere between 1 minute and 30 minutes. I suppose that these terms are structured around TV editing: “normal” documentaries are those that can be presented in 1 hour with commercials and long-form or “feature length” pieces are for theater consumption. So, I would suggest to the powers that influence these classifications, that we create a new category called mini-docs for documentary films with a length of 5 minutes or less and tag them as such on the web for those of us who are trying to complete their school work. Now that I have utilized my soapbox, here are my pics for this module:
The Experience of Time
Lifetime. (2016, October 29).| TEDWomen 2016 Short Film | Lifetime. Youtube.
This short film explores the history of humans’ complicated relationship with time, deconstructs our obsession with controlling it, and contemplates how to be more mindful of this valuable resource. I picked this video because it contains all the necessary elements for a solid doc, is short and sweet and the topic is near and dear to me. Great use of foley and atmospheric sound to go with relevant motion design and animations. I especially liked the use of still illustration to introduce the speakers. It is a wonderful way of creating presence in an instant and think it would be just as effective with a still photo. I’d like to try that myself. Fluid J and L cuts makes the story interesting and dynamic.
Elaine McMillion Sheldon is a Peabody-winning documentary filmmaker and media artist. She’s the creative director of the Emmy-nominated interactive documentary Hollow and runs “She Does,” a weekly podcast that documents creative women’s journeys. In 2016, she was awarded the Breakthrough Filmmaker award from Chicken & Egg Pictures. She’s a founding member of All Y’all Southern Documentary Collective.
100 Years of Beauty – Americana Tattoo (Casey). (2019, April 28).
Casey becomes a human museum. Watch Casey get eleven tattoos, each tattoo representing a style from an iconic tattoo artist of that decade. I like this video because it has great use of time lapse video, isolates the subject against black simple backgrounds and contains informative and effective use of lower thirds to guide the user through the transformation. Really beautiful EXUs. Well shot, well cut.
Cut.com is a small commercial studio based out of Seattle, washington that specializes in human interest and viral video development. Cut was a happy discovery for me as I was searching for these examples. I came across another of their videos called “On Killing:Murder” and wanted more. I checked out their channel on Vimeo and liked it all including the next piece.
People with Alzheimer’s tell us memories they never want to forget. (2019, April 28).
This is a very touching story that demonstrates the beauty and the power of an interview. It is a collage or montage of interviews, parallel cut on question that weaves an emotional tapestry of people telling stories or remembered moments. There are poignant moments when the subjects share emotion through their eyes and facial expressions. Although this lacks narration and b-roll, it doesn’t need them, it communicates the message and tells the full story effectively and intensely.
This piece was produced, directed, ande edited by Cut.com.
Pond5. (2016, February 25). Powered by Pond5: Youtube
Brooklyn Brewery and Pond5 collaborate to tell an authentic brand story. I selected this piece because the footage is crisp, after all it is sponsored by a stock company, so I would not expect any less. In some sections film utilizes candid onlooker “cut-aways” of the speakers instead of traditional three point lighted sit down interview footage. This video gives you an inside look at an “in-house” brand manager creating a film program and strategy for their company. The use of audio gives the work an inspirational and hopeful tone.
Why we’re heading for a ‘climate catastrophe’ (4min Intro section only)
BBC Newsnight. (2018, October 08). – BBC Newsnight. Youtube.
A damning report from the the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has put the world on the path to a ‘climate catastrophe’ as global warming nears 3C. As scientists say global warming must be limited to 1.5 C, we investigate if it’s too late to turn back. I included this because it is a just an overall solid presentation of a serious subject that includes stand-up, graphs, b-roll and an interview. Frames and condenses a complex story into a few minutes. Top notch journalism.
Great Story but lack of storyteller on camera and too much B-roll diminishes impact.
Copycat. (2019, April 28).
Here’s a documentary made without a camera. Made from what sounds like a single interview. Assembled from footage of the very genre it dissects, Copycat is the story of an obscure low-budget horror film that became the uncredited inspiration behind Wes Craven’s blockbuster series Scream. Not only does it offer a great look into an obscure bit of film history, but it’s also a telling parable about the film industry itself — a place where ideas are recycled and remixed so often that it can be hard to tell who is borrowing from whom. This is brass tacks storytelling at its best: a great interview, a compelling subject, no gimmicks.
I enjoyed this documentary and thought it was interesting but felt a lack of connection with the narrator and the interviewee because there was no onscreen footage of either. The doc completely relies on b-roll, there is no stand-up, no in-person interview, no animations or graphics. I thought that even using lower thirds to give the year and titles of the movies the clips were pulled from would have vastly improved the presentation of the material.
Shawn is an Information Technology manager in Washington D.C. and a graduate student at Quinnipiac University pursuing his masters in Interactive Media and Communications.
References and Resources for Further Exploration
Stray Angel Films. (2014, January 17). Basic Cinematography: How To Light An Interview (3 Point Lighting Tutorial). Youtube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=21&v=MLlMl2KuZi0
Parker Walbeck. (2018, May 25). How to Shoot an Interview | Job Shadow. Youtube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7ENEuqXDwY
Creative Rim Light Tutorial. (2014, September 25). Retrieved from https://www.manfrottoschoolofxcellence.com/2014/09/rim-light-tutorial
New Klages Home Page. (2016, January 07). Retrieved from http://www.newklages.com/NKI_ToLightTheEarOrNot.htm
Schroeppel, T., & DeLaney, C. (2015). The Bare Bones Camera Course for Film and Video. Allworth. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Bare-Bones-Camera-Course-Video/dp/1621535266
Documentary Film Making
Meet the Viral Videomakers Bringing Humanity to Your News Feed | Seattle Weekly. (2016, July 06). Retrieved from https://www.seattleweekly.com/news/meet-the-viral-videomakers-bringing-humanity-to-your-newsfeed
Moore, M., & Moore, M. (2014). Michael Moore’s 13 Rules for Making Documentary Films. IndieWire. Retrieved from https://www.indiewire.com/2014/09/michael-moores-13-rules-for-making-documentary-films-22384
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