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Advice on lighting a nighttime outdoor scene?

Megan Devaney

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I'm looking for some advice on how to light a night time outdoor scene that is located alongside a road. There are some street lamps, but not many. This is a low budget film so looking to keep costs down. In the scene there is a conversation between two characters while walking along a path (some street lamps). There is then a crash scene (so will be able to use one cars headlights). If anyone has any ideas or tips as to the best way to light something like this I would be very grateful.



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Fast lenses + sensitive camera (if digital) is a good starting point if you can't do much lighting, then your background hopefully will be lit naturally and you just have to augment the actors. At that low a level, it won't take much either. You can try rigging a light like a Tweenie with some gel to match the streetlamp color as a backlight, either off of something like a tree branch or clamped to a light pole, or armed off a speedrail and beefy stand (a menace arm rig) -- this can be a backlight and then you can do something soft for a key, maybe a dimmed down paper lantern on another arm.


Truth is that you first have to decide what you want it to look and feel like before deciding how to light it, you can't just light in a general way, there should be a concept behind it first.

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…. you first have to decide what you want it to look and feel like before deciding how to light it, you can't just light in a general way, there should be a concept behind it first.


David is right, to successfully light a night scene on a tight budget requires that you first have a concept for the shot. From there you can figure out an innovative approach to accomplish that look. What tools who need and how you deploy them will follow. A good example is a very similar scene I lit on a “low budget” feature called "Black Irish." It was a pivotal scene where the youngest son of an Irish American patriarch crashes his derelict older brother's car setting off an unfortunate series of events. For the scene we had to light 1000 ft of Marginal Street in Chelsea for driving shots on a process trailer and the scene of the accident. Our biggest challenge was to create through the lighting the feel of a car hurdling down the road at high speed.




The problem was that even after lighting the equivalent of three football fields, the process trailer couldn't obtain a speed of more than 30 mph before it was out of the light. The traditional approach of under-cranking the camera to increase the speed was not an option because the scene was a pivotal one with extensive dialogue inside the car. So, we had to create the effect of speed through the lighting.




I came up with a concept that was as beautiful in its practical simplicity as in its psychological complexity. To heighten the sense of speed of the process trailer shots we rigged 500w practical fixtures along a four hundred foot wall on one side of the road. We spaced the practical wall lights twice as close together as they would be normally. This way, as the car passed by, areas of light and dark would pass rapidly by in the background and exaggerate the speed at which the car was traveling. When it came time to shoot the static wide establishing shot of the car racing down the road, we dismantled every other wall practical in order to reinforce the effect. On an unconscious level the viewer's mind registers in the establishing shot the wider spacing of the wall lamps. So when in the close up process shots the pools of light in the background are racing past at twice the rate because there are, in fact, twice as many lights, the viewer's mind registers the car is traveling at twice the speed it is, in fact, traveling.




In addition to the wall practicals, I simulated car dash board light on the actor's faces with a 12v 9" Kino Car kit. The play of the passing wall lights on the actor's faces were created by a revolving 650W Fresnel with diffusion on its doors rigged on the process trailer. To light the long stretch of road, I simulated the pools of light that would be created by street lights by rigging 6kw space lights under the baskets of 60' condors that were spaced about 200' apart over the road. In addition to the Space Light, each condor basket also carried a 4k HMI Par that filled the stretches of road between the pools of tungsten light with a cool moonlight. To continue the moonlight down the road there was yet another 4k HMI Par on a Mambo Combo Stand. Because this 4K was further down the road than was practical to run cable, it was powered by a Honda 5500W portable generator. A 12kw HMI Fresnel with 1/2 CTO through a 12x frame of Soft Frost served to pick up the deep background from the front on one end of Marginal Street while a 6kw HMI Par lit the other end.




To supply power on both sides of the road for a 1000' stretch was no small task. I used three generator plants strategically placed so that our cable would never cross the road in a shot. In addition to the Honda 5500W portable generator that powered the 4kw HMI Par light for the deep background, I used a 800A plant to power the 4kw HMI Pars and 6kw Space Lights in the condors, the 12kw Fresnel, and the base camp trailers and work lights. The 6kw Par, 12 - 500W practicals, and an assortment of smaller HMI's used to light the post crash scene were powered by a 450A plant on the far end of the roadway.




This example, demonstrates that once you have a concept you can come up with an innovative approach to accomplish it. The tools and how to deploy follow. This example also demonstrates that the right tools, used in an innovative way, can create startling results on a low budget. Since “low budget” is a relative term, to address Megan’s situation, it would be helpful to know what the budget is for this scene and have more details about the sequence and location.


Guy Holt, Gaffer, ScreenLight & Grip, Lighting Rental & Sales in Boston

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We will be shooting on DSLR, probably a Canon 600D. We won't have access to electricity from any buildings. As to equipment, we are trying to figure out what we would need as we will be able to rent equipment.


I loved your post, but I am not certain it will be of much help for Megan. I looked up "Black Irish" on Imbd. Since it stars Brendan Gleeson ("Cold Mountain", "Gangs of New York") and Michael Angarano ("Lords of Dogtown", "Sea Biscuit"), I bet you had more of a budget than Megan has on her “low budget” feature. From what Megan posted on the student forum (quoted above) her budget is a lot lower than that of “Black Irish.” What suggestions would you have for a student low budget feature?


Eric Jaspers

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Here is a webisode link to an eductional film series I DP'd in 2011...this was at night, shooting on EX 3 and Lowell lighting....

I was gained up to 9db, used CTO's to match the street lighting.....not Hollywood, but hoping it stil looks good....


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  • 2 weeks later...

I loved your post, but I am not certain it will be of much help for Megan. … What suggestions would you have for a student low budget feature?


The problem with a lot of indie night exteriors (Paul’s Educational Video being a good example) is that they generally don’t have the power to edge light their talent or light the deep background. As a result, their faces look disembodied like they are floating in a black void. The high cost of blimped studio generators is one of the biggest hurdles to lighting night exteriors. Not only are blimped generators expensive to rent, but they also come with hidden costs. Since rental trucks like those from Ryder or Penske are not equipped to tow, you have to hire the rental house’s grip truck to tow them. And, since most rental houses require that one of their employees drive their trucks for insurance reasons, the production has to hire a driver at roughly $575/10hrs – which is probably more than anyone else on a typical indie crew is getting paid.


One solution to this dilemma is to use a portable generator like the new 10’000W Honda EB10000 with a boost transformer. 10’000W is just enough to power a good size HMI (say a 6k) to light the deep background and have enough power left over to power not only talent keys but also backlights, rim lights, and kickers to edge light your talent. A lot of productions hesitate to use non-blimped industrial generators like the new 10kw Honda EB100000 because of the noise they make. Whether you pick up generator noise on your audio tracks comes down to how you use it.


A common problem with open-frame industrial generators like the EB10000 is that by the time you move them far enough off set that you don't hear them you have significant "Line Loss" (often referred to as "Voltage Drop") from the long cable run back to set. To the problem of line loss, you have the added problem that as you add load, the voltage drops on portable generators (it is not uncommon for a generator to drop 5-10 volts under full load.) The combination of voltage drop on the generator and line loss on a long cable run can cause voltage to drop to the point where HMI and Kino ballasts cut out unexpectedly or won't strike at all. Low voltage can also cause problems such as reduced efficiency and excessive heat in equipment, unnecessary additional load on the generator, and a dramatic shift in the color temperature and in the output of lights. For these reasons, portable gas generators are typically operated too close to set where they are picked up on audio tracks.


The trick to recording clean audio with the EB10000 is to use the generator with a boost transformer that will enable you to operate the generator at a distance where it won’t be heard, yet maintain full line level on set.



Honda EB10000 with Voltage Select 84A Transformer/Distro and 14 Gallon Fuel Caddy


A boost transformer will enable you to add 300'- 400' of larger gauge 250V twist-lock extension cable between the generator and the transformer serving as a Distro box. This is usually enough cable to place the generator around the corner of a building, or to run it out of a van or truck - which is usually all the additional blimping you need with these generators. The heavy-duty 250V twist-lock cable eliminates multiple long cable runs to the generator and minimizes line-loss (eliminating the severe voltage drop you would have using standardelectrical cords.) And, by compensating for the unavoidable voltage drop you will have on a fully loaded generator, a boost transformer will assure full line level (120V) on set.




Left: Honda EB10000 operating out of grip truck (note set at distance (bright spot on right side.)) Center: 84A Full Power Transformer/Distro compensates for Voltage Drop over 400ft cable run. Right: Beach Set with 120v full line level 500ft from power source.


A good example of how the voltage boost capacity of boost transformer makes it possible to record clean audio tracks with the EB10000, even under the worst of conditions, is the indie short "Paralarva" (pictured above and below.) The film takes place around a campfire on a beach on Cape Cod. To record sync sound without picking up the noise of a generator, the crew ran our modified 10kw Honda EB10000 out of their grip truck 500 ft from their beach set. To assure full line level on set, the production used the boost capacity of our 84A Select Transformer/Distro to compensate for the line loss over the long cable run.




Left: Beach Set lit by two 1800W Arrimaxes. Center: Secondary side power distributed with standard 100 Bates Gang Boxes. Right: Set viewed from generator (note: distance and extent of set power distribution.)


From the Transformer/Distro they then ran 100' of 4/3 Bates Extension to set where they broke out to 20A Edison receptacles using 100A gang boxes. While running the generator near full capacity with a lighting package that consisted of two 1800W Arri M18 Baby Max HMIs, several Tegra 400s, and assorted Litepanels and Quartz Fresnels, they experienced no appreciable voltage drop on set even after a 500' cable run because our Select Transformer/Distro was able to compensate for both the line loss of the cable and voltage drop of the generator under near full load.




Left: Ready for rain on the set of "Gasp." Center: Two 4kw Pars operate on a 10kw Honda EB10000 Generator through our 84A Full Power Transformer/Distro. Right: 100A Shock Block GFCI downstream of Full Power Transformer/Distro offers Ground Fault Protection for entire 100A distro system


By comparison, had the crew of "Paralarva" run 500' of standard 14 Awg electrical cord they would have experienced a line loss alone of 24.5V. To avoid having their 1800W Baby Maxs cut out from low voltage, they would have had to move the generator closer to set where it would be picked up on the audio tracks. This example clearly demonstrates how the boost capacity of transformers can enable you to not only place the generator further from set where it won't be heard, but also assure that the supply voltage on set does not drop too low (use this link for information about Line-Loss and how to combat it.)


Line loss compensation is just one of the many benefits to be gained by using a boost transformer on the new Honda EB10000 generator (use this link for details.)


Guy Holt, Gaffer, New England Studios, Lighting and Grip Eq. Rental & Sales in Boston

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  • 1 year later...

Hi everybody!


This is a very interesting topic and I would like to share a case scenario that is gona happen next week: very similar to Guy's and very challenging so I have some questions and a drawing hoping to give my contribution to this AMAZING forum!


So I'm shooting a medium budget short film where the director wants to perform a car chase sequence with some stunt action in THE DESERT: a car will be rear-ended and will lose control, and we want to follow the action from different angles: lateral (to see the car hitting the other), preceding shot and following the chase for few seconds before the accident will happen. we will be filming from a vehicle with the camera hard mounted on a special quick rail rig.


I want to give the stunt drivers as much space as possible to perform the action so I am very concerned about how much space I will be able to light up. Consider that I will be shooting with Alexa, Cooke Anamorphic T2.3 (hopefully) and I'm totally willing to push at 1600ASA.


Here's my plan considering very carefully the resources I have:




12K Fresnel unit on a Condor as a KEY light. On the same Condor a 4K par for the background. Then another 4K par to light up the end of the street and a 1.2K par with 500' cable run at he other end of the road to have some fill light when the 12K light source will be fading away.


So my questions ARE:


1) Would this scheme be roughly enough to light up for 500'-600' at T2.3 and 1600ASA? Can I hope to have more space lit? Less?

2) Do you think that using a powerful helium baloon floating in the middle of the road, plus some 4K par on the ground would give me more space lit?

3) Would you suggest or recommend alternative light sources staying on the same budget order?


I want to say thank you very much everybody and I hope to have suggestion soon. I will post some pictures and light readings of this sequence as soon as I finish the show! Guy, David, looking forward to hear your thoughts!



Edited by Carlo Rinaldi
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I recently watched an ASC talk by Owen Roizman where he spoke about lighting Three Day of the Condor. The scene involved two men walking along a sidewalk in Washington DC. What he did was place a light over the camera (camera was on a dolly) and manually flag the light on and off as the characters walked along the path to simulate the lights along the path - in your case street lamps as opposed to his sidewalk lights. Maybe you can do something similar with a handheld flag and some diffusion. Obviously a good low light camera will help.


Passing car headlamps may provide nice backlighting, as well as a Chinese lantern on a stick held just overhead and behind the characters as they walk along.


As David said, you need to define a look then work toward it with allowable budget.


Hope this idea helps,





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