Cheap Trick to Make Your Film Look Like It Cost Millions

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In my typical way, I’m going to skip around a little so I hope you will bare with me. In 2009, Gareth Edwards made the movie Monsters with a prosumer Sony EX3. But people were amazed that the video that he shot looked so much like 16mm film. How did he accomplish this? He used a Letus Adapter to mount a manual Nikon Nikkor 50mm f.1.2 lens lens on his camera. Therefore, his video had a very shallow depth of field. At the time, shallow depth of field was almost impossible to accomplish with typical prosumer cameras.

(Note: There are many other factors that made the video look like film. Shooting at 24 frames per second and color grading were also extremely important.)


Monsters Gareth Edwards


When I bought my first HD Camcorder back in 2009, there were companies that would “punk” your camcorder and allow you to put a manual Nikkor lens on it…although most of these would require you to watch your footage upside down. The results, however, were undeniable. Shooting with a low aperture at 24 frames per second looked amazing. In fact, I was ready to send my Canon over to one of these guys and spend a few hundred for the hack…when suddenly….the DSLR revolution happened.

Its funny, because for those of us who had been shooting video for years, dreaming of one day shooting a movie on super 16mm, this should have been front page news. It was huge. Suddenly you could go out, buy a Canon Digital Rebel for a few hundred bucks, invest another $100 on a 50mm f 1.8 lens and suddenly you could shoot amazing looking video. And so, for the next few years we saw the emergence of the shallow dof cinematography. But then, something happened.

Once something becomes common, it looses it’s appeal. Now that it was so easy to shoot in shallow depth of field, it was no longer so amazing. Soccer mom’s were able to shoot with the same HD, shallow dof that the pros were using. I remember a friend of mine, who knew nothing about cinematography, shooting a video of her kid playing in the park at magic hour that looked like something out of a Terrence Malick film.

So, what is a cinematographer to do. Well, with that background in mind, I want to talk about another subject for a moment. Soft light. Yes, its true that simply having a soft source of light isn’t always the key to a great image. Many cinematographer’s who work with a more Chiaroscuro concept of lighting prefer sharp slices of light to create their images. However, one thing you will almost always find in the behind-the-scenes pictures of your favorite movies is one nice big soft source of light.

The range from soft to hard sources of light are very important. Hard light, for example, is what you get from a very small light source, like a lamp. It gives you very well defined shadows. Soft light, on the other hand, is the kind of light that you would get after the sun goes down, or on a very cloudy day. You have light with very little shadow and everything is lit pretty much equally.

But soft light does something else. It raises the overall amount of light going into your lens. One of the key differences between a expensive cameras and cheaper DSLR’s is their ability to shoot in low light. So, what  can we do to help our sensor out? We can add a nice bi soft source of light to boost the overall illumination of the scene. We can still use hard light to create highlights, but the soft source will allow us to see the details even in an underlit room.

One of the greatest examples I have seen of this is in the film The Conjuring. In the first hour of the film, there are many shots that take place in the middle of the night with next to no light. Now, it appears as though the cinematographer did what most cinematographers do. They created nice hard shards of light coming from the windows and the door to simulate bouncing moonlight. But, this light had to bounce enough to fill up the room. You can accomplish this with a few things, but if you have a camera that can shoot in very low light, you really don’t need more. However, if you’re trying to shoot this scene with a lower end DSLR, you are going to need to boost the ambient room lighting ever so slightly to reach a sweet spot.



The Conjuring Door Scene

How would you light this scene if you were using a cheap dslr? You would need a giant softbox to bring up the room enought to register on the small sensor.

And now, how do you do this for cheap?

1. A large modifier.

You will need a large skrim…or even a bedsheed draped over something to give a nice large flat area. I am including two of my favorite tutorials below.

One of the greatest sources for learning Cinmatography online is Shane Hurlbut. I highly recommend you spend some time on Shane’s website. He is one of the only DP’s out there who routinely shares advice and shows you how he lights. Here is his great article on creating a softlight with a booklight.

Here is a wonderful tutorial from Kevin Kubota on creating a lightweight scrim for location lighting.

And, of course, our friends over at Film Riot have also given us a wonderful tutorial I’m pretty sure was inspired by Shane Hurlbut.

2. One Beautiful Hard Source of Light

There are a lot of great lights out these days. You can buy proffessional grade LED and Flourescent lights like the KinoFlos. However, if you want professional light on the cheap, there is still no better place to go than regular old tungsten. One of the great benefits of tungsten over flourescent, aside from the fact that consumer flourescent lightbulbs make people look green, is that you can modify the amount of light with a dimmer. Flourescent bulbs are either on or off.

One of the reasons you want this source to be hard or at least hardish is because you want to contain it on the sides where the light might leak out. A cinematographer friend of mine once said that light is like water. It tries to leak out all over the place and bounces around uncontrolled. So, at the source, having a soft light allows you to control where it will go. Once it hits your modifier, the light will suddenly go from a small source to a large source and thus…creating a soft light.

3. Flags

One thing that most tutorials on lighting forget to mention are flags. Blocking out light from your scene is just as important as illuminating the scene. For example, in the scene I mentioned from The Conjuring, if you could see behind the door…the scene would no longer be scary. You can flag with anything. Of of the cheapest flags in the world is foam core. Just cut different pieces of foam and block of the light as needed. BTW,  white foam core is also great for bouncing light and creating soft light. In fact, another way to get similar light would be to bounce your light off of a giant piece of foam…but as you wil learn with experience, there are literally thousands of ways to light a scene.

Here is one of the only videos I have seen that focuses on flagging out light.





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