Just Like the Hammer and the New House

By Walter Graff

NOTE: Your computer monitor is not a TV set. The gamma settings of your computer monitor are usually different than a TV set, hence some of the photos may look dark or not as good as they should. Use these photos only as a reference.

I recently finished principal photography on a series of interviews for a new show for the A&E Network.  “Crime Story Authors” explores the back-story of famous crime novels and the movies that were based on them via single-camera interviews with their authors. As with many such assignments, the locations were often determined by availability and were not entirely optimal for shooting.

One of these locations was the basement room of a bar in New York City. The 15 x 25-foot room was a great place for having a private party but not an ideal setting for a television interview, especially since the background, in keeping with the crime novel under discussion, was supposed to have a Las Vegas feel. Considering that the ceilings were about 71/2 feet high, the walls were covered in forest green felt, and the scant wood trim was darker than a tarnished 1945 penny, I knew immediately that I was in for a treat. Not to mention that a 3x2-foot column divided off a third of the room and I was supposed to shoot the interview while moving back and forth on a dolly in front of the talent.

All these challenges made me think of one of my favorite sayings in the world of video production: It's not the house you buy but what you do with it. 


When you buy a house, it's rarely exactly the way you want it. In fact, most homeowners' first step is to plan how to renovate the house to suit their needs. It's exactly the same with a shooting location.  You have to visualize the room, not how it  looks when seeing it for the first time, but how you want it to look. I have often entered rooms with producers and watched their faces fall as they realized that, taken as a whole, the room seemed like a horrible place to shoot. They would notice paint chipping from the ceiling, dirty outlets and a tasteless nude painting on the wall. They would give me a dismayed look and get ready to ask our host if there were another room we could shoot in. But before they could ask, I would reassure them that the room would work just fine. I know from shooting in some of the worst locations imaginable that you can make any room work. I have come to realize that one need not concern oneself with the entire room, but only a small portion of it. In any interview situation, I only need a chair and an area no bigger than 2 x 3 feet for the background. As a result, I have yet to find a location that I couldn't transform.

For this interview I was going to create a Vegas look and nothing was going to stop me. The talent was Nick Paleggi, author of “Goodfellas” and “Casino”. Today’s discussion was the story behind “Casino”.


Since the book is set in Las Vegas, I wanted to create a “behind the scenes” Las Vegas setting. Problem number one was that we weren't in Las Vegas, and problem number two was that I didn't really have anything at all reminiscent of Vegas at hand. To make matters worse, the plan was to use the aforementioned dolly, which would slowly move back and forth perpendicular to the talent throughout the interview. This kind of technique is hard to pull off in a room with flat, dark walls that offer no foreground/background perception, to say nothing of that huge column in the middle of the room.

At least I had had the advantage of scouting the room a few weeks before the shoot, which helped me formulate my plan in advance. This made me think of another of my favorite sayings: A ten dollar hammer is as good as a hundred dollar hammer. If you go down to your local home repair superstore, you'll see a marvelous display of hammers. There are big expensive hammers, steel tipped hammers, and then that plain old wooden-handled hammer that costs five times less than the others. Although the more expensive hammers have their appeal, in the end the person who's using the hammer, not the hammer itself, is going to determine how well a project turns out. So along the same lines, if you're asked to light a room with bare 100 watt lamps you can do it, because it's not the lamps that light the room but the way you use them. Expensive lights don't make an image look any better than inexpensive ones, and through experience I've learned how to use simple set-ups for complex shots.

After scouting the location, I determined what tools to use to make the job work.


To create a sense of depth, I bought a 25' rope light--a clear flexible tube filled with evenly spaced miniature lamps. I also bought a few par 20 spot lights from the local hardware store. My thinking was that Vegas is all about lights and color, so why not try to capture a nondescript Vegas look that suggests a stage or possibly a casino lounge by using some inexpensive lighting extras? 


Illustration 1


In the room diagram in Illustration 1, you'll that see I found a spot for the talent between the column and the wall, which allowed me to use my dolly effectively.





















In Illustrations 2 and 3 you can see the set-up. 


On the rear left of Illustration 2 is a Cool Lux 150 watt open face MR 16 fixture. It is on a dimmer and has 1/2 CTB on it. This fixture allows me to create a slight rim light on the talent. I am not necessarily a believer in backlights --I would rather use a shallow depth of field in most cases to achieve separation.





Illustration 2


But in a situation like this, I wanted to convey a sense of source light in the background, simulating a light coming from somewhere beyond the shot. As for the use of the CTB, the talent has silver in his hair, and I have always found that CTB makes the reflection of light in gray hair rather pleasing.

Toward the front left, a 1K Altman Fresnel is focused into the flex-fill on the other side of the talent, creating a very diffuse source.  Over the years, I have used every form of light fixture manufactured but I have found there is nothing softer and more pleasing to the eye than a simple flex-fill. The flex-fill is a bit higher than I would like, but I must compensate for possible reflections in the talent's glasses.


One important thing to remember about placing a source light is that television is a two-dimensional medium and the side on which your source is placed makes a big difference. To put it another way, we have all seen the moon on a clear night. How do the light and texture of the full moon and a three-quarter moon differ? A full moon is pretty but as you stare at it, the moon begins to look like a flat disk in the sky. The shadows of a three-quarter moon help to accentuate its three-dimensional depth. Likewise, in the two-dimensional world of television, you can create depth by using shadow.


The best rule of thumb in an interview situation is to shine the source light in the direction the talent is facing. So in this case the 1K Fresnel is lighting a flex-fill from camera right. As for fill light, it is completely subjective. In this case, I have created enough fill but not so much as to make his face look like it's been lit flat.

The rope light in the rear of the photo is taped on the wall in two horizontal rows. Pieces of black gaffer's tape help to break it up. The distance at which I placed the two rows of rope-light and the way I taped them with the gaffer’s tape created an illusion of depth in the shot. In fact, it almost appears that the higher row of light is further in the background than its partner below.

Above the rope light are the two par 20 spotlights I bought at the Home Depot. They are gelled red and blue and are on dimmers so I can adjust the light level. In my mind, these lights simulate some kind of stage fixture, as if we are "backstage," or near some sort of stage, or perhaps near a casino floor. They also appear to move in relation to the talent as the dolly is pushed along, helping to create a sense of depth in the shot.

In the front lower left is a 20-watt war f luorescent, also purchased at the Home Depot.  I keep a few of these fixtures in my kit because they make an attractive, diffuse light source and are cool burning fixtures. (In a small room like the one we were in, the less heat generated by the fixtures, the better.) I used the fluorescent to illuminate the lower fill side of the talent's face by placing it on a short stand; I often find the relationship of a low fill light to a higher key light works well. Sure, I could have used $1,500.00 fluorescents, but frankly the twenty-dollar fixture worked just as well in this situation.

In Illustration 3 you'll see the position for the flex fill.





Illustration 3


The white foam-core protects the lens from light spill from the fixtures behind it. A 600-watt open-face Lowell light with red gel is creating the splash effect on the wall. Some cut foam-core pieces (out of view) are creating lines of light on the wall.


As you look at the picture, you'll notice these triangular areas of red light give the illusion of spots of light from above a smoky stage. I get a sense of spotlight beams coming down from two angles above the shot. Behind the foam core, a 200-watt LTM pepper, gelled blue, lights the empty drinking glasses on the table in the back left of the room.

Illustration 4 is a video grab from one position along the dolly.  Unfortunately you can't see the entire background from this single vantage.






Illustration 4


The camera is an Ikegami HLV-55; the lens reads f3.2. One of the secrets to creating a good picture in video is to use some of the internal controls on the camera to suit your taste. I have decreased the black level somewhat via the master pedestal control on an external paintbox.


I have also adjusted the red gamma a bit higher than normal to maintain a warm look.


It is all too easy to ignore depth of field in video. To accomplish the soft background, I have placed the camera eight feet from the talent, shooting at 40mm. The background is 16 feet from the talent so that the wall behind him remains very soft. The shallow depth of field helps to enhance the illusion in the background. I used two filters in a matte-box mounted in front of the lens, a Tiffen Black Diffusion FX 3 and a Tiffen Black Pro Mist 1. I also turned down the detail with the paintbox to suit my taste.

I created a very pleasing look for this assignment by lighting the subject as softly and diffusely as possible, using depth of field, filtration and adjusting internal camera parameters.  When I first walked into the room I realized that, as in any shoot, I needed not to work within its limitations but to envision how I wanted it to appear in the end. The final product looked as if I had used expensive lighting equipment, yet I used instruments and accessories that didn't cost a bundle.  It just goes to show what you can do with a cheap hammer in a house that needs a lot of work.


If you liked this article, my instructional DVD called "The Head Shot" will walk you through my favorite lighting set-up for shooting interviews. This 40 minute video includes graphs, charts, and clear concise instruction. It's a must for anyone wanting to learn how pros light the programs you see on TV everyday. Click here to learn more.

Copyright 2013 by Walter Graff. This article may be circulated and shared as long as the following reference is made: 'This article appears courtesy of Walter Graff- http://www.waltergraff.com'

Please don't hesitate to send me an e-mail if you have any questions or comments please e-mail me at Walter@waltergraff.com