Comedy Commercial Cinematography: Part 2 of 3
Lighting big, difficult spaces with small (ish) lights
Howdy friends! It's been over a month since I posted Part 1 of this commercial breakdown from a 3-day comedy commercial I shot for Bare Performance Nutrition. In that post, I said it would be a few days until I release part 2. And by a few days, I actually meant.... 44 days. So when I tell you that part 3 (my favorite one) will ACTUALLY be released in just a few days, you should have no reason to believe me and plenty of reason to complain..
(wait... there is a whopping total of 0 people complaining about this... ...).
Anyway, for reference, here's a link to the completed piece:
We'll be discussing our approach to day 2, which we filmed in the BPN offices and warehouse, almost entirely on steadicam. We only needed to capture 8 shots on this day. But unlike shooting a scene with a more "coverage-style" approach and picking off different angles and figuring out the cuts in post production, every single shot needed to be used in the final piece, and that involved a lot of precise coordination between camera, talent, extras, etc.
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
1st AC: Brooks Birdsall
2nd AC: Josh Barbur
-9am: Crew Call
-10:15am- 2:00pm: Shoot BPN Warehouse (we pre-lit most of the warehouse on a prep day and during the 2nd half of day 1)
-2:00pm- 2:40pm: Lunch
-2:40pm-3:45pm: Move to BPN Offices
-3:45pm-7:00pm: Shoot BPN Offices
A Note about lens choice:
I decided to go with the Arri/Zeiss Ultra Primes because I wanted a sharp/contrasty/punchy & optically precise commercial look, and these were really the most affordable lenses in that range. They're similar to Master Primes (albeit not as good), but much cheaper to rent and can't open up to a T1.3. Some people find them to look a little boring, but I don't; I usually prefer the clean Zeiss aesthetic over super old wonky lenses that look like they've been through a sandstorm. Just personal preference. For this project I tested these against Super Speeds, Standard Speeds, and Cooke S4's. These came out the winner. I chose focal lengths are are inherently more cinematic than your standard ones. 28mm, 32, 40, 50, 65 (the 50 is standard but the other ones are a bit more unique). If you ever get to mess with some of these oddball focal lengths, I think it'll change how you think about lensing.
Lighting the Warehouse space
It was important to think about the lighting of these warehouse shots in terms of lighting the entire space. There were alot of things working against us for the 4 setups we needed to capture. The location had 2 gigantic windows that were not in a great position relative to camera (they would be in the very back of the frame for shots 2-4). These windows also had a very bizarre color tint. Additionally, the main aisle we were shooting in was very narrow, which made it hard to squeeze in light onto our talent, especially with all the extras that would be walking around. And our schedule was so tight, that wherever we parked our HMI lights (which are what gave us the whole ambience to the space) is where they would have to stay for the entire scene because moving them was a very time-consuming process. So I had to look at all 4 of the shots we were getting and determine with my gaffer, Keaton, where to put our lights to give us the most "bang for the buck." We went back and forth a million times and ultimately decided to put our M40 in the very back corner, shining hard light down onto one section of the aisle closer to the windows, and then a bit farther up, we'd put an M18 to extend the hard light and have it reach further down into the warehouse. The motivation for this source was some sort of "skylight" that a warehouse theoretically could have. For our 2 massive windows, we put up a 12x12 frame of Magic Cloth outside so we could soak up as much of the light as possible and create a uniformity to those brighter areas, which would look better than partially overexposed bullshit outside, like cars and trees. To keep the windows from clipping out, we put a 12x12 double net behind the magic cloth. To combat a severe color tint the windows had, we put 1/4 Plus Green gel on our HMI's, which brought all of our light sources a lot closer in color tint so I could color balance the tint out of the shot. Had we not added that gel, the entire scene would have been totally fucked. We'd have blue-ish light from the HMI's and shitty green light coming from the windows.
For diffusion, we wanted to retain the hard "sunlight" but just take the edge off, so the M40 received a frame of 1/2 Soft Frost (one of the best diffusions ever) and the M18 received a frame of Opal (one of the worst diffusions ever but hey it still does the trick sometimes).
On the M40, we put up a hard cutter up top to flag off some of the light from hitting the white wall. Before adding the flag, we were getting a TON of front light bounce from behind camera for the first shot, which is a big no-no.
To make all our light sources blend together a bit, we added haze, which increased our baseline level of ambience for the warehouse. From there, we just modified our key light from setup to setup.
Additional note: We had 2 of the warehouses' skylights blacked out on the pre-light day
warehouse Setup 1: 40mm lense
This shot was very tricky; our subject needed to walk like 40-50 feet through a narrow space, several extras, and white walls behind camera. We definitely maximized this shot's potential but it's not necessarily one of the stand-out shots in this spot. To prevent the window light from filling in too much on frame left, we blocked it off with a solid. Then we added a Joker 800 into the aisle which gave talent a hard edge light which ends up looking pretty nice on him at his final mark, and it also edges out some of the products on the shelves and some of the other metallic textures. Take a look at the placement of the joker below:
The problem with these kinds of shots is that a light that looks amazing at mark 2 can look like trash at mark 1. That's kind of the eternal struggle with trying to do cool ambitious shots in locations that aren't quite camera-friendly. There's gonna be sacrifices visually. Luckily, this was the only shot in the warehouse that I wasn't the biggest fan of how it turned out.
To key our talent, we had to hollywood a light source because our talent was walking such a long distance. We had our Best Boy Electric, Noble Walker, walk with a Lightmat 4+ (with 1/4 Plus Green gel and a 40 degree honeycomb). The key with hollywooding a light is to have someone that can keep a consistent distance away from talent, a steady hand so we don't see the light shift around in the background, and being far enough away that the light falloff on talent and extras doesn't look too unnatural.
warehouse Setup 2: 32mm lense
For shot 2 here, we added in a very large source on frame left to emulate a pseudo-window. It was a 12x20 of 1/2 grid that we put two skypanel S60's behind. We tilted the skypanels down so instead of shooting directly at our talent, the light would gently cascade down the diffusion and be less of a ping of a key light. We also added some negative fill on frame right which primarily just affected the guy that walks thru frame in the very first second of the shot, but makes a big difference. The 4x4 floppy you see next to the 12x20 was used to block some of the front light from hitting the guy and the products on frame right in the first second of the shot.
We also added a 4x4 frame of (250?) diffusion to the M18 which looked really nice as a hair light. Somehow this light ended up looking very warm, and that definitely was not intentional and technically a bit of a fuck-up and quite unnatural, but hey it adds a bit of color contrast that I don't necessarily mind.
You can see just how well our trick of putting magic cloth & double net over the window worked. It allowed us to really control that background level so it wouldn't completely overpower the frame. And then in post our colorist Elias was able to tame down those highlights even more. But if you looked at the window with your eye, it looked all weird and messed up. The reason why we were able to get away with this trick is because the window was so far back in the shot, AND I made sure to shoot this as shallow as I could (shot this at a T2.0, bless our focus-puller Brooks Birdsall 😁).
The last little thing we did was take our joker 800 from our first shot, and hide it in the back corner, which gave us a beautiful edge light to hit the shelves & products down along the aisle.
Warehouse Setup 3 :40mm lense
We did absolutely nothing different for this shot. Nothing more to see here folks, move it along.
Warehouse Setup 4 : 32mm lense
The tricky thing about this shot was the fact that we were almost out of lights to use, and our character had to walk a fairly long distance and we didn't have any other place to put our main key light because in the previous shots, we had established it was coming from frame-left. But our lights were up against a wall on the left so we couldn't push them any farther back. When we rehearsed, we saw my big diffusion rag about 3/4 of the way into the shot. To solve this, we slid our 12x20 further up along the wall, and we clipped up a bit of the bottom of the diffusion so it wouldn't peek into frame (don't have a picture of this). Also, the director worked with talent to slow down his movement so he wouldn't walk as far. But even then, he walked far enough to where we had to extend our light source a bit. We added a Lightmat 4+ with 1/4 Plus Green thru a diffusion frame and placed it next to our skypanels. But we weren't getting any light on our talent's right-side cheek, so we hollywooded another Lightmat 4+ with 1/4 Plus Green behind camera to wrap our key light more around his face. I'm really lucky that our steadicam operator Jared Deer is really good at maintaining the same frame from take to take, because that 12x20 diffusion was dangerously close to our frame lines, and I couldn't do much about it because we had to save as much time as possibly for the office shots coming up next.
The BPN offices were some of the most difficult shots I've ever had to light. It's a great-looking space to your eye, but on-camera it's a bit of a nightmare, to be frank. Not to mention, we had a mere hour to move a bunch of lights from the warehouse area to outside the 2 gigantic windows in the office. This was a really intense setup and the G&E crew absolutely worked their asses off on this really difficult day. I will say, this was a series of shots the our colorist, Elias, really saved my butt on, because there were all kinds of wonky skin tone shifts coming from using different fixtures, from skypanels to lightmats to M40's and M18's, as well as weird window tints.
Office Setup 1: 32mm lense
As you see in this shot, the speaker walks out of his office into a larger lobby area. The tricky thing here is balancing exposure & color from the office to the lobby to the kitchen, as well as the sliver of exterior out the window we see when he walks through the doorway. I had thought about this scene a lot prior to this day and my head was still spinning. Through the office window, we put a M18 up really high to add an interesting slash of "sunlight" to the back wall so it wouldn't look so bland. In this room, the speaker was pretty much keyed with the natural window light. When he got into the lobby. we had an M40 going thru 1/2 soft frost out the window, but the lobby was still too dark so we supplemented with a skypanel inside through 1/2 grid (the 1/2 grid also diffused the M40 nicely). However, we needed to extend our light source a bit farther into the room because it got a bit too crunchy so we used a bare Lightmat 4+.
In the kitchen area, we put up another Lightmat 4+ with a honeycomb in the corner, which was just hidden out of frame. The goal was to provide a far-side key to the extras in the kitchen. The white walls here do look rather bland. I also added some warm light from above to try to mix in a bit of color contrast, but I don't think this idea worked particularly well. It felt more messy than nuanced. We were getting alot of light from the windows polluting the kitchen area, but there was no way to really fine-tune that in this shot. The good thing is, you only see the kitchen for like a second. The track lights that were shining onto the frames on the wall were an ugly warm color, so we clipped some 1/2 CTB onto them.
Office Setup 2: 50mm lense (I think)
We added another lightmat 4+ in this setup to give our speaker a nice pop of light as she stands up, and then walks into another pool of light, provided by the M40 outside the window. To have more space, we removed the skypanel from the previous shot and just lit from outside the window. The shift in color from kitchen to the sofa area the other guy was sitting in was very apparent, so I added 1/4 Plus Green to the lightmats in the kitchen to match some of the green we were getting from the window. The windows were still so green though, and when Elias pulled some green from the foreground where the guy drinking the protein shake was sitting, it made parts of the background too magenta, including skintones. So he very intricately power-windowed around our speaker's face and was able give us great skintones for the whole shot. Again, this was a life-saver, because we simply did not have the time to go around with a color meter and appropriately gel all the lights. These shots had so many moving parts that we were going as fast as possible to get it all in the can without going into costly overtime.
What annoys me most about this shot is how bright the white half-wall is behind our speaker as she stands up. I wish I had enough time to have overhead light on her for the first half of her walk. With overhead light, I could have offset it to camera left to give her contrast on the face, while skirting it off the white-walled area. I think that would have been better than our lightmat 4+ blasting the white wall. But hey, everyone's a genius in hindsight.
Office Setup 3: 28mm lense
The setup was very similar to the previous one. The only thing I wanted different was that I wanted the light to be softer. But we didn't have any more level out of the M40. So we tossed in a skypanel on frame left and diffused it with a 8x8 of 1/2 grid. Then we added some negative fill from behind camera and to frame right.
Office Setup 4: 40mm lense
Well this certainly felt like the hardest shot ever. These are all the things we had going against us for this setup:
Any normal daylight interior shot is difficult, but talk about a Day INT where the talent walks across a room with one massive window into a room with ANOTHER massive window, when you don't really have the gear and the crew to make this look like a high-end commercial in a location like this
Remember all the shit we had outside the window from the previous setups? Well now we're looking directly at it so it all has to move
We need to maintain some semblance of the look that we established in the other shots, but the lights were in all different positions
We're not just balancing exposure to one window, but 2 windows. And the second one is way brighter in the sky area than the other
This shot is going into the evening time and the light level is quickly changing outside so we had to move fast
There's probably like 4 more challenges that I'm forgetting
It's a miracle that this shot ended up being usable in the first place. Don't get me wrong, I think it looks quite bad because we have a weird exposure balance of our exterior to our interior, and our keylight has all different colors that are giving us wonky skintones that weren't really possible to completely fix in post. For the key light, we had to use all the lights we had readily available. This ended up being a skypanel, and a bare Joker 800, going thru an 8x8 of 1/2 grid. This light looked incredibly source-y and quite shit. But it was the only thing we could have done given our time constraints. To light up the couch area, we put up a skypanel s60 with a chimera, to mimic an overhead office light. We had to have it on full blast to provide enough level for us to expose the back window lower. We kept our M18 outside to give us the hard slash of light on the wall, but we had to move the light a bit to keep it out of our frame. It was incredibly difficult to keep stuff out of the shot in this setup. We threw our M40 (thru a frame of 1/2 Soft Frost) into the office to lift up the ambient in this room. Look at the 9 second mark at the clip above. Notice the hard shadow on the door on frame-right? That's from the M40. We were able to get away with this hard of a light because it was so side-y. A hard key light often times look pretty bad when you have it at a 45 degree angle and you see a really hard nose-shadow.
To add an additional pop of light onto our talent as he walks backwards thru the doorway, we added a bare titan tube in the corner of the office. And just like that, we finished an incredibly difficult commercial shoot day. Shooting the big warehouse AND the impossible-to-light office was less-than-ideal but certain scheduling and budget issues made us have to do it this way. The G&E and Camera teams were the real heroes of the day for rolling with the punches and making this insane day happen.
A few parting notes
It was very important for us to shoot these scenes in the order that we did. Since we started in the warehouse, we were able to have that space pre-lit (because the 2nd half of day 1 was for pre-light). This allowed us to fire up our lamps and do our final tweaks and get shooting a bit quicker. The alternative would have been much worse and time consuming: having to drag all our grip & electric gack outside of the office window to start the day and then rush to set up the warehouse when we were done shooting the office. Initially this day was scheduled to start with the office, but luckily I caught that and it made things flow as best as they could have.
Another thing to point out is that being on steadicam all day is a bit more difficult to fine tune lighting ratios and aesthetic compared to being on sticks and dolly. When you're on dolly & sticks, you can audition light position and intensity and color with your gaffer very quickly and easily because you're just standing at the camera looking at the monitor the whole time. But on steadicam, your operator needs to get suited up with the camera and you don't want to tire them out by having them go back & forth over and over again with a heavy camera build. You can do it a few times, but if you're someone that likes to fiddle and experiment with things constantly, like lights and camera settings and exposures, it's a much different experience. I believe you have to rely on your eye, instincts, and light meter a bit more. That's just something to be aware of. Especially when you get into a time crunch and those last 2 minutes before you have to roll camera are invaluable. I hope some of these musings are helpful for at least one of you. I know that something like this would have been incredibly useful for me to read before jumping into a project like this, but it would also raise a lot more questions, so if any of you that somehow got to the end of this seemingly endless blog post have any questions, please feel free to reach out and I'll try my best to answer when I can!
P.S. Here's a couple BTS clips from the office scenes (shot by Ari Morales)
BTS photos by Joe Reynolds