It takes a lot of light to shoot a big movie, and Paramount’s Gothic comedy Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is one of the biggest. Principal photography spanned seven months, with over a million feet of film shot on stages at Paramount and at a Downey, CA, warehouse that was once home to an entire department of NASA. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC, handled the task in part by keeping meticulous lighting plots describing his work on each set-up. Those elaborate plots were combined with a visual log of the space lights – which numbered in the thousands. The space lights were controlled by lighting programmer Scott Barnes, who ran a console originally designed for rock concerts rather than feature film shoots to illuminate the huge spaces.
Lighting plots have a history that dates back to theater. Their use expanded in rock concerts, due to the hundreds – sometimes thousands – of lights used in a show. With thousands of lights to control, more powerful and complicated lighting consoles arrived. In theater, once a show is put together, changes are rarely made to the lighting schematic. But lighting in film can change in a matter of minutes, and the lighting programmer, who must execute the demands immediately, needs to be well equipped.
Barnes uses the Wholehog III, a lighting console from London-based Flying Pig Systems; in fact, he says that piece of gear is what got him hired on the production, which used more than 6500 dimmers. "The Wholehog III is the only board out there that could handle the lighting demands of Lemony Snicket," he says. "The most I ever had to deal with before was 1300 dimmers. Never, ever, ever have I gotten into anything over 1500 dimmers until Lemony Snicket."
Building a Stage from Scratch
DP Lubezki, whose credits include Sleepy Hollow, Ali, The Cat in the Hat and Y Tu Mamà¡ Tambià©n, started talking with the electricians during pre-production to address the challenge of the Downey warehouse. "There was nothing in that warehouse when we arrived," Lubezki says. "We had to build a place where we could shoot a movie, and that was horrible work."
Lubezki describes large sets that were "slightly overbuilt for the amount of space in those stages. This created a situation that was very hard to light." But Lubezki says he turned the size of the stages to his advantage. "Spaces create their own limitations which, in turn, create the look of a movie," he says. "No matter how much planning or how much you’re fixed on giving your movie a specific look, the limitations of space and time and the height of the camera and the type of lens you’re using is what really creates a given style."
Documenting the Act of Lighting
Lubezki has documented his work with comprehensive lighting plots since film school. They detail the placement of the actors in relation to the set and to the camera, as well as the film type and lens used. They indicate whether the camera is on a dolly or a Techno Crane and document every lighting source, including the percentage capacity at which that source is turned on, as well as any gels, diffusion, scrims, and nets involved. Suspended lights are distinguished if they are hanging from a truss. If overhead space lights are involved, they are diagrammed on a separate sheet by the lighting programmer. These detailed plots came in incredibly handy, not so much for Lubezki, but for additional photography conducted by Robert Yeoman, ASC, and second-unit DP Amy Vincent, ASC. (Because Lubezki had a prior commitment on Terrence Malick’s The New World, he had to leave Lemony Snicket a few weeks early.)
Barnes constructs his plots after he receives a hand-drawn sketch from the set that details the set lights and staging. He creates them using layers in Corel Draw, since he has a graphics background and likes to custom-design graphic elements. For less graphics-minded programmers, Barnes recommends software that contains its own image banks, such as Diehl Graphsoft’s Vector Works, Cast Software’s WYSIWYG, and SoftPlot, a primarily 2D CAD program from Crescit Software that has 3D pre-visualization qualities. Of the three, Barnes prefers WYSIWYG because it allows a lighting programmer to plug the lighting console in to the computer and manipulate virtual lights on the computer screen by tweaking knobs on the lighting console.
So specialized are Barnes’s skills, and so detailed his lighting plots, that DPs and gaffers specifically request him. Visual effects companies love his plots, he says, because they can use them to recreate on-set lighting in CG. "The whole computerized lighting plot thing has evolved into a kind of job description," says Barnes. "Funny enough, there are a lot of us lighting programmers doing plots, and the ones doing plots are getting the best work because DPs look for that kind of package."
Deana Morgan has written for Wired, Flaunt and Urb magazine. She’s been a camera operator for ABC, CBS and Toyota. On Lemony Snicket, Deana worked in the camera department as an assistant to Lubezki. She sketched the lighting schematic for each shot, and compiled Lemony Snicket‘s lighting plot books.
Soup to Nuts Lighting Setups
Lubezki shot on Kodak’s Vision2 5218 film with Panavision Platinum and Lightweight cameras, using a 1.85:1 Super 35 aspect ratio to give the visual-effects team a larger DI to work with. He used Primo glass from Panavision, especially close-focus Primos that allowed him to get beautiful wide-angle shots with actors in focus mere inches from the lens. To mimic reality, he often lit the film with one primary source – sometimes a very large one. His sources were usually 20Ks, sometimes three or four of them, often with a combination of Opal Frost (Lee filter #410) and White Diffusion (Lee filter #216). The light was further diffused through two frames, 12 by 12 or 12 by 20 feet in size. The first frame was a Light Grid Cloth (Lee filter #432) that made the light very even and soft, explains Lubezki. The second frame was a Full Grid Cloth (Lee filter #430) that made it even softer. "And the closer that [the Full Grid] is to the faces of the actors," he says, "the softer it looks, and the less shadows we see."
The most challenging lighting setup on Lemony Snicket was Count Olaf’s house. Because the set encompassed both the inside and outside of the house, that entailed recreating one very large primary light source – the sun. Because the set was so large, Lubezki divided up the lighting into "layers" – different lighting for the exterior, the interior and the actors themselves. "Usually, we gelled the lights outside to make the exterior slightly cooler than the interior, but that required a lot of prep. We also used dimmers to control the exterior layers – the garden, for example, or the path around the house," he says. Another troublesome area was "the west side of the house, with its big windows. And, of course, we had to light the actors separately from the ambient light. This made the shot incredibly complex."