Join me, a director by trade, as I take a strange journey into the heart of low-budget cinematography as DP for Tracy McKnightly and the Case of the Lead Shirt Embezzler, a short film written and directed by Vincent Gagnepain.
No, I’m not being lazy by grouping together these three days, since they were all different setups in the same location: a “studio” (actually an artist’s studio—Vvinni’s mother was kind enough to allow us to paint, dress and shoot in her studio space).
Lighting was a challenge, because we needed to keep light on the walls but off my face, without letting any instruments show in the camera angle (we couldn’t shoot light down from above because we were in a practical location with a ceiling of only about 10 feet, and we couldn’t light up from below because we were showing the floor).
The scheme I eventually came up with involved shooting light through the east wall onto the west wall and flagging off any stray light that happened to fall on my face.
The advantage of doing three days in sequence at the same location was that I could devise one lighting scheme that could be modified scene-to-scene and day-to-day as the script demanded. Working in a controlled environment with lots of setup time allowed me to try out some lighting tricks that I always think of when I think of film noir lighting. One of my favorites? Venetian blinds casting groovy, high-contrast shadows on the walls.
We wound up using this venetian setup for almost every shot in the studio. Varying the distance between the light and the blinds produces differing scales and contrasts.
The only problem with using this rig was that it required our open-faced Altman 650-watt light. 650 is not a lot in the grand scheme of things, but for some reason this was the hottest light I have ever worked with. Any time I tweaked the barndoors, my gloves singed instantly. It literally set itself on fire, burning the heat resistant paint off the top barndoor.
We learned to just smile, ignore it, and never use that particular light indoors.
This is a gratuitous extra line meant to make the photos space out on the page better, but I will use it to make note of the fact that I have never once considered myself a viable candidate for public office. *FUN FACT!*
On day four, there was a fox in the yard watching me set up the lights. When I was out working on rigging it would stay back and stare at me, but whenever I went into the garage it would come right up to the door and sit down to watch me. Later that night, there were two foxes. They hung around until at least halfway through the shoot, when Vvinni’s dog, a little Tibetan spaniel named Peekaboo with eyes bigger than her stomach, chased them off. (As a side note, Peekaboo despises me for reasons that I’m not sure I understand. But as a plus, she sounds exactly like an ewok when she snarls.)
The foxes were back again last night (the 16th) when we were shooting in the driveway—they walked right past us mere feet away from the camera.
OBSERVATION: It’s more fun to light people when you’re allowed to get light on their faces. That’s why day five was fun: I got to light for three different characters and again play with noir conventions. Lilac, for instance, is the only character who is ever illuminated by soft light, which is always placed above and on-axis with her face.
The studio shoots involved a leisurely setup and then a bunch of fast-paced and grueling shooting each night. It was kind of a relief to get it out of the way over these three days.
COMING UP: Day six—outdoor location shooting ALL FREAKIN’ DAY LONG.