Pre-Vis rendering by Arthur Woo
I recently worked on a studio shoot for a J. Crew web series called “Style Hacks”. J. Crew had shot the first video in the series and it received great feedback – so they hired the same director/producer to do it again. The team wanted to bring on a professional film crew since the original project was shot on a 5D and they had challenges with light changing in the studio all day as they shot with natural light.
The primary goal was to shoot all day without a noticeable difference in lighting, whether it was 9 AM or 6 PM, and make it higher quality than the previous video.
Clarification: I’m a cinematographer, not a Gaffer
Although I don’t work as a gaffer, I was brought on as gaffer by the DP for my studio lighting expertise. I found myself naturally gravitating towards the camera to check the image, as well as using my light meter throughout the lighting stage. Side note: I wish more gaffers on the indie level would do this.
I sometimes get asked to gaff on projects because of my understanding of lighting. 99% of the time turn those offers down, mostly because I want to handle the camera in addition to determining the look of a project. However, this was one of those jobs I wanted to work on because it’s J. Crew, and the DP is a friend of mine (Brian Choy) who I work with often where he is usually the director. Our roles got shifted one level down since there was already a director for the shoot. Our taste regarding the look of a project is generally similar even though we have different styles of shooting, so I knew there wouldn’t be a huge disagreement of what looks good or not.
We received size specs of the studio beforehand which was great for Pre-Vis. Here I didn’t need to be super accurate with Pre-Vis as it was primarily for spacing considerations to make sure we could fit all the lights in the given space (and if I should use an 8×8 or 6×6 frame), as I knew which fixtures I wanted to use. We used a 1.2k HMI through large diffusion sheets to mimic the sun on the window side of the studio, with some HMIs through 216 on the fill side. The director did not want a completely white cyc. They wanted it to feel like daylight, so that just meant the key side would be brighter than the fill side, and we would let the light spill onto the cyc. The challenge was the prop mirror that we didn’t have many options to move around but needed to be on set – we had to position the lighting so that nothing would be seen.
Studio setup. Photo by Brian Choy
Natural Lighting Using Artificial Lighting
Due to scheduling of talent, some of the scenes could not be shot in the studio with windows, so we used a studio space without windows as well. The lighting we set up did the job and I think the video came out seamlessly in terms of the lighting.
The room without windows. Photo by Brian Choy
Lighting to mimic natural lighting is a thankless job. In the final product no one should be able to tell it was lit. In other words, it’s not as impressive on your reel because people can’t tell it’s lit, and because it’s natural there is no artistic appreciation for the skill of lighting from the people watching it – LOL. However, it is something master DPs I’ve studied do exceptionally well, in addition to stylized interior and night lighting.
This was a good exercise for me to take a step back from all the camera work I’ve been doing lately as a DP and just think about a project strictly in terms of lighting. Sometimes we need to see and experience other people’s positions/roles, so that when we come back to what we normally get hired for, we can communicate better and see things from a different perspective and the needs of other crew members. Many top DPs in Hollywood went through the ranks of the camera dept as ACs, or through G&E as best boys and then gaffers. Remembering this helps give perspective on one’s journey towards becoming a DP, especially today where it’s easy to buy a nice camera and anoint oneself a DP.