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Building Medusa: The Perfect DIY Fire Light

To look at an existing practical lighting effect like a TV or a fire and then attempt to duplicate it with a much brighter source is an art form. With an increasing reliance on practical lights and high sensitive sensor technology, the use of movie lighting effects has been lost. Available light needs to be shaped and manicured to take something that would look ordinary and make it extraordinary.

Fire Light

Stanley Kubrick was an absolutely brilliant filmmaker. On the film Barry Lyndon, Kubrick wanted to shoot only with candlelight, so he asked NASA to design a 50mm lens that would have an f-stop of a 0.7. There are only 10 in the world.
 

 
Kubrick was more than just a director; he was a visionary filmmaker. In 1975 he was one of the first directors to see a 10 minute reel using Garrett Brown’s “Brown Stabilizer” which later became the Steadicam. In 1980 Kubrick pushed the innovation further requesting that the camera shoot barely above the floor which created the “low mode” bracket used today. The Shining helped innovate and popularize the Steadicam.
 

 
The idea of being able to use just candlelight is becoming possible with the right glass and the right camera. The drawback to going with just this practical approach may mean noise in the shadow areas because the only area being lit is their faces. The background is not able to register, so you have a lit face in a sea of black. If they have dark hair, the talent will dissolve away into the background. We call this a floating head effect, which is never good.

Using the practical light of a fire or candles is beautiful, but the need to use that same effect to bring up mid ground and background is very important. So the need to create a lighting effect that brings the best qualities of a practical source, giving you the necessary control over where your effect is aimed and keeping the amount of exposure you want, is paramount.

Building A DIY Fire Light Effect


 
When I signed on to do The Greatest Game Ever Played, I wanted to try to reinvent the way I made fire light. I had used many different approaches in the past, like small Mole Richardson inkie and tweenie lights with different colored gels on them dancing up and down on a variac/dimmer.
 
Mole Richardson lights
Mole Richardson lights
 
However, none of them felt as real as I wanted them to. I have LIGHT-MARES on movies. I will be on a film and all of a sudden, I’ll fly up in the middle of the night and say MEDUSA!!!!! This is what happened to me on The Greatest Game. Looking for the inspiration to create this new effect light came to me on one cold winter’s night in Montreal. My DIY light is the Medusa light, and I feel it is one of the most realistic lights for creating this wonderful effect.

What is fire?

Fire is a very warm source that has oranges and hot warm whites that wick around logs and create light low, high and in the middle. To create this I thought of the snake-ridden goddess Medusa with all of the snakes creating her hair. What if we built a light that had this inherent flexibility? Here are the steps to make it a reality.

1. Take a 3/4” piece of plywood and cut a 20” square off of it. Go online and buy 19” on stage gooseneck microphone in black, along with the base, an on stage microphone table mount.
 

Building Medusa
 
Building Medusa
 
Building Medusa
 
Building Medusa
 
Building Medusa

 
2. Draw 3 concentric circles onto the plywood. One 6” in diameter, one 12” in diameter and the last one 18” in diameter. Then, drill 3 3/8” holes equal distant on the 6” diameter circle, 5 holes on the 12”, then 7 on the 18” circle. This will require you to purchase 15 on stage microphones, 19 inch goose necks and their bases. Once this is done, you have to wire them with 18 gauge zip cord wire cable and add a socket to the microphone gooseneck.
 

Building Medusa
 
Building Medusa
 
Building Medusa
 
Building Medusa
 
Building Medusa
 
Building Medusa
 
Building Medusa
 
Building Medusa
 
Building Medusa
 
Building Medusa

 
3. Obviously, you can shrink this to your budget and the size of the fire light effect you desire. The wire tails of the fixtures will go thru the 3/8” inch holes, and you will use 1/2” drywall screws to affix the fixtures to the plywood.
 

Medusa lighting
 
Medusa lighting

 
4. Now you have to create feet. This can be done by using pieces of your 3/4” plywood that you cut in 4-1” x 4” long pieces. Glue this around the edge of the bottom of your base. Then drywall screw to set the glue.
 

Medusa lighting
 
Medusa lighting
 
Medusa lighting

 
5. The reason for the feet is so that the cables that come through the bottom don’t make your base wobble and fall over. At this point, your creation should start to look like MEDUSA. Be sure to extend those wires so that each of them is at least 25’ long. You want to do this with 18 gauge electric wire, wire nuts and electrical tape. Once this is done, get Edison plugs or add taps to place on the end to be able to electrify the fixtures.
 

Medusa lighting
 
Medusa lighting

 
6. Now you have a base that doesn’t wobble with cords extended and plugs on the end. Next, the fun part of dipping bulbs comes in. Rosco Laboratories has this very cool color palette for dipping bulbs.

Rosco Colorine DIPPING Page:

Rosco Colorine DIPPING Page

 

7. You can dip your tungsten bulbs with Deep Amber, Cannery Yellow and Cardinal Red. They even have blue dipping colors as well. This works best with color corrected bulbs like 75 watt PH211, 150 watt PH 212. These lights give you a 3200 degree color temp to start with and then let the dipping begin.
 

Medusa lighting

 
These bulbs can be hard to find and expensive, so you can use normal household bulbs like 40, 75, and 100 watt if you would like.

No florescent bulbs can be used for this.

8. I use all different types of globes. Different wattages and shapes add to the fire effect. Because a fire is not a consistent source of light, having different wattage globes and globes of different light qualities like some clear, some frosted, candles, opera, as well as normal household bulbs, make this effect so believable. You can dip these to your desire of how warm you want your candle or fire effect to be. A good gauge is 65% Deep Amber, 25% Cannery Yellow and the remaining in Cardinal Red.
 

Medusa lighting

Interns David Weldon and Laura Murphy


 

Medusa lighting
 
Medusa lighting

 
9. Once you get all your bulbs dipped and ready, you should insert them into your goosenecks in a very random way. The reason for the goosenecks will become perfectly clear. These are to position your fire effect high, low and in the middle. You can make your fire almost 4’ wide or shrink it down to 20” if you would like. Moving the fixtures all around and varying heights should look like the goddess.

Final Touch

10. The final touch is two Magic Gadget shadow makers. This is something you will need to rent because they are pretty pricey to buy. Many lighting houses rent them.
 

 Magic Gadget

 
Now, for a down and dirty DIY Medusa light, you can go without the Magic Gadget by purchasing at least 6 sliding 650 watt wall dimmers.
 

Medusa lighting
 
Medusa lighting

 
11. You will have to have six arms to do this effect or two other friends that you can get to slide these faders frantically up and down. This should look hilarious, and I want pictures and video from you of this!

Here are our cinematography interns in action! They not only built this beautiful light, but also put it into action on an internal shoot.
 

Medusa lighting

Interns Laura Murphy, Drew Pick and Christian Gangitano


 
Medusa lighting

Intern Nick Smith


 

Medusa lighting
 
Medusa lighting
 
Medusa lighting
 
Medusa lighting

 

 

What is candlelight?

A single flame or several candles clustered together. This single flame dances at slightly differing heights as well as side to side. This is where you use only the 6” center circle of your Medusa light to pull this effect off. Putting the globes at slightly different heights, using smaller globes and very close together will give you the wonderful flickering shadows and enough light to project onto backgrounds. Sometimes I will put aluminum foil onto the front side of a piece of cardboard, which acts like a reflector that can direct the light and push it further into your scene. Remember, candlelight moves fairly quickly, so mastering this effect will take you a while.
 

Medusa lighting
 
Medusa lighting
 
Medusa lighting
 
Medusa lighting

 
Enjoy making your Medusa.  Part two will be creating a TV effect.
 

 
Kudos to my cinematography interns Nick Smith, David Weldon, Laura Murphy, EJ Dickerson, Drew Pick, and Christian Gangitano for building the Medusa light and shooting the test footage.

We have a cinematography internship at Revolution Cinema Rentals (formerly Hurlbut Visuals DLSR Cinema Rentals) designed by our new Rental Director, /Q\. The program gives practical, hands on training for budding cinematographers. Please contact Anne Gaither at (747)999-5321 if you are interested in being put on the waiting list for this program.

Enjoy your creation!

Author: Shane

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30 Comments

  1. that was f****king owesome man . this is what is called creativity .I start building my own kit of lighting its hard to get what you want but the result great … I try to save money to buy other gears prime lenses slider…….ext.
    shane I can²t tell you how this blog help my a lot thanks for your hard work..

    regards

    Post a Reply
    • visualMED. Thanks for the kind words and support. Kudos to my cinematography interns for building the light and shooting the tests.

      Post a Reply
  2. Wow Shane, this is one extensive DIY post that’s so different form the rest of your posts. My shoots are much smaller scale for corporate films but it’s great for me to know how you do it for movies.

    Thanks for the very detailed post. Terrific interns you got there!

    Post a Reply
    • Baron, thanks so much. Yes I feel the interns rocked this baby out.

      Post a Reply
  3. This is amazing. I have to find someone who is handy with tools and knows how to build stuff. I’m not so good at it.

    Awesome trick. In love with this blog.

    Post a Reply
    • N.K.Osborne, ha ha, yes sometimes you have to pull out the carpenter skills. Thanks for all your kind words and support.

      Post a Reply
    • kubrick fan, thank you so much for the clarification. I have changed it to reflect. Much appreciated.

      Post a Reply
  4. Great article and awesome idea! I have one correction though, John Carpenter actually was one of the first to develope the steadycam for Halloween in 1978. The Shining is still an awesome film experience though (Slow burns live on!).

    Post a Reply
  5. Shane – that is single handedly the neatest idea I’ve seen in lighting in a long time.

    Wonderful!

    Post a Reply
    • John P. Hess, thank you so much for your kind words. I think the interns kicked some ass on the build

      Post a Reply
    • John P. Hess, thank you so much for your kind words

      Post a Reply
  6. Hey Shane,
    Awesome post as usual. I absolutely love this site and all the work you do to spread the love…
    @ NightWalker, I have to respectfully disagree, Garrett Brown first used the steadycam (I believe) on Rocky, 1976.

    Again, Shane, thanks…

    Post a Reply
    • D Phillips, thank you so much for your kind words and support

      Post a Reply
  7. that is a very cool project… call me lazy… but any television set, lcd panel, or video projector and a “Fake fire” christmas log burning video would be easier to set up…. and just as effective.

    Post a Reply
    • Donut, you can go with that, I will go with my Medusa. To each his own

      Post a Reply
    • Jendra Jarnagin. Thanks for the comment and support.

      Post a Reply
  8. Hi Shane,

    You have a great website, and kudos for keeping alive the 100+ year-old tradition of color-dipping bulbs in such a clever way!

    Per “Barry Lyndon’s” director of photography, John Alcott, “Argh!!! THAT rubbish! Stanley wanted the NASA lens, and it got lots of ink thanks to Ed DiGiulio, president of Cinema Products. But in almost every shot we hid grain-of-wheat bulbs behind every wick, so we could close down a few stops to capture a slight yellow hue in the candle flame. Otherwise, the candle flames would become so many white-hot splotches on screen.” John said they used “thousands” of grain-of-wheat bulbs, run through Variacs and dimmers. Custom-made triple-wick candles helped to increase the stop, as candle wax burns at the same temperature, regardless of one or three wicks.

    The above conversation happened in Washington DC, where John had wrapped “No Way Out” the day before. He was leaving for a well-earned vacation the next morning, and I had just arrived to shoot the film’s opening and closing credits with a Gyrosphere helicopter mount the next day. I was disappointed for missing an opportunity to observe the maestro on set…so I suggested he take a break from packing and have lunch. Ostensibly, lunch was for me to learn how to preserve the look he wanted (no 85 and a dense negative to print in the 40′s). Of course, John knew that mostly I wanted to pepper him with “inside-baseball” questions and he graciously obliged. But John got surprisingly prickly when asked about the “Barry Lyndon” candle scenes — that as a DoP worth my salt I should know better than to believe everything I read! A few weeks later John suffered a fatal heart attack while on vacation, which shocked and saddened all who had the privilege of working for him.

    Post a Reply
    • Jon Kranhouse, thank you so much for that history lesson. I love John Alcott’s work, what an amazing visionary.

      Post a Reply
  9. Hey Shane, I was wondering if you could give me a little insight into how your lighting approach changes when you’re shooting commercial work vs. creative work. I’m a young cinematographer currently working for a new media production company and in new media often times production quality and creative lighting take a back seat to turn around time and keeping the budget low.

    How should we as cinematographers think of lighting when the content we’re producing isn’t strictly narrative? I can provide examples to you of the shows we shoot if that’d help you frame where I’m coming from. Pun intended.

    Post a Reply
    • Sean Finnegan, you never change. It is up to you as the cinematographer to make it sing no matter what the budget. I have worked with 200 million or 5 thousand. It is shaping your lighting and camera concept to fit the budget.

      Post a Reply
  10. I have plans to build this firelight for an upcoming horror film I am shooting. It is a great design Shane. I just wanted to post here that Rosco has discontinued the Colorine. I did find that Studio Depot has some red and amber but were out of stock on the yellow.

    Post a Reply
    • Scott Mohrman, yes, I am glad you found them. You can use Yellow paint, it will just burn quickly and you will have to re-dip.

      Post a Reply
  11. Amazing ! Shane …I teach Cinematography at Emerson college . We used the candle light effect in my advanced class. ( built and used in class)! The students loved it so much that several more were constructed and are now permanent fixtures in the equipment package.
    Including my own.

    Cheers
    J

    Post a Reply
    • Joey W. Kolbe, ha ha, that is awesome The Medusa LIVES!!!!

      Post a Reply
  12. Medusa has a suttle cameo @ 0:34

    Post a Reply
    • Nit Picker,yeah baby!!!! Thanks so much for the support

      Post a Reply

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