Night Interiors: The Build

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Night Interiors: The Build

I’m going to take you through how I light night interiors, and those night interiors will transition from our practical light into moonlight and urban sources that we replicate. These scenes present fragile parameters that we have to work in, and I’m going to outline those to you so that you  will be able to comfortably light a night interior scene from scratch.

I love the ability to play the digital sensor right on the edge, where you can barely see detail, just in the shadows. I’ve never been a big fan of hot backlight on night exteriors and I love it to be very underexposed and moody, but just having enough detail to be able to see into the shadows. I’m going to take you through that whole process.

“I love the ability to play the digital sensor right on the edge, where you can barely see detail, just in the shadows”

“I love it to be very underexposed and moody”

It starts with setting the camera down right at the angle that I’d like to shoot this. Now obviously I’ve got a lot of lights blazing here, so you can see me talking, but immediately we’re going to start to turn these lights off, we’re going to work with just the practical light, we’re going to bring in our moonlight sources or urban sources. We’re in a New York apartment, we’re going to be influenced from metal halide lights outside.

Before you start lighting you need to set your camera angle first

So, I would plot my camera down and I would kind of set an exposure that is always going to be wide open. I’ve shot over 21 movies and television series and most of the time it’s T2, whether it’s blazing day exteriors, or night exteriors, or night interiors. I always try to keep that shallow depth of field. I think it really plays three dimensionally.

I like to be wide open whether it’s blazing day exteriors…

…or night interiors

Now there’s sometimes an action that you have to go to a T2.8 or a T4 so you can get everything in focus. On the cars in Need for Speed, when I was doing all that action, I was playing everything more around a T4. But for drama and these types of movies, I really like to play in that T2 range.

Only for action I sometimes have to go to around T4

Ok, in the scene we are creating here, our character is going to walk in, sit down, he’s going to set his alarm, do a little action, maybe look at a pill, decide not to take it. And then he’s going to turn off the light and lay in bed.

So with that we need to create some night gags, because we’re going to have to turn off the light as he turns off the light, and any light that we are using for accenting that light will need to turn off with him. And we’re also going to have the moonlight coming through the windows.

Now one thing that looks incredibly unrealistic and I see it in many films, is where they snap the lights off and when you snap the tungsten lights off, they snap the moonlight on. We’re not going to be doing that. We’re going to have the moonlight already playing, it’s going to be tickling in the background, it’s just going to be apparent enough for you to see it and believe it as either a moonlight source or an urban source.

We have the moonlight already playing in the background

I want you to see what the scene looks like lit with just one single practical. We are wide open, at ISO 800. Now he’s kind of lit but he’s very dark.

Scene lit with one practical

There’s two ways to go about lighting like this. You can light the background which I like to do first – I like to get my moonlight going. Know that he’s going to be here, but I wanna get the moonlight at a balanced level to be able to play here.

I light my background first to get the moonlight going

Now, having said that, we have the practical light that was illuminating him ever so slightly, but we’re going to have to augment that from behind the practical. The light was incredibly hot and he was incredibly dark and you didn’t see anything else in the room.

We’re going to have to bring a light source in from behind the practical, so there’s going to be some accents that we’re going to have to add, as well as the urban light coming through the window. We’re going to start with keying him with a Westcott light from over here.

When you’re using practicals, especially these barrel lamps and stuff, they are a very warm tonality. These Westcott Spiderlite match that tonality, we can put honeycombs and everything on it which I think we’re probably going to have to do. Or we’ll dim it down and just go one circuit. But let’s play it horizontal on him like this.


Westcott Spiderlite with softbox placed horizontal

Color, temperature-wise, what we’re going to have to match is 2270K, so that’s what we’re looking to go for to be able to match the practical light.

Our color temp is 2270K

Eric Forand (Gaffer): And the reason we like to use the Westcott lights is that the color temperature is very warm.

Shane: Same globes that we actually have in that practical right there. So we are going to mimic this light.

Westcott Spider bulbs are very warm in temperature, so they’re ideal to match practical lights

The reason I am starting and building with the practical light first is because that’s going to decide how bright my moonlight/urban light is based on this light being on and then we’ll go from there.

I love this mood right here. This mood is perfect. Coming from this light is absolutely awesome. It’s just not bright enough. And if we put a brighter bulb in there, then it’s just going to be bright on the wall and bright on the bed and it’s not going to make any difference. So that requires us to bring in our light.

I love the mood of one practical, but the light is too bright and actor too dark

Eric: So the great thing about the Westcott is we have three circuits. So we can turn them on one at a time. Two circuits seems to do the charm here.

Westcott Spider lights have circuits that you can turn on separately

Shane: The only problem is that I can see your light in the mirror, so let’s fix it with a tape ball.  And let’s change the color temp on the camera to 4000K.

Key Grip Dave and his tape ball

Now it looks perfect. The color, the tone, exactly like it’s coming straight off the practical. I am riding the line here with that one light here, there’s enough light on him and at the same time I love how it’s falling off and illuminating the wall behind him. I’m worried that if we honeycomb it, it’s going to lose the feeling of the single source light.

The color, the mood, and the tone are perfect now

We are on 18 IRE in the shadows. That’s definitely dark, but I think that the mood is nice. We are on a T1.5 on the 24mm XEEN lens and my light reads a T2, so we have our nice base level.

We are on a T1.5, 24mm XEEN, ISO 800, and our light reads a T2

Now let’s get an M8 out there. I want to talk you through matching color temps. Just like with the practical light, you want to match exactly what’s out there in the real world. If you’re matching an urban vapor, or a sodium vapor, or a metal halide, then you want to match that source exactly.

Matching metal halides in “Swing Vote”

So we have a metal halide. Now, it’s not going to be as functional as a nice M8, so what we’re going to do is, we’re going to fire this up and we’re going to read its color temperature, and then we’re going to match the color temp with the M8. That way we could be much more controlled, we can spot it in if we need to, we can flood it out, we can scrim it.

Our real metal halide that we want to match with M8

The metal halides are a little uncontrollable at best. The idea is: imagine that there’s a metal halide outside the window. We’ve got a brick wall, let’s say this is in between the buildings in New York city somewhere. And this metal halide is illuminating this area. So we’re going to want to shape the M8s through the windows and give nice streaks of light across the bed and the actor. We’re going to use some gels to match the metal halide. Then we’re going to go and use a white bounce up on the ceiling with some Leko technology, to be able to pinpoint just some specific areas that just gives you this soft bounce that doesn’t fly all over everywhere. You can scrim it down and blue it a little bit. So we’re going to create kind of a cold tone in the shadows in the bedroom, and then we’ll use this cold metal halide feel to streak across, mixed with the warm practical.

Our ceiling bounce

We also need to set our overhead shot. I want to get a graphic top down with the help of our MoVI. When he lays down and the lights turn off, I want to do this kind of swirl effect, this kind of haunting turn from overhead.

Our overhead shot

We have fitted the Toad in the Hole with a junior pin receiver onto this menace arm and we’re going to send this up to get our overhead shot. And we’re going to need a 14mm because the 24mm is not wide enough for this shot.

Our MoVI mounted on menace arm with a Toad in the Hole to junior pin adapter

Now back to color temperature on the metal halide. My color meter is reading a 4000K with a 1.3 magenta, so that is going to require a 1/2 green to achieve that look with the M8. Let’s see if it warms it up a little bit, but I actually have my camera set to 4000K and I want this light to be a little colder, so let’s see where the 1/2 green gets us.

My color meter is reading 4000K with 1.3 magenta, let’s try 1/2 green gel

Let’s place the M8s so that we are getting a streak of light across his face.

Eric: A simple rule for a gaffer, if you stand in a place where you want to put the light and you can see the spot where you want the light to hit, then that’s the correct placement of the light. A pretty simple but effective rule, because it’s important to see where the light is coming from to be able to tell where the light is going to hit.

Eric finding the best placement for the M8

Shane: Another important thing to remember is that the further your light is from your subject, the more your light is going to spread. That’s why we want our M8 as far as possible, so that it’s just one streak of light across him.  

The further you are from subject, the more the light spreads

And the angle of the M8 that is hitting our actor dictates the angle of the additional M8 – we want it to hit the bottom corner of the bed while at the same time being consistent with the main M8.

You also want to make sure that the light is directed and doesn’t fly all over the place, so use barn doors and black wrap if necessary.

Back to our color temp of the M8. The 1/2 green got us to 1.4 magenta, so not all the way there. With additional 1/4  green, we are way too green, so let’s try out an additional 1/8 green.

In the meantime, I like to bunch up the curtains on the window. By doing that, it creates some interesting effects. It’s some soft light mixed with the hard light, it gives us mood. You can see it right on the pillow. And we could have a little fan blowing the curtains just to get a little movement.

See how the curtain throws interesting shadows on the pillow?

The electricians added the 1/8 green in addition to the 1/2 green that’s already on there, but that is still way too green, so let’s just stay with the 1/2 green.

1/2 + 1/8 green gel are still too green

We need to bring the M8s a lot higher to make it feel more like an urban source, and we need to flag off the M8s so that we don’t have a spill on the white walls and the white and silver ceiling, and having the light fly all over the place. That would ruin the mood in the room and not make it as moody and contrasty as I’d like. So let’s put a topper on them.

Setting up some flags and raising the M8s

We need to put up a topper over the lights to get rid of the spill in the walls and ceiling

And to finish this part off, let’s also throw a double scrim in there to decrease the intensity of the light we’re getting.

Lighting diagram

Look how great it looks now!

Let’s re-cap what we’ve learned:

  • Always set up your camera angle first before you start lighting
  • Then see your shot with all the practicals in it
  • Augment those practicals
  • Be sure that the color temp of your added light matches that of your practical
  • To make the environment looks natural, try to add some urban or moonlight sources from the outside – be sure to have the right color temp
  • You want to have your urban sources or moonlight sources playing in the background the whole time
  • When placing your lights, stand in a place where you can see the subject that you want to light, if you can see it, the light is in the right spot
  • Remember that the closer you are to the subject the narrower your beam of light will be
  • Control the spill of your lights, you don’t want them bouncing off the walls and ceilings and flying all over the place
  • Always shape your light
  • You can use your curtains to create interesting shadows and movement (with a help of simple box fan)

All video edited on HP Z840 workstations and HP Z24x DreamColor monitors.



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