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  • Writer's pictureMike Kozlenko

Making Rocks & Sand Look Cool:

Updated: Mar 23, 2022

(or at least trying to)

I was in Florida last month shooting a brand film for a company called Environmental Conservation Solutions. What does this company do? I literally have no freaking idea. All I knew is that I would be filming people using sand, clay, and shredded tires and doing SOMETHING with it. There's one aspect of the shoot where there's engineers in a gritty lab running tests with those materials. And then there's another aspect where it's workers outside in hard hats working with machinery and dump trucks and shit. This post will be about all the INTERIOR b-roll setups I did: what worked, what didn't, etc.

Technical stuffs:

Red Scarlet-W, 5K 8:1

48-96 FPS

Skintone Highlight OLPF


ISO 250-640

Sigma Art 18-35mm, Sigma Art 50mm


1/4 Black Pro-Mist

G&E stuffs

1 G&E swing

1 standard sprinter-van with Tungsten package

- some 2k lamps, some 1k fresnels, a couple tweenies, some inkies

-a hazer

-Astra 6x

-300D w/ Fresnel 2x

-6x & 8x Unbleached muslin

- 8x 1/4 grid

- 4x & 8x of 1/2 soft frost


The Setups

These things usually take me awhile to write because I'm not that efficient with my time & I probably try to over-explain. So try not to get bored because I ramble. Also, note that this type of shoot moves quickly. I don't have the camera on a tripod and get to examine the frame and methodically pepper in lights. We're all handheld with my Easyrig. The decision-making process happens quickly. It's about getting enough lights in the area in GENERALLY the right places, pointed at generally the right thing, dialing in the ratios real quick, and then shooting. And then making minimal adjustments.

The wide of the lab. This one looks OK. Not great. Haze is always a pain in the butt to keep consistent. Wish there was just a little more here. Just a tad. Anyways, this is what I did: I wanted a warmer feeling to the space because to me it kind of felt grungy & like there would be some sort of tungsten work-light in the area. Plus there was ambient daylight flooding in from thickly-frosted windows all around the space, so I'd naturally be getting some cooler-fill for color contrast. We fired two 1k tungsten fresnels into the back right corner to lift up that area. The haze softens it up. We had them on dimmers too. Tungsten lamps suck because they're always flipping breakers. But we dealt with it. Having that area warmed up allowed me to motivate a warm key light, which was beaming directly at talent. This was a tweenie. I didn't necessarily want the softest light possible because the haze would soften the light already, plus I wanted it to feel a bit more edgy and not too clean. So the key light is coming in thru camera right. You can almost see the source. With hard light, the height & direction of it is very important because hard light creates hard shadows. We were getting weird shadows on the wall. So we raised the light and made it more side-y. Then to add a bit more fill to the space, mostly on camera-right with those tanks, I fired a 300D into a 6x of unlbeached muslin. You can definitely see it cooling the glass tanks on the table, camera right. I wish I had that active fill a bit softer as well as a bit higher-up. Because it looks a bit artificial. Looking at this image, I would've liked a bit of cooler fill on camera left. Just a bit. That grey metal box just falls off so quickly. Some cooler soft fill from above would've looked nice and given the image an extra layer of depth. Oh well. We did have an 8x solid just off the edge of frame left because there was a lot of spill. Maybe I should've leaked in a bit more light...

This level of haze gave a really nice density to the shadows. You'll notice that continuity-wise, this doesn't quite look like the image from above. It's because of the inconsistent haze, plus I moved the key light a bit closer to get more level, because we were gonna soften the source. We moved the tweenie in, and diffused it with a frame of 216, trying to fill the frame to get as much softness as I could out of it. I know I mentioned above that I wanted harder light, and this is what I meant. It still looks soft to the eye, but normally I would try to double-diffuse to really get the light super duper soft. Just the tweenie wasn't enough level though, so we tossed in the Astra 6x behind the 216, at around 25%. We added a lamp-right sider because it was spilling onto the back wall. But the sider didn't get ride of all the spill. See that hard line of light on the wall and that shadow? That's coming from some of the 1k's we had tossed up. But I actually liked having that bit of texture on the wall. It looked kind of neat. I knew we were gonna get so much coverage of this scene, especially in the closeups, that I was pretty confident those shots wouldn't need to be edited back to back. This is all slow motion montage-y type stuff. So you can go from a wide, jump into an insert on the hands, jump to the talking head, then jump back to this medium-shot, and the difference isn't too distracting. That's the nature of the format. So I sacrificed continuity for making the shot a bit more interesting. In this case, it's totally acceptable in my view. Oh and I think we turned off the 300D shooting into the unbleached muslin. Don't remember why. Maybe we turned it off for the re-light and forgot to turn it back on.

Holy guacamole, I'm pretty content with the way this one turned out. Same lighting setup as the image from above. The key light became a really nice back light. The lighter colored square you see on the far left of frame is actually the bottom of the frame of 216 I believe. Benefits of shooting between a 1.4 and 2. We MAY have moved the light over to the left just a tad bit. Not sure. The Cooler light on the front of her face is coming from the 300D bouncing into the 6x of Unbleached muslin. It had a really nice effect on the skin. The 300D is 5600K so the muslin warms it up just a tad and gives the skin another layer of tonality. Versus if I just stuck with a neutral white bounce. It would've looked fine. But I like this better. Keep in mind I still have the two 1k fresnels bouncing into the original corner of the room, so that is still providing some ambient light in the space. And we still have some cooler-fill coming from the windows. And the haze is really letting us see so much tonality in the shadows. That's also the benefit of shooting at lower ISO's, which I've been loving lately. Remapping the dynamic range of the dragon sensor to favor the shadows

Ah at long last we get to the cover image. This is the SAME exact setup as the image before. I'm pretty much standing in the same exact spot. I'm just at a low angle, shooting up to get those beautiful cooler-toned highlights in the background. It's always good to try to find areas of brightness to shoot into. I opened up to a 1.4 on the lense because I wanted to shoot 96fps. This is the epitome of trying to make sand look cool: Slow motion shot of a hand slowly releasing a a handful of sand into the air with neat lighting. The cooler light on the hand is either coming from the ambient light OR it's the 300D into the unbleached. Could be both. Not much else to say about this one. Those windows are at a decent exposure level because they're pretty heavily frosted. I also think we moved the 8x solid closer to cut out ambient light on the near-side to camera. Plus I'm at a lower ISO (like 320).

We had to do a 15 minute re-light for this little sequence. Think back to the original wide-shot at the top of this page. We're now shooting into that corner where all that freaking film gear is. So we pushed it all over. On this shot, we cranked up the haze. You can really see how that light is carrying in the background. That strong blue is all ambient daylight. I dig it. The key light is the tweenie thru a frame of 216. One of the problems with using harder light is the effect on darker skin, since it is more reflective. I love the directionality of light I'm getting from the key. However, if it was just a little softer, we could maybe avoid that hotspot. It doesn't bother me THAT much, but it is a small little nuance that I would have liked to address on set. I probably could've fixed it by double-diffusion instead of single. So perhaps sandwiching a frame of 1/2 soft frost or opal between the tweenie & the 216. I don't recall there being any active fill on this one. We pushed the 8x solid to the edge of frame, camera-left. We also turned OFF the two 1k lights that were blasting into the off-screen corner (from that first wide frame). It's nice having the foreground objects because they hide my stands and they're providing a nice natural frame around talent so our eye goes right to him. It helps that they're darker so our eyes don't get drawn these buckets and shit. For these frames below, everything is pretty much exactly the same.

On this shot, the camera is in pretty much the exact same position it was in the frames above. I think we may have pushed the diffusion frame in a bit as well as added back the active fill from the 300D + Unbleached muslin. Since we were at a slight up-angle, I was showing more of the floor. Which was super dark. It was this uninteresting black void. So I needed to punch that up. It looked terrible. If you recall, we had the two 1K fresnels that we used in our very first setups. We fired one on and blasted it into the floor. Bingo. It didn't look like balls anymore. It also raised the ambient in the room because I think it was spilling onto the lighter-colored walls which bounced back some light. And the haze is at a really nice level. Not too much, not too little.

This is the reverse. Same exact setup as before. Except camera moved BEHIND talent and I just framed out all the stands. This shows the importance of the angle of light in relation to the subject

That's all folks. This pretty much covers most of the main setups we did for this scene. I like how most of it turned out. Honestly haze makes so much of a difference. It's like cheat-code. When you have to try to make something bland look somewhat extraordinary, add haze, film in slow motion, and have lighting that is sorta decent. That's what I did, and it seemed to work. I'll have another breakdown from this shoot coming out shortly, focusing on the interview talking head I did for this piece, and one post on the exterior setups.

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