Need for Speed Lighting Breakdowns

Need For Speed in Car Tobey and Julia

Part One:
Lighting Car Interiors at NIGHT!!!

I have gone in depth on all the camera choices that I made on Need for Speed; I have shown you many tests of multiple digital sensors and have shown you how to immerse an audience. Now I want to go into how I light, what choices I make with specific units, and why one lighting tool is selected over another. Lighting car interiors at night has always been a challenge. With the invention of cameras that see into the night, it has given me what I have always tried to mimic, which is bringing the outside light into the vehicle and have it really expose your passengers.

“Let’s break it down”

Back in the days of film, I always wanted to deliver what actually happened in a car to the naked eye, the outside light streaming into the car from street lights, passing headlights of a car, or parking lots and shops. With 500 ISO being your most light sensitive film emulsion, you were left with an underexposed image and those streetlights not really keying your talent. The light was not enough. I created elaborate rigs on Crazy/Beautiful and Waist Deep to mimic this light.

“The Process Trailer”

The process trailer is a trailer that you put your picture car on. The actors fake like they are driving around town, when in actuality, they are being pulled behind an insert Camera Car, which has a generator on board for your lights, cameras and staff so that they can view.


“The Elaborate Rig”

On Crazy/Beautiful, Director John Stockwell wanted all of the movie to feel real, like we were right there documenting it as it happened. This was a huge undertaking. We had a sequence in the film where Kirsten Dunst and Jay Hernandez start to fall in love in the back seat of an old Ford Bronco driving down the streets of downtown LA at night. Now with a Canon 5D or a Canon C500 jacked to 2000 ISO, this would be no problem because these cameras love the low light. Remember. C500, seven stops in the under and five in the over. Film, five stops in the under and eight in the over. Those extra two stops make all the difference.

Getting back to the rig, we put the Bronco on the process trailer and designed a goal post rig that was suspended over the truck. It was an advanced box truss system that moved high pressure sodium light fixtures back and forth over their heads to illuminate the interior. Obviously, the light can only move one direction to simulate speed and moving forward. So one light would move on this truss and when it got to its end mark, a door would close on it and we would then pull it back to the front. You cannot turn high pressure sodium lights off and on. They are like HMIs. They have to fire a gas that then illuminates. It is not a wire that gets electrified like a tungsten source. We knew that the light would be reflected into the front windshield so the grips made a cut out for the light so that it looked like a Cobra Head street light shape. When that closed box light was heading back, the other crew would pull the light from the front to the back on the other truss that was right next to it. This process was done at about 40mph. It was a circus act flying down the streets of LA.

“Smash Cut to Sensor Technology”

Now we have incredibly sensitive camera sensors that enable us as artists to capture all the light out there and expose an image in the vehicle. How do you do this with grace and elegance? You could turn your camera on and crank your ISO up and document your actors. That is one way, but how do we make it a beautiful reality? In a nutshell, this is my style as a Director of Photography — taking something that looks ordinary if you just turned your camera on it and make it unique, different, beautiful. This is what I am going to go into with this post, how to make something feel real, but not RAW, or not stylized. Just beautiful and beauty in a way that fits the story!

Macon at night

“The Vision”

On Need for Speed, director Scotty Waugh wanted ultimate freedom. We had to be able to drive these cars at night for miles in all different lighting conditions, from the outskirts to the town square. On 35mm film, this would have been possible only with a budget over 120 million dollars and adding 20 extra days to the schedule. We opted to exploit the C500’s sensitive sensor and give Scotty his vision, which was lighting 4.5 miles of street racing with lights from Home Depot, Georgia Water and Power street lights and no lights on huge cranes.

Need for Speed

“The Lighting Plot”

The lighting plot for these shots was very simple, but the selection of roads became very complex and so important. Let’s take the start of the race for example. Aaron Paul is in his car; we slowly zoom into his eyes; all sound drops out. This is done with a 400 watt HPS cobra head from Home Depot that is a 3/4 toplight, a 3” x 12” Rosco Pad taped to the dashboard with 1/2 plus green on it to emulate the dashboard of a 70’s Gran Torino and that was it. So simple.

Aaron CU in Car @ night

Getting into Aaron Paul’s head and delivering beautiful reality in car interiors at night.

Need for Speed
Need for Speed

“Using the Right Lighting Tool”

I turn to Rosco Lite Pads for all dashboard interior lights. Why? Dashboard lights are not hard sources of light. They are a soft ambient light feel. The Rosco Lite Pad is LED light that fires into a white background, which makes them incredibly soft and ambient looking. They come in either tungsten or daylight balanced. I like to use daylight balanced LEDs to simulate the dashboard. The last and final piece to your beautiful reality dashboard light is a dimmer, which allows you to dial a level to match the street that you are driving on.

Lite pad contents_smLite pad

Back to the starting line. The cars were positioned under a street light, so I dialed down the dashboard light to a level that filled in the shadows so that they did not get too contrasty. This was gauged on the distance between the street lights, that void of light area where you have just driven under a light and the next one is just starting to give you an exposure. This is the Zero Dark Thirty area that I fill in with the Lite Pad.

“Size Does Matter”

What Light Pad dimension do you use? I look at the dashboard’s size and then match the size to that. The Rosco Lite Pad Gaffer’s kit has the sizes I like to use. For small dashboards, I use the 3” x 6” daylight. For medium size dashboards, I use the 3” x 12” daylight pad and for the big ones, I use the 6” x 12” daylight pad. I find that these sizes emulate the ambient quality perfectly.

Need For Speed  tobey in car at night

Look how the dashboard light fills in perfectly with all the ambient street light flying into the car, just enough so that it doesn’t go jet black.

“Scouting the roads that will make the difference”

When talking about pulling off the beautiful reality, it is about the subtle light in the car, as well as the road that you choose for your car’s journey. When I was scouting roads for the Need for Speed Mt. Kisco night race, I wanted an eclectic mix of quality. One that felt on the outskirts of town, then a light quality that felt like the racers were coming into town, then a very lit town square feel. Of course, mixing this with dark alleys where homeless men can come out of the shadows was essential. HA HA!!! I took a huge amount of Canon 1DC still shots of the areas and then Scotty and I picked the different looks.

Macon at night gran torino
aaron in car

Macon at night

Lighting 4.5 miles with accent lights but most lighting supplied by Macon Georgia Water and Power, aka street lights.

“Adding the lights along the road to accent”

Looking back, what I did on Need for Speed was ballsy as hell. I lit 4.5 miles of street racing with some dashboard lights and some perfectly placed lights to accent the car’s journey. When I scouted the roads that soon became the street raceway for the Mt. Kisco race in Macon Georgia, I would look to the peripheral of what I would see if I were looking at a lateral angle, which is the speed angle. If a section of road was too dark, then I would go in and add Home Depot Dusk to Dawn practical lights. Some were mounted onto buildings; others were just put up on combo stands. When you are driving 80 mph, you do not see the stand. You just see the smearing source and the area that it lights. Don’t be worried about the stands. Other lights that I used were Kino Flos placed in store fronts or neon light supplied by set deck.

Macon roads w_ accent lights

Neon lights added to the right side and an 800 Watt Metal Halide added to the parking lot.

None of this would have been possible five years ago. It would have required the circus act on the process trailer and a very creative limiting approach. As a DP, I feel that I need to give the director as much flexibility as possible. I want him or her to be able to dream and then I take that dream and make it a Beautiful Reality.

  1. Sheng Jin 2 years ago


    Thank you so much for sharing! I’ve been learning so much from your posts ever since I discovered this gold mine a week ago:) Really appreciate all your hard work and efforts to mentor and to share! You are the man!

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      Sheng Jin, Welcome to the HurlBlog!!! Where we deliver content that no one else does. Glad to have you and thank you for those wonderful words

  2. Kamil 2 years ago

    Hi Shane, many thanks for a great, as always, post. It is really amazing, that when you watch a film light looks so natural, but in fact every single ray of it is controlled and created on purpose. I am just starting out and decided to spend about $2,5-3k on the lighting – that’s my budget. I am a little confused as there are new types of lighting (plasma), led etc., as well as many forms like 1×1, fresnel etc. I don’t really know what to buy, how to distribute that budget to get the maximum value and have as complete lighting package as possible. Would you mind giving me some advices? Many thanks in advance, keep up great work!

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      Kamil, You are very welcome and thank you for your kind words and support of our Blog. I would start building lights. I take 1 x 4’s and screw sockets to them and use that for key lights, I wrap rope light up and use that. I buy Dusk to Dawn fixtures to light street scenes at night. I would get a simple Lowel kit that has 3 heads in it and practice Key light, fill light and back light ratios. I love bouncing off of their silver umbrellas then going out and buying a shower curtain and softening that. DIY baby, you can get a ton of lights for your budget if you do it this way.

  3. Mark Rutherford 2 years ago

    Hi Shane,
    Great post as usual.
    Truly amazing how much our craft has changed in the last 5 years.
    I’m imagining that as urban street lighting shifts towards 55k-ish LED’s that we’ll be asked to grade to match older legacy tungsten and sodium vapor street lights. And wonder when that convention will fade into a cultural artifact.

    One thing will remain the same- cameras are cool but lighting rocks.

    Best to Lydia and Po- Mark

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      Mark Rutherford, you are exactly right. When shooting in Pittsburgh their were streets that were already being converted to LED lights. I find them a little sterile and lack that edgy, beautiful feel. Thanks for sharing your comments and I will tell Po and Lydia you said hi.

  4. Oli Kember 2 years ago

    Thanks Shane! Great read as ever.

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      Oli Kember, thank you for your support my friend

  5. D 2 years ago


    Thank you for the informative article, and the insight into the Need for Speed production.

    Could you quickly go into power distribution? How did your team add power to the HPS cobras? I’m assuming you had powerful genies, lunch boxes, and cables at your disposal, but for low to no budget filmmakers power & line loss are always an issue.

    Also did you have an issue with flicker from the street lamps or the LED kit when on the dimmer?

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      D, most of all those HPS cobra heads were powered by little 1000 watt or 2000 watt putt putt generators and extension cords. So this is a very low budget solution. I use it this way because is is so much faster, then running power for miles. No flickering with the Rosco Lite Pads

  6. Paul Niccolls 2 years ago

    Hey Shane, Great read!
    I’m really blown away by what you did with the C500. I was just at the B&H event you did at the DGA Theater in New York, and just wanted to say thanks for that as well. Need for Speed isn’t really my kind of movie, but I’m going to definitely check it out after seeing your presentation. Some of those rigs were beyond sick…
    Unfortunately the moderator cut things short and I wasn’t able to ask at the event, but you mentioned all the cameras you tested before production began on the film, and I was wondering if you could kind of place the cameras in terms of how the test shook out. I know the C500 and Alexa came out on top, but I’m really curious about some of the others. Since it’s unlikely that I’ll have $200k to do such a comprehensive test, I’d LOVE to hear some of your results and thoughts. Also, any chance you’ll put the footage from all the cameras tested up on vimeo someday?

    Thanks again!!

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      Paul Niccolls, It was great to see all of you in NYC and I think the event went very well. Thank you for your kind words and I look forward to hearing your comments when you see the full movie. I have posted on the HurlBlog C500 vs Alexa, C500 vs Red Epic. So they are their for your review. I will be soon posting C500 vs Alexa at 150mph tests at Willow Springs. To shake the cameras out I would rate them as follows: C500, Alexa, Red Epic, 35mm Film, F65, 1DC, F55,BMCC, GoPro

  7. Josef 2 years ago

    This article is so great. Thanks Shane for your insights.
    I can use your tips for an upcoming night scene.

    Greetings from germany

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      Josef, I am so glad that I could help. I will be doing many breakdowns on Need for Speed as well as Act of Valor, talking about lighting digital sensors

  8. Heath V 2 years ago

    Really loving this insight into the making of this and I know it’s going to help me on my journey. I don’t fancy myself a DP, more of a director, but I love learning and I can handle myself on a camera and more so since reading all your articles from the beginning. I’m looking forward to the blu-ray and hope it’s covering some of this in behind the scenes style. Thanks for laying it all out for us and loving the Inner Circle. Awesome work!

  9. Jean-Philippe A 1 year ago

    I just watched Need For Speed yesterday. Beautiful cinematography!! Thank you so much for sharing all these tips and insights :) Love this blog!

    • Author
      Shane 1 year ago

      Thanks so much Jean-Phillippe, always appreciate the support. I loved shooting that movie, so many beautiful cars!

  10. Ian 1 year ago

    Hi Shane,
    I am shooting a car commercial soon, using a Sony F5 with Zeiss Super Speeds. It will mostly shoot during the day, lots of interior car shots, driver, passengers, etc. Those Rosco LitePads seem like a great choice, I could hide them in so many places! Do they have enough punch to show on camera during the day? I know this depends on the day (cloudy or sunny). Thanks so much!

  11. Mike Atkins 12 months ago

    Shane Im so excited I found this you are my favorite DP. I hope to take one of your illumination classes but I don’t know when the next one in L.A is?

    • Author
      Shane 12 months ago

      Hi Mike. Thanks so much for your kind words. I am not currently planning on doing another Illumination class, but my team and I may revisit the idea in the future. For now you can take a look at the IE Downloads if you are interested in seeing the Workshop and Masterclass. Check them out here:

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