Many docs are a labor of love with a tight crew and everyone wearing multiple hats (is that the AD juggling the phone while setting up Krafty in a corner?).
So when you’re a DP or director on a documentary crew, what can you do to ensure that you maximize your time and light your film to the best of your ability? Today we have some tips and tricks of the trade that can help you think realistically about achieving a natural, beautifully lit look and feel for your doc.
Chiming in with his wealth of experience on film lighting is Director of Photography Luke Geissbühler, who’s been behind the camera for some 25 documentaries and 30 feature films (like Borat and Helvetica). Luke, who’s a longtime KitSpitter who rents his gear out + has taught multiple KitSplit workshops on lighting (get notified about his next workshop) shared how he approaches lighting in a naturalistic way.
Maximize The Location
If you can scout a documentary location before you shoot, it will be worth its weight in bitcoin (back when bitcoin was trading at $20,000 a share). Knowing what you’re going to be working with makes all the difference when you’re lighting a location.
Is it an office? Do the windows face east? Are there floor length windows? Oh, the windows face a brick wall. Guess you won’t be mimicking daylight through those. But knowing that beforehand lets you make informed decisions about what gear to bring and how to tackle it.
Try to get there in person. But if that’s not in the cards, have production get you photos. Every person in this world has a camera on their phone these days, so email your contact at each of your locations. Ask them to take photos of the entire room, and be specific about what you want to see.
What To Ask For In Scout Photos
Luke Geissbühler: “I try never to go into a location cold. I usually try to have someone take photos, or find ones online. Look out for wide lenses and always check the dimensions of the room cause a lot of times it’s smaller than it actually looks…
“If someone at the location can FaceTime that works great, but typically I just have them stand in the corner with their back to the corner and take a photo with a regular camera phone so you know the lensing of it.”
He adds: “I also have them turn out all the lights. I have them take photos with the lights on, and with all the lights off…If they have a choice of the time that they’re visiting, we try to make it the same time that we’re gonna be shooting. I have them stand in the corner and then stand in the opposite corner and do the same. Panoramas help too. You should always get at least four photos.”
The best way to make sure you can light your documentary effectively is to know what it is that you’re lighting. So know before you go!
Preserve The Integrity Of The Space
Ask yourself where the light in your location is coming from. Are there curtained picture windows? Is it the single porthole of a steamship? Or is the only light in the room coming from a lamp shaped like a stockinged leg like in A Christmas Story?
LG: “There always is some light source of some sort, and it’s important to utilize that. If you try hard to really use it, usually it’s a nice unique result that works out. Preserving the integrity of the space is important.”
Utilize Your Documentary’s Natural Light
LG: “When you’re doing a documentary, you’re trying to capture what’s actually happening in there, not what it looks like in a way that no one’s ever seen it before. I try not to just default to putting up a big light that’s foreign to the space. The reason for that is ultimately you’re trying to capture the real space, not to alter the space….So resist the urge to put up anything big.”
Not only does this maintain the actual look of the space, but it can help save time. Time is always a factor and if you can use what light is already in a space, you will be saving production minutes on the clock that you can use elsewhere in a crowded schedule.
Know The Sun
Being able to tell where the sun is going to be in an hour or two or three makes all the difference. We all know the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, but let’s face it, most of us are not capable of navigating by the moon, sun, or stars these days. But don’t fret: there’s an app for that!
Invest in an app for your phone that charts the path of the sun throughout the day. It’ll be the the best app you ever purchase (aside from that one that adds a mustache to everything – that one is super fun and has paid for itself ten times over). Sun Seeker is a solid choice, and well worth the $10 you’ll shell out for it.
When you are setting up an interview, it is so helpful to gain an understanding of when sunlight is going to be flooding the room, and when it’s going to leave you in twilight.
And when you’re location scouting at 6PM, but know that the schedule is going to have you shooting there at 6AM, you can garner an understanding of what the sun is going to do then.
Work From The Window Out
For interview setups, operating with a key, fill, and backlight is standard operating procedure for a lot of folks. This works under many circumstances, but if your documentary is trying to capture things ‘as is’ in a more natural way, then you may want to adjust your way of thinking.
LG: “I usually try to manipulate the light in the space more than just kind of put up this go to kind of three point lighting…I usually take the opposite approach and I start just flipping lights off. I start with the room completely dark and build from there, and I never put up those three lights automatically.”
In particular, he says he’s skeptical of the popular backlight look: “I’m very slow to put up a backlight…I find them to be a little bit unnatural sometimes.”
Adding Lights Isn’t Always The Answer
LG: “Don’t forget grippage, you know? I think we think about light units a lot when we think about lighting, and we forget that the grippage is really what’s sculpting the light in terms of the negative fill or the flagging or the softening. Really, the light that you get rid of is really what’s shaping the light, more than the lights you’re putting up. If you sort of reverse your thinking about that, I think it’s helpful.”
Often, when lighting isn’t working, there’s a natural impulse to add lights. Luke has the opposite approach: “I find it much more fruitful to actually start turning off lights (laughs) when something isn’t working. Because it’s usually one light that really works that really makes the whole thing come together, and sometimes it’s not the expected one. I tend to use fewer and fewer lights, not out of laziness but just out of a sort of naturalness that it brings. It looks more to the space and you can still manipulate it and flag it in a way that the separation and the modelling works well.”
New LEDs: Keeping That Source Hidden
There have been developments in LED technology over the last few years that are quite exciting for doc shooters looking to film a verite scene.
Have a scene in a car that needs a little extra on your subjects? Tack up some dimmable LiteRibbons on the dashboard, or the head rests for people in the backseats, and you’ve got your subjects illuminated. These strips are thin, lightweight, and can be put in place in almost no time with a little bit of paper tape.
Somebody baking a cake in a tight kitchen corner with low ceilings and you need to follow the action and get some exposure in the too dark corners? Hide an RGBX Quasar to mimic whatever source you have in scene. They take up almost no space at all, and you can control their color temperature, hue, saturation, and intensity to offer up some much needed light of any shade.
Quasar Fixtures For The Interview Chair
The malleability of the Quasar tube is something you can take advantage of for interviews as well.
LG:“I discovered Quasar tubes a couple of years ago and absolutely love them because they work with kino housings. There’s something great about a four foot by one foot panel because you can get softness in one axis and not another. You can have hard light top to bottom, or harder light top to bottom, softer light left to right, and that’s really handy…
“Quasar tubes and LEDs in general, it’s just comforting to have the color be more accurate over the years, you know? Keeping track of the kino tubes and their age and how good the color was not my favorite thing to do, nor was breaking them all the time. They’re much more robust, which I welcome…
“And of course for the amount of space that they take up, you know, that it’s so low profile is really important for documentaries. It’s also important not to blind or heat up your subject.
Yes, it’s also worth noting that the person in the interview chair is a real, living person. Sometimes they’re intimidated by all the lights, and the cycloptic eye of the lens staring them down. Subjects will often be more at ease with smaller set ups.
Practical With A Capital P
There is no single solution to any one lighting setup. There’s the solution you find within the timing and parameters established by your shoot. Drawing the shades in one room may create more problems than it solves in another.
Just know your options, and try to learn as much about what you’re walking into before you shoot as you can. By utilizing some of the ideas presented here, you can make use of what you have to make the lighting work on your doc.
Many thanks to Luke Geissbühler for his thoughts here. Take a look at our Spotlight video with Luke on finding the light here.
If you’re interested in expanding your lighting vocabulary and stretching those mental muscles, make sure to sign up to be notified the next time Luke teaches a lighting workshop. And check out our other upcoming workshops, including a cinematography workshop.
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