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Diffusion for the Digital Age – Using Smoke

Using the right filtration to impose a mood, create a style, encapsulate a time period or just to cream a woman’s skin can be a very powerful visual tool.  I wanted to go into some of the diffusions that I use to do all of these.  By using visual examples and showing you before and after footage, my Elite Team and I will take you through the art of diffusion in three parts.  This is not just using glass, which is my least favorite of all diffusions.  Think more organic, texture, and working with the atmosphere.

“There’s smoke in the hills”

The first diffusion I go to time and time again, whether it is film or HD, is smoke.  This is a very powerful tool.  Having the patience to use the right smoke to get your levels consistent can infuse a mood, transport you back in time, create style, and a cream effect on a woman’s skin.  One tool.  My go to smoke/diffusion is the DF-50 by Reel EFX.

DF-50 Smoker

DF-50 Smoker

This is a fairly inexpensive machine and can smoke a very large area.  It looks small, but it packs a wallop.  This hangs for hours and gives you that consistent level.  This is mineral oil, and SAG contracts do not permit this smoke.  The Rosco 1500 has been approved by SAG to use. The problem with this smoke is that it doesn’t hang, which requires you to use 10 times the quantity.  Go figure.  But it has been deemed safe.

Rosco 1500

Rosco 1500

To encapsulate a TIME PERIOD:

THE GREATEST GAME EVER PLAYED:

The early 1900s was such an exciting time period to shoot in this film directed by Bill Paxton.  Oil lamps, fireplaces, gas lamps, and the recent invention of electricity were my brushes. Smoking day interiors is one of my favorite things to do.  This morning breakfast scene doesn’t reveal shafts, but it creates that gauze.  Remember to be obsessed with the subtleties.  The texture was perfect for our intro to young Francis.  It also gave it a feel of excitement, but yet uncertainty.  Francis’ dad’s condescending nature came across immediately, but notice the light on the mom.  She becomes the guiding light in Francis’ journey.  Shooting through thick smoke and strong back light gave her an ethereal presence.

To impose a MOOD:

TERMINATOR SALVATION:

My vision for this film was that the world was always smoldering, never having been put out from SkyNet’s extermination.  So the use of smoke was everywhere in this film.  The mood that it infused was one of neglect, uncertainty and determination, which I felt was perfect for this world that McG had created.  The resistance would rise to fight, and like a burning ember, it can be stomped on, blown up, but the smoke, the resistance, will remain smoldering.  Maybe I am thinking a little too deeply, but this is how I think when I make a decision.  It cannot be there just because it looks good. It has to help tell the story and transport the audience into an uncomfortable world that is unstable and on edge.  The mine field was one of my favorite sequences to shoot.  Lighting 25 acres at night, with smoke, fire, bombs and debris flying.  Yeah!

To create a STYLE:

ACT OF VALOR:

The reason Act of Valor seems so filmic, and not like HD, is because I diffused all of the interiors and most night exteriors.  It wasn’t just Dark Energy adding grain. It was the texture of smoke that helped us cross cut seamlessly from 35mm motion picture film and 5D. The sense of style that the directors, Scotty Waugh and Mouse McCoy, wanted to convey is one that was immersive, real, a visceral experience.  Using the smoke in the Costa Rican compound gave it that realistic feel. It took the edge off of the HD capture and added a grain texture that was not 5D noise but diffusion.  Getting a consistent level when there were so many open windows was a challenge, to say the least, but well worth the effect. Using a heavy level of smoke once the crash grenade went off created confusion, so the audience did not know where the bullets were coming from and if our heroes had been hit.  Just this simple organic tool can really help push your story forward, and that’s what it is all about.

To cream a WOMAN’S SKIN:

WE ARE MARSHALL:

The diner scene was one of my favorite locations on this film directed by McG.  Creating all of the different times of day was challenging because it wasn’t a set.  This is one thing that I pride myself in doing.  At all costs, make it practical.  There is a reality that is conveyed when you have the limitations of a real location.  You cannot just blow the wall out to get the camera in the right place. You have to embrace the limitations. I do that by turning a challenge into a positive.  The night at the diner when they got the call that the plane had gone down with all the players, coaches and boosters on it was a very long shooting day.  We had started during the day with a couple of scenes. Then it drifted into the night.  This was such an important scene, but as always, delays happen, and we didn’t get to January Jones’s close up until the end.

I always try to make it a priority to shoot our female cast’s close-ups early. It is just good practice to build that into your daily schedule.  So here we are at 3 am, and it’s January Jones’s close up. She had just done several emotional scenes prior and was exhausted. She had to look alive, luminescent, stunning.  I turned to my EFX team to up our smoke level and use it as my diffuser, instead of pulling the glass out.  We shot the medium with a little heavier smoke level, then kept that consistency when I went to the longer lens. By using the longer lens and the heavier smoke levels, it softened her face and gave her this inner beauty.  The compression of the glass compresses the smoke and makes it look thicker.  That is why when you use smoke you cannot do wides and tights at the same time.  Your wide needs thicker smoke levels, but your longer lens work needs lighter.  January is one beautiful woman, and that night, I thought we knocked it out.  Her expression when she realizes her husband was in that plane – it was magic.

How do you use smoke?

Next week, we will discuss the art of using female stockings to add a glow, a pearlescent quality and transport you to a time period that had a sense of glamor, when movie stars were king.

Author: Shane

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74 Comments

  1. Wow, that is so cool they let you post all these examples online. Another excellent post where I learned a ton!

    Post a Reply
    • Dave Dugdale, thank you so much for the kind words and support

      Post a Reply
    • So informational.. Inspirational.. thanx for the Blog :))

      Post a Reply
      • Viivek Pant, you bet, you are very welcome. Thanks for the kind words

        Post a Reply
  2. I am going to pester my DP about this right now.
    Thanks

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  3. A Smoke’n good Blog!

    Thanks Shane!!

    Post a Reply
    • Bill Hamell, great to hear from you, thanks so much

      Post a Reply
  4. Wow!! as always really useful and interesting post, full of valuable details. Thanks indeed for sharing!!

    Post a Reply
    • Nacho Martinez, thank you for the kind words and support.

      Post a Reply
  5. When all else fail…burn some butter hehe

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  6. Hey Shane,

    When using smoke, what’s the longest take you will do? I’m curious to know how long the smoke will remain consistent in the air.

    Thanks for sharing!

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    • Chris, I have done 10 minute scenes with the water based one the DF 50 oil based you can shoot for hours

      Post a Reply
  7. Really nice post Shane…. Thanks.

    For create this texture using fog has any tricks for lighting ?

    Is better using warm color temperatures when using fog ?

    M

    Post a Reply
    • Matheus, doesn’t matter at all, just have to watch how much back light you use, it will show your sources.

      Post a Reply
  8. I don’t like using diffusion but I think its often a must for today’s digital cinema camera medium. The Red Epic for example is just too sharp in my opinion and often times makes closeups into a nightmare. I normally turn to a light grade of 1/4 Black Promist or Classic Soft to create more flattering closeups. However, I’ve recently embraced smoke as well. It just looks more organic and pleasing to the eye in my opinion. Plus its what $50 a day to rent a DF50. You’d probably pay well over that if you rented sets of glass diffusion or even worse- BOUGHT it. However, at the end of the day they are both tools that serve somewhat different purposes.

    Post a Reply
    • Couldn’t agree with you more! Smoke is the first thing I turn to, and glass is second. Thanks for the comment and support.

      Post a Reply
  9. On another note, Shane, how do you get around approving use of DF50’s? I’ve been banned from using them a few times for fear of setting off smoke detection systems. Is there any literature thats available to prove that they are safe to use? In one case, I had a recording studio owner swearing the haze (only a 10 hour shoot btw) was going to damage his acoustical foam. ;)

    Post a Reply
    • In capital records recording studio where Sinatra recorded I flooded it with DF50’s thank you so much for the kind words. Best of luck to you.

      Post a Reply
  10. Wow! Great post! That’s the information I need at this time! Thanks Shane!
    If you have time to write a post about how do you approach in developing a look for a movie, that would be great. All the little considerations that you think about where do you start from, the workflow and so on…

    Post a Reply
  11. Tremendous blog Shane. Thank you.

    I know you say the DF 50 is pretty inexpensive. But 3K for a smoke machine is actually expensive for a little indie film maker like myself. Do you (or anyone else) have any specific suggestions of lower cost but still decent smoke machines? Or the very least key pitfalls, of the cheap ones used by DJ’s and some theatres etc?

    Thanks for your time

    Lliam

    Post a Reply
    • Lliam , the rental rate for a DF-50 is cheap. and a 2 liter bottle of fluid will last a long time. I’ve often purchased the fluid myself and gotten a few bucks taken off the rate as well. DF-50s need to run to keep from clogging up maybe the rental would work better for your productions?

      Post a Reply
    • If renting doesn’t work. I say go to your local guitar center. They have some. The problem is it doesn’t sit for as long as the expensive ones do.

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  12. Shane The ACT Of VALOR footage still amazes me you are a visual genius, can’t believe you pulled it off with the 5D.. The smoke definitely makes it a little more filmic, and less HD’ish great work. Gonna go off subject for a moment, I just saw the test footage from the Canon C500 “Man & Beast” in my opinion it feels a little bit too HD for my taste way!!! too clean, for some reason the motion, or filmic cadence is not there. I see what you were saying about the Canon 1D-C one word to describe it Filmic, that little camera will sure kick some major ass when it comes out. You think they will bring the price down before ship date?

    Post a Reply
    • The Canon 1DC is going to really shake things up and different are just different arrows in your quiver as a cinematographer. Thank you so much for your kind words and stay posted for more info on pricing.

      Post a Reply
  13. Shane, very good explanations and stunning examples. Used smoke quite a bit on “Good Eats” over the years. For mood, period, softening, depth, etc. Always a malleable tool! Looking forward to more.

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  14. Shane, thank you for being so generous with your time and knowledge. The wonderful thing about smoke is that it’s not something you ‘see’ but it’s something you definitely feel. Adds such a great sense of texture and depth. Thanks.

    Post a Reply
    • Thank you very much for the kind words Oli, and the organic texture is what its all about.

      Post a Reply
  15. Great article! I cant wait for the part II and III!

    Post a Reply
  16. Awesome post! Now I can just refer this article to the nay-saying producers who let me get a fog machine.

    Can’t wait for Part II.

    Post a Reply
  17. Hi Shane,

    Just wondering how you handled that POV sequence in Acts gear-wise? It got my attention in particular cause it was very steady and doesn’t draw you away from the story.

    Thanks!

    Post a Reply
  18. I love the sample videos you’ve shown, but as a novice I don’t quite grasp how you don’t see the smoke! I keep imagining a set filled with smoke yet it’s obviously not apparent in the videos unless you want it to be. How does that work??

    Post a Reply
    • Karl, This machine (DF-50) is actually a hazer, so it fills the room up slowly with an even spread. It does take some time to master just how much to put into a room. Also as mentioned by Shane you have to be carefull of your light placement. The Rosco 1500 is much harder to control ( for me anyway)

      Post a Reply
      • Very interesting! I’ve never tried it before but I’m excited to now – always looking for new ways to control (and in particular, soften) light ;) Thanks.

        Post a Reply
  19. Hello Shane,

    Thanks for another wonderful post! Your blog is just full of valuable knowledge and inspiration.

    I am currently working on a short film about a war journalist. I am in need of
    some cheaper smoke effects. Do you think using a small 400 watt smoke machine would do the trick? They are about 50 bucks on amazon, but I’m not sure if it’s a good choice.

    Thanks again for your wonderful blog!

    Joseph Gast

    Post a Reply
    • Hi Joseph.Those 400watt smoke machines don’t hang in the air at all. The best thing is to just rent a DF50 or a Rosco unit, they are very cheap to rent. Thanks for the kind words and support.

      Post a Reply
  20. Shane, many thanks for posting this very helpful article. I am a student at Florida State University’s Film School and I want to be a cinematographer. I am shooting a short film in the fall and I knew I wanted to use smoke for a few scenes, but I wasn’t sure how to do wide and closeups with different amounts of smoke so thank you for this!

    Post a Reply
  21. Hi Shane,
    I was wondering if using so much smoke on set has gotten into your lenses and coated the interior elements to any noticeable degree? Thanks.

    Post a Reply
    • No this has never been a problem for me. Thank you for your concern.

      Post a Reply
    • Mike Shields. Thanks so much for the kind words and support, I’m glad you checked it out.

      Post a Reply
  22. Hi Shane,

    As always another fantastic article, it’s great to keep learning from the master of the craft!

    Thanks!

    Tom

    Post a Reply
    • Tom Blount. Thanks so much for the kind words and support.

      Post a Reply
  23. Smoke is as wonderful as it is versatile. From volumetric effects like the light shafts to using the smoke to draw your attention to particular elements within a scene, to using it with back light.
    Smoke is one of those things that will make your scenes sing. Once you start using it and looking for it in stuff you watch you will find uses for it everywhere. I had always used it for it’s volumetric effects, I did a short a few years ago where I used it for just a general haze in a flashback scene and swore I would use smoke when ever I can.
    Thanks for another great post.
    -D

    Post a Reply
  24. Shane, thank you for showing us your expressive use of smoke. Regarding your fond use of it for day interiors, would you recommend using smoke for day interiors if you will be cutting in day exteriors into your piece as well? I’m shooting with the Canon 7D, and have a fair amount of day interiors and exteriors scattered into the film–I do love the smoky Canon look, but am concerned it might look odd next to the unsmoked day exteriors, unless I can think of a narrative reason for why some scenes have smoke and others do not. Thanks for any insight.

    Post a Reply
    • June.Thank you for the support.I use smoke for most of my day interiors even if its cutting between day exteriors. Its an interior space, and that space has its own unique look and feel. On terminator salvation, look at the 7-11 scene perfect example of a smoked interior cut with a day exterior.

      Post a Reply
  25. Shane,

    in regards to:

    “That is why when you use smoke you cannot do wides and tights at the same time. Your wide needs thicker smoke levels, but your longer lens work needs lighter.”

    How do you control the thickness of the smoke? Do you test it with a light meter? How do you control the consistency, from one lens to the next?

    Post a Reply
    • Hi Russel. It’s all gauged by eye. You pick a tone you’re going for and then judge it by eye. Even if you’re off by a little bit it can be adjusted in DI by bring the contrast up or down a little bit.

      Post a Reply
  26. I’m having trouble finding one of these units for rent in my area. Are there any other good brands out there that will hang in the air for a good amount of time? For example the Neutron XS Hazer? Also wondering if if pretty much has to be oil based to get a good amount of time out of it? Thanks!

    Post a Reply
    • Also, wondering if you or somebody else has experience with ‘Froggy’s Swamp Juice’ ? It claims it works in a water based fogger but is ‘extreme long lasting’. Still just trying to find a good alternative to the DF-50 in my area.

      Post a Reply
  27. Shane,

    Quite subtle work in these clips. Knowing it would probably be near impossible to show the lighting setups for TS and A of V.,. would you be willing to show us the lighting grid for the greatest game and / or we are marshall? Were the lighting instruments scrimmed down? Did you use a mix of lights , kinos, fresnels, arri’s? Any silks used in front of these sources. Could you go a little deeper into the area of ” not showing your sources” when using smoke / D50?

    Thanks in advance

    Laurence

    Post a Reply
  28. Dear Sir,
    Thank you immensely for sharing your knowledge and experience. Lots of lv.
    Yours affectionately
    Bhaskar G.S.

    Post a Reply
    • G.S.Bhaskar, you are very welcome and thank you for your support

      Post a Reply
  29. I could spend all day on your site (if only my schedule allowed). Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge with us. You blew my mind at Masters in Motion recently, and I’m looking forward to more amazing BTS insights. Thanks a ton, Shane.

    Post a Reply
    • Oren Arieli, you are very welcome, thank you for your kind words and support. HA HA!!! I am glad you liked the keynote. I had so much fun with all of you. Their is much planned for 2014.

      Post a Reply
  30. Hi, I’m a little late to the this post but loved it, very informative! I hope I’m not too late to ask a question.
    I was wondering if fog or haze would be overkill in most situations when used in conjunction with glass filtration like Tiffen Glimmerglass or DigitalDiff on cameras like the 5d and BMPCC. In most case do you stick to one or the other? Anyone with experience in this, please feel free share your thoughts?
    Love the site and thanks a lot!

    Post a Reply

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