Indoor Video Lighting for a Commercial Scene

One of the toughest tasks for a cinematographer is to achieve indoor lighting design that is motivated by a source, or appears practical within the given narrative and environment. This blog will take a look at a sample commercial scene and break down how one can approach the elements in a formulaic fashion to inform the mood of the moment.

When lighting a location you have to work with the space and understand your limitations. With all the variables of a location in play, I always take what I call, “the practical approach”, meaning, what would be natural to this environment?
-Nicholas Puetz,
Owner, Pink Hippo Productions
For this scene, I was tasked with creating a welcoming environment that is bright, and inviting. Immediately, that tells me two things: the contrast ratio should be high key (meaning low contrast), and the lighting itself should appear natural, perhaps reminiscent of natural sunlight. To achieve this look and know what to light, we can follow a simple formula that helps break down a scene into digestible elements. We light for depth or the background, next we expose the middle of the scene and any of our subjects, and finally we add the small details.

The following goes into detail on all three of those steps. Let us assume we have already scouted the location, and walked through the blocking – or movement – of the subjects with our director.

1. Depth

Once the director has walked through the blocking with the talent, we as the cinematographer now can compose the frame. With the frame composed, it is time to fill it, similar to a painter laying down the beginning brush strokes on the canvas. Cinema as artifice is two-dimensional, thus it is up to the cinematographer to take that screen and make it appear three-dimensional. In other words, add depth. A way to achieve depth is to light from the deepest part of the frame and work forward.

In this scenario, I had sunlight coming in through the windows of the building behind our subjects. Normally, I choose to let this light blow out – run over exposed. To soften the light the sun was casting on our subjects, I lowered the shades over the windows to act as diffusion. This gave me some gentle fill behind the subjects, and added a nice ambience to the scene as a whole.

Focusing on our third subject, the desk clerk, I saw the need to add some depth behind her and the desk. To achieve this, I wanted small pools of light along the walls, perhaps emulating stray sunlight beams. I implemented a 300-watt Arri fresnel and directed the barn doors to give me the spread I was after. To further add depth to the subject and her surroundings, I placed a 150 watt fresnel to cast a bit of light onto her hair. This separated her from the dark doorway she was framed in, and also served to add some shine to her hair. In the final shot, you can see the two lights working as indicated.

2. Exposure

With the background pretty well taken care of, the next step is to expose the subjects and the middle-ground of the frame. Again, to emulate pockets of sunlight bouncing around the room, I placed two, two-bulb kinos to cast a spread onto the side of the desk, and the wall beside subjects one and two (the mother and son). The reason for this is to add some pattern and slight contrast to the middle of the frame.
The kinos are indicated in the image below, adding small splashes of light to further texture the middle-ground of the scene.

The next task is to expose our main subjects, the mother and son. This becomes a bit tricky, due to their blocking and the composition of the frame. With the shot being wide, a majority of the room is seen on camera, so the ability to place lights in a traditional three-point setup is nullified. Knowing that this shot is lit to be high key (meaning a low contrast ratio between the key light and the fill light), I decided to let the ambient light of the room act as the fill to my subjects. This allowed me to focus on the key lighting, which is emulating sunlight. I brought in two 650-watt Fresnel lenses pointed at the front of the desk where I know the subjects will be stopping (thanks to the blocking).

Placing my lights to point at the desk allows my subjects to walk into their key, which is where we will be focusing most of our attention. I can forgive them slipping into a bit of shadow on their walk to the desk, because the walk is not important, the conversation with the clerk is. The two 650 watts give me roughly 1300 watts of light spilling into the general area of the interaction.

Alternatively, I could have gone with a 1K or 2K turned to flood, but having two 650s allowed me to direct each light separately, giving me a bit more control. This indoor lighting method is not overpowering, nor glaring, but rather it gives me enough of a boost to expose the subjects in what appears to be a natural fashion, thus we achieve the mood we are after.

As a final accent, I added a 150-watt Fresnel to act as a cross kick on the mother, giving a little boost to her hair, similar to what we did for the desk clerk.

The last exposure element was to add another two-bulb kino to the lobby, hidden on the floor, which gave me some backlighting for extras sitting by the door, and to illuminate any other extras that come and go within the scene.

3. Contour

The final step in the commercial indoor lighting process is contour. In the traditional sense, this is the step where we would bring in flags and nets to cut the light. For this setup, the only real changes I made in the way of contour was to add some steel to any of the lights that needed to be stopped down, and adding a reflector disk in front of the desk clerk to give some fill on the underside of her face. Since I was after a general ambience in the scene, I chose to leave out any other lighting accessories.

Overall, the intent of the scene was to paint a welcoming environment. It needed to appear relatively bright, the motivation being a sunny, summer day. Knowing that, I understood what my overall exposure needed to be, the patterns my lighting needed to emulate, and what I could and could not get away with in terms of my light placement, thanks to the layout of the environment and the blocking.

With all of that information on hand, the steps from that point were logical: light for depth within the environment, expose the subjects, and finally add any additional contour to the frame. This process ensures that all steps are taken to accomplish dimensionality within a frame, and more importantly, that each source of light is analyzed critically to achieve a natural, motivated direction.

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