Improvising Lighting on Location

Examples of front lighting (top) and back lighting from the short film “Mindgame,” co-produced by Jay Holben.

A big part of my career as a cinematographer has been spent improvising lighting. Sure, in a perfect world you get a tech scout of a location or a set. You have discussions with a director about a look, and you go in with a specific plan. So many times, in low-budget production, you don’t get any of that. You end up showing up at a new location in the morning and have to come up with a plan on the spot. So, how do I do it? Step by step.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume this is a scripted narrative project and we’re shooting an interior on-location.

Everything starts with the script. The script dictates the genre: comedy, thriller, drama, mystery, horror, action, etc. Each genre has its own tricks and techniques and certain looks.

Then the scene itself dictates a lot. Are the characters happy? Sad? Mad? Afraid? Lost? Passionate? Each one of these moods will necessitate a different look and feel to the image. In the most simplistic terms (and clichés, but all workable):

• Sad = cold, blue, soft, but underexposed.
• Mad = warm, high-contrast, strong maybe hard lighting, sharp edges.
• Afraid = dark, heavy contrast, lots of shadows and underexposure, etc.

So the script gives me the genre and the mood.

From there I look at the biggest lighting tell-tale. Is this day or night? Obviously, each will have its own look and each will give me a place to start. If it’s day, where are the windows? What natural light is coming into the location now? Do I like the look and feel of that natural light? Does it coincide with the genre and mood of the scene? If it doesn’t, then how do I alter the natural light (cut/bounce/diffuse/recreate) to suit my needs?

Daytime interiors will almost always be motivated from windows. I’ll do my best to augment that natural light as much as I can and talk with the director about blocking the scene to make the best use of it.

Years ago I was shooting a no-budget film and one scene took place in a long, one-room apartment. The bed was near a floor-to-ceiling window and it was a very dramatic scene that took place on the bed.

The director initially wanted to shoot the scene looking into the depth of the room, but I talked him into starting that way and then flipping the action to the other side of the bed. The reason for this was looking into the depth of the room put a large floor-to-ceiling window behind camera and front-lit the whole scene. It was very flat and un-dramatic.

Adjusting the blocking so that one character shifts to the other side of the bed allowed us to move the camera to the opposite side to back light the characters and create a lot of drama and contrast from that.

Without turning on a single light, I improved the overall look and feel of the scene merely by adjusting the camera to take the best advantage of the space for the narrative emotion of the scene.

So, finding the best use of existing light is a key to getting the best look you can.

Let’s say that the windows are perfect. The natural light coming through the windows is great for the scene. How long will it take you to shoot the scene, and how much will that natural light change during that time? That’s where things can get tricky. Sometimes we love the natural light, but if it’s going to take eight hours to shoot a scene that elapses one minute of screen time, it’s likely that our natural light will change during that time.

That’s a topic for another time, however. What I’m getting at here is motivation. The key to starting to figure out your lighting is defining where the light is coming from.

If it’s not a day scene, and we’re looking at a night interior, then where are the lights in the room, naturally?

Start with those! Turn on the lights in the room and see how it looks. Does it work for your genre and mood? If this is a frighteningly dramatic scene and all the lighting is overhead fluorescent—that probably isn’t going to work. Then it’s time to turn off those lights and bring in practical lights. Start with the practicals—great table lamp next to the couch. OK, that becomes your key source and that’s where you start. There’s a sconce on the wall in the background, great. That brings up some natural detail back there and gives you a little motivation for an edge light. There’s a fireplace, perfect. Light that baby up (real or simulated) and you’ve got a nice flickering warm fill.

Now look at it. How does that work for you? Does it cover all the blocking? Are you lit the way you want for all of the important moments in the scene?

You might look at the actual practical and decide it’s too hard on your actress’ face. So you adjust the practical so that the light from it is not actually hitting the actress and you bring in your own fixture—motivated as if it were coming from that practical, but a nicer, softer, more controlled source.

Now you’re ready to roll.

The short answer to the question is, you start with existing light and figure out where your light is motivated from. If that doesn’t work for your scene, then change where the light is coming from to generate a motivated source that does work for the genre and mood. From that main key motivated light, you can start to work in your details and fill. Really, I start with: If this was my room, how would I light it? And build from there.

Jay Holben is the author of the book “A Shot in the Dark: A Creative DIY Guide to Digital Video Lighting on (Almost) No Budget.” He can be reached via TV Technology.