Tag Archives: Lighting at night

Making the Lovecraft Film – Eldritch Equipment

When it comes to making an independent film, equipment often gets the short stick.  Since budget is usually a big concern, and anything involving film making is expensive, it can be tough to get exactly the stuff you want.  I see a lot of aspiring filmmakers save up and spend all their money on a nice camera, but in my opinion that is a mistake.  While the latest in DSLR cameras will be replaced with a newer model frequently, a good set of lenses will last you for decades.  A good set of sticks and lighting gear could last you a lifetime.

In our case, my goal from the beginning had been to amass as much professional gear as possible through my day job of running a video/photo production company.  By working full time doing commercials, events, etc I was able to justify purchasing the best gear out there, and when it came time to work on our film, I already had much of what I needed.  Don’t get me wrong, I have a list of equipment I want that reads like a rough draft of the never-ending story, but I’ve got a good base to build from.

Camera gear – Most of the film is shot on the Canon 5d Mark III, with some scenes shot in RAW format using Magic Lantern, and the others shot in 1920×1080 at 24fps with a custom neutral picture setting.  I’ll talk more about this when I get to post production discussions, but basically you want to shoot neutral so you can color grade the scene later on, preserving the most dynamic range with the original image.  Shooting RAW is amazing and gives you not only insane dynamic range, but tons of information for color grading and an extremely sharp image.  RAW with Magic Lantern gives many Canon cameras a massive upgrade when it comes to video quality.  There’s also HDR for video and a bunch of other stuff like being able to use zebras to check exposure, being able to monitor your sound, etc.  If you have a Canon 5d Mark III, 5d Mark II, 7D, 6D, 60D, and probably others – definitely do a search for Magic Lantern and check it out.

Lenses – Before I get into what lenses we are using, let me give the budget conscious some money saving tips.  If you are shooting a Canon DSLR like me, you can pick up some of the older, high quality manual focus lenses and use adapters (available all over, check out ebay) to attach them to your camera.  Do your research to make sure the mount you are looking at works, but the best place to start is with the Takumar or old Nikon 50mm 1.4 lenses.  For modern photography these may have drawbacks since they don’t autofocus, but for film we are manual focusing anyway – and these come with big smooth metal focus rings!  They also have a lot of character, and were among the sharpest and best lenses in their day.  I still shoot with several of these because I love the look.  You can find a lot of older lenses for cheap on ebay that will give your film a unique look and won’t break the bank.

That said, since my day job is photography and videography, and we have a team that needs top end gear, we own a lot of lenses.  For this film, we used primarily 2 lenses for the close ups: Canon 70-200 mk II with image stabilization and the 85mm 1.2 mk II.  Both amazing lenses, and you can hand hold the 70-200 thanks to the great image stabilization, although we didn’t need that so far for our film.  The 85 1.2 allows incredible bokeh (blurred background) and can shoot in even the darkest conditions.  For wider shots, the Canon 24 1.4 and 35 1.4 were the main lenses used, and the above mentioned manual Takumar 50mm 1.4 was in the mix too.  Any shots where we used the stabilizer to track a shot, it was most likely the 24 1.4 sitting up there.

Stuff to attach the camera to – Yeah, there’s a lot of different things you can sit your camera on, and they all serve different purposes.  A Blackbird Stabilizer got our smooth steadicam style shots. We used several different fluid head tripods including a huge Manfrotto (fluid head is the key here, if you can get smooth pans on a cheaper tripod then get it for now, and upgrade later).  A slider was used with a fluid head attached to it for a couple of interesting shots.  Initially we used a rig to hold the camera, with follow focus, monitor, rails, matte box, and all kinds of adjustable goodies.  While this is an amazing setup when you have a crew, it was a bit much to work with for just me doing the camerawork and pulling focus myself, but I hope to use this setup more for the remaining shots in the film.  We have a bunch of ND and Polarizer filters for the matte box, but since this is a pretty dark film we didn’t really get to use them so far.

Lighting Gear – I won’t get too far into this, but suffice to say we have a ton of lighting and grip stuff.  C-stands, air-cushioned stands, gobos, diffusion of all kinds, open face lights, soft boxes, reflectors, white and black boards, clamps, all kinds of ways to attach small lights to ceilings and other random surfaces – basically a giant box of tricks.  I’d say the majority of that stuff didn’t get used just because there wasn’t time to play around with it, since I was also doing the lighting – getting the lighting set up just right can take forever, and when you are also getting the camera set up and directing the scene, well that’s a lot of time spread around.  Hopefully with some funding we can solve that problem by hiring some crew members so I can concentrate on the directing for future shots and films.  For the actual lights, we used everything – 1000w fresnel, 800w redhead, tons of smaller lights, even some LED goodies.  We’ve got so many lights that I won’t try to go through them specifically, but basically the 1000w was our biggest.  When we needed bigger and brighter, with stands that could go up 30 feet, I hit the rental place and picked up everything else.  I also had to rent a generator to go with those lights, so we could plug our equipment in when out in the forest, and I believe the model generator I got was a Honda 2000i.

Do you really need all this crap??  Surprisingly, we don’t even have all the stuff we need to finish the movie.  We need a dolly and dolly tracks, as well as a small jib. Not to mention more lighting gear, which I’ll probably have to rent.  There’s a million other things that every filmmaker would love to have.  Hopefully we can get enough support on Kickstarter to get what we need for the film, pay the crew members we need, rent what we can’t buy, and secure the locations necessary.  The good news is, any equipment we amass during this filming process we’ll already have when it’s time for the next film!


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…

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