Lighting Infinite White

on 17 March 2008.

(EDITOR: This is the companion article to the video segment “Lighting Infinite White ,” which covers the same ground in about 4 minutes, albeit with a LOT less detail.)

The futuristic look of an infinite seamless white environment is more than hip and trendy nowadays. From Apple's Mac/PC ads to Zion and the Matrix, one of the really nice aspects of this effects shot (and it is an effects shot) is that it doesn't look like an effects shot. There's nothing on the screen to distract the audience at all. And while headshots against white are just about the easiest of all possible setups, full-body shots, head to toe, are definitely not trivial to light, especially if you don't have access to a large, professionally lit studio. But it can be done and you can get very high production values on a low budget ($250) and in a limited space.

Infinite, seamless white environments have a clean, professional look that really gives you a lot of freedom in editing. For example, you can fake camera moves and use the extra screen real-estate for graphics. Or you can key out the white and slide elements behind the subject or replace the background entirely. That's the effects part of the shot, which we won't conver in any detail here, because all good keys and effects shots start with carefully shot video. So let's start by looking at how you might light infinite white.

Garage Studio
Not being fabulously wealthy, I don't have a dedicated video studio in my home and so my studio doubles as my garage. Or my garage doubles as my studio, anyhow. And it is a tiny, 20x15 foot, one car garage that also has my central air unit, water heater, washing machine and dryer. And it also stores my lawn mower, gardening implements, power tools, workbench, bicycle and everything else you'd expect to find in a typical American garage. Including my car.

Sample Image

Since I live in Florida and don't have a basement, my garage also has all of the crap that normal people put in that space. In other words, if I can find space for a studio in my tiny 3/2 starter home, you can find space for your studio, if you are serious about this.

NOTE: You only need a full studio set up like this for full-body shots. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough: the full-body part of this exercise is the hard part. Head-n-shoulders are easy. So, if you don't need to do full-body (and I mean NEED to), 90% of this setup and cost are unnecessary.

OK, let's look a little more closely at the space and start with the background, which needs to be extremely evenly lit. This is the same lighting I'd use for chromakey greenscreen or for infinite white. (I don't favor shooting on green, primarily because if it isn't perfect it looks really cheesy and fake. Hell, even when it's well done, it often looks fake. That's a topic for another article, however.) Ideally, it would be great to have about 500 watts of professional lighting on each side of the background or a thousand watts total. Optimistically, we're talking $700-800 worth of lights. Just for the background.

Fluorescents
Before we move on to the actual lights and setup, let's briefly look at the actual lighting technology. In short, incandescent (tungsten) lights have been the defacto standard for years, both in the home and in the studio, but they are miserably hot and – relatively speaking – use a ton of power. Since tungstens have been the standard, when we talk about "500 watts" of light, we mean “500 watts of tungsten-equivalent illumination.” LED lights and fluorescents are much more efficient at converting electricity into light (and not heat). So, for example, a 25-watt fluorescent might output as much light as a 100-watt incandescent. While efficiency is to be applauded, there's a more practical reason to use power-sipping fluorescents: a thousand watts of tungsten-equivalent light only pulls 250 watts of juice, which won't blow my residential circuit breakers.

 Sample Image

LED lighting is definitely the future, but in this transition period between incandescent and LED, fluorescents are the way to go. So, in a professional situation and on a professional budget, I’d love to have at least one 500-watt equivalent  Kino fluorescent bank for each side of this small background (roughly $1,500). In this professional situation on a personal budget, we’re going to light the entire background for $100.

EDIT (01/2009): After a year with this setup, I would no longer recommend clamp lights for the background, but would instead suggest 4x 48" fluorescent tube banks. On the positive side, the banks are more convenient, easier to use and cost the same, with the only challenge being that they aren't screw-n-play, meaning that you can take clamp lights home and be working in 10 minutes, but fluorescent banks require a little simple electrical work and mounting.

Clamp Lights
The fixtures I’m using were chosen because they are cheap. I purchased the clamp lights at Lowes for less than $7 each. Initially, I thought the clamp would be more useful than they actually are, so there may be a cheaper way to go about this. I’m using five clamp lights per side, mounted to a simple PVC pillar I installed through the ceiling of my garage. I use the term “mounted” loosely, because the clamps won’t hold to anything other than horizontal shelving, really. My solution: duct tape, of course. Fortunately, fluorescent bulbs don’t generate much heat, so duct tape is a very workable solution to hold the clamps in place.

The bottom light is two feet off of the floor, with each additional light spaced another foot up. Each clamp light gets a single 25(or so)-watt compact fluorescent bulb. The exact aim of each light can only be determined through experimentation and the easiest way to do it is by using your camcorder, which is our ultimate goal anyhow.

Bulbs and Color Temperature
Compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs are widely available for about $3 each and can often be found for even less. The tricky part is that all of your lights need to match as precisely as possible, so the best-case scenario is to purchase identical bulbs all at once. You’ll need at least 20 and extras would be nice. If you don’t buy them all at once, the particular brand/model/lot might not be available later and you’ll have to work at matching your existing lights. Trust me: this was a pain in my situation. If you aren’t living paycheck to paycheck, get 30 bulbs and use any extras around your house to replace your existing incandescents, which in itself is not a bad idea.

I’m using CFLs that are rated as 100-watt equivalents, but the actual power draw specified on the box ranges from 23-26 watts. That’s actually pretty easy to match. The really tricky bit is color temperature. If you are extremely lucky, the color temperature of the bulb is clearly labeled on the packaging. If you are slightly less lucky, it’ll be stamped on the base of the bulb. About half of the time, the color temperature is only described as “Soft White” or “Daylight” or “Bright Effects” or something else equally creative. It is not possible to match color temperatures based on those descriptions.

Ideally, I was aiming at a color temperature of 3200K for this project, primarily because this is a color temperature I had worked with before with professional studio instruments. This color temperature also roughly matches household “Soft White” incandescents and my hot halogen shoplights that I already own, so if I ever need extra light, I can incorporate those as needed. Hopefully I never need them. Did I mention they are hot?

OK, so 3200K was my target and I found 3100K Sylvanias. Nice. Lowes sold out of those, so I tried some 2700K CFLs. Close. Not close enough, in my opinion, so my house became three bulbs more eco-friendly. I rolled the dice and tried some “Soft White” GE bulbs. Although they didn’t have a color temperature rating, they were right on the money and were indistinguishable from my original bulbs. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use 2700K bulbs: by all means, if they are on sale, grab 30 of them. You can also go with 6500K “Daylight” or “Bright Effects” bulbs, but, again, get 30 of them. These will not match incandescent, but they DO more closely match sunlight, so if you need extra light outdoors in daylight, they are great. Inside, 6500K bulbs are distinctly blue, when compared with what we’ve become conditioned to expect in the last 125 years, thanks to Mr. Edison.

 Sample Image

So, while color temperature is critically important, it is only important in so much as it all  matches. Pick a color temperature, any color temperature, just make sure it all matches. And make sure you white balance your camera.

So I have 1,000 watts on the back wall, 500 watts on a side, but the floor also needs light. I’m throwing two more clamp lights on the floor on each side, 200 watts equivalent per side or 400 watts total. And I also have another 100-watt light directly in front pointed between the subject’s feet. And the 100-watt hairlight overhead helps some too, but that’s not it’s primary purpose. All of these lights together help to eliminate shadows on the floor, which become more pronounced once the keylight is in place. Completely eliminating shadows is not necessary in all situations or with all types of keying, because the shadow can actually enhance the depth of the illusion of infinite. But if you need a perfect key, you are going to need to kill the shadows. You did buy extra clamp lights and CFLs, right? Now’s your chance to experiment!

Seamless Joints
The secret to Infinite White is a seamless joint between the floor and the wall.  There are a number of ways to do this. When we shot “TechKnow” at Digital Juice, we shot against a very long roll of white paper, which can commonly be found at photo studio supply stores. This is a very convenient solution if you don’t want a permanent set, where striking the set involves rolling up the paper. Paper isn’t free ($40 for this situation , not counting any mounting hardware you jerry-rig together) and, well, it’s not permanent. Eventually, no matter how careful you are, it will get dirty and probably torn.

The other solution is to create a permanent curved joint. Again, like everything we talk about here, there are expensive professional solutions, and if you have the budget, but all means: get a ProCyc system. If I was a rich man, I would, but I’m not. So it was off to the lumber yard where I picked up a textureless piece of 8x4 foot wall paneling, for $10. It doesn't matter what you use as long as it is smooth and flexible and paintable. Most of the paneling I found was too thick and inflexible, but the really cheap "AquaTile" stuff was perfect.

 Sample Image

I used finishing nails to connect it to the drywall wall in my garage and glued it to the concrete floor. Mine is higher up than it is out, to give me more room in my tiny space, but you could go equidistant up and out if you wanted. After it was solidly connected, I spackled both connection joints, sanded and then painted the whole set (the wall and the floor) with cheap, flat white indoor latex paint. Then I painted it again. All told, two gallons did the trick, but I have a third that I’ve already used for touchups. Even permanent is not permanent.

Maintenance
Keeping the floor (and wall, for that matter) absolutely pristinely clean is challenging in a dedicated professional studio, so it’s really kind of a nightmare in my garage. Where I park my car. And keep my muddy gardening shoes and hiking boots. And sharpen my lawnmower blade. And clean and oil my chainsaw blade. Et cetera. The easiest way to keep the floor clean is to cover it up. And the best way I’ve found to do that is with a standard old 9x12 foot canvas drop cloth ($20). I also have a two foot wide by 15-foot long runner of cheap outdoor carpeting that I unroll on the main traffic path, between the door to the garden and the door into the house. I know, booooring, but trust me: you will regret not paying attention to this paragraph the first time you have to repaint the floor because of a muddy footprint you just can’t get out.

On the whole, however, this setup is really tolerant of imperfections. A footprint here and a little water stain there will generally not be a problem, considering the amount of light we’re spilling around in the studio. The proof, of course, is in the pudding, and if it looks good on camera, it doesn’t matter what it looks like in real life.

3-Point Lighting
The rest of the basic lighting is arranged in a standard 3-point affair, with a 100-watt hair light overhead, a diffused 100-watt fill - which is a cheap, paper-shade floor lamp - and finally 500 watts of key light, composed of 5x 100-watt CFLs in a butt-ugly floor lamp that I got for $5 at a garage sale. I’m not going to go into detail on this now in an article on Infinite White, but the basic white setup is very tolerant of many standard high-key and creative lighting setups, but does not lend itself well to high-contrast (low-key) lighting. So while this is a great studio setup for television news, instructional videos and for Apple’s crew in Cupertino, it wouldn’t work for moody Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca.”

 Sample Image

Costly Conclusion
Let's total up our costs. At a minimum, we have:

  • 15 clamp lights at $7 each, which is $105
  • 2 cheap floor lamps together worth $20
  • 21 CFLs for about $60
  • a piece of 8x4 paneling: $10
  • 2 gallons of paint: $20
  • canvas drop cloth for $20
Altogether, that's $235, not including stuff I already had lying around, like spackle, sandpaper, a paint roller and PVC pipe. $300 is probably more realistic after all is said and done. This is a fraction of the cost of setting up a professional studio and although it's not inexpensive, especially for a hobbyist, it's worth it. Videography is all about light and, dollar for dollar, there isn't a better way to improve your video than upgrading your illumination.

 

Wait, There’s More!
“Wait!” I hear you say. “There must be more!” Well, there is …and there isn’t. Of course there’s a lot more to pulling off Infinite White. How is this shot? What kind of camera do I need? What kind of color correction are you doing in post? How did you key in those backgrounds? What about audio? When you shoot, do you use a teleprompter? The teaser answer to these questions is that this is all done on relatively affordable consumer gear and software, with affordable being defined in terms of what any serious hobbyist is willing to spend to get great results. The real, detailed answers will have to wait for another day and another article.

{mxc}

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