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  • Writer's pictureMike Kozlenko

Comedy Commercial Cinematography: Part 3 of 3

About time I finished up this series, right?

Alrighty folks, we've finally made it to our 3rd and final part of our look into a comedy spot I shot for Bare Performance Nutrition. In part 1 we discussed day 1, which was a pretty easy day for us as we really just had one scene and then a half-day pre-light. Then in part 2 we looked at the BRUTAL day 2 shoot that ended up being a success, but not without plenty of challenges. We wrap up here looking at our scenes for the fake company "Big Girthy Arms" and with our Frat Bros in the dingy gym. To be honest, after making it through day 2, this was a piece of cake. However, we did some pretty unique things and got some interesting looks. Let's take a gander:

Here's a link to the completed piece for reference:

Equipment & Crew:

Lighting & Grip:



-(2) Skypanel S60's

-8 Astera Titan Tubes

-(2) Lightmat 4 Plus

-Joker 800

-1 Ton Grip trailer


-(2) 12x12 Double Nets

-(2) 12x12 Magic Cloth

-(1) 12x20 Half Grid

shot all day at ISO 400 to save a stop of dynamic range in the shadows

Camera package:

-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


-10am: Crew Call

-10:00am- 11:30 pm: Block/Light Frat Bros scene

-11:30- 2:30pm: Shoot Frat Bro's scene (we finished way earlier)

-2:30pm-3:30pm: Block/Light Big Girthy Arms Office

-3:30pm- 4:10pm: Lunch

-4:10pm- 8:00pm: Shoot Big Girthy Arms office

-8:00pm- 10:30: Wrap out

Frat Bros Scene

We started the day filming this hilarious scene. We wanted it to feel dark & dingy, while still retaining the "commercial" vibe of the whole piece. I came about this composition because I saw that the camera could rake down the row of dumbbells to provide some depth, as this was the most interesting-looking thing in the location.

Regarding this particular, frame, I don't love how the light is intersecting his head. However, nailing down the appropriate height for the practicals was a tedious process because it had to be hung from speedrail, both practicals had to be a similar height, and they had to be relatively level. Additionally, these practicals were getting hung while talent was in makeup and wardrobe, so I just picked a height in the frame where I thought the lights looked nice. If I raised the camera to remedy this issue, then we would have lost some of the depth from the dumbbells. I personally didn't think the light intersecting his head was a hill I wanted to die on, so in essence of time, I let it be.

Since the director wanted the gym to feel dark & "fluorescent-lit", art department blacked out the massive window in the back with black vinyl, which allowed us to shoot in this direction. Then on a prep-day, my gaffer, Keaton, installed speedrail above so we could have rigging points for lights and for practicals. Most of the time I don't like shooting flat onto a wall, like in this scenario. Most cinematographers choose to shoot into a corner of a room so you get more interesting leading lines. On the scout, I realized this was not an option. So how do you make shooting a flat wall look decent? Here are some tricks I used:

  • color contrast (orange pops of light were "track lights" in my mind)

  • foreground, middle ground, background

  • haze (since haze makes everything look better)

  • light to dark to light to dark patterns across the frame

  • practicals

On the location scout, when it was determined that we'd shoot in this direction, I knew fluorescent practicals would help sell the "dingy" vibe. The practicals we received were LED, and very bright. But they were cheapo LED's and not dimmable. So when we tried to dim them anyway, they started flickering, and the director Corey Crumpacker and I actually liked it. So the flickering lights gag was a total accident but it worked out great. The skypanel from above was bounced into a 4x4 bead board and gave us some volume to the space and provide soft ambient light from the back. We dialed in a bit of green. I also added +4 green in-camera. The keylight was a skypanel AND a lightmat 4+ through 2 layers of diffusion (first layer was a 4x4 of something thin, 2nd layer was most likely a 1/2 grid cloth. We had floppies on each side of it to control the spill. Talent was also next to a mirror, which gave us a ton of fill. So just off frame right we snuck in an 8x8 of neg fill.

For the punch-in, since talent was going to be a bit more squared up to camera, we added a lightmat 4 behind camera to fill-in his fill-side cheek, and moved our key light diffusion a bit closer to make it softer. When shooting an actor looking into the lense, whether its a commercial or narrative or corporate talking head, lighting is a bit tricky because you want to bring a bit more light in from the front so you can catch their fill-side cheek a bit, and not have the light only hit half of their face. But when do this, you start filling in your background with shitty front light. So you have to think about the space/depth you have, color of your walls, your lighting levels and ratios, the height of your light source, etc. It's a tricky balance.

This was a fun angle to shoot. The mirror gave us some very welcomed depth in the frame. The 650w Tweenie that was used for the background in the previous shots is actually IN the frame here in the mirror reflection, but since I was shooting this wide open at T2.0, I kind of liked the bokeh and the color contrast it gave us. We just moved the keylight over a touch, and I had a lightmat 4+ right next to camera dimmed down to somewhere between 1%-5% to give me a touch of light in his eyes.

the lightmat looks like its off in this photo. But I'm pretty sure we turned it on to a very low intensity

This was another fun angle to shoot. We wanted to be overhead but we didn't need to be wide enough to warrant building an overhead rig. So we just put our Mitchell standard sticks on some appleboxes, bagged them, and had a grip keep a hand on the rig for safety. We also strapped down the camera for safety.

For the key light, we brought the Lightmat 4+ around. Usually I'd want to throw diffusion in front of a bare lamp, but we didn't have much room, and this didn't look too source-y to me in this situation. The dark floor started looking quite bland. In the BTS photo, you see 2 titan tubes on the floor. The one on the ground gave us ambient level to the floor that you mostly notice on frame left and frame right. Without that tube, it would've looked very dark and uninteresting in those areas. The tube on the applebox was used to give us that brighter area on the top of frame that helped separate talent's head from the background. We kept ON the original keylight from the other setups, and in this case, it provides some ambient backlight. We turned off our flickering lights from the previous shots since it got distracting.

bts footage of Frat Bros scene:

featuring someone doing some awesome pullups :)

Big Girthy Arms Scene

FYI, we shot the second half of the scene after lunch, so some lighting continuity is a little off when compared to the opening shot. But who cares about continuity? It's not TOO far off

Sometimes I'll see an experienced cinematographer post a lighting diagram/breakdown on Instagram and rave about how they used a single 650w tungsten lamp to light a whole scene, and they talk about keeping everything extremely simple. This setup is NOT like that. At all. Not even close.

This goes without saying, but I had 2 12x12 solids on frame-right. Not just for negative fill. but we needed to cut down ambient light from the warehouse. There was also a skylight in this area that we blacked out on the prep-day

The 4-person G&E team did the work of 8-10 people on this scene, and I think it paid off. Luckily for us, we wrapped the Frat Bros scene about an hour ahead of schedule, so we had over 2 hours to get things set up. Art department had the space already 90% prepped, so G&E had the floor. We knew we wanted the CEO of the fake company to be in the center, so I framed up the shot with a stand-in, and this informed us on where to place the top-light.

The toplight was our trusty Lightmat 4+ with 1/4 + green gel, going through a layer of 1/2 grid. Notice the toplight isn't smack-dab in the center of talent. It's offset to one-side so we maintain a dark side of the face. Then to further define our subject's face, we added the light on the ground to camera left to just ever-so-slightly extend the effect of the toplight a bit further down so it gets into the eyes. For this, we shined a skypanel (at a very low intensity, like 25%, and with a bit of green) through a 6x6 of 1/2 grid.

When the main talent got in wardrobe and was about to get in the makeup chair, I asked to see him in frame to see how his shirt color would look in the scene. He was wearing a black shirt. When seeing it in the shot, I asked if we could swap the shirt to a lighter color, and luckily enough, they had grey. If the shirt ended up being black, I think the shot would have been much worse. There's no lighting trick in the book that would've made the shot look THAT much better, especially because his character is introduced by walking up from the very dark background into the light. By paying attention to this detail and being proactive about it, we got him to pop off screen in front of that already dark background.

It's kind of hard to see in the photos, but we rigged several titan tubes (with grids on them) on the speedrail grid in the very back left and on the back right to give us a bit of ambient light in the background.

We also added a 650w tungsten onto the grid to give us some interesting hard light and color contrast on those bookshelves in the back-center of frame. Without this, you can imagine that the actor on frame-right would have blended into a boring background.

Things were falling into place nicely but we had so much space to cover and more things to spice up. Next, I wanted to incorporate some hard light somewhere else on the background, and decided it would be cool to provide a slash of light onto the dirty character packing the supplements over on frame left. So we used a Joker 800, warmed it up with some CTO, and Keaton, the gaffer, finagled the light around until it hit just perfectly. I believe we added a cookie in front to make the light feel more textural.

Notice the astra and the skypanel in the back. Those were 2 of the final additions we made to add some much-needed spice to the image. I think the light placement of these worked out great for this scene.

We were still lacking a bit of magic. And I wasn't exactly sure what to-do to spice it up. But I remember a very experienced cinematographer once told me "When in doubt, backlight." So to add a nice broad backlight with some kick to it, but not overly hard, we mounted a 6X astra to the grid and made it neutral in color. If we had more time I would've ever-so-slightly softened it because it was a bit too punchy on the main guy's bald head. Once the backlight was looking good, I realized that frame-right was looking pretty subpar, so we added another skypanel (with a lamp-left sider) to add volume to the area. When the skypanel hits the haze, it provides a nice green-colored pocket of light. It wasn't the easiest thing to set up that light, but the crew was able to get it done:

For the closeup, we just changed from a 28mm lense to a 50mm lense. No lighting tweaks

32mm lense. We had art department cheat the green lockers over so we'd have something other than a black wall on frame left. This felt like a very Coen Brothers esque shot in terms of framing & the actor's expressions

For this shot of the lady, we brought in 2 titan tubes through a 4x4 diffusion frame. We first used one tube with an egg crate, but it wasn't enough so it was quicker to just add another bare tube that was already on standby. Then on frame left in the very back, we finagled the joker 800 to just give a slight pop of light in the top left corner. Notice we cheated her exposure up a good bit compared to the wide, but it still feels like its part of the same world? The motivation for this key light was the toppy source that we used in the wide shot. Another option would have been to motivate from the computer screen, OR from the practical on the desk. But this route felt right to me on the day.

For the shot of the guy in dirty clothes packing the boxes, we once again messed with the Joker 800 to get the hard light off of the guy's face and mostly onto his body & the center of the frame. We also softened it just a tiny bit with some 1/2 soft frost. Then as you'll see below, we had a gridded titan tube on a stand right in front of camera to just front-light the dark products on the table. A gridded titan tube is perfect for adding a speck of semi-soft light to subtly lift up exposure of something in frame by a stop. It goes a long way.

For this product shot, as you'll see in the BTS photo below, we armed out a titan tube and a 4x4 frame to toplight the table, but once again we offset it to one side so we'd have contrast on frame-right.

bts footage of Big Girthy Arms:

Final Thoughts

The great thing about a comedy commercial like this is that we knew exactly the shots we needed to capture on camera. The director & I did extensive pre-production and we were on the same wavelength the whole time. I was able to tailor a pretty precise lighting plan in prep, which ended up being 85% of what we ended up doing. On another kind of commercial, music video, or narrative project with alot more setups, its not as possible to be this dialed-in. So we used this opportunity to our advantage and I think it resulted in a decent-looking final product. If you have any questions or any part of this is incoherent, please don't hesitate to reach out.


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