Lighting Car Interiors at NIGHT!!!
I have gone in depth on all the camera choices that I made on Need for Speed; I have shown you many tests of multiple digital sensors and have shown you how to immerse an audience. Now I want to go into how I light, what choices I make with specific units, and why one lighting tool is selected over another. Lighting car interiors at night has always been a challenge. With the invention of cameras that see into the night, it has given me what I have always tried to mimic, which is bringing the outside light into the vehicle and have it really expose your passengers.
“Let’s break it down”
Back in the days of film, I always wanted to deliver what actually happened in a car to the naked eye, the outside light streaming into the car from street lights, passing headlights of a car, or parking lots and shops. With 500 ISO being your most light sensitive film emulsion, you were left with an underexposed image and those streetlights not really keying your talent. The light was not enough. I created elaborate rigs on Crazy/Beautiful and Waist Deep to mimic this light.
“The Process Trailer”
The process trailer is a trailer that you put your picture car on. The actors fake like they are driving around town, when in actuality, they are being pulled behind an insert Camera Car, which has a generator on board for your lights, cameras and staff so that they can view.
“The Elaborate Rig”
On Crazy/Beautiful, Director John Stockwell wanted all of the movie to feel real, like we were right there documenting it as it happened. This was a huge undertaking. We had a sequence in the film where Kirsten Dunst and Jay Hernandez start to fall in love in the back seat of an old Ford Bronco driving down the streets of downtown LA at night. Now with a Canon 5D or a Canon C500 jacked to 2000 ISO, this would be no problem because these cameras love the low light. Remember. C500, seven stops in the under and five in the over. Film, five stops in the under and eight in the over. Those extra two stops make all the difference.
Getting back to the rig, we put the Bronco on the process trailer and designed a goal post rig that was suspended over the truck. It was an advanced box truss system that moved high pressure sodium light fixtures back and forth over their heads to illuminate the interior. Obviously, the light can only move one direction to simulate speed and moving forward. So one light would move on this truss and when it got to its end mark, a door would close on it and we would then pull it back to the front. You cannot turn high pressure sodium lights off and on. They are like HMIs. They have to fire a gas that then illuminates. It is not a wire that gets electrified like a tungsten source. We knew that the light would be reflected into the front windshield so the grips made a cut out for the light so that it looked like a Cobra Head street light shape. When that closed box light was heading back, the other crew would pull the light from the front to the back on the other truss that was right next to it. This process was done at about 40mph. It was a circus act flying down the streets of LA.
“Smash Cut to Sensor Technology”
Now we have incredibly sensitive camera sensors that enable us as artists to capture all the light out there and expose an image in the vehicle. How do you do this with grace and elegance? You could turn your camera on and crank your ISO up and document your actors. That is one way, but how do we make it a beautiful reality? In a nutshell, this is my style as a Director of Photography — taking something that looks ordinary if you just turned your camera on it and make it unique, different, beautiful. This is what I am going to go into with this post, how to make something feel real, but not RAW, or not stylized. Just beautiful and beauty in a way that fits the story!
On Need for Speed, director Scotty Waugh wanted ultimate freedom. We had to be able to drive these cars at night for miles in all different lighting conditions, from the outskirts to the town square. On 35mm film, this would have been possible only with a budget over 120 million dollars and adding 20 extra days to the schedule. We opted to exploit the C500’s sensitive sensor and give Scotty his vision, which was lighting 4.5 miles of street racing with lights from Home Depot, Georgia Water and Power street lights and no lights on huge cranes.
“The Lighting Plot”
The lighting plot for these shots was very simple, but the selection of roads became very complex and so important. Let’s take the start of the race for example. Aaron Paul is in his car; we slowly zoom into his eyes; all sound drops out. This is done with a 400 watt HPS cobra head from Home Depot that is a 3/4 toplight, a 3” x 12” Rosco Pad taped to the dashboard with 1/2 plus green on it to emulate the dashboard of a 70’s Gran Torino and that was it. So simple.
“Using the Right Lighting Tool”
I turn to Rosco Lite Pads for all dashboard interior lights. Why? Dashboard lights are not hard sources of light. They are a soft ambient light feel. The Rosco Lite Pad is LED light that fires into a white background, which makes them incredibly soft and ambient looking. They come in either tungsten or daylight balanced. I like to use daylight balanced LEDs to simulate the dashboard. The last and final piece to your beautiful reality dashboard light is a dimmer, which allows you to dial a level to match the street that you are driving on.
Back to the starting line. The cars were positioned under a street light, so I dialed down the dashboard light to a level that filled in the shadows so that they did not get too contrasty. This was gauged on the distance between the street lights, that void of light area where you have just driven under a light and the next one is just starting to give you an exposure. This is the Zero Dark Thirty area that I fill in with the Lite Pad.
“Size Does Matter”
What Light Pad dimension do you use? I look at the dashboard’s size and then match the size to that. The Rosco Lite Pad Gaffer’s kit has the sizes I like to use. For small dashboards, I use the 3” x 6” daylight. For medium size dashboards, I use the 3” x 12” daylight pad and for the big ones, I use the 6” x 12” daylight pad. I find that these sizes emulate the ambient quality perfectly.
“Scouting the roads that will make the difference”
When talking about pulling off the beautiful reality, it is about the subtle light in the car, as well as the road that you choose for your car’s journey. When I was scouting roads for the Need for Speed Mt. Kisco night race, I wanted an eclectic mix of quality. One that felt on the outskirts of town, then a light quality that felt like the racers were coming into town, then a very lit town square feel. Of course, mixing this with dark alleys where homeless men can come out of the shadows was essential. HA HA!!! I took a huge amount of Canon 1DC still shots of the areas and then Scotty and I picked the different looks.
“Adding the lights along the road to accent”
Looking back, what I did on Need for Speed was ballsy as hell. I lit 4.5 miles of street racing with some dashboard lights and some perfectly placed lights to accent the car’s journey. When I scouted the roads that soon became the street raceway for the Mt. Kisco race in Macon Georgia, I would look to the peripheral of what I would see if I were looking at a lateral angle, which is the speed angle. If a section of road was too dark, then I would go in and add Home Depot Dusk to Dawn practical lights. Some were mounted onto buildings; others were just put up on combo stands. When you are driving 80 mph, you do not see the stand. You just see the smearing source and the area that it lights. Don’t be worried about the stands. Other lights that I used were Kino Flos placed in store fronts or neon light supplied by set deck.
None of this would have been possible five years ago. It would have required the circus act on the process trailer and a very creative limiting approach. As a DP, I feel that I need to give the director as much flexibility as possible. I want him or her to be able to dream and then I take that dream and make it a Beautiful Reality.