Lighting Series Number 3: The Natural Look of Crazy/Beautiful

My next picture was with a director named John Stockwell. After signing onto this project I came to realize that John’s style and sensibility would change me forever as a cinematographer. We both felt this needed a fresh look: something that was not your ordinary coming of age love story, but something that also had weight and reason. The script has elements of Romeo and Juliet without the death factor. It has the “boy from the wrong side of the tracks meets rich girl” thread, and the way that John wanted to go about shooting it changed the way that I block and light to this very day. Lighting an area so that actors can feel free to move and react to each other was key to John getting the best performance out of his actors. This was my challenge. I needed to let them be free. Then my photography would be the same, not documentary but fresh and quirky, reactionary, volatile, subtle, emotional, chaotic, crazy and beautiful. This was our mantra: be like a teenager and we will succeed. I had been looking at many movies made about the beach scene in Los Angeles; they all had poppy colors, intense blue water, and sun drenched beaches. The Palisades was not like that, at least in my mind. When I drive down PCH in June, there is a massive marine layer that doesn’t burn off until 11am. “How about the real, natural look of the Palisades?” I thought. John was into it. We went for bald steely skies, the gray-blue color of the Pacific and kept a hyper-white tone throughout the whole film. I had done many tests to best achieve this look photochemically and I chose 5277 film stock (that had just come out at the time). It was a stock that was designed for television commercials and gave more latitude in the Telecine process. A digital negative did not exist at this point. All color correction had to be done photochemically. The film stock was rated at 320 ISO. I wanted a hyper-white, flary look that felt like a teenagers will, so we did tests where we overexposed the footage. When the camera tests came back the one that was rated at 50 ISO looked absolutely amazing. We had also tested 4 different lens sets and the Panavision Primo’s held the flaring just to the edge of the cliff, where the Cooke S4 Primes, the Cooke Pancros and the Zeiss Ultra Primes fell off of it.

Now we had our cocktail: 2.5 stops overexposing a film that was supposed to be exposed normally and for TV only. I was one of the first cinematographers to shoot with this stock on a feature film and I was up for the challenge of managing an emulsion that we were taking right to the breaking point. Many of you have asked how I react to changing light on the day of production, as well as how I light differently for close ups. I am going to kill two birds with one stone and address both of these issues.

It is so important to choose your locations wisely. Take the time to find the locations that work for the story, the emotion, but also for the light. The tunnel leading out to the football field at Palisades High was visually stunning, but did it work for the story and the emotion of the scene? Both John and I wanted this scene to have an uncomfortable intimacy. I said, “What about this tunnel leading to the football field? It makes sense story wise.” Carlos (Jay Hernandez) is heading to practice after doing detention that Nicole (Kirsten Dunst) was responsible for. He is in a hurry, and she is on the run to apologize. They meet in a very uncomfortable, echoey chamber where their first fight takes place. They subsequently fall in love. The vast space that surrounds them helps to make this a very serious and intimate scene that I felt was the perfect fit for their emotions. The wide shot at the end with them holding hands silhouetted was the image that stuck in both of our minds when we scouted it in pre-production, so we needed to backward engineer the scene to get to that point. Two teenagers starting to fall in love with totally different backgrounds: this is what we wanted to achieve with this location. The background for Carlos was backlit and flary which achieved an angelic aura – visually this said that he was full of life and promise. Nicole’s background was cold and cementy. The gray walls suited her controlled, depressed life with her step-mother that included little ambition or worth.

Starting with the wide shot: We had to film another scene in the morning so our plan was to get there right after lunch. That was perfect timing because that is when the sun looked best on the stairs in the background. With the sun so high on the stairs, the scene took on a beautiful light/dark texture. We put the camera on a dolly and boomed up to reveal Carlos and Nicole walking down the stairs and stopping in the middle of the tunnel for the conversation. I lit this with 2-12K HMI’s bouncing into a clay coat 12 x 20. A clay coat is a bounce that is slightly gray and works very well when you have actors with pale skin like Kirsten’s. Ultra bounces or foam core are very kicky. This has a very smooth field when bouncing lights off of it. This was just enough light to hold the over-exposed detail in the stairs and keep them dark and semi-silhouetted. Here is the lighting plot for this:

Wide shot lighting plot for the Tunnel Scene

Especially with a 5D platform, balancing daylight interior scenes with exteriors is a must. It is quickly apparent that you are shooting HD when the outside blows out in a very burning, tearing, clippy sort of way. Film takes that overexposure and blooms it because it doesn’t have the hard edges of HD – so to make your 5D, 7D, 1D footage shine, you need to take the time to balance the inside with the outside, unless you are going for a stylized look, in which case you need to embrace that whole-heartedly.

When I light for a close-up, I try to use whatever was lighting the wide and then manicure to best suit the mood and feel. They were entering a dark tunnel so the feel had to be down, not brightly lit. For both Kirsten’s and Jay’s C.U’s I brought the clay coat bounce around a little more frontal and then double diffused the bounce with a 12 x 20 Half Soft Frost. This gave the light a creamier feel and it felt like the ambient light that was spilling in from the end of the tunnel. Looking back at my photography and what I know now, I would have taken the light on their faces down about another 1.5 stops. They feel a little over-lit to me. This is the learning process you go through with the art of cinematography; trusting yourself and knowing how far you can push it. This film was for Disney and I knew that the studio did not want it to be too dark because the latitude that we had with our overexposing cocktail was incredibly reduced.

Kirsten’s CU lighting plot in Tunnel

Kirsten Dunst Medium Shot

Kirsten Dunst Medium Shot

Kirsten Dunst Close Up

Kirsten Dunst Close Up

Look at Kirsten’s direction. We were running out of light and we needed to get this as well as Carlos’s direction before the sun came screaming into the tunnel. We had started with a hot toplight hitting the stairs and when we went in for the C.U. of Kirsten the sun had moved and the overhang of the tunnel had flagged off the stairs completely. I quickly asked the grips to grab 2- 4 x 4 Mirror reflectors and they bounced the hard sunlight across the steps so that I could have a little contrast in the B.G. It did not match at all, but I used the ability of depth of field and the medium and tight close-ups to hide the background to the audience.

Jay’s CU lighting plot in Tunnel

Jay Hernandez Medium Shot

Jay Hernandez Medium Shot

Jay Hernandez Close Up

Jay Hernandez Close Up

When we turned around for Jay’s direction the sun was perfect. It was back lighting the trees and gave him an aura around him, with the sky slightly flaring the Primo glass. Then, this led to the wide reverse angle where Kirsten and Jay are silhouetted against the setting sun filtered through the trees.

This look was achieved because we were shooting in the right place at the right time. We were able to calculate what the right time would be by using a sun tracking program called SunPath. This software is truly amazing – you cannot live without some sort of sun program as a cinematographer. It gives you a huge advantage on planning your schedule in pre-production and on the day of production. I also use the iphone app Helios, which is $29.99 because it is the best app. Sun Seeker is not good even though it is cheaper – the price is its only benefit. It is easily influenced by the earth’s gravitational pull when it should not be.

SunPath: A Sun-tracking software for you PC or Mac, which gives you these awesome print outs

Calculating and tracking the sun with an app or program is one thing, but you need the precise tools to make things happen. I use the Suunto Compass and Inclinometer set, or you can get a combo. Now Helios has a built in compass and inclinometer but I find that using the separate physical devices is far superior.

Suunto Compass, with viewing portal for very accurate sun calculations

Suunto Inclinometer with viewing portal for very accurate elevation calculations

Suunto’s combo: Compass and Inclinometer

There is something important that I want you all to notice. John wanted Carlos and Nicole to slowly start to fall for each other during this scene. We wanted to tell the story visually as well as having the actors’ performance do the job. We started off wide and stayed away from any close-ups until the end, when Carlos says, “don’t play me.” At this point we go in for the C.U. This brought an intimacy that had been lacking for the first time, then by cutting wide for the hand holding and not going in for that C.U. of the hands (which seemed forced on the day), we let the audience breathe. Aaahhhh!!

Stay tuned for Series Number 4, where I talk about shooting at twilight for 4 days straight on Drumline.

  1. Dave Dugdale 5 years ago

    That is great stuff Shane, thanks for sharing. You are the man!

    • Author
      Shane 5 years ago

      Dave Dugdale, thank you so much for your support.

  2. mel haynes 5 years ago


    I have really enjoyed this series you have been writing about. Are your lighting designs already figured out when you arrive on location? For example, did you know you were going to use double diffusion and clay coats, etc for each shot or do you design it on site, or is it perhaps a bit of both? ( the mirrors reflecting on the steps ). I ask this because I am curious to what you show up (equipment) on the set.

    Great work on these projects and reading the stories behind the scenes is really fun to read and being able to know whats going on in your head is a real treat.

    As always, thank you for sharing your experiences with us.

    • Author
      Shane 5 years ago

      mel haynes, You are very welcome and thank you for those kind words. Yes. I have a plan a foot the minute we decide on the location. Gear is then placed on my main lighting pkg. that would light this scene. Then on the day, if the actors turn a specific way or move in a different direction, then I react to it. I try to stay very versatile as a cinematographer, light on my feet, because it is truly an art of catching that smile, or a twist of a head at the right time, right place. Those serendipity moments, like Kirsten reaching for his hand. The director and I wanted this to happen, that was are whole genesis for the scene, but we never mentioned to them. We sat back on the wide and hoped they would go there, and they did.

  3. Michael Locke 5 years ago

    What I love about this insight into Hollywood, is how you deliver the director’s goal of freedom for his actors. They can hit a mark, they’re pros; but that extra room invites better work in the content. You make your life harder, to showcase the talent, but then that’s what a truly collaborative artist would do. Way to get it done, with touch…ML

    • Author
      Shane 5 years ago

      Michael Locke, I thank you so much for seeing this. This film truly changed the way my mind worked as a cinematographer. Keep it small as s possible and give the actors the ability to roam. I like to react to the rehearsal and blocking. Some of the time we throw out everything we planned and react to the actors emotion and the mood that they are projecting. You have to be light on your feet to take advantage of these serendipity moments.

  4. Joseph J 5 years ago

    Awesomeness. Fantastic information. Thanks for all you do, Shane.

    • Author
      Shane 5 years ago

      Joseph J, You are so welcome, and thank you for your support.

  5. Roman France 5 years ago

    I love… LOVE that you do these Shane. To an aspiring photographer/cinematographer, it’s extremely useful to see real world examples of how you achieved the lighting you did and why you did it the way you did. Thanks for looking out for us little guys and helping us along the road to becoming big guys like yourself.


    • Author
      Shane 5 years ago

      Roman France, Thank you so much for those very kind words and your support on this series of blogs. More will be on the way. Lighting is a very important part of this HDSLR platform.

  6. Yves Simard 5 years ago

    Shane, thank you – this is exactly what I have been looking for – very inspiring and informative. Please keep them coming!

    • Author
      Shane 5 years ago

      Yves Simard, you are very welcome and more will be on the way.

  7. Alex 5 years ago

    Yummy post! Great stuff! Looking forward for more! Thanks a ton!

  8. Alex 5 years ago

    If you would have to shoot the very same scene today but on HDSLR, would you light it differently? If so, what would you do to achieve that type of a look or at least close to it? Would it be the same lighting plot for 5D as for a film?
    Thanks again!

    • Author
      Shane 5 years ago

      Alex, absolutely. I would have to use very powerful lights to give me my balance outside and inside the tunnel. I would be able to achieve the cool cyan time by shooting at 4700 deg Kelvin in the middle of the day.

  9. Tim 5 years ago

    Shane – this post is like an American Cinematographer article on steroids, love it. thanks for going in depth. BTW, can you further explain the “It is easily influenced by the earth’s gravitational pull when it should not be” comment concerning the Sun Seeker app? what do you mean by gravitational pull–does it not use the internal compass correctly? The DP on a shoot I assisted a month ago used it during a sunrise shoot and found the augmented reality camera overlay function surprisingly accurate.

    • Author
      Shane 5 years ago

      Tim, I have NOT been blown away with Sun Seekers abilities. If you are having a great experience with them, then have at it. It boned me twice in Montana and then in Kiev, Ukraine. After that I said “SEE YA!!” I love Helios, I feel it is the most accurate. What I am talking about is that you can be influenced by iron, rocks, other metals that are in the ground and SunPath and Helios have a better way of calculating this with your destination. Finding magnetic north and keeping the database updated.

  10. Jerry Rojas 5 years ago

    Hi Shane!, awesome post, thanks for taking the time to write and share.
    I have a few questions if you allow me..

    The cyanish look was completly achived photochemically or you were using some kind of lens filter too?

    I understand the white skies were something you were looking for, so why you decided to left the blue sky in the football practice wide shot?



    • Author
      Shane 5 years ago

      Jerry Rojas, thank you so much my friend. The cyan look was all photo chemical. We did not want to freak Disney out with this on a daily basis, so we went for this once the movie was completed. Take a look at the sky, it is not a deep saturated sky, it has a lot of cyan, but it was looking back at the mountains, inland. It felt right so we went for it.

  11. martijn 5 years ago

    Hello Shane, I really love these posts! And learn a lot from them.

    One thing I always struggle with is changing lightning conditions. Sun, no sun, clouds, no clouds etc. Just when I’m ready to take a shot the light changes. I noticed (only on second viewing and because I was looking for it…) that the first two shots with Kirsten en Jay the light in the background changes. Do you see that as a problem or not?
    The audience wouldn’t notice I think, because we are looking at the actors and not the background. But when I have these kind of light-changes in the editroom I always think that these won’t match, and struggle with it to make it work.

    I love the decision to don’t go for a CU of the hands. Great choice, works really good.


    • Author
      Shane 5 years ago

      martijn, I find that you do your best to match, but remember it is the story and the performance. Those are your first concerns. Tell that in a way that captivates and moves an audience then finesse the light to match the best you can. Your eyes are on Kirsten, not the BG. Thanks, I think that wide says it all at the end.

  12. John Behrens 5 years ago

    Thanks so much for this lighting series. This is the kind of information I’m always thirsting for. I don’t want to gush or anything, but what you do on this blog is actually making me better at lighting and shooting… and that honestly blows my mind that you’re offering this information just out of pure passion for what you do. It’s not only very educational, but hugely inspiring.
    By the way, my brother was an extra in Mr. 3000 and I remember him telling me, ‘This was shot by the guy who did Drumline, and the cinematography in that movie was amazing!’ Can’t wait for the next post.

    • Author
      Shane 5 years ago

      John Behrens, Thank you so much for these wonderful kind words and support. I had so much fun on Mr. 3000 and stay tuned.

  13. Sam Kim 5 years ago

    your CU comment is interesting. especially with so much good tv and that influencing people’s shooting i feel as if some films are using the CU way too much. a film that i really admire, because it really chooses WHEN to use the CU, is That Evening Sun. It’s that kind of maturity that amazes me.

    Thanks for sharing, Shane.

    • Author
      Shane 5 years ago

      Sam Kim, Hi Sam, great to see you on the blog. I feel the same way, you have to hold back so it means something. We are so fascinated with the ECU. Too much watching the video monitor at video village and not realizing that the image that you are looking at will be on a 60′ screen. You are very welcome.

  14. Charles 5 years ago

    Great. Thanks. Next year we buy the 5D. Until then we read and study everything you write here. Light in Holland is different from anywhere else (they say), and is not the easiest light!

  15. Nick Savides 5 years ago

    Hi Shane,

    That was great. Thank you.

    I found your blog through As it happens, I work for Canon providing support for our EOS equipment and video equipment. I was familiar with you through the Canon Digital Learning Center, but I missed your blog until now.

    It is very helpful to have the video clip of the scene right next to your lighting plots. Decent of the studio/filmmakers to let you post it.

    Anyway, I will be sure to recommend your site to any of our aspiring cinematographers who want to learn more about shooting video on HD DSLRs. (To clarify, that would be just a personal recommendation from me, which I must distinguish from an official endorsement by Canon. Still you are one of our Explorers of Light, and we definitely mention your collaborations with us whenever relevant.)


    • Author
      Shane 5 years ago

      Nick Savides, Nice to have you on the blog, you are very welcome and thank you so much for your support. We have much in store for all of our co-collaborators this year. 2011 will be fantastic!!!

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