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The Power of Lighting with Just Two Lights: We Are Marshall

Working with less is how I like to light. Look at a scene, watch the blocking with the actors ebbing and flowing, figure out how the camera will best move to tell this part of the story, and then decide where the key light should go. Once this process is done, the fill light and back light can be worked out. This process is how I look at lighting for every scene. The KISS philosophy (keep it simple stupid) is always going through my head. On We Are Marshall, I challenged myself and my team to think about how we could light a major night exterior in the rain with just two lights.

Coming Home

When Director McG and I conceived this scene, we wanted it to be a surprise. The audience knew, but January Jones did not. We had just seen January in the diner getting the bad news that a plane went down at the Huntington Airfield. She goes to the crash site and realizes that it was her husband’s plane. She heads back home to cry herself to sleep. Headlights wake her up, and she runs out the door to see that her husband is, in fact, alive. The whole sequence was lit with two lights. Here is how I lit two of the shots in the sequence.

Wide shot of January Jones in bed

This was lit with one Mole-Richardson Baby Baby with the Fresnel pulled out of the head so that the tree and rain shadows would be at their hardest. This light was positioned outside of the window, which was built on stage. The 1K projected through the tree branches that I put outside the windows. We dripped rain on the window as well. The second light was a 12 x 12 Ultra Bounce that was rigged just off camera right high over the set wall with a 575 watt HPL Source Four Par bouncing into it. I underexposed the moonlight coming through the window 1.5 stops, and then the bounce fill was underexposed 3.5 stops.

Mole Baby Baby light

Mole Baby Baby light

575 HPL Source Four Par

575 HPL Source Four Par

January Jones silhouette

The next shot of her rising up in bed is one of my favorites. The headlight sweep and her beautiful silhouette were lit with just two lights once again. The 1K Baby Baby without a Fresnel and a 1K Baby Baby were used for the headlight sweep.

We Are Marshall embrace

The wide shot was another example where it just worked. I used two lights as well – one Mole Richardson 24 light Dino light with narrow globes and then a mini Nine Light Fay with FCX globes. The narrow globes on the 24 light Dino were to project through the trees and the distance, which was across a valley.

24 Lite Dino light

24 Lite Dino light

Photometrics on Dino light

Photometrics on Dino light

Mini Nine light

Mini Nine light

The Dino was placed on a 100’ condor about 300 yards away, blasting through the trees. You can see the tree shadow on the wet driveway. The nine light fay was motivating the porch light she just turned on. This gave the warm sidelight on them as they embraced. I placed that up on the porch exactly where the porch light was and then pushed it thru a 4 x 4 216 diffusion frame. I added two 70k Lightning Strikes to pull in the mood of the storm as well, but I would classify these as special effects lights.

70K Lightning Strike

70K Lightning Strike

I had a third light ready to fire up for frontal fill, which was another 575 HPL Par light, but turned it off once the rain machine started. The mist of the rain filled in the shadow areas perfectly. This is another thing to consider when you are doing smoke or rain. Always fire up a test before you go crazy lighting things. Sometimes your subtleness in the light you created doesn’t come through once all the effects are fired up. I had the warm side light that was motivating the porch light on a 6K dimmer at 35%. Once the rain started, I ended up cranking it up to 65% to cut thru the rain and mist.

What are some of your stories about going with one or two lights? I would love to hear.

Author: Shane

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69 Comments

    • Benjamin Gaskell, thank you so much for your kind words and support.

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    • Gavin Bearfield-Boyd, thank you so much for your support

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  1. Great advice. It can be so tempting to over-complicate things and it’s not always the best route. Some of my best lighting has been night stuff with just a key and a backlight.

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    • Neil Oseman, thank you so much for your support. KISS is where I start.

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  2. I once lit an entire short using only two lights, mostly. It took place at night and I was given a city exterior, car interior, and parking garage interior to light. I ended up using two Arri 1200w HMIs. The key was put through a 6×6 with full diffusion, and the back light was just placed a bit further back. Only added an extra two lights for the car to simulate moving cars. Turned out pretty good.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RPdd1BWx1hQ

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    • James Nation, thank you so much for sharing. I will check it out.

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  3. Hi Shane, most of the lights you have there are not available to us who shoot with smaller budgets on smaller scale but it’s great to know how you do it. The principles are the same and would help me in my sets.
    I haven’t seen ‘We Are Marshalls’ I’m going to make it a point to get the DVD this weekend!
    Thanks a bunch for sharing!

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    • Baron, Yes, I know that these lights are not going to be available to everyone. But it is the principle of it all. KISS is where you start. Yes, please check out the film, I think it is one of my best works.

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  4. Wonderful post! You just boosted my “lighting” confidence a hundred fold. I have been wary of dark/night scenes, before reading your “Two-lights” examples:)

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    • Atom Magadia, thank you so much for your kind words. Yes KISS is where you need to start, then if you have to add more do what looks best.

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  5. Great content as usual Shane! I have a T2i and was thinking of upgrading to a 5D III, but now that the Black Magic Cinema camera has been released I’m thinking of going with it. What are your thoughts on the Black Magic camera?

    I appreciate your help.

    Thanks.

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    • Ansel, thank you so much for your kind words. I have not had a chance to check it out yet. Waiting for mine to come. Give you my thoughts once I put it through the ringer.

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      • I appreciate it Shane. I’m excited to hear what you think of the Black Magic camera once you get it – and also see what results it can produce in your hands.

        Thanks again for all the training your provide.

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    • Neil Oseman, YEAH BABY!!!!! thank you so much for all of your kind words.

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  6. Shane,

    What did you use with your mole / source4 to under expose the bedroom shot ? Scrims, dimmers? . How did you decide upon the ratios? 1.5. for the mole and 3.5 for the source4? Why such a large( in context) ultra bounce for such an inimate scene. I have not seen this film so maybe a little background on film stock used, camera and lenses could help me try to get to your decision making process.

    Thank you for doing this.

    Be well

    Laurence

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    • Laurence Zankowski, I used scrims to take down the source 4 Par so that I could keep the color temp at 3200K. I have found that when using 5219 film stock I love the look of a moonlight source 1 to 1.5 stops underexposed. 3.5 stops I found gives you that wonderful squint into the shadow areas, where you just see detail. The reason for the 12x Ultra bounce was for softness, even though the scene was intimate, the bigger the source the more it feels real and not lit. You are very welcome and encourage more questions. That is what I am here for.

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      • Great questions Laurence and thanks for sharing the explanation Shane, I was wondering why such a dark scene would take such seemingly large units. Thanks.

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        • Oli Kember, the throw, 300 yards is a long way photometrically through trees and rain

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    • Roberto Seba, thank you so much for your kind words

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  7. Hey Shane,

    Love your BTS blog! Thanks for sharing. For a music video I shot called “Brightest Moon,” I needed to find cheap portable lights that could hold a battery charge for a few hours out in the cold New England weather. I found them at Home Depot. Husky work lights. These babies are weatherproof, super bright, super cool with 180 LEDs and can go cordless for 4 hours. They’re 56K. I purchased two of them. I also used one Litepanels Micro LED dimmed down to create a soft key light for the singer’s face, held by my assistant who was gripping my left shoulder and walking me backwards while I was on the Glidecam.

    I needed a well-lit area with plenty of street light to augment my two portable Husky LEDs. I found it on the Charles River walking path. Since out end result would be in black & white, color temperature didn’t matter.

    Here’s my behind the scenes blog: http://www.macomberproductions.com/2011/04/air-traffic-controller-music-vide/

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    • Rick Macomber, thank you so much for all of your kind words and thank you for sharing.

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  8. Bravo! That’s what I call ‘Cinematography’!

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    • Alex, you got it. Thanks so much for your support

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  9. I first came to hear of your work when I went to a preview screening of ‘Act of Valor’ at NYU, after which there was a panel discussion.
    It inspired me to complete my studies after a 9 year ‘intermission’..
    After returning to study cinematography in NYU SPCS & after many mentions of your name at the Vimeo Fest in NYC, I stumbled onto your website and it’s been fantastic.
    You have a great writing style which balances both the aesthetic choices you make with the practical explanations of how you achieve setups/settings/workflows.
    I just want to say, thanks.

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    • Mark Kelly,thank you so much for those wonderful kind words. The reason I pushed the limit with this technology was to inspire young filmmaker’s to know that it is possible with tools that you can afford. Thanks again and look forward to hearing about your future plans.

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  10. In a soon to be released feature that I shot for director Rel Dowdell, short bucks and time required a minimalist approach to lighting. Most of our night exteriors used one or two units, mostly to augment existing light. One scene in particular evolved an urban sidewalk conversation with one of our actors sitting in a car while the other leaned on the passenger side window. While setting the shot I observed the existing light from a sodium vapor street lamp. I looked at the gaffer and said, “let’s do that” . He introduced me to rosco’s sodium vapor gels. Two 2k juniors later the action was realistically lit. If interested, check out this article on the film. BTW. Love those Source 4 Par and their funky fleas set. Been using them since they came out.

    https://dl-web.dropbox.com/get/Changing%20the%20Game/CTG%20of%20Indie%20Production_ccPics.pdf?w=a5104be3

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    • Bob Demers, thanks so much for sharing. I will check that out. I use that Rosco color as well, seems to match the best.

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  11. Love what you did here. Its amazing what you can do with 1 or 2 lights. I’m a fan of Covered Wagon lights and I’ve found you can almost light a whole scene with them. At least closeups. Nine-Lights and Dinos are so great. Cheap to rent and lots of punch! Love the overall color grade on this as well. Thanks for sharing!

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    • Jon Chema, thank you so much for your kind words. You are very welcome.

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  12. Shane,

    Thank you so much sir!
    Your contribution to my cinematography education is priceless.

    Thanks again!

    Paolo

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    • paolo, that means so much, all the time and energy my wife and our team put into this blog. I love that it matters. You are very welcome.

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  13. I loved that moment when I watched the film, great to read how you did it and why you lit it the way you did. In the clip the rain has a steel/blue feel that isn’t in the look of the still picture below, did you dial that blue in during the grade? If you added that blue in post, why didn’t you gel for it on the day? Do you prefer a white or blue moon? Thanks!

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    • Oli Kember, thank you so much, yes I dialed that slight coolness in post the reason being is those 24 lite Dino’s are a bitch to gel and a waist of money, because it was only a 1/4 blue worth of coolness. I like a grey moon, which is white with a slight blue tinge.

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      • Nice, I love a grey moon too. Hollywood style saturated blue moons make me feel queasy. I like that idea of shooting it white and adding that tinge of blue in post. Is it easy enough to do without affecting the rest of the image?

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  14. I love how in the intro you remind everyone of KISS. I think we get caught up in so many complexities of film making sometimes the easiest solution is the best solution. We need to keep in mind that even one light can create emotion. Great work as always and thanks so much for sharing. Your work is an inspiration to us all. I would love for you to show us some of your tricks at quixote.com, if you’re ever there.

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    • datfilmdude, thank you so much for your kind words and all your support. Yes simple is sometimes the best. I will look into that quixote.com.

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  15. What film stock were you shooting on for these? It’s unbelievable how nice the image starts to look when you start turning off lights.

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    • Pablo Gustafson, that was Kodak 5219, yes turn them on and then slowly turn them off.

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  16. Awesome stuff. Always curious…Why was the Dino positioned so far away? Why not a smaller fixture closer?

    You and I have talked briefly before about silks and diffusion and bounce materials and the different ways that they affect light. I think a great blog topic would be to talk about soft light, bounced and diffused, and more specifically talk about the various and your favorite types of diff and bounce and their uses. I like how you approached diffusion as it pertains to the camera, perhaps it’s time for light. Unless one has the budget to rent a whole gamut of materials and lights to test all these materials one by one, it’s a slow (and iffy) process, shoot to shoot, of becoming familiar with so many options so as to make the best decisions come game-time. Thoughts?

    And again, as everyone else says, thanks for sharing your mind.

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  17. I want to argue that you had 33 lights for that last part, but that’s because I’m jealous I don’t get to use that kind of fire power. Great Blog!

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    • Chris, ha ha, yes I guess if you want to break it down into individual bulbs. Thanks for the support

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  18. Shane, I can’t express my gratitud to you. I learn everything throught your web because I do not have the money to go to college but with your lessons I can do everything like a true pro. I will see you in Javit center here in NY.

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    • Jose del C Martinez, Jose I cannot wait to meet you. Thank you for those gracious words and all of your support. See you soon.

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  19. Shane, this is the most informative sight I have ever come across. Your words along with the clips make everything understandable. I read a lot of industry magazines and the CML, and nothing comes close to what you’re doing hear. Thanks for taking the time and effort to share.

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    • Craig Needelman, you do not know how much this means to me and all of my amazing team at the HurlBlog. Thank you for those kind words. We do it different, we actually educate about lighting, composition and the essence of cinematography, not to review a new piece of gear. This is just the tip of the iceberg baby!!!!

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  20. Great blog, thanks for the info. I always make a point to start from what you have, natural light and practicals, and then go from there without over complicating and always keep in mind how the look of the scene will help you create a mood and tell you story. I love that shot of January Jones rising from the bed. It’s a simple and fast shot but looks amazing and stands out. It’s amazing that you only used two 1Ks.

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    • Justin Woods, thank you so much for you kind words and support. KISS keep it simple stupid. This always goes thru my mind when I am lighting along with what is natural

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  21. Hey Shane,

    I’m still at the very early stages of my career as a cinematographer and I find your blog is one of the most insightful cinematography resources online right now.

    Often working on a very low budget with a very limited choice of lights on location, it’s very tempting to say “if only I had a bigger lighting budget”. As a result I’m often more excited by what I can achieve by not using many lights. Reading this is so inspiring, and gives me confidence in that approach.

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    • Mark Boggins. Thanks so much for the kind words and support.

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  22. Hello Shane,

    Thanks for the “KISS” philosophy.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=drGs9CUkjZg

    I shot the night scenes of above commercial with only one 4k HMI. I used 4k HMI as the backlight in the raining scene. We were shooting that scene in a swamp with real snakes everywhere. I couldn’t find any suitable place to position a 12×12 muslin for bouncing light to fill the dark areas and faces. I put lot of dry ice in the water. Dry ice did two things. It helped me to create the atmosphere I wanted and It also bounced the light like bead board.

    I have been following your blog for last one month. This is very inspiring. Thank you very much.

    Best Regards.

    Post a Reply
    • Rashed Zaman, nice job. Looks great. KISS is the way. That is a great idea with the dry ice. Have to remember that baby. Thanks for all of your support and kind words.

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  23. Thanks for the reply Shane. I have a question. Why did you use 24 dino light instead of 18k/ 20k fresnel?

    Regards.

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    • Rashed Zaman, more punch for longer distances. 18k gives off a blue night feel, I hate blue nights, love grey nights and tungsten does that the best. Also easier to throw long distances and keep the foreground, mid-ground and background all at the same exposure.

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  24. Thanks a lot Shane.

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  25. Wow! this is amazing. Thank You so much Shane. Is really hard to find information about lighting beyond the basics on the internet or books. And here you are, sharing your knowledge and expertise with us. I really appreciate it. Keep up the beautiful images.

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    • Ruben Arce, thank you for your kind words and support of our blog. Lighting is scarce on the internet, many people feel that those secrets given out will become competition. I see it as fueling a fire of creativity and for all of you to take from these examples and instruction and make it your own.

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  26. I love this article! I shot a scene from a movie where we had to shoot an introductory scene where the main character is coming home on a train. We were to film the interior of the train in a vintage diner car that is used for fundraisers at the local historical society. We got there late, and only had time to set up one dimable LED light. So I used the light to simulate the light coming from the windows on the opposite side of the train car. Fortunately, a train came by on the track right next to the diner car, so I was able to grab a shot that reinforced the idea that the dining car was moving. Here is the scene without sound or sound effects, but part of a grading comparison using Sony Vegas Pro 12 and Neumann Films Cinematic Looks:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WroBSF7rusc
    Thanks for all you do for us, Shane!

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    • Rick Shorrock, I love that, thank you so much for sharing and supporting the blog

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  27. Hi Shane,

    I find myself coming back to your blog so often to search for answers or get ideas, it’s such great resource of information.

    I’ve got a big night exterior scene coming up and I’m planning on sticking a Dino on top of cherry picker at about 400ft from the subject to bathe the street in moonlight. I was just wondering what is your favourite gel combination for moonlight? I was planning on using a half CTB and then auditioning maybe 1/8 or 1/4 Plus Green and seeing what looks best to the eye.

    Thanks as always for sharing your experiences.

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    • Hi James, I do not color my moonlight, I leave it tungsten and then warm my practicals lamps, any other lights that are not considered moonlight with 1/2 CTS that way in post I can cool down the Dino light to give it that grey feel which is what I think moonlight looks like. When I am creating an ambient light to fill in the shadows, I bounce a maxi into a Ultra Bounce then add 1/4CTB to this. Hope this helps

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  28. Hi Shane,

    I’m a young filmmaker who reads your blog all the time and find it very valuable. I’ve had a question for a few years now, and I’m sure there’s an obvious answer to it, but I can’t seem to find it. I understand that removing the fresnel from the 1k as you did here will yield sharper shadows, but why not use an open-face 1k to start with? Thank you,

    Wayne

    Post a Reply
    • Wayne SP, an open face light is mounted horizontally in the fixture, which will make your shadows soft, where the 1K’s bulb is vertically and will cast a much harder shadow. Hope this helps and thank you for your support of our blog.

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