Lighting Designer, gaffer, and owner of Scheimpflüg, John Engstrom, talks about the recent challenges of lighting for VR.
Photo By Meredith Marshall
I recently worked on a project called “Invisible,” directed by Doug Liman (Edward Button DP) which was shot entirely in VR, using the Jaunt as well as modified GoPro Rigs such as the Backbone rig which you can read about here. Aside from this project, we are constantly busy in VR these days and have worked for a lot of different TV shows, agencies, as well as fashion shows.
At FLUG we’ve managed to get “immersed” in VR. It’s become so prevalent that we are now flooded with hundreds of little cameras and accessories. The technology seems to be changing almost daily. What is NOT changing is the need for people who can light, and with the new challenges that VR represents my phone has been ringing off the hook.
The first challenge is camera perspective, every shot sees the entire world. When working on a narrative piece that is trying to move fast through a location - even staging your equipment becomes a huge pain in the ass. The camera sees out of every window, and down every hallway. On this last job I just came off of we had THREE different units shooting at the same location, some of which were shooting two camera angles each - it felt like there was no place to safely be for miles..... I was told “Your trucks have to move! You can stage them a mile away - drones are flying all day while we’re shooting in the house.”
Pre-production on VR shoots is crucial - Knowing exactly where we were shooting became paramount - as something as simple as running power can be really tricky. Normally I just would have sparked up the truck, and run cable in such a way it wasn’t seen, but in some instances I couldn’t do that. I’ve worked with really good directors who know exactly what they want (such as Doug Liman) and this allows me to plan and make the day go smoother. I’ve also experienced the painful flip-side of having a director figure it out on the fly, and that makes life really hard on us, but you have to roll with the punches. It’s always been like this in our business, but with VR - you’re seeing the whole world, and it’s a million times harder to hide fixtures and you’ll need more time.
Arri M Series Heads - Photo By Wendell Maruyama
Having big lights outside banging light in through the windows made a whole lot of sense in this instance. One of the things that saved me when I couldn’t run the generator truck was being able to run spot power in certain areas - such as running an M90 off of a Honda 10K generator in the woods.. Arri’s entire M series is incredibly efficient, and provides an incredible amount of light for the power it is using. I use them primarily for bounce or for driving through a rag, when I need hard and well defined shadows I go back to fresnels, and when I need an oval shaped beam or a really strong point of light I go to Pars. For instance the spot of a par can go down to 5.5 degrees, where an M Series Head of the same power class spots in to 20 degrees.
Transformer & Honda 10K Generator photo by Derek Stalley
We have a transformer that can also run off of a 7500 or 10K Honda which will let me run cable (from the generator to the transformer) and drop a 100A box (10K) or a 60A box 300 feet and then correct for the voltage drop / line loss.
When I could run the generator truck, I would run an 18K fresnel on a condor crane. I use the fresnel for sharper shadows. Having the ability to move the light quickly is absolutely imperative. In some cases there was no place to hide the light outside even, and we had to boom the light in over another building from 60 feet up to get the light out of the top of the frame. It also gave us the option of slamming the light into the floor of a room as opposed to raking it completely across the room.
The second big challenge of VR is that the cameras normally are very low tech. A good baseline exposure for a GoPro is 2.8, and normally they break it to me that the camera is set for 60 frames at ISO 400, or something fun like that - so, you need a certain amount of light, but the problem is that you’ve got no place to put the light, the cameras see the world.
The third challenge is how the cameras respond. They are not shooting Arri Raw or anything that I’m used to lighting for - your colors have to be solid. At least with the GoPro rigs the colors crunch up really fast, and if you’re in a primarily daylight scene and you have a tungsten light burning at 3200 it becomes a solid reddish orange. This one was pretty simple to fix, if I wanted it warm I would keep it in the mid 4000’s. On many of the LED fixtures we are able to dial in whatever color we want.
The other thing to really understand is that you can’t flare a lens, as LENS FLARE DOES NOT STITCH! It will cost a fortune to deal with in post. So be careful. Not ALL of the lenses flare - only one of the cameras - so, this is where your trouble comes from. There are many many cameras that make up the final image, so keep this in mind.
What we found to be interesting is that you can’t lock exposure yet on most of these cameras, and each camera is reading it’s own exposure, so - it’s kind of like shooting HDR. You may have only a five stop range with a GoPro, but we found that the fact that there were many GoPros capturing the image that certain shots where I thought would just balloon out actually held.
I have found myself relying on fixtures that I haven’t normally used in the past (or at least haven’t used as frequently as I have been lately) -
Dedo Light 200 HMI
Dedo Light 200 Photo by Julie Congo
Dedo Light 200 HMI - This unit is small, daylight balanced, and has the ability to run off of an Anton Bauer battery. I found myself relying on these heavily as they were very easily hidden, and you could use them where there was no power. We ran into the power cord problem a TON. Getting power to certain areas of the castle we shot in was impossible without seeing the power cords. This unit is dimmable by one stop. I used it to light paintings on the wall, or giving a kiss of light to a face from 20 feet away tucking the fixture behind a beam or a couch even.
ETC Mini Source Four LED
ETC Source Four Mini LED photo by Robert Toner
ETC Mini Source Four LED - These units can also run off of battery, they are not as bright as the Deido 200, and they are also tungsten balanced, but they have been handy to have around. They can also project a gobo. What is great about these is that they don’t get hot, and I’m never afraid I’m going to burn anything.
Standard ETC Source Four 750 Tungsten - There were times when I had to bounce a light from far away, and these are great units for that. Sometimes I would have to throw light completely across a scene from somewhere I could hide a light to bounce a light off of a wall on the other side of the room.
Lite Panels Astra LED 1x1
Lite Panels Astra LED Soft - Photo By Julie Congo
Lite Panels Astra LED 1x1 (New soft version as well as standard). These have been useful because they are a lot of light which can run off of battery power, and I can jam them somewhere around a corner and project a relatively soft light into the scene which can be controlled with a Chimera or a grid spot. We have the bi-color versions of these, which really helped dial in the color.
Jaunt Camera with Lite Ribbon - Photo by Rosario Zinnanati
Lite Ribbon - I’ve never relied so much on lite ribbon until VR. This stuff has provided us light in otherwise completely impossible situations. I’ve taped it to computer screens that you see the back of but not the face of, and gelled them to whatever color I need. Pictured above - I used Lite Ribbon to wrap around the actual support of the camera, and was able to dim it down to where I needed it to be.
Practical Bulbs & Lamps
Practical Bulbs & Lamps - Never has set dressing with fixtures been more important than right now. Many times the lights are just going to be in the shot. So it’s important to be able to control them, dim them, make them brighter, or change their color. When using the GoPro based VR rigs as I mentioned before - I try to keep color temperatures in the mid 4000K range as opposed to having it turn a gnarly orange which the GoPros are tending to do at 3200K.
In some cases I had to put lamps where there was no power. We sometimes would run up to three LED bulbs with a 60 watt equivalent / gelled to 4500 K off of a Battery Block Inverter or K5600 “SlimVerter” which will run them for hours off of Anton Batteries.
Arri Sky Panel S60 & S30
Skypanel S60 running off of 2 battery block 600’s and Inverter Photo By Kenneth Gronquist
Arri Sky Panel S60 & S30 - These units have been a game changer. I can run the S60 for two hours off of two battery block 600’s with an inverter. These units are great for a dark hallway that you don’t see all the way down. An S60 can project a nice soft light into the space that is completely color tunable both Yellow / Blue as well as Green / magenta.
Lite Mat - We were in a situation in a basement where there were no windows, and we desperately needed some more light in a scene as we were not hitting our baseline. So, the art department hung blinds on a concrete block wall, and I taped Lite Mats to the wall and ran them off of battery power to create a virtual window.
In another situation we had florescent lights in a hallway coming out of drop ceiling. The only problem was that where all of our action was, there was no florescent light above, so - I removed the panel above our action, threw a Lite Mat above the drop ceiling, and then carefully taped 250 diffusion over the opening - problem solved. These can run off of battery too, but in this instance I was able to run the cable to AC power and let it burn all day.
ETC DMX Board with Wireless Control
ETC Smartfade DMX Board - Photo By Robert Toner
ETC DMX board with Wireless Control - I’ve been angry at myself when I don’t have a DMX board with me now. Being that there are sometimes lighting gags such as our talent turning off a television with a remote control, and having to turn off the fixture which is actually providing the motivated light from the television is impossible unless you can run cable or have a lamp operator there to shut it off, but with the 360 nature of the format it is very difficult to hide anything, and having the ability to now remotely shut everything on and off wirelessly is HUGE. With this board I can program an Arri Skypanel S60 to be a flashing police light - or very quickly dim or change the color of an array of lights.
When used with the Wireless Show Baby 5, DMX cables from the board to the lights are eliminated. All you need is a transmitter connected to the board and a receiver connected to the main DMX controlled light and I can wirelessly broadcast and receive a whole universe of DMX slots (512 in total).
I can program up to 5 Showbabys on separate channels and use them with 5 different boards at the same time for a maximum of 2560 controllable DMX slots. The wireless Showbabys can also be used alongside walkies and other radio controlled devices, as they do not operate on similar channels.
The Wireless Show Baby is a must have for eliminating wires and easily hiding a DMX board operator.
Photo By Jay Kolsch
Above: Electrician Derek Stalley responds to the call to get down as he was in a shot where the camera could see out of windows on all sides of the building. Keeping the gack out of the shots was the hardest thing about lighting for VR.
I think that the key to it is to know exactly what is going to happen, and where it’s happening, and do a ton of pre-production as - there is no hiding, the camera sees EVERYTHING.
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