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How To Bring a Cinematic Look to a Small Budget Commercial, part 10

cinematic look

Part 10: How to Black Out a House on a Budget

Welcome to final installment of this 10 part series on how to bring a cinematic look to a small budget commercial. In this series I am sharing with you the behind the scenes process of how we at Bleeding Thorn Films make a project happen– warts and all, from script to screen. In Part 9 I showed you how we approach data management on this project. In part 10 I’m going to show you how to black out a house.

How To Black Out a House On A Budget

As I mentioned in Part 03 and Part 04 of this series, the parameters around this specific shoot meant that we would be shooting a spot that takes place at night during the middle of the day. In the planning stages of the shoot I had considered two options: shooting day for night or blacking out the house. I chose the latter, as I have yet to see a credible day for night effect created in camera, even with the help of post-processing. This may seem like a daunting task for a small budget commercial, but with a little creativity, ingenuity, and planning, it is not difficult to pull off. And the benefit is that it is just like shooting on a stage, where every light is placed and fully controllable.

Here are the supplies you will need:

  1. Lots of 1” & 2” Spring Clamps
  2. 6 Mil. Plastic Sheeting
  3. Dark Colored Tarps
  4. Rope
  5. Painters Tape

Here are the tools you’ll need:

  1. Leatherman
  2. Ladder

Blacking out this house was a two-step process, as I needed complete control over the light levels, and to keep us on schedule. To accomplish these two goals, I first had to pre-light the wide shot, which would be our last shot of the day, and then black out the house. We started our day by using the spring clamps to clip the tarps to the gutter of the house. Then we tied off the bottom of the tarp to sandbags by threading the rope through the eyelets of the tarp.

tarps clipped to the gutter

Above: Tarps clipped to the gutter (we ran out of 1” & 2” clips. This is a 3” clip)

 sandbag tied to the bottom of the tarp

Above: Sandbag tied to the bottom of the tarp

With the tarps in place, we had now effectively tented in the house. While this did bring down the light levels substantially, the main purpose of these tarps was to block the exterior lights of the neighbors that would come on at night. The secondary purpose was to protect the lights from the winter elements as they sat waiting to be used. Now that I had the tarps up, I could place the lights for the lightning gag that would play in the wide shot.

pre-lighting for the final shot

Above: Pre-lighting for the final shot

The second step to black out this house was applying plastic sheeting to all of the windows. Using the Leatherman tool, we cut the plastic to size for each window. Then we used painter’s tape to secure it to the house. While gaffer’s tape may have provided the same results, I have found it to be stronger than painters tape, and on occasion it has pulled paint off of surfaces it was stuck to. As the owners of this house had gone to a lot of work to customize it on their own, I wanted to treat the house with extra care, so I used the more paint friendly painter’s tape instead.

blacking out the windows

Above: Blacking out the windows

Now that every window was covered from the exterior, it was pitch black inside, creating the perfect mood for our commercial. The only drawback to this approach is that you cannot shoot directly at the windows, or have light near the windows, as the plastic behind it can show up, revealing the gag. Fortunately for our shoot, this wasn’t an issue, as the only windows that we see are deep in the background and hard to see.

2 windows behind the talent

Above: There are two windows behind the talents right shoulder

By scheduling our wide shot for the end of the day after the sun had set, we saved ourselves from having to also black out the entire porch area. Instead, all we had to do was to throw up a 4×4 floppy behind us to remove our reflections and block the small amount of light that was coming from the street lights. Then it was just a matter of pulling the plastic from in front of the prelit windows and we were ready to shoot. (If you are interested in seeing the lighting setups for this commercial, I have them diagrammed in Part 02 of this series).

setup for last shot

Above: Setting up for the last shot. 4×4 in place behind the slider to block the street light

The limitations of a small budget do not preclude you from telling your stories, or from creating cinematic images to support your story. Instead of being seen as a hindrance, these limitations should be seen as another creative challenge to overcome. That is what I love about filmmaking; there are many ways to get the same job done, whether it is data management, or creating a day for night look. And it is my job as a visual storyteller to choose the path that is most appropriate for the story I’m telling.

After executing the shoot according to the plan we developed in preproduction, all that remains is working with the client to message the edit before the final color grade and rendering for delivery. Hopefully this series has given you some new ideas, tools, or approaches that you can use in your next production big or small.

Keep an eye on our blogtwitter or Vimeo Channel to follow us on our latest storytelling adventures.

This is the finale of a 10 part series, click the links below to view the entire series.

Part 1: Landing The Client and Creative Ideation

Part 2: Budgeting and Creating The Proposal

Part 3: How to Location Scout

Part 4: Story-boarding On A Small Budget

Part 5: How To Create a Lighting Diagram

Part 6: How To Create a Shooting Schedule and Call Sheet

Part 7: How To Conduct A Camera Test

Part 8: How To Build a Rain Bar

Part 9: How To Approach Data Management On A Budget

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About the Author


Born in 1980 in Seattle, Washington, Ryan has had a love and passion for the visual arts since a young child when his grandmother, an avid photographer, took him along on photo expeditions. As he grew up, his parents furthered that passion by enrolling him in various art programs and lessons. While he enjoyed painting and drawing, something was always missing - the ability to capture motion. Once introduced to the art of cinematography in high school he never looked back.Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer Since that time, Ryan has developed this passion and turned it into his career. As an award-winning cinematographer his work has allowed him the opportunity to travel worldwide in the pursuit of telling stories that are visually compelling. Ryan's distinct experience includes feature films, documentaries, commercials, and shooting for Comcast, TLC, Oxygen, and the Discovery Channel. Not only does Ryan seek to deliver cinematic images for his clients, but his commitment, organization, and professionalism means he constantly goes the extra mile to ensure that the results he delivers exceed his clients expectations.

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