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Lighting dancers - how would you deal with this room?

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andy lewis
Lighting dancers - how would you deal with this room?
on May 30, 2014 at 5:10:05 am

First of all, I’d just like to say that this thread, where Mark Suszko helped Xavier Pilsudski light a corporate shoot was fantastic, I love this kind of thing.

I’ve got no patience for manuals or training books but give me a load of problem-solving discussions and I’m gripped.

And err…. ahem… I’d very much appreciate some help with a lighting problem.

As a slight salve to my guilty conscience for asking for free help, I will offer one observation that might be useful to someone:
I’ve watched a few lighting/cinematography videos where a DP shows what they would do with a scene. I think these can be useful but that conversations like the one linked above (and like ones all over the cow) are better. They’re better because we, as readers, have exactly the same information as the experts. When I’m watching someone set up lights on video they already have a huge advantage over me (in addition to their expertise) as they are actually in the room. With internet discussions on the other hand, we are all playing with the same cards. It’s amazing that (for me) the free stuff is usually better than the stuff you pay for - and I’m happy to pay.

So...I’m filming a very low-budget promo for a contemporary dance performance. It’s 4 dancers. it’s improvisational and unpredictable - they could be anywhere within an area that’s about 20 foot by 20 foot. We are filming in the rehearsal space.

I am trying to make the lighting less flat and dull. I suppose that “stage lighting” would be the obvious choice - I’m assuming that is hard light sources above and to the side of the performers. There is a lot of tension in the performance - it’s disquieting and violent in places. Lighting from below the eyeline has also occurred to me.

I went to the rehearsal space yesterday. What’s currently in the room:

2 rows of domestic fluorescent lights mounted running along the edge of the ceiling.
multiple tungsten bulbs in the ceiling

Windows down the far end that illuminate the performance space surprisingly little (these can be covered).

I was really surprised how little light there is with everything switched on and the windows uncovered. At f4 I was on 2000 ISO at one point so I’d obviously like to bring that down. Come to think of it, that might have just been with one row of fluorescents switched on but I was trying to make the light less flat. The tungsten bulbs make virtually no difference if the fluorescents are on.

The halogen stage lights mounted on the ceiling cannot be used (it’s a long story)

This is equipment that is mine or available to borrow:

4 x 300 watt halogens (with optional daylight gels) - these are not the ones in the photo, but are similar
1 x Kino Diva (4 lamps - tungsten or daylight)
1 x ARRI Locaster LED (variable colour-temp. about 150 watt tungsten equivalent - not much power but I have the “intensifier” to make it a slightly harder light with a longer throw)
2 x cheap photography softboxes (with 4 daylight CFL bulbs in each)
1 x HD projector - I could reflect it off the disco ball!
Plenty of reflectors

The halogens are a problem because of heat - it’s 32℃ here during the day, and humid. So I’ll be lucky to get the aircon turned off for 10 minutes of filming even without any heat from lighting. I’d really rather not rent anything else as I’ll have to pay for it myself. It does kind of look to me like I probably have all the wrong equipment for this job though.

Is it a couple of powerful, hard sources that I’m looking for? A couple of HMIs? Fresnels?

At the moment my plan is:

Cover the windows and turn everything off. Put the Kino, Locaster, Softbox all huddled together against the black curtain pointing diagonally towards the white corner of the room to make a single source and so that the walls and ceiling provide some fill.

Will this make unfortunate multiple shadows? Will the short throw of the lights mean that light levels vary wildly depending on the distance of the dancers from the lights?

Any ideas? I always knew this was a low-budget shoot. Watching the dancers rehearse yesterday was humbling though. They are amazing. In the absence of the budget they deserve I'd like to do a decent job.

Thanks for your time.

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Mark Suszko
Re: Lighting dancers - how would you deal with this room?
on May 30, 2014 at 8:10:31 pm
Last Edited By Mark Suszko on May 30, 2014 at 8:12:26 pm

I'm not a pro DP. But I've shot dances, back in my youth. The Dance Mistress beat it into me that you should not shoot tight close-ups but keep to wide shots and groupings, because "proper" dance video concentrates on capturing a space thru which the dancers move and *define* that space. That, to me, suggests a specific lighting strategy that concentrates on illuminating major action areas and letting the dancers move in and thru them.

You have a huge white reflector in that ceiling. My gut wants to bounce HMI's off of that, to raise an overall level, then use lekos/ source four's to more dramatically light specific "zones", based on the input of the dance master/ show director, who can point out the "spikes" where a certain solo is expected to occur, or where an "entrance" is staged, etc.

The only other thing that occurs to me, is to run large silks along one wall, back-lit, and leave that black curtain as the background.

No, you don't have enough or the right kind of instruments on hand for the job, IMO. "maybe", you can put all 4 of the 300-watters into an array behind a silk, but I don't think one such array is enough. This is a job for rented gear that's appropriate for the task. HMI's are the only thing I know with the power to cover the area you need, be it a ceiling bounce or diffused silks in a wall-hugging or overhead-flown array. Source Four spotlights would make "harder" light in "zones.

The first thing to get though is some kind of plot or diagram of three major floor positions of the dancers, so you can figure out where the "zone" coverage needs to be, and how large.

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andy lewis
Re: Lighting dancers - how would you deal with this room?
on Jun 2, 2014 at 3:26:09 am

Thanks Mark,

We've got the 4 ceiling mounted halogen lights working so that has improved things slightly. I've put tungsten lamps in the Kino.

I like your idea of using a silk, I'll try it with the other 4 halogens - probably bunched close together. We are now just about at 1250 ISO f4 so another stop or 2 would be nice but it's not critical. I'm more interested in the light adding to the drama and sense of space and depth in some way. I will try putting a black curtain on one of the white walls to make the shadows darker. The light falling off into darkness wouldn't necessarily be bad. I think that at the moment it just looks a bit.... flat.

Another thing I considered is using the halogens at waist level (behind silk or direct) and hanging the kino and the ARRI LED from the ceiling just in front of the black curtain, pointing down, to provide a bit of backlight.

"then use lekos/ source four's to more dramatically light specific "zones", based on the input of the dance master/ show director, who can point out the "spikes" where a certain solo is expected to occur, or where an "entrance" is staged, etc."

This is an excellent idea but the performances are very much follow-your-gut improvisation. At one point the choreographer starting randomly banging on the floor with her hand. I asked her later what she was doing and she said she was trying to get the dancers to stop thinking and be a bit more in the moment. So I don't think I will have this kind of stage direction to work with.

I can rent a couple of source four pars for 30 US dollars a day. It could be worth paying for them myself just for the learning value. I might try and light with specific "zones" and see what happens. If the action happens in a dark spot maybe it won't be so bad. A beam of light with the performers behind. Better than flat light. Or maybe it will look terrible - what do you think?

My first idea to try and film this was to be very up close to the action (almost dancing with them myself) filming handheld with a 50mm prime. The wide shot would be a Gopro mounted on the ceiling looking directly down on the rehearsal space. I would obviously be in that shot. I mean the whole thing would have looked ragged and strange but at least interesting - was my thought.

I think I'm going to go with something a bit more conventional though - especially given that (as you said) the wide shot is key for dancing, not the closeup. So 3 cameras:

gopro on ceiling
wide (28ish) on tripod
Medium/close-up (70-200) on tripod

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Craig Alan
Re: Lighting dancers - how would you deal with this room?
on Jun 2, 2014 at 5:02:43 am

You might consider banks of LED's with a lighting panel where you can dial in different colors. Its hard to control but so are your dancers. You could wash the scene with different colors for very dramatic effects.

Mac Pro, macbook pro, Imacs (i7); Canon 5D Mark III/70D, Panasonic AG-HPX170/AG-HPX250P, Canon HV40, Sony Z7U/VX2000/PD170; FCP 6 certified; FCP X write professionally for a variety of media; teach video production in L.A.

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Mark Suszko
Re: Lighting dancers - how would you deal with this room?
on Jun 2, 2014 at 5:48:45 am

Craig, that could also be done by gelling the Source Fours in different colors: where they cross, the colors blend. The S-4's can be made to throw either a sharp edge or a diffuse one, and project patterns if needed as well.

I like the go pro idea.

I don't know what the choreographer is doing here, but generally, choreography is staged to be experienced from one particular viewpoint angle, so reverse angles and shots looking in from the side, artificially distorting the distance relationships of the dancers thru telephoto compression, would be visually interesting but less useful and more confusing. This is kind of one of those places where you go very retro, very conservative, and shoot proscenium style a lot like a single camera was locked off in one of the front theater seats. I would maybe put one go pro at foot/floor level, looking slightly up.

I think this sketch is what I'd think about doing.

The black is the curtain. The gray is either a bank of back-lit silks, or a ceiling bounce from the halogens you have. The vaguely elliptical black shapes are the Source 4s throwing cones of light into the "zones" I talked about.

An alternate plan, with only 2 Source fours, would widen them out and soften their patterns, and have them point across each other, meeting in the center, but fading across the ends as well. This is a poor sketch of that idea:

Why I want to do this, is with 4 dancers, depending how they position themselves and if they are at all symmetrical in any way, two are front-lit and 2 are side-lit at any time. AS they move, the light strength goes up and down, changing where your eye is drawn without needing a camera movement. This is very crude, and I am NOT by any means a "real" DOP or gaffer, but if there really *is* no choreograph written down, and each performance is completely ad-libbed, then you really can't do anything except light fixed "zones" or manually track two of the spots on general flood settings and hope for the best.

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Dennis Size
Re: Lighting dancers - how would you deal with this room?
on Jun 4, 2014 at 12:32:44 am

Mount 2 medium lensed Source 4 PARS (575w) on a 6'-0" boom ... one at 5'-0" from the floor, and one at 2'-0" from the floor.
Make four of these booms. Put two at each end of the room as sidelight -- equidistant from each other and the walls. Put a Rosco 60 color in the four lights on one side and a Rosco 57 in the lights on the opposite side.
If you have enough power (and energy) left, mount your 4 haologen lighs as far upstage as possible and flood the entire room in backlight (perhaps with a Rosco 64 or 68 blue).
Putting a dimmer on each boom would allow you to flavor to taste.
Using LED PARS would allow you to utilize no power and create no heat (but cost money to rent).
Frontlight?? That's for wimps.
Live on the edge, you're lighting for shape and form, not to mention mood. It's not a newscast.
Good luck, and have fun with it.

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Mark Suszko
Re: Lighting dancers - how would you deal with this room?
on Jun 6, 2014 at 2:34:36 pm

I'm curious to know what Andy wound up doing....

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andy lewis
Re: Lighting dancers - how would you deal with this room?
on Jun 6, 2014 at 3:24:49 pm
Last Edited By andy lewis on Jun 6, 2014 at 3:26:14 pm

Thanks for all your help. I've got a t-shirt with ARRI on the back from somewhere - I'd now like to get "frontlighting is for wimps" printed on the front.

They still have another few rehearsals left so I'm going to film properly next week. I went to the last rehearsal just to practice camera movement. I've spent too long doing static interviews and could-shoot-it-in-my-sleep b-roll. At one point I was tilting and panning the camera in time with the dancers and having trouble. The choreographer said "release your hand" so I completely relaxed it and the movement was much smoother. Of course, she was talking to one of the dancers.

I like the coloured gels idea. That kind of thing is cheap here so I'll definitely try it.

"Live on the edge, you're lighting for shape and form, not to mention mood. It's not a newscast."

I think this is a good point. And the purpose isn't even necessarily to show the performance - it's to promote the idea of the performance.

I know that everything you've suggested is extremely cheap and basic by lighting standards, so you'll probably roll your eyes at what I'm going to say next but there really is no budget and I'm not having a great month financially to pay for it myself.

My provisional plan is to rent 2 Source Four PARs and put them at one end in each corner, or one above the other. At the other end will be the ceiling mounted halogens and maybe the kino at waist height. There are no barn doors on the halogens so I might improvise some with tinfoil. It's basically an attempt to do a super cheap version of what Dennis suggested. Dennis, does that sound like a reasonable compromise or is it missing the point of having 2 Source Four PARs in each corner?

I will also try the 2 Source Fours at either end, crossing over as in your diagram, Mark.

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Dennis Size
Re: Lighting dancers - how would you deal with this room?
on Jun 7, 2014 at 2:00:07 am

Wow ..... that's too bad. Perhaps you should try PAR 64's. They're only pennies to rent (You can actually buy them on for $39 apiece.)
You might even be able to pick up 2 PAR BARs fairly cheaply. That would give you multiple hard sources from each side.
You could also call your local college or high school and borrow a few PAR CANS. Where there's a will, there's a way.
I wouldn't drop down to only one per side. Two per side would make all the difference -- maybe even TWICE as good!

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Mark Suszko
Re: Lighting dancers - how would you deal with this room?
on Jul 4, 2014 at 3:31:01 am

Surely, the dance has happened by now: can we see stills or clips and see how it went?

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andy lewis
Re: Lighting dancers - how would you deal with this room?
on Jul 30, 2014 at 8:27:39 am
Last Edited By andy lewis on Jul 30, 2014 at 8:40:30 am

It's a long story.

So, I was talking about bringing in source fours and using one of the rehearsal days for filming (preferably after choreographing something around the camera - although I was happy to film a straight run through of the performance).

The choreographer said they were short of time before the performance so how about after? The promo is for the future rather than to promote this particular show, so... great. We also talked about what we could do specifically for the camera.

Then... it all fell apart. I won't go into details about what happened in a public forum - and it's not that exciting anyway, just disagreements between people. Plus no one has any time etc. etc. So I am back with the very first plan - film the performance (with me having no control over lighting) and edit a promo from it.

Remember how dark I said the rehearsal space was? The performance was much darker. I'd post a clip of the video but you could make it yourself by thinking of a number between 1 and 10 and attributing it to the R,G or B value of any given pixel. I'm only half joking. Though actually, darkness and shadow kind of worked on stage. The video will be as good as can be expected.

I get on well with the choreographer and I hope we can do something together in the future. She has interest in video. I am interested in filming dance. We're in talks. I think setting out to make a video rather than trying to drag a video out of a stage performance might work better.

Thanks a lot for all your help. It will definitely be useful in the future.

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