Wrapping a Christmas Film: Lighting, Audio and Directing on a High Key Set

Last Friday we wrapped principal photography on the film adaptation of The White Envelope Project’sFor the Man Who Hated Christmas.” This is a beloved contest-winning essay and true story of a remarkable Christmas tradition. Giving101 (the non-profit that controls the rights to the story) brought us in to bring this story to life for the first time ever on film. I wanted to share some behind the scenes photos and at the same time provide some tips when shooting on such a set.

HIGH KEY LIGHTING

We used the high key look for this film and it presents some challenges. (High key refers to a super-white background, a la those “I’m a Mac. I’m a P.C.” commercials.) The main challenge is blowing out the background enough to get that bright, white background, while at the same time exposing the subject enough so as not to make her a silhouette.

We had a wonderful space to shoot in at Studio Space Atlanta. They had all the accouterments you’d want for a cast and crew: a couple of dressing rooms, a huge CYC (pronounced “sike”) wall, as well as a kitchen and lounge area. (A CYC wall is an all-white wall and floor that curves where the wall meets the floor, thereby giving you that “endless” looking background).  Another thing that was great about where we shot is that they also had all the lighting equipment we needed. That was HUGE. Normally you’d have to rent from one place then transport your equipment to the shooting location. It was extremely convenient having everything we needed right there.

As I said, the “key” for lighting this kind of set is blowing out the background. For this shoot we used four 4k softbox throw lights. These babies eat up a lot of energy (even the cords powering them got warm). To light the main actress we used a Diva 400 Kino Flo as a key light and a Westcott softbox as a fill.

Four 4k soft box throws light the back. The actress is lit with a Diva 400 Kino and a Wescott softbox.

This is one time when it is very important to get it RIGHT in camera the first time, otherwise you’ll spend a lot of time in post trying to fix parts of the background which aren’t perfectly white and/or bright enough. (Trust me, I know. ;) The more light you can throw on the background, the better. You can aid that by moving the light source closer to the white background. The challenge there is making sure the lights don’t get in your shot! (See our set up above).

I shot at an aperture of between 4.5 and 5.6 with the main actress. You want the depth of field deep enough so if the subject moves a little, she doesn’t go out of focus. But you want to keep it shallow enough to aid in blowing out your background. For scenes with larger groups of people, I stopped down to f8.

AUDIO

For audio I used my Sennheiser ME-66 shotgun on a rented boom pole and mic holder. However, the acoustics of a stage setting like this isn’t great for recording this kind of audio. I still got some background noise bouncing off the walls. So, I also used my Sennheiser G2 wireless lav system, wiring the lav underneath the actress’s black turtleneck. I was shooting with a DSLR, so I recorded sound into my Zoom H4N. Every now and then we had to stop for a plane flying over or a train going by (such is the lot if your set is in an industrial area), but other than that, capturing great audio was a snap.

Shotgun on boom pole directed at actress's mouth.

DIRECTION

There are a few directorial things I had to keep in mind on this set:

  • Eye line: Every scene was essentially shot in the same location on the set. So, when there were shots that I knew were to be cut together with other shots and the eye line had to be maintained (i.e. the 180 degree rule), I made a note on my shot list about where to have the actors looking.
  • Kids: There’s a running joke in the movie business that the two worst kinds of people to direct are kids and animals. Well, we had a number of kids on the set and they were a joy to direct. The secret is 1) getting down to their level (literally), 2) encouraging them by showing your excitement at their participation, 3) making it seem like each of their takes was great (even if it wasn’t exactly what you wanted), and 4) giving them freedom to interpret a character however comes natural to them. After all, it’s been a few decades since I’ve been a kid, so they do have some expertise in that area over me. ;)
  • The Hollywood Experience: just about everyone in the cast were volunteers from a couple of large churches in the area. They have experience in elaborate stage productions, but this was the first real “movie” set for most (if not all) of them. So, I did something I’ve always done since the days of shooting on a Sony PD150. Regardless of whether or not I actually needed to sync audio with video, I used a slate and called “action” to play up the “Hollywood” feel. You’d be surprised how much people enjoy participating in that process. Sometimes I’d have one of the extras clap the slate. It adds to the excitement and enjoyment for everyone. A happy set is a successful set.

You can see the completed film online at www.whiteenvelopeproject.org.

If you have any questions about the shoot, feel free to leave them in the comments and I’ll reply via the comments as soon as possible. Do that instead of e-mailing me directly because then everyone can benefit from the question and answer. And don’t worry, there’s no such thing as a “dumb” question on my blog. :)

(click image below to launch gallery)

Many thanks to my beautiful wife Tasra for providing the behind-the-scenes photography.

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9 Responses to “Wrapping a Christmas Film: Lighting, Audio and Directing on a High Key Set”

  1. Nice to see your work Ron, thanks for sharing.

    • Excuse me Ron.!!! .. I knew I never should have given you that video camera for Christmas when you were a child!!!.You did not tell me that the camera added 150 pounds!!!! OOOHHH Ms. Jenny Craig is going to be so mad. Well at least Mama Clause ,and most the children of the world …and yes even you still love me.
      Merry Christmas ..Big old St. Nick.
      Get time, and very Professional all the way…. call on me anytime..I will stop making toys and fly down to help you out!!

      • Hey there KK, it was so great having you come down for our little production. You were such a pro. If that gift-giving job ever falls through, you can make it as an actor! It was an honor. Give my best to Mama Claus and the reindeer.

  2. Can’t wait to see the film. You really are helping to make a difference in the world.

  3. Great article. I just shot some high-key stuff with my 5D2 for a promo and I was less than satisfied with the results because of the line-skipping of the 5D2. I really noticed issues around the actor’s hair and shoulders where the detail and contrast was at its greatest.

    What was your experience?

    • Hey James,

      Thanks for the comment. Can you send me a screenshot of your problem. I haven’t noticed the issues you described in any of the high-key shots of done with DSLRs. (Although, it could just be your eyes are better than mine. :)

  4. Thanks again for sharing your experience with us through these great blog posts, and what a great project that was!

    In the past when we were doing simple projects that needed a pure white backdrop, and it had to match from shot to shot, we ended up shooting it with a green screen and adding the backdrop in later. What are the pros and cons of shooting CYC vs blue/green screen?

    And you this piece, I could definitely hear the audio challenges you faced on that stage! Great work with the challenges presented. I’m guessing having microphones close (lavs) and using heavy fabric on all straight/solid walls would be the only good options to deal with the echos?

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