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Go craaaaazy: fill from the key side!

Lighting isn't a formula--unless you find one that works. Like this one.

By Art Adams | July 29, 2008

In a recent article I wrote about how I like to fill from the key side, and I've since received a couple of requests for an explanation of what I'm talking about.

I first became aware of this practice about 12 years ago when I worked with a disgruntled gaffer. He'd been to LA for a few jobs and he wanted to do everything "the right way." We ended up on a job together that was horrendously understaffed and his need to do everything "the right way" cost me a lot of lighting time, and him a lot of energy. One of the things he wanted to do "the right way" was to fill from the key side--and about this one thing I should have listened.

A few years later I day-played as an operator on the TV series "Nash Bridges", then shot by DP Victor Goss, ASC. I noticed that he filled most of his setups from the same side that the rest of the light in the scene was coming from; for example, if the main lighting was coming through the windows to camera right, the fill would be a light through a frame of diffusion just above and to the right of my matte box. I couldn't help but notice that the blending of the light sources was both beautiful and very practical, because he could soften and extend the wrap of any source this way. It seemed not only to be a beautiful way to fill a shot but also a fantastic method of damage control, because just about any kind of light could be made more palatable on a face using this method.

But enough talk. Time to draw pictures. Read on...

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Milo Hyson: | July, 29, 2008

I’m glad to see I’m not crazy and that others employ this technique as well. It seems like I’m always looking at other people’s work and asking myself, “How many suns is Earth supposed to have again?” I’ve always felt that the presence of the fill should be more or less invisible to the viewer. Turning the fill into “key spillover” as it were just seems like a logical way to hide it.

This trick isn’t limited to the key, however. I once did a sunrise look with a warm, salmon-colored key as the sun and a bluish kicker to give the feeling of cool, morning air. Rather than putting the fill on the key-side, I intentionally put it on the kicker-side and colored it slightly blue so as to suggest a bit of that bright coolness was wrapping around the subject. The effect was quite nice.

rawbee: | July, 29, 2008

Awesome post, thank you so much!

Scott Gentry: | July, 29, 2008


Like Audio, often folks don’t understand, what they don’t understand - and why lighting is an art.  (No pun intended, Art).

Rob: | July, 29, 2008

Keep’m commin’. I’m soaking ‘em up.

Would you ever use the Hollywood standard three point setup?

I’ve been using two old 500/1000W Lowell Softbox2s for years. Then I hang some diffusion on the front of them as well. I’ve got a set of open face Lowell lights but they always seem so harsh and hard to control.

What about a “hair” light or “rim” light? Does the passive fill cover this for you? What about an “eye light” to get that glint?



Art Adams: | July, 30, 2008

The fill usually ends up being a nice soft eye light. I’ll use hairlight or rim light occasionally, but not as much as I used to. A lot of DPs that I know tend to use less of that as they get older. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe our tastes just become very subtle.

The “Hollywood” three point setup should really be known as the Film School three point setup, because on real film sets you never see anything that straight forward. In an article in American Cinematographer a DP said that all lighting setups boil down to key/fill/backlight, and I think that’s true in a very general sense, but it changes all the time in how it’s applied. Sometimes I don’t backlight at all, and sometimes I play shots entirely in backlight. Sometimes I light the area in back of the actors instead of lighting the actors themselves. Sometimes I light the whole set with one light. It does all boil down to key/fill/backlight, but the three point lighting setup should—in my opinion—never be taught because it locks you into a way of thinking, and lighting must be fluid and not confined to a rigid plan.

I was stuck on three point lighting for years, and now I don’t do anything that looks remotely like three point lighting. It still boils down to those basic elements of key/fill/backlight but it’s rare that those lights end up in that configuration. Three point lighting is the basis for lighting but I think that technique should be forgotten shortly after it’s learned. smile

Adam Wilt: | July, 30, 2008

Almost every time I’ve used a hairlight / rimlight / kicker that isn’t also a primary key or fill, the scene looks “lit”, so I don’t do it much any more, either.

Back when one was shooting for analog telly, one HAD to ensure the subject would separate from the background on both monochrome and color sets, regardless of brightness or contrast levels, and on old, tiny, gassy picture tubes. The 3-point setup was an easy way to ensure SOME hint of dimensionality would survive the lossy chain between the cam op and the viewers at home.

But it certainly wasn’t subtle!

The stereotypical kicker was especially useful when you couldn’t count on focus to separate FG and BG: 2/3” camera tubes (and chips) lack the shallow depth of field of 35mm film (and live TV lacks the luxury of a 1st AC, and multiple takes when the shallow focus is blown). Even if you could use focus for separation, you couldn’t count on the viewer having a TV screen big enough (or sharp enough) to tell the difference between in-focus and out-of-focus scene elements!

Nowadays we tend to be more “filmic” with lighting, focus, and other production values; we don’t constrain ourselves so much to compensate for the limitations of analog NTSC broadcasts viewed on CRTs of uncertain stability and quality.

This is progress.

Great article, Art!

Steven Bradford: | September, 04, 2008

Only just found this post, thanks Art. I think I’ve been doing this a lot without realizing it, or having a name for it, I really appreciate how you’ve explained and diagrammed it. I’m sure I’ll be using it in my classes in the future.

I think we also are using fill on the key side when we light with a big soft source, such as a silk light diffusion that spreads out the light, but also preserves the point source, giving a soft and a hard light from the same light. Now I know why I always liked that look for some scenes, and how to make it work better.

Malani Wolfgramm: | July, 19, 2010

Wow great tips, I just found out about Stunning Good Looks and am in the process of reading all of your earlier post.  I love your articles.

Art Adams: | July, 19, 2010

Hi Malani-

Very cool. I hope you enjoy them. Some are arty, some are geeky. Hopefully there’s something for everyone.

More coming soon… I have a very geeky article in the pipeline.

Malani Wolfgramm: | July, 19, 2010

I cant wait for the next article!  Wow that was a fast reply, you must have a clones of doing your work.  Where do you find the time to write articles, post on cml, comment on posts, as well work!  Keep up the good work.

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