4 lighting tips on making experience matter most.

This is it.

Well, it’s never “it” necessarily...a filmmaker’s journey is never over, and a storyteller’s path is ever-winding.

(There’s probably a Bob Dylan song all about this, right?)

No, by “it” we mean the conclusion of our 4-part series on using light in your visual stories. Because here it is! Here we are! Together.

While in part 3 last week we swore by the importance of building upon the foundation of everything we’ve learned up until that point—because by “adding light” you rigorously exercise your understanding of all of the properties of light when it comes to working with natural light (Part 1) and then modifying natural light (Part 2)—here we are going to commit the ultimate act of recapping.

Because there’s still so much of Summer left, still so much light to chase.

So this week we’re going to scale back all the technical info and ask one simple question:

As a storyteller, what’s most important: the shot or the experience?

Filmmakers spend so much time thinking about light—how do I shoot it? How do I move my camera to work with it? What gear do I use? Why can’t I just get the light I want?

But all these decisions, all these things to keep in mind, all these tips and tricks and techniques and work-arounds and wranglings—in all of this we have a tendency to forget:

The experience we create will do more for our story than any piece of gear ever will.

Last week we followed our friends at Stillmotion as they chronicled a day in the life of Sugar Wheel Works; we looked at owner Jude’s workshop space and how Stillmotion added—or didn’t add—light to her world.

What we didn’t do was talk about the experience, for both Jude and our crew. Amidst all the lighting considerations, Stillmotion never forgot that what they were literally: coming into Jude’s personal space, taking it over, modifying it to fit the needs of their story.

Which is perhaps the feeling that most comes through with Stillmotion’s film: here is an artist working naturally—passionately—at what she loves most.

And we’re totally jazzed to premiere Stillmotion’s film here. Enjoy:

Remember: you aren’t just filming trees here.

You are filming people—relationships, adventures, emotions, experiences. All very real, very ordinary, and very important to preserve.

We know: more to think about!

But it’s Summer—and during the Summer’s when we take Pixar’s motto and change it ever slightly: “Experience is King”.

So, to cap off our series on using light, we’re going to shift our perspective and consider how everything we’ve learned thus far serves a greater purpose.

Here are 4 tips for crowning a new king on your next shoot. Make experience matter most.

1. Listen, then LISTen

You walk into a shoot...and...the light—sigh—just plain sucks.

Already, you feel daunted. So much to worry about!

Take a deep breath, and take it one facet at a time. In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we investigated how knowing the 4 basic properties of light will allow you to make the most out of whatever light you’ve got on hand.

So you’ve got those properties down pat. Which means that you can walk on set and not become suddenly overwhelmed.

In fact, you’ve got yourself a handy acronym. You are going to LISTen to the light! So you ask the following questions of the space:

  1. Location: From where is the light coming? Where is that in relation to where your subject is? And where you want to shoot?
  2. Intensity: Is there enough light to see detail in the image? Is there sufficient light for you to shoot without adding in your own? Is there too much light?
  3. Softness: How soft or harsh is the light? Look at the fall-off of the shadows and see if it’s a sharp cutoff or a gradual fade.
  4. Temperature: What color are the lights? Are they consistent or is it mixed? Is the color too warm (orange) or too cold (blue) for the look and feel needed for the story?

And while you’re LISTening, what you’re really doing is thinking about what makes sense for your story.

But maybe you’ve forgotten about something much simpler. You’ve ignored the power of simply—acronym-lessly—listening.

If you want to make the whole shoot an experience your subject(s) will cherish—an experience that feels authentic, un-forced, and worthwhile, and experience that connects you, your subject, and your audience through the power of a well-told story—then the first thing you must do?

Listen to your subject before you try to hear the light.

Which could just mean visiting the space early, and mapping it out. Or taking an hour to interview your subject and let him or her know what your intentions are. Or, even, just always knowing that nothing is perfect.

For example, when Stillmotion filmed Jude at Sugar Wheel Works, they set up an HMI outside as key (simulating sunlight) and a Kino Celeb inside fill. Once the lighting was in place, it all remained untouched for the rest of the shoot, which meant that not every single shot had perfect lighting.

Take a look below. The shadows on Jude’s hands are quite dark and there is little to no detail left in them.

But that’s OK. Because the shot breathes authenticity. And even better? Jude wasn’t interrupted from her routine or inconvenienced by a bunch of slight, repetitive light changes.

Just as you shouldn’t fight the light, don’t struggle with the natural flow of any storytelling experience.

Lighting is complex and complicated and almost never wants to do exactly what you want it to do without some effort or luck….but the cool thing about that?

There is almost always more than one way to achieve a certain look and feel through light. Don’t let your subject suffer through the boredom or annoyance of watching you figure that all out.

2. Get out.

OK, there’s a better way to phrase this to your talent—but you should find a polite and unobtrusive way to remove your subject from the room when you’re setting up lights.

We’re not playing make-believe here or anything. Your talent know you’ll be filming, and that lights are just part of that, but like we said above, it’s important that they are not watching you work through the lighting.

In this case, the make-believe part is convincing them everything is seamlessly under control and on point so they aren’t constantly thinking about production and how they look on camera—or even how they can help.

How do you think it feels for someone to hear the following?

“We need a much less light to hide the wrinkles on his face”
“The mixed lighting in here is atrocious. It’s like a hospital room.”
“Ugh, that looks really harsh, don’t you think?”

The more removed from the setup process your talent is, the more engaged your talent will be with the camera—and therefore with the audience.

Stillmotion joined Jude during her morning meditation—giving others time to set up at her workshop without messing with her routine. Also: check out how they modified that natural light on an overcast day!

Stillmotion joined Jude during her morning meditation—giving others time to set up at her workshop without messing with her routine. Also: check out how they modified that natural light on an overcast day!

So have your producer or a friend chat with your talent in another room where he or she can’t see or hear what’s going on in the area where all’s getting set up.

If that isn’t possible and you don’t have the manpower to spare, suggest your talent take the kids down to the park for a bit to keep them occupied. Or in Jude’s case, Stillmotion asked if they could join her for her morning meditation ritual, which not only provided them with more insight into her story, but gave others time to go and worry about the light at her workshop.

3. Don’t freak.

Speaking of worrying, we’ve never been on a production where everything goes as planned. We assume you haven’t either.

But that’s cool, because that’s life! Whatevs, as the kids say. Expect that, and, similarly, as the poster that your teenage cousin has hanging in her bedroom says: stay calm and carry on.

So you’ve got your lights all set up, you’re about to start rolling, your talent are in the right spot, and the director is chatting happily away with them...

But then some dude in another room turns on the microwave that’s plugged into the same outlet as your HMI, overloading the circuit. BOOM.

Dude! Your background light is out and you cannot roll without it. What do you do?

You can roll your eyes, complain about how the assistant messed things up and blew the circuit, grumble about how it wasn’t your fault on your way to the breaker, and head to the back room without telling anyone what’s going on and what you’re doing. That’s...one option.

There's always a better way to say "Closed", just as there's always a positive way to shape an unexpected situation.

There's always a better way to say "Closed", just as there's always a positive way to shape an unexpected situation.

Or you can tell the director and the talent that you are almost set, that you just noticed something that requires attention, and that you’ll need 7-8 minutes to make some adjustments. That’s it! In the meantime, work quietly in the back with your grip and PA to let the assistant know what happened and run a longer stinger down the hall to plug into a different socket.

Can you imagine the difference in the talents’ experience between the two?

If your talent feel like they’re in the way, than their story will follow suit: they’ll close up, afraid to open and share what matters most.

Light’s a tricky thing, and will almost certainly fail you sometimes. But the true failure is when you lose your talent to fear.

4. Prioritize.

There are many ways to light a scene.

Well, duh. We wouldn’t have 4 full parts in this series if that weren’t the case.

To add intensity you can bring a light closer or add more light. To make something softer you can increase the apparent size of the light or bring it closer. To change the color temperature you can use a color-changing LED, or add a gel. To change the direction of the source you can move the light or move where you are shooting in relation to the light.

And so on.

Sometimes we get wrapped up in finding that perfect light—but, you need to take a look at the situation and see both what’s possible and what’s important given the shoot’s context.

Consider time, budget, space, comfort, and production value. From there you should be able to see what is crucial to the story and what is not crucial to the story.

Do you want to be the kind of filmmaker that makes everyone miserable to get the shots exactly as you planned them?

Legitimate question, really.

The light may not be perfect, but it's obvious what was prioritized here: Jude's experience.

The light may not be perfect, but it's obvious what was prioritized here: Jude's experience.

If you are already running 10 minutes late and you realize that you forgot your HMI—which would have been your big key light—and it’ll take you another 30 minutes to go grab it, you need to figure out another option. Because your talent has already informed you that she doesn’t have all day and needs to be done in 2 hours. Losing 30 minutes would really hurt your story and you’ll need to adapt and figure it out.

In other words, you need to prioritize.

If the background of your location isn’t entirely relevant, try moving to another location where you can use natural window light. If it’s relevant after all, consider slightly adjusting the background you see, shooting a bit tighter, and use two smaller lights to get you started on the details while your PA hustles back to grab the light for the big, wide reveal.  

Sometimes you absolutely need more time. This is a fact. But if you can get your shots close enough to what you planned and they don’t heavily compromise the story, make sure you weigh in the other factors to ensure that you making the most out of the experience.

Whether you are working with natural light, modifying existing light, or adding in your own lights—it’s all just light.

The more you work with it, the more you see it (like really see it, all 4 properties) and the more you are able to find creative ways to bend it to your needs without breaking its mystique all together.

Because in the end, a storyteller’s aim is never the perfect shot or the most astounding spectacle, it’s bringing people together through story. It’s the experience the storyteller creates for all involved—from the subject to the crew to the audience.

Why focus on anything else?

So, that concludes our series on using light in your visual stories! Above all, we hope we helped you get one step closer to telling an amazing story.

Miss last week's post (Part 3) on adding light to your stories? Check it out by clicking here.