Lighting Series Number 2: Going Inside the Hallowed Walls of a Secret Society on "The Skulls"

When Rob Cohen asked me to shoot his next feature after we finished “The Rat Pack,” I was ecstatic. I could not wait to get the script. He told me that it was a thriller about the Skull and Bones Secret Society at Yale. I love these types of stories where you know that there is a “New World Order” and that 5 people manipulate puppet strings and control everything. Rob asked me to do some research and to take photos of Yale  to help the Production Designer and to get a sense of the scale of the University.

Wide Aerial of Yale University

Two days later I was on a plane to New Haven, Connecticut with my Nikon and a whole assortment of glass. Yes, you heard the word Nikon. Research is essential to becoming a good cinematographer. You are not only responsible for the light, composition, movement, and mood, but how the space feels. It is important to ask yourself, “what is the the emotion of the location?”  I woke up very early every day when I was in Connecticut and took pictures of all of the locations that were described in the script. It was so much fun going into the cafeteria at sunrise. The shafts of light that came through the gothic windows are something that I put into my memory banks forever.

Yale's Rare Book Library was a jaw-dropping sight

Yale’s Rare Book Library was a jaw-dropping sight

There was a heavy feeling in every room that I visited at Yale. Presidents graduated from here, the CIA was created behind these walls, history and power walked through the halls and chambers of this incredible institution. I quickly noticed all of the Pagan symbols that garnered every door, building and fence.  It was so amazing to go to each Secret Society and to be able to experience their auras.  Book and Snake, Wolf’s head, Key and Scroll and, of course, the infamous Skull and Bones.

Key and Scroll Secret Society

Book and Snake Secret Society stands alone on the edge of the University

Just beyond these University walls lies the Skull and Bones Crypt

The famous Black doors of the Skull and Bones Crypt

After 3 days of shooting all of the locations at different times of day, I decided to become a detective and track the ins and outs of the Skull and Bones. I wanted to get a taste of the flavor of people that will soon be ruling the world and pulling on MY string. You would never know that this was an entrance to a Secret Society let alone an entrance to anywhere. There were simply two skinny black doors that looked as though they had been painted over a million times. All of the other societies were stand alone buildings with grand entrances. They did not dissolve into the campus like this entrance did. You didn’t know where the University stopped and the secret society began. It was so cool!

It was amazing to see who was coming and going. Attire ranged from Surf bum gear to formal dinner wear – even tuxedos.  I was so into it that I went out and got a 600mm lens and a 2X Extender from the local photography store. It was really cold on the last night there. I hadn’t experienced much activity for a bit, then all of a sudden, with the right lens, I shot an amazing photograph of a member walking up to the door at twilight. A metal box slid out, and he opened it and placed his hand in it. I saw a green glow come up like a photo scanner, and I thought, “are they really scanning his hand for entry?”  Sure enough, the door opened and he dissolved into the University. I was on the phone to Rob Cohen immediately.  I told him “you are not going to believe this.”  He was so excited that I was there to experience it.

322 was a very special number

As an artist I consider seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, hearing, and the sixth sense of feeling a story emotionally. Choosing a set of brushes that will tell this story in the best possible way is the next task. Finally, intuition and following with your heart. As you get more experience as a Cinematographer you will not talk about what you are going to do, you will just know what to do. It is so hard for me to explain to you how I light the way that I do, because so much depends on the day, the moment, and how a location feels.

With all of this R & D in New Haven, I was very emotionally connected to Yale University and I was ready to create. I was flown to Toronto where we would be shooting the picture. The University of Toronto was designed by the same Architect that designed Yale, and the Gothic thread weaved throughout.  This location had everything that we needed: the big library, cafeteria, campus green, hallways, beautiful classrooms, as well as an incredible Gothic Cathedral.

One of the sets that we could not find was the re-birthing sequence in the film where Lucas McNamara drinks the liquid in the science lab and passes out. “Where does he end up?” was the question Rob and I were both asking ourselves. We looked at old warehouses, barns, and factories, but nothing really spoke to us until we walked into an old brewery about 30 minutes outside of Toronto. The main room had barreled ceilings that were quite high – I would say around 30′ – and it had cement circles that stainless steel fermenting tanks sat on. Immediately I had a crazy idea. I thought, “what if we flood this place so that the cement circles seem like they are little islands where we can set each casket for the Skulls to be Reborn, to cross over to the ‘dark side’?” Rob loved the idea. I thought that we could use lighting effects to make it like a theatrical event. They obviously do this every year, so it is always rigged and ready. So – I set off designing lighting for this rebirth experience. I wanted the audience to feel disoriented and confused just like Luke (Joshua Jackson) and the others did. The lighting had to be surreal, edgy, dark, and mysterious. At the same time it had to come to life and to show the spectacle of it all.  Here was my approach:

Lighting Plot for the Re-Birth Process of the Skulls

I hung 9 Arri Ruby 7 Par lights as 3/4 back top lights for each coffin, then I hung 12 4′ 4-Bank Super Blue Kino Flo’s to top light the coffins and also to light the white washed walls. This Kino color was designed to light blue screens, but I thought it would look awesome in this environment. The mix of the two color temperatures really looked slick. We dimmed the Ruby 7’s down to about 75% so they would read 2800K while the blue screen tubes were 40,000K. I over exposed the coffins about 4 stops to burn them a bit and underexposed the super blue Kino’s 1 stop. In the wides, I love how the light hitting the bottom of the coffins bounces up and lights the underside of the silk interiors. We shot the whole sequence at a 2.0 and 5/10ths. In the beginning I wanted to disorient the viewer so we started with the camera upside down. We had a 3 axis head mounted on a 30′ Technocrane that we rotated slowly to right itself  just as the hand came out of the coffin. The dripping water, super cold look, and extreme close up composition was confusing and exactly the feeling Rob and I wanted.

When the Red Monks were revealed it had to be shocking. We put a 12k Ari Tungsten light on the deck and blasted up into the rafters to silhouette the first monk, then for the other I chose a 7K Xenon that I put Full CTS in front of it so that the light was not cold but perfectly hyper white. This we struck on cue and brought the second Red Monk out of the darkness. It worked well to have everything on a dimmer or a switch because at the end Rob wanted the lights to go out except for one light left in the middle. He felt that this would show visually that the team was together amidst the darkness and that  they had to band together in order to succeed.

My next series will describe the lighting in “Crazy/Beautiful.”  Stay tuned!

  1. Joseph J 5 years ago

    awesome post! actually working with you and seeing the process you go through to light a scene, i can testify that you really do light a scene on how it “feels”.

    • Author
      Shane 5 years ago

      Joseph J, thank you so much. Great seeing you today and look forward to hooking up tomorrow. Tons to talk about.

  2. Mario 5 years ago

    Shane, thanks again for this in depth post. Very interesting to see how big it can get.
    Can’t wait to read your next post.

    • Author
      Shane 5 years ago

      Mario, you are very welcome, but it is not big when you look at it in a practical lighting sense. If you were going to do a skylight effect in a room, you could use a hot light from above and some daylight soft ambiance that flows into the room. Same lighting principal, just not in a secret liar but a nice house interior.

  3. Alex Walker 5 years ago

    I just wanted to take the opportunity to thank you for these posts! I’m just getting started working as Director of Photography on my second feature and while every moment has been a learning experience in itself, these lighting tutorials have really opened up my mind to new possibilities. Please keep it coming!


    • Author
      Shane 5 years ago

      Alex Walker, you are so welcome, and thank you for those kind words and support. Next film we will analyze how to do it with a lot less lighting KISS. I am so glad that I could help.

  4. Oli Kember 5 years ago

    Very interesting to read about the planning and lighting considerations that take place long before shooting a scene. Many thanks as ever.

    • Author
      Shane 5 years ago

      Oli Kember, you are so welcome. I love to prep, so that I can we can be free to mess it all up on the day if we want to. If the actor wants to go another way, or mother nature changes it up on you.

  5. Alex 5 years ago

    Great! Want more! Want more!

    • Author
      Shane 5 years ago

      Alex, more is coming, thanks for the support.

  6. Tim 5 years ago

    shane, great post again – informative and thoroughly educational. you’ve inspired me to start planning out my lighting schemes in illustrator.

    You noted that you CTO’d the monks’ silhouette lights to get a white light – i assume this means you shot with tungsten-balanced film?

    complete non sequitur: in a post on color correction, you commented the following about using superflat curves: “I feel that I get some decent latitude out of my cocktail that I have created. When you try to bend the curves in the highlights to suppress them the image gets mushy and it is hard to judge your exposure. You can try shooting with this but you would need to constantly judge your exposure with another picture style that is what you want the final project to look like and then switch back to the flat look and hit record.”

    for that picture style used for exposure adjustment – do you create a custom picture style to match that final shot look? also, back then you were talking about using transcoded RAW 4:4:4 files for FCP, but since you’ve made the switch to Premiere CS5, do you find that using that method still works well in getting the best information for color grading in post?

    • Author
      Shane 5 years ago

      Tim, YES. I have found that this process slows me down. It was my original way of doing it but now I have developed a picture style that I can get the best of both worlds. Nice range in the color correction bay, without having to switch back and forth between picture styles. But if you were to do it, yes you would develop to picture styles. One that has a flat look and then one that you has the look of your final product. You light to this and then switch over to the flat picture style.

  7. Jerry Rojas 5 years ago

    Hi Shane!.. as usual Great post! I really like movies about conspiracy and mistery, these and gangster movies are my favorite. I saw The Skulls when I was 20yo and I loved it!

    It’s very interesting reading how your process go way beyond the technical issues. I have read a lot of DPs that just talk about the footcandels they need, the focal lenght they choose, or the contrast ratio they were looking for.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this “numerical” part is not important, I know it its, but I think before going to the technical side of the job you must question yourself about the artistic part or it, and then let the “feelings” you got about what you want lead the “numbers” to make it happen.

    I can only anxiously look forward to your next post.


    • Author
      Shane 5 years ago

      Jerry Rojas, it is so great to hear from you. Everyone misses you. I met with Joseph yesterday at Hurlbut Visuals new rental division. We are getting settled in. I want to talk to you more about coming to the U.S. After the holidays I am slammed right now but a lot of interesting possibilities exist.

  8. Robert Shaver 5 years ago

    It’s a pleasure to read a pro with so much passion.

    Reading “The Lean Forward Moment” by Norman Hollyn gave me insight into how to recognize the most important points in each scene and how some of the best directors draw the audience’s attention to them. They are perhaps obvious to folks with many years of experience like Shane, but they were an epiphany to me.

    Highly recommended.



    • Author
      Shane 5 years ago

      Robert Shaver, you are exactly right. Thank you so much for sharing. Being obsessed with the subtleties that add up to creating the big picture.

  9. Jerry Rojas 5 years ago

    Hi Shane!. that sounds great, thank you!. I have been doing some research about it on my own, so I’m sure more sooner than later we will be talking face to face again, but let’s talk more about it after the holidays..

  10. Alex 5 years ago

    Hi Shane!
    If that would be possible, in the next series could you, please, share your knowledge how do you keep consistency in a look. For example, if you shoot something on a cloudy day and have to continue to shoot the next day, but it’s sunny. What do you do? Besides 12×12, are there any other tricks?
    Also, would be awesome to know your workflow when shooting. For example, do you first do the blocking and then set the light and so on… In other words, what do you do after what…Do you start shooting with Master shot and then move to CUs?
    Thanks a lot for your work and Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Author
      Shane 5 years ago

      Alex, you go it, not a problem at all. I will make sure I go through this. You are welcome and Happy Thanksgiving to you too.

  11. Joshua 5 years ago

    Thanks so much for taking the time to post this Shane!

    • Author
      Shane 5 years ago

      Joshua, you are very welcome.

  12. Carl Olson 5 years ago

    The Skulls was my first exposure to Shane’s work. It was my wife who insisted that I just had to see this movie. Wow! Beautiful lighting, beautiful cinematography. And all before we even knew what a Canon 5D Mark II was! :)

    • Author
      Shane 5 years ago

      Carl Olson, thank you so much Carl for those kind words, it is great to hear from you. I love our talks and cannot wait for the next one. You ROCK!!!!

  13. Peter 5 years ago

    Wow! great work Shane, i really admire your work! especially your lighting-work (…i am totally in love with the “Carnival Scene” of last three minutes).
    i am from a german high school and we’re doing this film-project… we are shooting with a Canon 5D Mark II (+85mm 1.2, 300mm 2.8…).
    it’s more than just a school-project… it’s everything. It would be a great honor for me, if you take a look at our trailer:

    …i just wanted to show it to you! maybe you tell us what you think about it ;)
    greetings from your biggest GERMAN fans!!!

    • Author
      Shane 5 years ago

      Peter, thank you so much for your kind words and support in Germany!!!! Yeah baby!!!! I took 4 years of German in high school and can only speak about 40 words of it. Here I go. Guten morgan. Wier gehens ins Kino. Das tut meir leid. Das auto ist kaput. Auf wiiederzehen. Love you work. The overhead shot down to the girl in the stairwell was awesome. The graphic nature was excellent. Love the out of focus city lights, the blood running down the tree.

      I do think you need a little more story and structure. I am confused on what is going on and why. Start at the base of what the movie is about and make that message be the thread that weaves the viewer through it. Then you can blast in those awesome shots to increase the pace, add suspense. Peace

  14. Bill 5 years ago


    Great stuff, wish I knew you were at Yale I am teaching at a magnet school just a few blocks away. I would have liked to get to speak to the kids.

    Thank you for another insightful post.


    • Author
      Shane 5 years ago

      Bill, The next time I am back on the East Coast we will try to make that happen. Thank you for your continued support.

  15. Peter 5 years ago

    Hey Shane, thank you so much for taking a look at our work! thanks for the feedback!!!
    …well it was supposed to be just a little teaser… i totally agree with you that a trailer needs more structure and info about the storyline. we’ll upload a hopefully better trailer soon! hearing from a professional cinematographer that he likes our shots really means a lot to us! :)

    Herzliche Grüße aus Deutschland! ;)

    • Author
      Shane 5 years ago

      Peter, you are so welcome. It works well as a teaser, even a little shorter, like 30 to 45 seconds tops, it gets people wondering what is this thing about. Guten Nacht!!!

  16. Tim 5 years ago

    Shane – you gave me a itch that just wouldn’t go away. I had to deal with it, so I made a short with my friends:

    a week and a half ago, i wondered what i could do to spruce up my film school applications due today. this was the best i could come up with – it may be a scatalogical, asinine story, but i hope you in enjoy it.

  17. Tim 5 years ago

    incidentally – i shot it with only three lenses, my tripod, a skateboard, my friend’s skateboard, and a long weekend in front of his laptop editing in premiere cs5. thanks for all the helpful answers to my questions!

  18. Tim 5 years ago

    holy cow, i had a billion typos in my comments. sorry. I’m running on 36 hours since I last slept. i meant to say: “an itch”; i hope you enjoy it; my tripod, a portable Zoom recorder and my friend’s skateboard functioning as the world’s wobbliest dolly. i had to extend a tripod leg and pull it like an oar to stabilize the shot.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

[et_social_follow icon_style="slide" icon_shape="rounded" icons_location="top" col_number="auto" counts="true" counts_num="0" total="true" outer_color="dark" network_names="true"]