Low Budget Lighting

†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Lighting Low Budget Locations

††††††† Low-budget filmmaking almost always uses existing locations Ė real houses, offices and so on. Itís usually much cheaper to find a workable location than to build a set. But these locations often come with a downside. Theyíre sometimes cramped, they may not have enough power available, and often the time schedule is limited. The budget itself presents limitations. You may not have anywhere near the number or types of lights you would need in an ideal situation. So low-budget filmmaking ends up being a compromise between numerous factors. Those that are successful at low-budget filmmaking are the people who are good at making these compromises in a way that helps to sell the scene to the viewer.


†††††† First thing to consider in a low-budget production is the location itself. To be effective, take advantage of every possibility to obtain one, especially with no money because a free location is worth a lot. There is no problem if you get into the location and find the lighting diagram you had in mind doesnít work. You can simply change the lighting. In fact there are always more options than you think. Getting locked into a single approach or concept cannot bring any benefits to your project.

††††††† Over the last several years, in numerous films, both low-budget and high-budget, editors and directors have a strong preference for close-ups, far more than in earlier films. Close-ups are great for low budget work; they can be shot practically everywhere.† For example, you donít need a wide shot of a fabulous ballroom filled with a hundred costumed extras to show the audience where the action takes place. Nowadays, it is quite simple to fake it with a few elements of interior decoration and sound effects, conversation or dancing, narrowing the shot to the two principals getting a refill from the punch bowl while one or two couples waltz by in front of the camera to sell the idea that there are 50 more couples in the scene.† The most relevant conclusion from this example is that youíve cut the lighting requirements from a full lighting truck down to a few Fresnels and a soft bank. Sometimes, tightwad planning and imagination are worth a lot more than a big budget.† †

††††††† To understand what you really need for lighting a desired scene, you go over the next several steps:

††††††††† -† Less is more. Many scenes in films are significantly overlit, which requires lots of high-power instruments and then even more lighting for accent and highlights. Establish a low-level base fill for the room and then concentrate on lighting the actors, or the main area of action in the scene.

††††††††† -† Less is enough. Cameras today are far more light-sensitive so donít need the high levels of light that were once necessary. Instead of 1k or 2k you can use 300W or 800W or even less.

††††††††† -† Less is effective. A simple lighting plan can be quite effective and uses fewer instruments. Every light you add in the scene will need another light to either even out the effect or counteract it.

††††††††† -† Make walls interesting. Put effort into lighting accents that make walls interesting. Table lamps that cast a fan of light on the wall, light through Venetian blinds, or if the wall is fairly lit, use a cutter (black foamcore or cardboard) to cast an angled shadow in the upper corners.

††††††††† -† Donít be afraid of shadows. The real world is packed with shadows that make the light more interesting, so you donít have to be afraid to let the actors to walk through shadows, just donít have them deliver important lines there.

††††††††† -† Make use of natural light. In some shots you can use windows and the real light coming through them for fill, key or even backlight, just by adding some diffusion or by placing reflectors in the room.

††††††† Itís really impossible to specify a lighting kit that will work for every project; however you will need a certain complement of lights to do workable dramatic lighting.

Here is a suggestion for a starter kit for low-budget filmmaking:

Two 650W Fresnels
One 300W Fresnel
One or two quartz Redhead 800W open-faced lights
One or two quartz Redhead 300W open-faced lights
One soft bank, as large as you can afford
Stands for all the light above
Two or more C-Stands with gobo arms
Collapsible reflectors, white and silver
Full set of color correction gels
Assorted diffusion material
Black foamcore for homemade cookies and flags
Real gaffer tape
Extension cords