Hollywood movies

Illuminate your movie with just one light, like those Hollywood movies

How to get creative with your lighting?

We all know the importance of three-point lighting setups in narrative work. Sometimes we can see creatives using more lights to cover an entire scene. But what can creative people do with just one light?

Again, the common rule of thumb for lighting is to use three lights. A main light to illuminate your subject, a fill light to control your contrast and a backlight to give separation.

However, there are times on set where this type of setup takes more time than you have. Or maybe there’s a more creative choice to be made that the three-point lighting concept simply can’t offer. Maybe you’re a filmmaker who can’t afford more than one light!

You might think that using just one light isn’t enough, but Hollywood movies have myriad scenes that are just light with just one light source. Yes, some of them also use practices found there, but they only have one additional light.

If you think it will be a huge balloon or something very expensive, you are wrong. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest films of the past decade to see how talented cinematographers handle a scene with just one light.

first man with a light

Directed by Damien Chazelle with photography by Linus Sandgren, first man is the first project we are looking at.

In a scene between Claire Foy and Ryan Gosling, they argue at Neil Armstrong’s house. When they both enter the office, the whole scene is illuminated by practical objects, or a light already found on the spot, and a single luminous tube glued to the top of the ceiling.

‘First Man’Credit: Universal images

As you can see from the photo above, there are no other additional lights used in this room beyond practicality. For a filmmaker on a budget, achieving this kind of look is effortless and looks amazing. Check out the whole scene in this clip below:

One thing to consider, however, is how celluloid film reacts to light differently than digital sensors. While film can handle highlights better, digital sensors are better at handling shadows. It’s a lot more complicated and nuanced than that, but that’s a conversation for another day.

A ring light on Prisoners

Another amazing movie to watch is Prisoners, directed by Denis Villeneuve and shot by Roger Deakins. One scene to watch is an exterior where Terrence Howard is walking down a suburban street. Beyond the practical aspects of the environment, Deakins brought additional light to shed light on his subject.

A simple ring light.

Prisoners - Behind the Scenes
‘Prisoners’Credit: Alcon Entertainment

In the image above, we see Howard separated from the background by the practices, which act as a backlight. But in the BTS photos on the right, we see that the main light is nothing more than a self-constructed ring light that Deakins holds in his hands.

Something as simple as a few light bulbs in a circle can be a powerful tool for filmmakers on a budget. Tungsten bulbs are incredibly accurate and can be a very versatile piece of kit. You can use them in a ring light or use them as handy items around your ensemble.

You can even build your own for a few hundred dollars at any hardware store. Just make sure you have a cord that can handle the power. Or you can replace tungsten lamps with LED bulbs for more versatility.

Here’s a tutorial from Shutterstock Tutorials to get you started.

soft light in Knives out

Finally, we land on Knives out, directed by Rian Johnson and filmed by Steven Yedlin. If that second name sounds familiar to you, we’ve covered his incredible resolution work in this article.

In Knives out, the main part of the film takes place in a giant hall. In a dialogue scene between Jamie Lee Curtis and Lakeith Stanfield, Yedlin used powerful light with diffusion to accentuate the practicalities all around the piece. Take a look below:

At loggerheads BTS
‘Knives Out’Credit: Lions Gate

While the lighting setup above might look a little daunting for filmmakers on a budget, the same look can be achieved with a white shower curtain and an Aputure 600D. At $1,890 apiece, the 600D is an attractive budget option over other high-powered production lights.

If you want to deepen Knives out and a few other movies, check out this video from the guys at Epic Light Media.

Lighting on a Budget

The examples above show us how easy and financially viable it is for creatives to realize their vision. With just one light, a few rolls of tape, and some inexpensive broadcast gear, you can start doing some Hollywood magic.

Yes, a light can be a limitation, but from what we’ve seen, a little ingenuity can go a long way. Filmmakers no longer need a full-shot truck to light their scenes.

So grab your camera, get yourself a single light and start filming.