Using Reflectors:
                                         Some handy do-it-yourself
Previous page:        have their large backlots, they
Common in most
  assistants’ ditty
Using Reflectors
shadows, or a softer reflector like a                                                                    ...
Using Reflectors
O-ring that goes into a slot, so you        up to 20 feet square. The smaller        2. Holders for scrim...
The Professional Use of Reflectors
                      he function of the sunlight reflec-    is 4'....
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A Ssing Ceflectors

  1. 1. Using Reflectors: Some handy do-it-yourself solutions for cinematographers challenged by small budgets. by Christopher Probst F or cinematographers, the need to craft and control images is as important as ever — particu- larly for those working in the emerging independent and digi- tal-video (DV) feature markets. The shoot-it-as-is, run-and-gun mental- ity propagated by ardent promoters of the DV “revolution” only goes so far in the aid of good storytelling. Regardless of the size of the budget or crew, or the format in which it is shot, a film’s imagery can strengthen the written and performed script in ways that often exceed the expecta- tions of the writer and director. Indeed, the craft of cinematography — the telling of stories with images — has been evolving since 1877, when a horse’s gallop was first captured in the famous series of stills by Eadweard Muybridge. As veteran director of photog- raphy Stephen H. Burum, ASC points out, however, the art of shooting during the middle of the been used in the motion-picture Photos courtesy of Christopher Probst. honing imagery to suit the needs of a day. That way the light will look business from the very beginning. story needn’t drain your bank consistent, so the audience is not In fact, even Renaissance painters account. Foremost on Burum’s list of distracted from the story. To ensure used reflectors to help them light low-budget image-making tactics is consistent images all day long, a cine- their subjects in a more pleasing the effective utilization of the cheap- matographer often needs many tools manner.” (See sidebar.) est light source available: the sun. to manipulate light. Augmenting available daylight “Painters and photographers know “One of the most effective with reflectors requires planning and the best light conditions are the two tools we use every day in cine- staging according to the arc of the or three hours after sunrise and matography is very cost-effective: sun throughout the day. Burum before sunset. They want to avoid reflectors. All sorts of reflectors have offers, “When the studios used to American Cinematographer 1
  2. 2. Previous page: have their large backlots, they Common in most assistants’ ditty oriented their streets so that they bags, the “space were built running north and south. blanket” makes As far back as the silent-film days, a great dual- purpose they’d always try to shoot toward the reflector. south, because that way they’d Normally 6' x 6' always have a consistent backlight in size, these blankets even and would be able to use reflectors to come with fill and model the actors’ faces. corner-fastening Reflectors were positioned on the grommets. While the silver side is actors in exactly the same way you’d particularly use lamps on a stage. useful, one “You never want to plan your shouldn’t rule out the shoot for a whole day at a location multitude of that runs east or west, because you’ll colors available only have half a day of consistent on the opposite side. Blue and light. If you have a street running olive-green are north and south, in the morning the especially handy west side of the street is lit and the in emulating cooler sky east side is in shadow. If you choose shadow and to shoot in shadow, you’d start out in foliage bounce, the morning shooting east. When respectively. Top: Although the sun starts to flip over, you’d begin not the most to turn around, shooting south into robust frame in backlight; then, as the sun begins to the world, this 7' x 5' screen set in the west, you’d shoot toward door retails for the west. under $30. “In this manner, you can Middle: A removable maintain a consistent look and map O-ring holds the out your shots according to the screen material direction in which you’re shooting,” in place, and also Burum continues. “Also, you can enables easy plan to do all of your big wide shots replacement early in the morning or later in the with other materials and afternoon, while the sun angle is fabrics. best. Then, while the sun is directly Bottom: overhead and harsh, you can cover Additional densities of your actors with a silk and light them screen material to best advantage, with reflectors can also be doing all of your close-ups and purchased in rolls for medium shots. That’s one way you under $2. can effectively use the middle of the day [when the light is not ideal] and still shoot under the burden of a schedule.” Burum stresses that reflected daylight is often overlooked as a technique for illuminating day-inte- rior scenes. “You don’t always need lights in your location interiors,” he suggests. “You can use daylight coming through the windows and augment that light with a few reflec- tors — such as mirrors if you want to get a sharp shaft of light and hard 2 Reprinted from American Cinematographer March 2001
  3. 3. Using Reflectors shadows, or a softer reflector like a Top: 90-degrees silver, shiny board — angled outside elbows, from top left: 1 1/4” to perhaps come in through a aluminum speed window off-camera. You can further rail, 1 1/4” PVC, refine the reflected light by putting 3/4” PVC; bottom 3/4” up a bit of diffusion to soften it even electrical more. conduit elbow “On two of the films I shot, and coupler 3/4”. Casualties of War and The Middle: Top and Untouchables, we built houses on bottom brass location that were constructed so and plastic grommets, left that the roofs could be removed, and and right plastic I could then cover the top with frabic claps muslin and use some neutral density used for holding tarps at the or scrim on the windows. To balance hardware and between the light outside and the camping stores. toplight from the muslin, it didn’t Bottom left: 3/4” pipe repair matter whether the sun was in or out; clamp with as the light changed, the balance homemade between the two stayed the same. c-stand adapter holding 3/4” With this method, all you have to do PVC pipe. is change your f-stop. It works very Bottom right: efficiently.” Top is the 3/4” pipe repair Maximizing the sun’s lumi- clamp opened nance by using reflectors as a source up, bottom is of light is an idea that goes back the homemade c-stand adapter. through the history of art. “Everybody wants to make pictures inexpensively and efficiently, but it’s not equipment that makes good photography, it’s a person’s mind,” says Burum.“If you understand what the principles are, you can use what’s around you. The question I always try to address in articles for AC is: ‘What is the underlying principle?’ Once you understand what that is, it’s up to your imagination to figure out how you can modify something that’s available to you. Where do you think all the gear we use today came from in the first place? In the begin- ning, there were no companies like conduit (EMT). The pipes come in Matthews or Mole-Richardson! 1⁄2-inch and 3⁄ 4-inch sizes in lengths “Now you can buy and/or rent up to 10 feet, and you can get 90- all of these wonderful frames, reflec- degree elbows or straight couplings tors and stands from the equipment- so that you can fashion them into rental houses, but you may not be frames. You can also use plastic PVC sure you do it somewhere flat, able to afford them,” he continues. plumbing tubes. They have 90- because if the PVC is bent while it “There are many substitute items degree PVC corners as well, but PVC dries, the tube will stay bent. The you can find very inexpensively in a is a little flexible. There are two ways other way is to put a wood dowel in standard hardware store. to stiffen it up a bit. First, you can fill it, just like they used to do when they “One of the best materials to the tubes with spray foam, which made old aircraft; the crews drove a make frames with is electrical makes the PVC very stiff. Just make wooden dowel into the aluminum Reprinted from American Cinematographer March 2001 3
  4. 4. A HISTORY OF INGENUITY tubing, and this made the tubing very strong while still keeping it very lightweight.” Burum has discovered that P art of the heritage of cinema is the more exposure. They soon found many of the materials used in film- tireless inventiveness of its practi- that big mirrors were too heavy to ing can also be found at local hard- tioners. With few iron-clad rules move around and tended to break ware and fabric stores. “A lot of dictating equipment and techniques, easily, so they began using the people like to use Griffolyn in frames the film industry has evolved as a ferrotype tin, which is basically a as a bounce reflector. Griffolyn was logistics and problem-solving pres- large piece of chromed metal. originally developed for farmers in sure cooker, with roots reaching back “Ferrotype tins were originally the Midwest to cover their haystacks, to the Renaissance painters. “When made as a photo finishing tool to get and then somebody thought it doing still-life portraits, painters glossy prints, they were made in might work for movies. Another would often go outside and stretch different sizes, so filmmakers would popular material to use in frames is muslin over their subjects to get soft have them framed up to use as reflec- gridcloth, which is essentially rip- light,” says Stephen H. Burum, ASC. tors,” he continues. “However, some- stop nylon. You can go to any fabric “When photography first started in times the light they created was too store and ask for white rip-stop the 1830s and 1840s, they had hard, so they’d take a ball-peen nylon; you’ll have the same thing as studios with big, glass ceilings and hammer and bang them so that the gridcloth, only it will cost you half as walls that faced north, allowing them light would be softer; they called much. Other useful fabrics include the same kind of consistent light; those ‘dipples.’ The only problem percale sheets, sail cloth, silk and they would seat people there and take with propping any of those reflectors taffeta. very long exposures. If they wanted on the ground was that the light was “There are all sorts of ways to to manipulate light, they used large, coming from down low, and in most attach the material to frames,” he black panels, or white muslin that situations that looks unnatural and is continues. “You can put grommets they could pull over the top or the hard on the actor’s eyes. It was there- around the edges, or use the little sides to create different lighting fore decided that reflectors should be garter-snap-type fasteners that you effects. When the movie industry elevated, so crews built parallels and can find at camping stores. To make started up in the early 1900s, film- set the reflectors up higher, angling a fold-up reflector, use a space blan- makers basically borrowed from the them to catch the sun.” ket [plastic material with one same traditions.” As cinema continued to aluminized, reflective side], which Burum points out that early advance and film sensitivities charged you can get for $13 at any camping filmmakers used either glass studios toward double-digit ASAs, the need store. For less than $25, you can or studio sets that could turn on big for softer, subtler bounce and reflect- make a great reflector.” Lazy Susans, enabling them to point ing sources became apparent. “The Another material many cine- the studios towards the sun. “The early filmmakers then decided to matographers use for exterior light most famous of these was the one take a big piece of muslin and other modification is scrim, also known as Thomas Edison built in New Jersey fabrics in frames and use those to bobbinet. “Scrim is very expensive, called The Black Maria. Also, film- reflect light,” says Burum. “Those but your local home-builders store makers often built their sets on plat- frames were usually quite large, so has a substitute that works terrifi- forms so that they were shooting they’d lean the frames against two cally: fiberglass windowscreen. It south, placing everything in back- poles. Sign painters leaf was applied comes in very large widths because it light so that they could then put out to 4’ x 4’ pieces of plywood for a soft often has to cover large sliding doors reflectors to bring light back into the yet punchy effect; both silver and and such. Again, you can use grom- set to get an exposure.” gold were much in favor. They even- mets or those garter-snap tie-offs On these “stages,” early film tually came up with a sort of paint- from the camping store to tie the practitioners experimented with an easel configuration to support the material to your frames.” array of reflecting materials available smaller mirror and tin reflectors. For not-so-handy cinematog- at that time. “They’d get a piece of 4- Finally, the collapsible stands-and- raphers, or those who are in a rush, by-8-foot plywood, paint it white, yokes system we use today became Burum recommends whole pre- and lean it against a post to reflect standard. fabricated windowscreens. “Those light back at their scene,” Burum “This is also why filmmakers are nice because the frame is already details. “They also used mirrors if came to California — there was built with plastic corners, and the they wanted a harder light or needed plenty of sunshine most of the time!” plastic screen is held down with an — Christopher Probst 4 Reprinted from American Cinematographer March 2001
  5. 5. Using Reflectors O-ring that goes into a slot, so you up to 20 feet square. The smaller 2. Holders for scrims and flags use can even change the material in the heads and stands can only safely be the slotted 1⁄8" aluminum, steel or 1⁄4" frame, perhaps putting in some of used for frames up to 8 feet square. plywood C-stand adapter bolted to your cheap rip-stop nylon,” he the scrim frame. (See illustration of advises. “The biggest windowscreen Other Build-it-Yourself Tips pipe repair clamp on page 3.) frames I’ve seen are about 8-by-8 feet and go for about $25. Even though 1. Standard sizes for flags and open- 3. Weld 3⁄8" steel rod to a flat piece of they’re not the strongest frames in end scrims are 18" x 12", 18" x 24" 1⁄8" x 1" steel and drill two or three the world, you can still have an 8-by- and 24" x 36". To create your own 1⁄4" holes. The round rod is the 8 scrim in a frame for $25!” flag, take an 1⁄8" piece of lauan correct size to fit the C-stand head. “There are many other hard- plywood and cut the wood to the 1⁄4" bolts will hold the adapter to flag, surface materials at the hardware appropriate size. Then paint it flat scrim frame or pattern cutouts. store that are useful,” he concludes. black and cut a 3⁄4"-wide slot that is “One old standby is plywood 13⁄4" to 2" long. This makes a flag to painted white or silver, or with vari- completely block the light. ous foils stuck on it. Solid foam insulation — beadboard — some- times comes with a silver as well as a soft white side. “These reflectors can be set down on the ground and held at the proper angle by a single or double pole, depending on the size. If you 4. Many sizes of fittings for schedule wish to elevate your frame, you must 40 tubing and pipe come in standard use a pair of century stands. To hold sizes: 1⁄2, 3⁄4, 1, 1 1⁄4, 1 1⁄2 and 2". the frame in the C-stand heads, you Plastic PVC, steel and aluminum all must make an adapter to first hold come in these sizes. You can use the frame, then clamp it to the C- fittings made of all these materials stand head.Your local hardware store interchangeably. Electrical tubing has pipe-repair clamps in various Open-end scrims to cut light (EMT) is a different size and must be sizes that will hold PVC or EMT intensity can be made by cutting a U- used with its own fittings. The pipe- tubing. Then fit a flat piece of 1⁄8" shaped frame out of 1⁄4" plywood. repair clamps fit schedule 40 pipe. aluminum, steel or 1⁄4" plywood with Fiberglass or wire windowscreen can a 3⁄4" slot 2 inches long. This will do then be stapled in double or single the trick. layers to complete the job. This “The century stand is the only works for colored gel, too. must-have piece of equipment. Used C-stands can be purchased on the Web. There are two sizes of century heads, 2 1⁄2" and 4 1⁄2"; the larger size fits bigger stands to support frames 4'x4' professional reflector and stand. Reprinted from American Cinematographer March 2001 5
  6. 6. The Professional Use of Reflectors T he function of the sunlight reflec- is 4'. The frame has fittings for manner as to throw reflected tor may be likened to that of the mounting the reflector on a pedestal sunlight into the scene. Of course, flashbulb in the still-photogra- or for attaching a telescoping this calls for shooting on the location pher’s camera: to throw needed light support at the back, where the reflec- at the time of day when the sun is in into shadow areas of a scene to tor is to be used on the ground. The the right position to make reflector balance the illumination for best yoke and pedestal are constructed of use effective. Where action is staged pictorial results. steel tubing. The latter is adjustable in deep shade, hard-surfaced reflec- Reflectors are essential equip- from a low of 60" to a maximum tors are the best to use, as their light ment for any producer of motion- height of 96". beams hold together and carry for a picture films. Even when booster The simplest and most obvi- greater distance than do those of soft lights are brought along to a distant ous use of the reflector is to lighten reflectors. Professional cinematogra- exterior location, invariably reflec- up the shadow side of faces when phers have been known to use reflec- tors will be found in use also, for shooting in crosslight outdoors. For tors in relays for this type of shot — quite often they can provide light of this, a fairly soft reflector — the bouncing light from one reflector to a different quality or can throw light aluminum papered surface — is another until the light reaches the from an angle not possible with a usually best. The reflector should be desired spot. This is useful, of course, booster light because of the terrain placed well back from the subject so where access to sunlight is not direct, or power problems. The small-film that the effect of shadow remains, as in the average type of shot calling producer, of course, will find reflec- but with the shadow area lightened for reflector use. tors indispensable, for reflectors can sufficiently to permit the camera to Another professional use for be made to serve his purpose in capture necessary detail. Here, the sunlight reflectors is to provide back- most exterior locations, making it reflector should be elevated so that lighting and rimlighting. A typical unnecessary for his crew to employ the light strikes the subject at face example of using reflectors for back- the more costly booster lights and level or from slightly above. In any lighting is where the subject is out in power generator. case, the reflected light should not the open, facing the sun. Camera When reflectors first were be so intense as to cause the subject angle permitting, a hard reflector is used in cinematography, they were to squint. placed in back of the subject to throw usually placed on the ground and Reflectors find important use reflected light upon him to provide tilted, with a stick supporting them also when the cinematographer added separation. Sometimes two at the desired angle. But the light works in backlight. Here, two reflec- reflectors are better for this — one at thus reflected from a low angle was tors should be used — one at either each side, toward the back. unnatural, and gradually reflectors side of the subject throwing fill light Use of reflectors in cinematog- were elevated — mounted on paral- towards both sides of the face — and raphy rarely poses an exposure prob- lels to produce reflected light from a a third placed somewhat closer to the lem. Once the contrast effect has more natural angle. Outdoors, subject (with consequent “hotter” been checked with the aid of a sunlight comes from above, and it is light) to provide a measure of contrast viewing glass, the usual only logical that reflected light, to modeling in the illumination. meter reading — either reflected or appear natural and unobtrusive, The skillful cameraman will incident light — is read and the lens come from an elevated angle also. achieve results with reflectors that set accordingly. It sometimes Ultimately, the studios started are subtle, and do not make use of happens that balancing the reflector- mounting their reflectors on tripods reflectors obvious in the scene. Like filled shadow side of a face with the or metal stands, with the reflector every other cinematic treatment, bright side becomes a problem. To tilting within a metal, U-shaped yoke when reflected lighting is overdone, get an effect of natural “open” mounted atop the adjustable stand. it is distracting as well as completely shadow, there should be about half as Until recently, users of reflec- unnatural. much light in the shadow as in the tors built their own. Now, profes- By using reflectors, action can highlight. Increase or decrease the sional-type dual-surfaced reflectors, be staged in shade, as for example on illumination of the reflector-lighted complete with yoke and pedestal, are a porch, under large shade trees, or in area by moving the reflectors toward available. The reflector is constructed the shadow of a house or tall build- or away from subject or scene until of plywood 1⁄4-inch thick supported ing. Here, reflectors can be set up the right balance is obtained. within a wooden frame. Overall size beyond the shaded area in such a 6 Reprinted from American Cinematographer in the 1950s