Lighting an Outdoor Night Scene – Adventures in the Dark

Another post about our short film based on Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos.  To see what scene I’m talking about, please check out the previous post (which also has some photos to illustrate the lighting).  This was by far the hardest part of our production (so far) and we still need a little more filming done at this location.

Without giving away too much, we needed an outdoor setting in the woods far from civilization, and it needed to be dark.  I found a location while scouting around the Redwoods near the Santa Cruz mountains that was pretty much in the middle of a forest.  It fit the other criteria for the shoot as well, so now we were faced with a new choice – should we film day for night (film during day and try to make it look like night in post processing) or go ahead and film at night?  After reviewing both options I decided day to night was not going to work for us.

I got some recommendations from a lighting master named Edwin (he has lit Hollywood films before such as Zodiac) on how to approach the scene.  Since this was something we hadn’t done before, I had to rent the equipment we’d need.  In the end, we primarily used 2 large (I believe 2000w) fresnel lights sitting up about 20-30 feet in the air on heavy duty stands, angled down and acting as our light.  One of them was lighting our actors while the other was just barely lighting the background, giving a hint of the creepy location. By shooting with a really low aperture I was able to capture great light from the candles our cultists were holding, which acted as the fill lights for them in many scenes.  The big fresnels being up high gave me some nice shadows and looked like perhaps a moon was lighting the scene.  We also used an LED light shot through diffusion, and a reflector held by one of the cast to act as a fill (and even a key light in some scenes that were supposed to look very dark).  These two would be shifted around depending on the angle of the scene, since moving the big fresnel lights was just not going to happen.

Wait, how the heck are we powering this stuff?  It wasn’t through the power of Cthugha the Living Flame, I had rented a generator to plug in our lights and that thing was running the whole time.  I should also note that we had one other light plugged in, but that was to light the area off camera so we wouldn’t fall down and hurt ourselves in the darkness.  With the lights off, it was completely pitch black out there.

Doesn’t sound so bad, just a couple of lights!  The reality is that these massive lights were up so high and were so hard to move on uneven terrain (the rental place was out of the stands with the adjustable leg for this type of situation) that once they were set up, we just didn’t have the time or resources to move them.  One of the fresnel lights actually had the lens shatter suddenly, in the middle of our filming.  Most likely it had already been cracked before we got there, and the heat had eventually gotten to it (the rental place made me pay for the lens, which was expensive, ouch!).  We continued to use it without the lens but that made it even harder to adjust.  With most of the crew actually in the scene as actors, whoever was not on camera would have to do the reflector for me.  With a full crew this would have been a much easier shoot, but you won’t find anyone willing to do that for free like my cast and crew of friends was willing to do.

Other problems associated with the shoot involve the sound of the generator – that thing is loud.  There was no way we could get any audio with that running right next to us, so we had to record audio separately and sync it with the lips in post.  Stumbling around in the dark was a problem, and I ended up not being able to set up a lot of the stuff I wanted to do because we were running out of time (it was probably close to 1 or 2am by the time we finished).  In the end, the footage came out great though, and the scene took on a life of its own.  It’s hard not to shoot something creepy and scary when you’re in such a genuinely creepy and scary place.

I almost forgot to mention, the location was probably about half a mile or more from the closest place I could park – and uphill, on uneven terrain.  We all pushed and carried massive amounts of equipment up to the shooting location while it was still light, and it was a brutal and exhausting experience.  I felt terrible that I didn’t even end up using much of the equipment.  Such heavy items included lots of huge, unwieldy lighting stands, a massive generator, tons of lights, heavy tripods, sandbags (yeah, basically just heavy weight to be slung over the shoulder), camera rig, lots of lenses, and more.  If that wasn’t bad enough, when we finished our shoot we had to carry it all back down in complete darkness.  Using our phones and flashlights to light the path, we took down all but one light and the generator (so we could still see our gear) and had one person light the way.  The final trip was so physically exhausting that one of our cultists actually had to stop to throw up on the way, but he was such a trooper that he went right back to carrying equipment as soon as he finished.  I can’t thank these guys enough, they really went above and beyond!

Oh, and let’s not forget the giant spiders.  During the day we didn’t see much, but once it got dark these huge, spindly legged things came from everywhere.  They were mostly 3-4 inches across counting the legs, which is plenty big enough.  When I reached in to one of my bags in the darkness to find a lens cap, and instead found a huge spider sitting inside it, well that was pretty unpleasant.  After that I had everyone check each open container thoroughly with flashlight to make sure I wasn’t loading any more of these monsters into my vehicle.  We also passed through a bunch of loud croaking toads in the darkness, probably some relatives of Tsathoggua just showing us their support.  To top it all off, it was actually one of our actors birthdays that night.  I thought we would have finished much, much earlier and then went out to celebrate with him, but instead he got manual labor and darkness as his gift (I’ll make it up to you next time buddy!).  At least we had an adventure that none of us will soon forget.  Surrounded by trees and spiders in the dead of night, with nobody around for miles – just the all encompassing darkness.  I’m sure we’re all excited to go film a couple extra shots out there that we still need…


About Yog-Sothoth

I'm a filmmaker working to get a small studio off the ground. If you want to know more about our projects, or if you want to become involved, send me a message and SUPPORT OUR KICKSTARTER! On this blog I'll talk about the film(s) we're working on, as well as give general insight into the techniques, equipment, and day to day experiences running a small production company. I'll also talk about films that have inspired me or that I've enjoyed recently. View all posts by Yog-Sothoth

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