Lighting workshop lecture with Ueli Steiger, Vilmos Zsigmond, and Jacek Laskus pt 1

Being in the neighborhood at Cinegear LA 2012, I dropped in on the “Lighting Master Workshop” hosted by Ueli Steiger, Vilmos Zsigmond, and Jacek Laskus, all ASC cinematographers. Do you have to be eastern european to be a Master Cinematographer? I have one dp friend who switched to his mother’s name which ends in a “-ski” rather than his rather Anglo sounding father’s name…

Well, Ueli Steiger told us about how the big boys do it. We watched some clips from “The Day after Tomorrow”, the climate change disaster flick starring Jake Gyllenhaal, and then he told us how he lit it. We learned that having a gigantic budget has its perks. 2


Challenge: shoot in midtown new york where you have to flood it up to a height of four feet, put rain all over everything followed by snow and ice all over everything else.Solution: Shoot it in a gigantic stage in Montreal. There are things you just can’t do real. A hundred extras cannot be left standing in real water for ten hours. You have to clean the cars, you have to clean the water, it’s an enormous undertaking. That’s if you can get four feet of standing water in New york city, which you can’t. So you build it. Build the area out in front of the New York public library in a big tank on a really big stage.

Challenge: light this massive scene in a way that it looks real and you believe the weather. If the weather doesn’t sell, the movie doesn’t sell. Go.

To feel right, you want it to look like an overcast/rainy/snowy day, so you want a gigantic soft source overhead that’s like a bad-weather sky. Furthermore, the streets and water are full of cars, which have been observed in the past to be covered in curved reflective surfaces, which will show you nice pictures of everything up above them. And, the set was 200m long by maybe 60m wide. Furthermore, you want it to be half blue.

Solution: put 4000 800w(sic) nooks overhead in the grid, and since that would be impossible to gel and maintain, you fabricate a gigantic silk and you dye it blue. You put the whole shebang on chainmotors so you can bring it down every two days and clean all the fake snow off of it. Since there’s lots of rain involved, you also make holes in the silk for the rain towers to poke down through, and since all that clean tungsten bleed through the holes in the silk would be a drag, you make pvc pipe sleeves for the rain towers that start at the edges of the holes in the silk. You also keep a few other 20x and 40x dyed blue silks around just in case.

Excellent result: with that huge a toppy soft source, it’s like shooting outside on an overcast day. you just go. Next to no time spent buttering up shots he said. Everything was already lit. Other than that, he had the upper levels of the set ringed with 10ks colored the same as the silk, so he would turn a few of those on at a time to backlight the rain/snow/fog or talent.

One more thing you’ll need: a 50′ technocrane. With all the water and fake snow and camera-toxic environments on set, he said he had to be on the big techno all the time. It’s like you can fly over all this impossible terrain of submerged cabs and fake snow and then fly bag to safety to check this or that or whatever.

What else? He said he loves living on a zoom, likes the flexibility and speed it gives him, and lights to the minimum stop of whatever his slowest zoom is so he can always use it. All three of the DPs said that, actually. Vilmos said, “you can’t say, ‘Bring the 48 1/2mm lens!'” so they all like the flexibility. Steiger said he’s constantly zooming in or out during shots. The operator pans, he zooms in or out a little. He holds the zoom control at the monitor. He shot most of this movie on the 24-290 Optimo.

little noteworthy bits:
-the snow we saw that looked so good was a mix of several things, but mostly pulverized paper blasted around by numerous Ritter fans on condors. “Snow Business” was the company that did all that.

-They were always running fog in conjunction with the fake snow to get that whiteout snowstorm look.

-You cannot add fake rain well with CG. So rain has to be real. Don’t try to fake it, its a fool’s errand. -all the keys they used were bluescreens not green, because the overall look of the place was gray and blue, and green reflections that they couldn’t fix would have really stood out and been a big problem. With bluescreen, a few glints sneak through and no one’s going to notice. -he discovered that when he turned off some of the lights above his giant dyed-blue silk, what light came through was not only dimmer but also bluer! This was a very happy accident. To go to a dusk or early morning look, turn off a few hundred units and not only do you get the appropriate light level, you also get a good color.

-when you’re going that big, there’s no really good way to calculate it right what you’ll need, so just put more lights up there. He said they never had more than half of the nooks on at one time, Don’t tell the line producer. Moral of the story: If you’re going huge, go all the way. By lighting this enormous overhead and living all of the time on a 50’ super techno with an Angenieux 24-290, they saved a ton of setup time later, even though all of those items are rather pricey, particularly the custom-dyed and -made 200×60 meter silk with 4000 nooklights above it.

It was interesting, but also a little alienating. How many if us DPs have access to that kind of budget? What would you do if you’re shooting a low budget feature and they say, we want to do a disaster scene where times square gets flooded? I guess you say go get more money of rewrite that scene… Next post- lecture from Vilmos, the big daddy.

Hey, buy an Airbox inflatable softbox for LED lights.  It makes them look way better, it’s cheap, it weighs nothing, and it packs tiny.


by Airbox lights

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