Filling in the Shadows: Lighting

[And continuing our technical blogs, here’s Gaffer Dylan Borger.]

Hi readers!  My name’s Dylan and I’ll be filling the role of Gaffer on the set of “Now Upon A Time”.  Most of you have probably heard of the term and may even know what it means but for those of you who have no clue I’ll fill you in on the meaning and a little of what the job is.

Dylan on the set of Relative Situation

While I wish it meant I was the father of Samwise Gamgee in Lord Of The Rings, Gaffer is the title given to the head of the lighting department and more specifically the electric department.  Just because the Gaffer is head of the lighting department, however, doesn’t mean he or she is the one who has final say over the lights. That authority lies in the DP’s (Director of Photography) hands.  The Gaffer’s job is to work with the DP and help carryout his or her vision by being in charge of both the Grip and Electric department.  Once the DP and Gaffer are on the same page, it’s the Gaffer’s responsibility to make sure everything has power then set up lights, all in the most efficient way possible, because quite often the whole set is waiting on lights. A not so easy task at times.

Now I’m sure you have seen a camera and you’ve probably held one in your own hands, and I’m sure when you looked through the eye piece it didn’t take you long to see that what you record doesn’t look at all as good as it does when viewed with your natural eye.  While the cameras you’ve held probably weren’t film cameras, you understand a little of what is the biggest task in my job: trying to shape and point light to make it look like real life.  Don’t worry, I’ll spare you a bunch of boring lighting theory and keep it to the point.  Lighting something may sound as simple as point a couple lights and make sure the fixtures are out of shot, but it gets much more difficult. On a film set, we often have a big space to light, many characters and not much room to put our lights up.  Once we’re done lighting the wide shot or master shot there’s still medium shots, over the shoulders, close ups, etc., all of which we have to adjust lighting and perhaps even move all the lights entirely.  Now in an ideal world, the DP and us lighting guys would have as much time as we want to make everything perfect, but that’s not the case and much of what is accomplished on set is the result of hard work under a major time crunch.  In a nutshell it’s, “Light as awesome and fast as possible, get the shot, then light the next shot as awesome and fast as possible.”  On big budget film sets, there’s tons more to deal with than what I will have to be dealing with on NUAT, but the principles are the same.

How many lights and how much craziness I will be using on this project comes down to a matter of how much gear can we get on a budget. Lights on a film set come in many different kinds and are made for many different purposes (usually the smallest wattage bulb in the light package is bigger than any light bulb you have in your house).  For this reason, lights can get pretty pricy fast.  My job in preproduction has been working with Ben and Liz to figure out what gear we’ll need to survive for the 5 day shoot.  This includes lights, stands, power, a grip truck and much more.

For any of you shooters out there or even those of you who have followed this blog, you’ve probably heard about the RED camera and it’s amazing image possibilities and you’re probably wondering why we even need to light scenes with such an amazing camera.  Well naturally, I disagree, but then again without lighting I wouldn’t be writing this blog now would I?  Regardless that it’s my job, lighting is an extremely important part of visual storytelling and if done wrong or out of place, it can introduce disbelief into the audience very quickly.  Imagine if a car chase scene that takes place at night was lit with only the streetlights in the city.  You wouldn’t even be able to see the characters, let alone the cars racing around.  Now that may be an extreme scenario, lighting can be taken for granted easily with the amazing new technology we’re surrounded with today, when in fact it is a necessity for anyone looking to tell a story visually.

Go, Speed Racer, Go!

I hope that this post has shown you a little of what goes into lighting and maybe even given you a bit more respect for it.  If you really want to check out lighting, next time you watch a movie, look at a couple frames and try to notice the contrast and colors of light you see in them.  Until next time, farewell!


This week’s lesson:
Executing the lighting involves being brilliant,
being fast, and being awesome…all at the same time.

Please: Leave us comments! Let us know what you think about the blog and the project, and tell us what you want to see or hear more about! Like we said in our first blog post, this blog is “about you almost as much as it is about us.” ;)

And don’t forget to “Like” us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!

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Time… : Indie Film Necessary Evil #3

This is the hardest letter, I mean blog, I’ve ever had to write.

Indie film is hard, and the sad truth is that sometimes the timing just doesn’t work out. In the studio world, if the timing of the film isn’t quite right, you can spend more money to make it fit. But in the indie world, money doesn’t exist.

To paraphrase the legendary Bill Cosby, "Ha ha! Indie film. Yer dumb."

It pains me to say that I have decided to POSTPONE the shooting of “Now Upon A Time” until this time next year. I know. It sucks. But things are simply not lining up the way I had hoped, and the way they need to, for our July shoot dates to be viable. (Yes, July. …think I forgot to mention that I’d already pushed it back from May… Oh well. Moot now.)

Now, all that said, this film IS going to get made. Just not this year. And this blog is not only going to stay active; it is going to EXPAND. Significantly. Over the next couple months, we will be converting this blog into a fully formed website with the aim of being THE destination for online film education and reference. I’ll keep you up to date as things develop.

So, while it is disappointing to me to have to abandon our current timetable, it is incredibly exciting to know that, with the extra year of preparation time, this film is going to be all the better for it! In other words, this movie is going to kick aaaaaaaaauuuuuhhhhh…butt.

So stay tuned! We’re not going anywhere. If anything, you’ll be seeing a lot more of us.


We will not go quietly!!!

This week’s lesson:
In the independent film world, timing is
everything. …and it is trying to kill you…


Please: Leave us comments! Let us know what you think about the blog and the project, and tell us what you want to see or hear more about! Like we said in our first blog post, this blog is “about you almost as much as it is about us.” ;)

And don’t forget to “Like” us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!

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New Logo!

Just updated all the artwork here, on Facebook, and on Twitter! What do you guys think!?

New Full Size Title

New square "avatar" logo




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Liz’s Cinematography 101: So Many Facets!!!

[All right. Something exciting. Our Director of Photography, Elizabeth Nelsen, is going to begin a weekly series JUST on Cinematography to delve deeper into the subject introduced by Sam Sullivant here and here. Stay tuned for awesomeness.]

Elizabeth Nelsen, Director of Photography

In this post, I am going to lay out a few topics that I will be covering in greater detail in upcoming posts. Cinematography is a far-reaching and exhaustive subject. It may seem confusing to know where to begin.

While it is important to keep up to date with new technologies and gear, it can become daunting and also distracting. Especially in the age of the “Video DSLR”, there are countless gadgets out there! It is easy to get sidetracked with these things and forget the importance of utilizing only the tools that best service the story.

Believe me, I also get tired of hearing, “It’s all about the story.” It’s as if there is a never-ending battle between the writer types and the tech heads. I believe in the importance of a good image and all it entails, but at the end of the day, if it was accomplished for a mediocre story, it definitely feels less fulfilling. The goal, then, is to have a great story that is made stronger by the stunning visuals.

Cinematography in its most basic definition means “to record movement”, and in addition, photography means “to write with light”.

The more we understand about how to control light and manipulate it to serve our means, the better cinematographers we can become. Don’t be fooled – this involves more than knowing where to set your lights, though that is critically important!

Below are just a few topics that we will touch on in the forthcoming posts:

Light must be planned.

As with all of these points, you must know the story and the director’s visual interpretation of it in order to go forward.

Does it call for high-key or low-key lighting?
Do you light with soft light, hard light, or both?
How can you use color to enhance the story?

Light must be measured.

Some cinematographers light by eye, some depend on a waveform monitor, and others swear by their light meter. No matter what method works best for you, it is essential to have an understanding of measuring light.

An understanding of how light meters work will prove itself to be a great tool no matter the method of measurement you find yourself using.

Beyond measuring light, it is also important to know how a film stock or a video sensor responds to the light – the dynamic range or latitude.

Light must be focused.

The lens. The lovely and pricey piece of equipment that is responsible for gathering all the light and focusing it into the image we want to see.

There are so many choices to make when it comes to choosing a lens:

What focal lengths are needed?
How fast does the lens need to be?
How do you want the lens to respond to flare?
Do you want a lens that gives crisp and contrasty colors or do you want a more muted, dreamy, vintage look?

Oh yes, and let’s not forget about actually keeping the image in focus!

Light can be filtered.

Some people prefer to apply all of their filtration effects in post production. While post production possibilities are constantly improving, there is still great benefit in knowing which filters can be used in certain situations. It may even give you more latitude in post!

There are also some essential filters that you will not want to be without.

Plus, I tend to believe the good folks at Schneider and Tiffen know a thing or two about the character of light and how to manipulate it!

….and these topics are just a selection of things on the subject!

Remember, the first thing to consider as you approach cinematography is to know the needs presented for the story you are telling. This is paramount, because it gives us a starting point in knowing how to get there!


Liz’s Lesson:
Cinematography is the broad sweeping discipline
of enhancing the story with beautiful visuals.

Please: Leave us comments! Let us know what you think about the blog and the project, and tell us what you want to see or hear more about! Like we said in our first blog post, this blog is “about you almost as much as it is about us.” ;)

And don’t forget to “Like” us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!

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Heroes: Cinema and the Military

Today, I’m breaking from what we have been doing, instruction and continued updates on the progress of our movie, to address something very important. Hope you bear with me.

Movies and films have been filled with military figures and have told the stories of military events for just about as long as the medium has been alive. Buster Keaton‘s “The General” tells the story of a hapless hero accidentally thrown into a vital role during the Civil War, and D.W. Griffith‘s “Birth of a Nation” is a sweeping Civil War epic spanning generations (yes, it’s full of racist lies and is, unfortunately, partially responsible for reinvigorating the KKK; get over all that and see it; it’s a brilliant piece of film history regardless).

Buster Keaton in "The General"

But why has Hollywood, and cinema in general, always been so enamored with the military, especially in the United States? It’s simple.

Cinema is about telling the stories of Heroes.

The men and women who put their lives on the line day after day to protect the innocents and values of our country are Heroes, and cinema needs heroes to continue its existence. Not only is it a story imperative to have a Hero in a movie, but the audience wants Heroes! People won’t see movies without heroes (anti-heroes aside). Therefore, Hollywood must give the audience what it wants, heroes, and they have been doing so for a century.

During Vietnam, however, the military became demonized in film. No longer were they portrayed as self-sacrificing warriors for the greater good, as they were during WWII. Now they were either drug addled, blood thirsty psychopaths, or victims. Now, your politics and the rightness of the war aside, the demonizing of the military was wrong, and Hollywood is slowly figuring this out as it continues to demonize the military with box office travesties like “Stop-Loss” and “Green Zone.” The audience is tired of seeing their heroes treated like villains, and they’re letting Hollywood know with their wallets.

Today is Memorial Day, and so I encourage you to watch a movie that celebrates our military for the heroes that they are (so, yes, that means “Apocalypse Now” is out; but come on, it’s pretty average to begin with).

Let us take today to remember those that gave their lives and those that continue to put theirs on the line to protect this country and everyone in it, even in our movie choices.

And to all the heroes retired, active, or laid to rest: Thank You.

Saving Private Ryan

This week’s lesson:
The Audience wants Heroes


Please: Leave us comments! Let us know what you think about the blog and the project, and tell us what you want to see or hear more about! Like we said in our first blog post, this blog is “about you almost as much as it is about us.” ;)

And don’t forget to “Like” us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!

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Cinematography vs Videography: Part 2

[Ah, yes. Sam’s long-awaited follow up. A great primer on the nitty gritty of cinematography, but as he says, this is just the beginning. It is so much more than “The Rule of Thirds” and “4-Point Lighting.” But walk before you run! If you don’t, you’ll fall down. A lot. …trust me… –BB]

In Part 1 of “Cinematography vs Videography”, I covered a bit of film theory. Now, I want to focus more on some best practices for cinematographers. From composition to shot blocking and lighting, cinematography is not only an art form, but a craft that requires a great deal of commitment and effort. Below, I will list some helpful techniques to get you headed on a path to excellent filmmaking.

First, composition! This is absolutely one of the most important pieces of cinematography. Iʼm going to start you off with a basic framing technique. This is called the “rule of thirds”. This is both common in still photography and cinematography. The rule of thirds approaches the framing of the subject by placing it/them in the adjoining points on a tic-tac-toe style diagram.

Rule of Thirds

Framing an object or subject in this way is more aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Haphazard framing will not make good cinema. Giving a human subject enough but not too much head-room is very key to framing. Also giving them look-room leads our eyes toward a direction that the character and director is leading us (the viewer) to see. Placing the eye-line along the middle-upper line of the thirds scale is best to give the viewer a sense of being in the experience and relating to the scene/film as a third party present.

Secondly, shot blocking is very key to the technique of filmmaking. This is because in film we use lenses that typically have a shallow depth of field, and we need to make focus marks to maintain a sharp image. We need to block the camera movements to maintain continuity and motivation in our camera work. It is also important to have enough people on duty watching where the camera operator is moving and making sure that cable is pulled and nothing is obstructing his/her movement or shot. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse!!!! Please measure your focus. If your lenses are working properly, then you will be able to measure from the distance of the film or sensor to the subject. Adjust your focus to match that distance and youʼll be amazed out how things are actually in focus. Also use an HD monitor (if shooting digital) to verify that the shot is in focus. This is a secondary step however. Each shot is vital to the storytelling process, get the best shot you can with the budget, crew and gear you have at your disposal. Good filmmaking is only partly about the equipment. Smart and quick thinking will get you a long way!

Lastly, lighting is one of the primary visual devices used to to tell the story. This part of the mise-en-scene is vital to delivering an effective message. Below is a basic four-point lighting set up. This will help you get the ball rolling on lighting your scenes.

4-Point Lighting. The camera would be at the bottom of this diagram, aimed at the subject

There many variations of this, but this is just a good starter. First, you have the key light, this is what illuminates your subject (typically in the foreground). It is also usually the strongest light you have. Secondly, a fill light is angled similarly to the key, but on the flip side of the camera. This serves to “fill” in any harsh shadows created by the fill. Then you have a back light or “hair” light pointing toward the back of the subjectʼs head and/or shoulders to visually separate them from the background. Finally, the background light is what illuminates just that… the background. The concept of CREATING DEPTH with lighting is what weʼre aiming for here. The masters of film are masters of manipulating light.

This hopefully gives you all some good pointers to go out and SHOOT your films. The best way to learn is to DO it!


This weeks lesson:
Cinematography is an intentional craft,
not a haphazard activity.

Please: Leave us comments! Let us know what you think about the blog and the project, and tell us what you want to see or hear more about! Like we said in our first blog post, this blog is “about you almost as much as it is about us.” ;)

And don’t forget to “Like” us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!

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CREW SHIFT: Elizabeth Nelsen to DP

All right, so as I’ve said MANY times before, filmmaking is crazy time consuming. Unfortunately, that means that sometimes things need to change if things are going to get done. That said, there’s been a change in our crew.

Sam Sullivant has decided to step back from being the Director of Photography in favor of Producing so that he can focus more on his own company, Sully Productions. Totally understandable. Bills have to be paid. And he’s still going to stay on as Producer, taking care of some absolutely essential aspects of production, and I thank him greatly for that.

Thankfully, Elizabeth Nelsen, who I recently announced as Assistant Camera, has agreed to step up and fill Sam’s shoes…not literally…that would be gross…nevermind, it’s a stupid metaphor anyway.

Liz has a great eye and photography background and is a solid producer in her own right. Her film “Opera Farmer,” directed by Mackenzie Storhaug, has recently played at the Green Bay Film Festival, the Wildwood Film Festival and the Chiaroscuro Film Series.

"Opera Farmer" starring William Bokhout

While a change in crew can sometimes be very stressful, Sam and Liz are making it really easy, and this film is going to be good. Very exciting.


Please: Leave us comments! Let us know what you think about the blog and the project, and tell us what you want to see or hear more about! Like we said in our first blog post, this blog is “about you almost as much as it is about us.” ;)

And don’t forget to “Like” us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!

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