The Simplest, Fastest Interview Lighting Setup—Ever.
Years in the making, this technique works in almost every situation and makes almost everyone look great. That's about the best you can hope for when shooting talking heads on a tight schedule.
By Art Adams | November 17, 2011
For a long time my primary source of employment was shooting corporate marketing communications videos. As these consist primarily of "talking head" interviews, I tried every lighting setup I could think of to make people look their best quickly, as many of these shoots have tight schedules and not much turnaround time between interviews. This setup is the result of years of experimentation.
Here it is:
Yes, it looks simple. Deceptively simple. Believe it or not, it takes a long time to learn to light so simply. There was a time when I used every light on the truck (or the van) on my shoots, but as I've matured the number of lights I use has dropped dramatically.
That's very important, because it's not enough to be able to do great work as a DP. You have to do it in a very short period of time. Creating the prettiest lighting setup in the world doesn't help anyone if it takes so long that the director only has five minutes to get what they need. Lighting is important, but it's not the most important thing.
The seed of this idea formed during my search to make talking head interviews interesting for me to shoot. The bar for corporate marketing videos is often quite low, so I found myself able to experiment with lighting setups without getting in trouble for it. If I couldn't find a fast, pretty way to light something to my satisfaction most of my corporate clients were still very happy with what I came up with, so I took those opportunities to examine what worked and what didn't when lighting a human face under unpredictable circumstances. (Anyone who shoots these kinds of corporate projects knows there's usually no scout and no technical pre-production at all: you show up, see the locations for the first time, and make the most of the hand you're dealt.)
I started in the film industry before Chimeras became a household name, back when the grip crew would build soft boxes out of foam core and 1000H tracing paper at the beginning of every day and then trash them at wrap because tracing paper didn't travel well. When I started shooting video between film operating gigs, on broadcast shows like "The New Candid Camera Show" and "Inside Edition," the lighting kit consisted of a Lowell Tota kit and some umbrellas. The entire camera and lighting package fit on a small folding luggage cart.
The advent of the collapsible light bank for hot lights changed quite a lot, and suddenly every EFP location lighting kit had a small video Chimera in it. I played with these for a while but found them very frustrating: their size, at 24" by 32", resulted in a soft-ish light that still had a lot of directionality to it, and while I try never to flat light a face I also found that the small video bank cast a shadow that was just a little too sharp. The harder a light is the more precisely it has to be placed for each face that appears before it, and I found that small Chimeras weren't big enough to softly wrap around noses while simultaneously filling deep eye sockets.
Some people have narrow faces, so the light has to be moved near the camera to reach into both eyes; some faces are flat or round and require side light to appear three dimensional. Sometimes the light has to be placed quite low to reach into deep eye sockets, which causes the nose shadow to fall horizontally against the fill-side cheek. Classical portraiture calls for the nose shadow to fall along the "smile line," which connects the corner of the nose to the corner of the mouth. This isn't a hard and fast rule for dramatic productions, but for a dry corporate marketing video or documentary interview where the audience is staring at a person's face for a long period of time, placing the nose shadow along the smile line helps a lot.
Producers would occasionally express annoyance at my futzing with this small Chimera as we had very little time between interviews and they wanted to roll as soon as the subject sat down. Other camera people placed that small Chimera once and then never moved it, but I didn't like the results. I set out to find the perfect, fast way to light anyone's face so that results would be excellent at least 90% of the time.
I experimented with bigger sources, and while the medium Chimera light bank, at 36"x48", offered much better results, it wasn't as portable as the small video bank was, and producers balked at renting it as the small Chimera "works just fine for everyone else." I had to find a fast way to create a big beautiful source using materials that were extremely portable and cheap.
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