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  • Writer's pictureMike Kozlenko

Making Rocks & Sand Look Cool: PART II

The direct-to-camera interview

(Yes I know, the tight shot looks way better)

This post will be about the interview lighting & framing for the piece about rocks & sand, what I did right, & what I did wrong. This was a difficult one because:

- we had to shoot in the morning from 9am-10:30a ish, so the light would be changing a bit

- the location had east-facing windows. We were lucky that they were thickly frosted and not clear glass.

- in the course of 1 hour, it went from cloudy (giving me good background levels), to sunny (giving me way too bright background levels), to completely dark & stormy (giving me way too dim background levels)

I'll dive right in:

If you recall from part I, I shot a bunch of b-roll of engineers in a lab messing with sand and clay. We were shooting an interview in the same space the next morning. So all our equipment was pretty much already staged.


When looking for interview shots, one of the first things I look at is the tones & textures I could capture in the background & midground to create an interesting frame. I knew I wanted to shoot into the back corner of the room because I could sneak in the lighter color of the walls on frame-left and have those go warm, like I did in the b-roll setups. And I knew I could sneak in the darker-toned garage door on the right. This gave me a contrast pattern in the deep background: areas of darkness next to areas of lightness. And since my left-side of frame was going to be lighter, I would have my key light from camera-right. So the shadow side of talent's face would end up against the lighter toned walls and create separation. I had that working for me.

For the mid-ground, we had those wooden tables that we saw in the b-roll. So we stacked some of those orange metal things and put one on the left of frame to have a strong vertical object on the left-side. Because on the right side of frame we had those 2 darker glass objects with rocks in them, which sort of counted as a vertical object. So we kind-of had a balanced frame. I wish we could have pushed the rock-filled glass tanks a bit further to frame-right to actually get a more balanced frame. But keep in mind, we were shooting on a dana dolly going from side-to-side, so the composition would change frequently. The white door in the background framed our talent nicely in the still frame, but it didn't matter that much since the camera was moving.



We pushed our diffusion frames closer to talent when we went to our tighter shot on the 50mm lense

Key light was a Litepanel Astra 6x thru a layer of 1/2 soft frost and then a layer of 216. My biggest regret is how side-y the key light looks. I would have liked it to reach over onto the frame-left cheek a bit more. A little more Rembrandt-style. The fill side was a bit too dark so in post we needed to track a mask on the fill side of his face and lift the shadows. It ended up turning out ok, but it's totally my fault that it was too dark in the first place. I should've used a key that wrapped a bit more on the face. I could've done this easily by adding some soft frontal fill, but I just didn't think of it in time. Danggit.

I wanted the Astra close enough to get proper exposure (key at 2.8, shoot at 2.0) with the light at 50-60% intensity. The reason for this: We had a bunch of thickly-frosted windows on each side of the room and a bunch of ambient daylight was bleeding in through them, especially from camera left, which was east-facing. When we started rolling the interview, around 9am-ish, the levels were balanced accordingly. It was cloudy outside. It didn't look like that was going to change. But of course, the sun comes out with a vengeance and the ambient light in the background increases by like 1.5 stops. The light on talent stays the same because we had some solids to prevent too much spill onto his face. To account for the background, I lowered the exposure via ISO and a bit of F-stop (went from 320 to 250 and from T2 to 2.5). This made the key too dim. So we raised the Astra intensity to get proper exposure. That's why it was important to have it at 50-60% in the first place. This WASN'T the most elegant solution, and in post we needed to balance exposure of the background with masks & shit, but it did help! If I didn't use this technique, my background would have been around 2-stops over the desired levels. With this technique, with the ambient light at it's brightest, I was 1-stop over my desired background levels. So in post, it's WAY easier to fudge it to make 1-stop-over look correct than it is to make 2-stops-over look correct.

Quick mini-note: The reason we were able to make mid-interview adjustments is because talent was reciting a script to camera, so in between takes, we could quickly make the adjustments. Also, anytime a plane flew over or a tractor drove by (which happened so much that day for some reason) we needed to pause for sound, which was our opportunity to tweak. On a normal interview, we wouldn't have been able to do all this. We probably would've needed to have extra setup time to black out the east-facing windows.


Tweenie. Also notice the stand in the back, which is our 1k tungsten shining into the opposite corner

For the back-light, I wanted to creep in a bit of warmth from the key side. I didn't want a classic corporate-interview style backlight. I wanted it to be a bit more nuanced than that. Since we had a warm key from camera right, I wanted the backlight to be from camera-right, warm, and a bit harder but not TOO hard to the point where it looks like a separate light source. I wanted the lights to almost blend together. I like how the backlight looks on the top of his head here. We're not getting a whole lot of separation from the background on his shoulders, but to me that's more of a wardrobe thing. If he was wearing something a little lighter, it would've looked better in my view.

Anyway, this light was just a tweenie boomed over talent with a few layers of opal clipped to the barn doors.

The ambient blue light from the windows effectively gave him another backlight, plus color contrast on his left side, which looked nice to me.


We had a 1K tungsten shooting into the frame-left corner to warm it up. We had it pretty high up on the stand and shooting down. My motivation for this was to just imagine there was a tungsten work light in the area, perhaps above that corner or in that general area. Really I just needed to infuse a color into the shot and that would've looked better than going with something colder.

We also fired a 1K tungsten into the dark rock-filled glass tanks on frame-right. On the wide, it wasn't bright enough because I was worried it would look too unnatural and distracting. In hindsight I should've dimmed it up a bit. On the tight shot, we dimmed it up because not only did it look better, but the impending thunderstorm made us lose almost all ambient light, so I needed a highlight on frame-right to keep the shot interesting because everything else was shrouded in darkness, especially the garage door on the right, which I had to lift in post by an unhealthy amount.

This is the background light hitting the clear rock-filled tanks. We dimmed it up for the tight

That's the reason I love shooting lower ISO on the Dragon sensor. Not only do you get really rich velvety tones in the shadows since the dynamic range gets remapped to favor them, and very clean noiseless images that you can add film grain to later, but you also get some flexibility to raise the shadows by 1-2 stops in post without DESTROYING your image. These technical nuggets of information have helped me tremendously in the past few months. When you don't have 100% complete control and there's shit going on around you, lower ISO's are kind of an insurance policy. Just make sure you don't OVER-expose by too much. But I rarely do that. Yes, you do lose dynamic range in the highlights. So just be more careful with your highlights.


The last few pieces we added:

A 4x4 bead-board bounce on fill side. This didn't really do shit because it wasn't quite positioned properly. It did a TINY bit. We just propped it up against a nearby stand because there weren't anymore C-stands and no quacker clamps in the room with us and I didn't feel strongly enough about it to make my G&E guy run all the way to the parked van to snag it. I probably should have so we could've made that camera-left side of his face and his neck a little less muddy. It could've lifted up that shadowed eye-socket a bit too. Danggit. The point isn't to flatten out the face, it's just to make it look less muddy. We would've table-topped it and snuck it in under his chin. Alternatively we could've boomed a soft fixture from above him to fill out the shadows just a tiny bit. Like a little kino tube. But I didn't think of that in time. Danggit.

-We added haze because it looked cool. Just a bit.

-8x solid to cut out ambient light on his fill side

-Added some black to block out window light as best as we could, but we didn't have enough of it or enough time.

-We had some unbleached muslin in place but didn't really use it. Could've used it for an active-fill bounce. We had a 300D setup. The problem is that we didn't have a way to shine the 300D into the bounce with the fixture getting in shot or us seeing the source in the haze. If we had a beaver board on standby we could've done it.

-When we lost ambient light for the tight shot, the griflon we set up to block out window light had the white-side facing us. So we just panned the 300D over and shined it into the griflon to raise ambient a bit.

That's it for this one. The process of diving into where my mind was at during this setup has been super helpful for me because I'm sort of recounting where I missed the mark. Overall the image looks FINE, but I definitely left something on the table here. The biggest thing is making sure I get a nice wrappy key light. We were too 50-50 on this one. I've been doing a lot of direct-to-camera interviews recently and this seems to be a common issue I've been having lately. When the interviewee is looking off-screen in a classic standard interview, the light falls off nicely onto the near-side cheek. It's when they square up to camera that I run into issues. Stuff to work on. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions or think I'm an idiot.


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