Back To School

By Walter Graff

Going into a project where I have to light a teacher and student in an after school situation in a classroom, I have a pretty clear advantage, and I want you to realize you do too! I went to school for 20 years of my life. I have every kind of classroom lighting scenario already in my head before I light such a scene. And now all I have to do is to look in my “catalogue” and see what works. And over the years I have lit many classroom for many TV shows, films, and educational projects such as Ron Palillo (Horschak from welcome Back Kotter) in the above photo.

So what worked for a school scene? Well, in the film I am about to discuss, it’s after school, so that means late afternoon. It’s a coach/athlete scenario so I am looking for a pleasing look that has modeling. Why? Because that’s how I feel at the moment. You don’t have to agree. That is the thing about lighting; nothing is right or wrong, it’s just about how you feel. If you’ve taken in what I have discussed so far--KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid), and reliving a lighting memory in my head--you have the basis for this set-up.

In this case I had a memory of Sister Catherine’s after school program. Well, it wasn’t a “program” as much as daily detention. In grammar school she decided she was going to tame the wild mustang in me. So every day for three years, she kept me after school till 5pm. And just now I consciously remembered the lighting reflection that found its way into her classroom every day. The parking lot was directly outside her classroom and the windshields of parked cars reflected sun into the room and onto the walls, creating beams of light and light shapes. The fact that this memory from thirty years ago suddenly came into my head must mean that I cataloged her classroom. Lord knows I spent enough time in the room seeing that light. So in a way, while I thought all that time I spent in her class after school was a waste, it was really a study in lighting. It helped me thirty years later. Who says schooling isn’t important?

Wow! I’m having some great realizations while writing this. I hope it’s not just me who excited by all this and that you too are learning something just as I am. Lighting excites me. I think it’s important to be excited by good lighting, just as it’s important to be excited by a great painting, or a beautiful car. What is it that makes a car excite you? The shapes? The contours? The colors? Lighting has all of those qualities too, so if you are into lighting, you should be as excited as a car collector who sees a great car. If you are not, you either need to learn to, or maybe find something else that does excite you.  

So as I said, in this scene I am lighting a coach and an athlete, and my lighting set-up is inspired by Sister Catherine’s classroom.  The coach is going to use TV clips to show a student what some pro hockey players have to say about teamwork. The first step, of course, is KISS. Two 2.5k pars and some opal diffusion frames will light this entire scene. In actuality it’s a sunny summer day at about noon, so I’ve already got light coming in the window naturally, but I want to accentuate it. I want Sister Catherine’s classroom all over again and I am going to use as little additional light as possible to recreate it. Or consider this: when I was in her class, all I had was the sun and a few reflections from car windshields. I am simply going to replace the windshields with two light fixtures.

As you can see from the diagram below, this isn’t brain surgery. Each light will light one half of the classroom. I will use the natural cuts caused by the window frames to make streaks and tips on the walls. The rest of the spill will light my talent appropriately.


There are probably ten different looks I could create in this scene. I am using this particular set-up because I like it. I am also using it because I am looking for continuity with the five other scenes like it which I am shooting for this film, representing classrooms at various times of day.


But here is where simplicity and art meet. Using the two lights and the ambient light from the sun reflected off the parking lot and trees I am able to give the room a late afternoon feel. I am able to light the talent; I am able to create nice textures of light on the walls of the room. And I am able to convince you, maybe through some common vision of what a classroom looks like and how it might look in the afternoon, that perhaps this classroom isn’t even lit by anything but the sun. In fact that is my quest. Lighting to me should never look unnatural. I see lighting as accentuating what already exists. We have all seen this same scene sometime in our real life, whether we were taking a class on a hot summer day in school, or whether we were being punished for being who we are.

Hopefully as you look at a few frames from the film below you will see what looks like a nice afternoon discussion in the coach’s office. Of course the problem with motion pictures are they are best seen a nd understood in motion so stills loose a bit of the setting and feeling. I apologize for the photos in this, I could not find my master as it is buried in the closet so used a lower res version here.


I’d like to show you another example of the same lighting in another classroom scenario. I’ve lit it exactly the same way as the office scene except on a bigger scale. In this I am using two 6k pars and an opal diffusion frame once again. Is this light going to light everyone evenly and make the classroom look perfect? No, and why should it? If you were in a classroom and natural light was coming into it, you would expect more light by the windows and less light the farther into the room you went. And all I am doing here is imitating what I know all too well from twenty years of being in classrooms. Simple is always better to me. Could I light it with more fixtures? Yes, but why use five fixtures when two will do the trick?

The three photos below are three different camera angles in the same classroom during a written test. On top (top of series) is an angle from the row of our main talent looking towards the teacher’s desk. Notice the light coming in the window. I let the window frames paint the light on the blackboard and across everyone’s bodies. 

The second picture (middle) is a row of students who are sitting farthest from the window. As a result, while streaks of light are still evident, it’s not as bright or as “contrasty” as it would be in the third picture. In that picture (lower shot of three), our talent is near the window and the light is stronger. In fact in the shot it blows out a bit (partially due to a bad capture of the video clip), but that’s not a mistake. She’s in the sun. Why can’t the light be strong on her as a result?

Does it remind you of taking tests in school during the summer, when the teacher would turn off the lights so as to keep the classroom cooler? Looking at these shots I’m suddenly transported back to many days in high school.

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-'

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Walter Graff