On Lighting and Budgets

The main difference between lighting in big budget productions versus independent projects is scale. A larger budget does not necessarily mean that the lighting in a scene will be any better or more artistic or creative than the lighting in a low budget project, but what it does mean is that the production will have more access to lights and controlling devices and therefore can light or control the lighting on a larger scale than a production with less resources available.

I want to reiterate that having more lights in no way suggests that the lighting will be better. Ultimately what determines the quality of the lighting is how well it tells a story. If the story can be told with one light and a one man crew then there is no need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on lighting, even if that money is available.

(Sandberg, 2014)

For example, the independent short film Not So Fast by David Sandberg (above), which tells the story of a woman trapped in a dark hallway, was mostly lit with a light bulb rigged to an IKEA trash can lined with aluminum foil. But because it suited the story, that one IKEA trash can is as effective as shooting day-for-night with an expensive 5k Fresnel.

(See the full behind the scenes video here)

Now on the other hand, it would be very difficult — although I suppose possible with painstaking effort — to recreate the lighting in a scene like this one from Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby on a small budget.

(Luhrmann, 2013)

The lighting in this shot is just as effective at conveying the story as the single can light in Not So Fast. The only difference here is that the story calls for a mood of gratuitous embellishment which, in this case, requires layers and layers of precisely placed and coordinated lighting set ups. Notice that everything is exceptionally well lit and yet there are hardly any shadows to be found. This would require a lot of expensive equipment and manpower that are just not feasible to the majority of independent filmmakers.

All this being said, there are always creative options for independent filmmakers to tell their stories without the seemingly endless supply of resources that are available to large budget productions. In fact, restrictions like budget and resources often result in the most creative and impactful choices made by filmmakers; to evoke the old adage, necessity is indeed the mother of invention. An example of this can be seen in the independent short film Tick Where it Hurts by seventeen year old Bertie Gilbert. This film takes place entirely in one house, except for a handful of times when cut away shots to a simple split lighting set up – turned red, either through gels or post production – signify the main character’s inner dialogue, which resembles a therapy session.

(Gilbert, 2014)

This set up only requires two lights and yet it saved the young filmmaker a lot of expenses that it would have cost if he had chosen to actually shoot the main character’s therapy session in a doctor’s office.

Again, the amount of money that a production has to spend on lights is irrelevant as long as the light is telling the story. Even a simple set up of one or two lights can connect your audience to what is happening. As Terry O’Rourke states in his article on low budget horror film lighting, “a skilled director or special effects designer can evoke…emotions in the audience with a simple flicker of light or slight movement of a shadow” (O’Rourke, 2012). So to end with another old adage, remember to keep the story first. Keeping that in mind I think that any story can be told on any budget, so long as that budget is used it to its potential.

Gilbert, B. (Director). (2014). Tick Where It Hurts [Short Film]. Online. https://vimeo.com/98587153

Luhrmann, B. (Director). & Duggan, S. (Director of Photography). (2013). The Great Gatsby [Motion Picture]. Australia and United States: Warner Bros. Pictures.

O’Rourke, T. (2012). Horror Film Lighting on a Budget. Videomaker27(4), 54-57.

Sandberg, D. (Director). (2014). Not So Fast [Short Film]. Online. https://vimeo.com/102116605


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