Comedy Commercial Cinematography: Part 1 of 3
A look at how we approached a bright comedic spot, but with a bit "punch" in the images
What's up folks? It looks like it's been since April 1st since my last post! 206 days. Anything interesting in the world happen since then? Not really? Oh ok. Well since then I've had periods of severe laziness AND colossal busyness, but I'm (sorta) back to writing blog posts now for the time being. This time, we're looking at a 3-day comedy commercial I shot for Bare Performance Nutrition. Here's a link to the completed piece:
One of the most important things about this spot was to contrast our "hero" company, Bare Performance Nutrition, against the "competition", Big Girthy Arms (fake company), and that's where I utilized lighting & color to help sell just how different they are. The director, Corey, wanted BPN to look bright & inviting, and the Big Girthy Arms environments to feel dirty &"asbestos-filled."
On Day 1, we filmed in the kitchen for half a day, and then pre-rigged the warehouse and BPN office for Day 2. We also filmed one day EXT shot, which is the last shot of the piece. That was a fairly simple setup which I won't be breaking down in the post because it'd be kind of boring.
Day 2 was our steadicam day and we filmed in the warehouse and office. This one was an incredibly challenging day that I'll discuss in part 2 coming in a few days (I think).
Day 3 was our Big Girthy Arms gym scene and BGA office scene.
In this post, I'll be going over Day 1 & discussing some of the techniques I utilized to achieve a poppy look, while trying to retain shape, dimension, and depth in the frame.
Equipment & Crew:
Lighting & Grip:
-(2) Skypanel S60's
-8 Astera Titan Tubes
-(2) Lightmat 4 Plus
-1 Ton Grip trailer
-(2) 12x12 Double Nets
-(2) 12x12 Magic Cloth
-(1) 12x20 Half Grid
-Alexa XT Plus + Zeiss Ultra Primes 28, 32, 40, 50, 65 (shot entirely at T2)
-Schneider Rhodium ND's (0.3- 1.8)
- 1/8 Glimmer Glass (was in the mattebox the whole time, just to take a tiny bit of crispiness off the lenses)
-O'Connor 2575 head & Mitchell baby & standard sticks
Gaffer: Keaton Loudamy
BB Electric: Noble Walker
Key Grip: Dan Leonard (Day 1 & 2), Ivan Salazar (Day 3)
BB Grip: Zach Marlow
Steadicam Op: Jared Deer (just day 2)
1st AC: Brooks Birdsall
2nd AC: Josh Barbur
10am: Crew Call
10:am- 11:30am: Load, Block, & Light Kitchen
11:30am- 2:30pm: Shoot Kitchen (5 planned setups but a couple more got snuck in there)
2:30p-3:30p: Lunch & Wrap out location
4:00p-8:30p: Load in to location 2, pre-light, shoot day EXT
The Wide Shot
The first thing to discuss with this setup is why we chose this angle. Essentially, it's the one that gave us the most depth, and with our coverage plan, enabled us to move fairly quickly between setups without having to move lots of lighting gear. Putting our two talent on opposite sides of the counter worked well for the comedy bit to illustrate just how opposite the characters are from each other. We had the lady on frame-right stand on a 1/2 applebox to make the frame look more balanced. The wardrobe department chose fantastic colors that help the ladies pop right off the screen. In the background, the brick texture and warm pops of light from the practicals just helped provide subtle points of interest to the frame. Additionally, it was important to just catch a little bit of the window on frame-left to sell the light motivation from the window. In pre-production, I made sure to ask art department to dress it with shears because otherwise the background would've been too busy and way more difficult to light because you never know how the light may change in the background, and potentially overexpose something. Our camera height was important because we wanted to be on our subject's eyeline and also have her framed within the natural structure of the background; you'll notice she's boxed in by the cabinets and the vent, which just makes the image look more intentional and easier to look at.
Here is a lighting diagram that I built for this scene after discussing with my gaffer, Keaton:
This ended up being almost identical to what we did on the day. I rated the camera at ISO 800 and T2, and to drive down ambient light in the location, I chucked in a 1.2 ND filter. Then we started adding our strokes of light. The M40 was going thru a layer of diffusion (1/2 grid I believe) and then thru the back window, to fill out the whole background area & kitchen, and I used an M18 to try to leak-in some hard sunlight.
We tried some different combinations of gels. I wanted the hard light to feel a bit warmer than the ambient light from the M40. On the M40 we put on either 1/8 or 1/4 CTS and on the M18 I believe we went with 1/4 or 1/2 CTS. Whichever gels they were, what's important is that they're slightly different colors, because that's kind of how light works in the real world (I think). The tricky thing with the hard light in this scene was the fact that there was so much white in the location. That made it difficult to finesse because when I liked the texture of the light & shadows from the M18, I'd realize that part of the frame was blowing out. We tried a couple different heights and tilt positions for the lamp and we ended up with something that looked OK, but if we had more time I would've liked to finesse it more. If you scroll up to that wide shot, I would've loved to have had a harder edge on the chairs on frame left. And one of the white shelves directly to frame-left of the lady in the purple shirt was going too hot, and I had the colorist help out that area a bit.
Also important to note, the corner of the room right behind the actress in the red shirt was going way too bright, so we added a lamp left sider to cut it off the wall. Then to treat the deep background near the brick wall, we added a lightmat (bounced into the wall and then diffused) for some daylight, and in the very far back, there was a brown door that was looking way too dark and was a dead-spot in the frame, so we just popped in a titan tube to light it up.
To key the talent, we used a S60 with a softbox thru a 12x12 of 1/2 grid. This gave us a beautiful light, but the front of the kitchen island looked oddly dark, so we bounced a skypanel into an 8x8 of ultrabounce to provide a bit of frontal fill. But I felt like the light still wasn't wrapping around our purple-shirted talent's face enough, so we tossed up a lightmat 4+ with 1/2 grid + an egg crate, and it worked great.
When you look at the light positioning in the BTS photo here to the right, you might be curious why putting the lightmat there doesn't completely blast the back wall with boring front-light. Well that's because our HMI's out the window are providing enough level, so that when I expose for the background via lots of ND filtration, when we add in this frontal lightmat, it's effect is very nuanced and really only noticeable on the talent's face, which is the goal. If we had weaker lights out the window, it would be much more difficult and time consuming to provide a little more wrap on talent's face while not polluting the background, because the lightmat would register as much more powerful of a front light.
We also added a titan tube to backlight talent. You notice it the most on the camera-right cheek of the lady on frame-right.
One of the last things we did was add a single net to the actress on frame-left because she was closer to the light and a bit brighter, and we wanted the audience's attention to go to the other lady for this shot. One quick and easy way to figure out whether to use a single net, double net, or combination of them, is to look at your monitor and adjust your T-stop in 1/2 stop increments until you reach an exposure level you're happy with for the area you're trying to net-down. In this case we just needed her a 1/2 stop darker, so I opened back up to T2 and we added the net.
We also added some negative fill for the purple-shirted lady because otherwise there was a lot of light bouncing back from all over the place.
Last Minute Problem-Solving
To my fellow DP's reading this, I'd like to make sure you understand that while I went in with a very thorough & premeditated game plan about how I was going to tackle this scene (I'm a massive over-thinker), and that the plan pretty much worked as I thought it would, that doesn't mean it snapped into place right away. In fact, in our 90 minutes of setup time for the scene, it looked like TRASH for about 88 minutes of that. A year ago, this would cause me to walk into a corner and start perspiring, and nervously laugh too hard at a random crew member's jokes. But I realize that once you use your experience (and copying other DP's exact lighting methodologies 😉) to make sure your lamps & grippery are in the right place, relative to the camera and to the actors, that doesn't necessarily mean the job is done. And if it doesn't look good yet, it doesn't mean that you've failed. I think those moments, where you're minutes away from rolling camera and you seemingly have to fix a massive issue, is where you really have to step up as the curator of the image, trust your instincts, and really scan and identify what areas of the frame aren't meeting the standard. When most of the crew's heavy lifting is done, it's all on you to critically examine the image and make incremental adjustments that may seem miniscule. In a weird way, making 3 incremental adjustments that all seem like 1% tweaks can take an image from good to great or even AWFULNESS to great.
I'd like to explain the big problem we had with this shot when we were just minutes away from rolling:
In this setup, we had two different HMI's out the window. They may have had slight variations in color. We put different color gels on them. One of them is shooting thru diffusion, and that impacts the color a tiny bit sometimes. They're both going thru a window, and then thru shears, and they're bouncing around in the room and creating different color tones on different areas of the walls and kitchen. And then we have multiple fixtures inside the house, as keylights, as fill lights, as backlights, etc. From a color temperature perspective, everything just felt WAY off and totally unnatural. The keylight was different from the fill, and both of those were different from the 2 lights coming thru the window. And then the white balance on the camera is another variable in all of this. The solution sounds simple, but when you promised the AD you'd be able to roll in 2 minutes, it adds a bit of pressure. Essentially, we took the skypanel that was keying talent and fussed with the extremes of the color temperature dial, then reined it in, and found something that looked great with the talents' skin tone. Then for the fill, instead of going a few degrees cooler than key, like I usually do, we dialed it in until it felt consistent with the key light, which made it feel more real in this shot. Then we cooled down the titan tube backlight just to give us a VERY subtle differentiation in color. And then I had a last-second idea to add haze. I didn't plan on hazing the space because I wanted it to feel sharper and crispier than some of the other environments we'd shoot later, but I realized that we needed a very light layer of haze to just GLUE everything together, and it helped blend all our sources together in a nice, yet subtle way. I don't think most people would notice that this scene had any haze.
When we moved in, it was incredibly simple. All we had to do was swing a lens (moved from the 32mm to the 40mm) and we added a frame of 1/2 soft frost in front of the Lightmat 4+ and dialed in the exposure of that light to taste. Usually when you move in for a closeup you'll move the negative fill in closer, but surprisingly in this case, the negative fill actually appeared to make the image a bit TOO crunchy in the shadows, especially for a comedy spot, so we rolled up a bit of the duvetyne to bring in a touch more fill.
When we moved in for the next closeup, it was incredibly easy. All we did was slide the lightmat & diffusion over, and we brought in a bit more negative fill because it was initially looking a bit flat in this area of the kitchen. At this point, we were seeing our lightmat in the very deep background that was illuminating the background, so we had to push that over a tad more into the corner.
As a DP it's important to know how to order your coverage to be efficient. I knew that once we got the wide shot lit, it would be a breeze to shoot the frontal closeups, so I made sure we did that before having to look towards the windows, which can get a little tricky and takes a bit more time.
For this shot, we obviously didn't want the window to blow out, and we also wanted the windows to have fairly consistent illumination across the frame (admittedly, we didn't EXACTLY get that done, but it's close enough). We panned away the M18 that was giving us the hard sunlight, and we walked back the M40 (which was providing the soft push of light into the space) a little bit away from the window, added more diffusion to it, and then we added scrims until it felt right. We moved the keylight over a bit, but it was too side-y, and it would've filled out the background too much if we put it in a proper key-light position. So we used the Lightmat to fill out the front of the actress's face. Then we added a tiny kicker with the titan tube over on frame right. I also think we used a bit of negative fill. Oh we also added a double net to the purple-shirted talent, because she was getting blasted with the key light. In retrospect, I could've added another single and darken her down even more. It took about 20 minutes to relight for this angle. I do think our key light feels a bit artificial and source-y in this shot, but for the style of this commercial, it still works ok I think.
After we shot this scene, we packed up, and headed to the BPN headquarters, where we were going to shoot for the next 2 days. We spent the rest of Day 1 pre-rigging a massive warehouse space and an incredibly difficult-to-light office space. I'm excited to dive into those blog posts, but theres a chance those next 2 blog posts will be VERY long. Let me know if ya'll have any questions about anything discussed in this post!