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How To Bring a Cinematic Look to a Small Budget Commercial, part 5

cinematic look

Written by: Ryan Walters

Part 5: How To Create A Lighting Diagram

Welcome to part 05 of this ten 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 4, I covered how to create a storyboard. In Part 5 I am covering our process for creating a lighting diagram.

Creating A Lighting Diagram

With a solid understanding of the location and what shots we need to tell the story, it is time to pair that information with the budget and the crew I’ll have on hand. The trick is to come up with a lighting plan that will realistically fit within the schedule for the project. Here in Portland, Oregon, we typically work 10 hour days before overtime kicks in. On a small budget projects, overtime is not an option, so I need to plan carefully to enable us to make our day.

Over the years I have used a number of applications to create camera and lighting diagrams. I have never been 100% satisfied with the options out there, and I’m still not completely happy. When I create a diagram, I want to be able to work fast, experimenting with different options. That means the tool needs to be flexible, have a lot of built in tools specific to filmmaking, and not be cumbersome to set up. Currently, the tool that gets me closest to these needs is Shot Designer. Available for the desktop, iPhone, and iPad, this tool allows me to quickly and effortlessly diagram the scene, and it allows me to save different versions of the scene. As an added benefit, it also automatically creates a shot list for me. My frustration with it comes in the limited number of props & lighting tools available in its library. Due to the small number of options, I end up having to label everything, and use incorrect set objects to stand in for other items. This may not be a big deal to you, but it grates on my Type-A personality. The other thing that frustrates my Type-A personality is the camera labeling system. I would prefer the ability to label the shots according to how they will be slated on set. Unfortunately, this is not an option, and, at this time, the developer of the app doesn’t seem interested in adding it. (Yes I have spoken to him via email.) So, for now, that means I have to go in and add a custom description to every shot. But even with these drawbacks, I still think this is the best app available today.

For this project, I knew that we were limited to using the three principles of Bleeding Thorn Films – Tim, Nic, and myself. That meant we were each going to have to wear multiple hats throughout the shoot, and remain flexible and adaptable at all times. As I sat down to figure out the lighting plan, it meant that I needed a plan that would not overburden us and needlessly slow us down. Let’s take a look at how I accomplished that goal.

lighting and blocking diagram

Above: Lighting and Blocking Diagram

Pictured above is the complete overhead diagram. The red cameras are the shots that I absolutely needed to tell the story, and the blue cameras are extra shots that would be nice to have if time permits. I knew that due to the location we would be tenting the house, which would take up about half of our day. That meant that I had to come up with a lighting approach that I could set at the beginning of the day, and make minor adjustments as we shot.

lighting diagram

Above: Lightning Diagram

The lightning gag was going to be the biggest and most challenging setup to pull off. I knew that the circuits in the house were only 20 amps, and the small budget we had to work with meant we would be working with tungsten lights. I did not want to blow the entire lighting budget on one HMI light. Working within those limitations made my choice simple- to pull off the lightning gag, I would have to use a 1k, 650w, 300W, and 150W lamp all plugged into one circuit. Fortunately all of these lights would be flashing on and off, so the circuit did not have to hold for long. According to the math, (2,000w of light~ 20 amps) the circuit should hold, but that is assuming that nothing else in the house is plugged into that same circuit. And in a practical location, that is not an assumption I like to make. I placed the 650W and 300W lights outside and pointed them through the windows to add streaks of light coming into the windows. The 1k open face light was pointed up and into the corner of the ceiling. As it came on, it would provide a general fill light. I placed the 150 watt lamp behind the rain bar, and used it to back light the rain, as the texture of rain only becomes apparent if it is back lit. These lamps were placed at the start of the day, ready to be called into service the moment we needed them.

The next challenge was figuring out how to motivate the interior lighting. As this was taking place during a blackout, I had two directions that I could choose from. I could go the traditional route and use moonlight coming in through the windows, or I could go with candles. While motivating moonlight would have been a good choice, it would also mean a lot more time rigging and hiding lights. Our time was already cut short by tenting the house, so I opted to use candles as my motivation.

candle diagram

Above: Candle Diagram

With the motivation figured out, now I needed to figure out placement. I knew that working with a small budget meant that I couldn’t haphazardly place the candles, as they would be few in number. I needed to choose key positions to place them at where they would allow me to light the shots in a pleasing manner. As I plotted the camera positions according to the storyboard, I noticed three key positions for the candles. The first was on the end of the bar in the kitchen. This would allow for some ambient light in the kitchen. It would also be the motivation for the key light. Then, as our actor walked into the living room, it would become a side/rim light. The second candle position was on the left hand side of the doorway. This candle would motivate the side and rim light on our actor as he sat at the desk. And the final candle position was on the bookshelf. This candle would motivate our key light for everything that happened at the desk.

china ball diagram

Above: China Ball Diagram

Even with the super sensitive cameras we have these days, candles do not have the throw or light output that I would need for proper exposure. In order to get to the proper light levels I decided to use a china ball on a menace arm for the key light, and a 150W light on a C-Stand as the rim / kicker. I could light my entire scene with these two lights, as they were small & light enough to be easily re-positioned shot to shot using the crew I had available to me. And by using a skirt on the China ball, I could control the spill of the light.

computer diagram

Above: Computer Diagram

The last part of the puzzle to figure out was the table light. At the climax of the scene, our actor turns on his tablet to retrieve his identification and personal documents. For the close up, I wanted additional light to fall on his face as the screen came on. To accomplish this gag, I would need a blue colored light, and it would need to be a soft glow. The most simple answer was to bounce a daylight colored lamp into a piece of foam core. I chose foam core because it is reflective enough to give me the return I wanted, yet soft enough that it isn’t a point source of light.

By doing the leg work of location scouting, story-boarding, and diagramming, I have given myself a solid game plan from which to execute the project. The more prepared I am going into a shoot, the easier it will be to handle the unforeseen when it happens during the shoot. I have also found that having a detailed plan opens me up to additional possibilities during the shoot, as long as I don’t get locked into strictly following the plan. I am freed up to try out new ideas, as I know that I have a plan I can fall back on if the idea doesn’t work out. It becomes a safety net for experimentation. And, in the end, we only grow and produce stronger visual stories by pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zone.

Stay tuned for part 6 where I’ll be covering how to create a shooting schedule. And keep an eye on our blogtwitter or Vimeo Channel to follow us on our latest storytelling adventures.

This is part 5 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 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

Part 10: How To Black Out A House On A Budget

Join the conversation

One Response to “How To Bring a Cinematic Look to a Small Budget Commercial, part 5”

  1. Leroy on July 14th, 2014 4:47 am

    Hmm is anyone else experiencing problems with the pictures on this blog loading?
    I’m trying to find out if its a problem on my end or if it’s the blog.
    Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

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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