How to Light a Night Scene for VFX | ActionVFX

How to Light a Night Scene for VFX

How to Light a Night Scene for VFX

Lighting a scene at night perfectly is crucial for your VFX. Today's post gives you a few tips for lighting a night scene correctly.

The renowned landscape photographer Ansel Adams once said, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” It takes foresight to craft that perfect shot - and the same is true in the film industry. Practical lighting on set can make a world of difference when you’re trying to composite VFX for a certain aesthetic and atmosphere within your night scene.
For cohesive and realistic VFX, you need a solid background plate that gives the VFX compositor something to work off of, and allows your cast and environment in the scene to naturally interact with the planned visual effects that will be inserted later. Let’s take a look at how to prep and light a night scene for VFX compositing in post.

How to Light a Night Scene

First, you need to formulate an overall look for your night scene that is a natural fit for your story. The folks at Aputure caught up with Julia Swain, a feature-film DP from Los Angeles, to get some great tips on lighting your set at night, including using the environment and practicals to your advantage.
Additionally, a great breakdown of how you can use lighting to achieve different moods depending on the time of day can be found in the video below. You’ll see how to light an early morning scene, as well as evening and late night scenes.

How to Use Practical Lighting for Simulated VFX Interaction Within the Scene

Once you’ve got the overall look down for your night scene, it’s time to start thinking about which VFX you’re going to be utilizing, and how lighting from those VFX would behave within your night scene if they were present.

In April, we sat down with Sindre Johnsen of CoSa VFX, and discussed how ActionVFX aided them in their work for the USA mini-series, Waco. He provided a VFX breakdown of one of the show’s most iconic scenes, which used a small practical fire on set for reference, then used ActionVFX assets to fill in and match the rest of the scene, as well as Nuke for some reflections. 
So, your night scene can use practical lighting as a reference point for compositing VFX, and you can also use practical lighting at night to bring your VFX to life within the scene.

If your VFX are coming from somewhere like ActionVFX, go through our library and select in advance which effects you’d ideally like to use before you are on set. Bring a laptop or iPad on set and use the effects as a guide. Pay attention to the timing of the effects (the bloom of an explosion, number of muzzle flashes, the movement of fires) - and let that inform how you plan to use dimmers, strobes, etc. on set (although, that can be a little flexible in post due to our high frame rates). The great thing is, since our VFX are already practical, they blend incredibly well with practical on-set lighting - so you’re primed for success once post rolls around.

Practical Lighting Setup Examples for VFX at Night

Here are a few examples of different set lighting configurations for nighttime that can add a tremendous level of authenticity and detail to your composited VFX. Casting these lighting setups not just on talent, but also on walls and across the surface of the ground (depending on the composition) can greatly influence how believable your VFX are.
For compositing ground fires:
  • Diffused fill light
  • Warm gels
  • Dimmer with slow to medium intermittency
  • Medium brightness range
For compositing explosions:
  • Large, harsh fill light for dramatic shadows
  • Warm gel for typical explosions, but if it’s some type of electrical explosion, use cool gels
  • Dimmer with fast, then medium intermittency (bell curve)
  • Wide brightness range
For compositing muzzle flashes:
  • Small to medium-sized keylight, edge light, or strobe light
  • Warm gels
  • Dimmer with fast intermittency in short bursts
  • Medium to wide brightness range

How to Light Your Scene Creatively...and Under $100!

By now, you may be thinking you have to spend a ton of money to get all the lights you need for your night scene, but the guys from ShareGrid put together an awesome list of DIY lighting gear you can get at most hardware stores for under $100.  One of the greatest ideas in this video is using a shower curtain to diffuse a work light that was bouncing off foam core.  The results are tremendous, and this same technique would make a perfect ambient moon light.
Have any other ideas or past experience on incorporating practical lighting with VFX?  We’d love to hear it in the comments below!

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