As I see it, the single most noticeable flaw/weakness in this emerging generation of filmmakers is the failure to do anything with the quality of light while shooting projects. When a video starts, every viewer (whether they are educated in photography or videography or not) knows if something is wrong with the ‘light’. Whether or not they have the vocabulary to express it, they still have years and years of education (consuming video/film entertainment), and know intuitively when something is off. From an internet content perspective, the problem is, it may be good enough a reason for the viewer to not hit the play button a second time. SLAMMM!!! One less chance of your video going viral. After all, the secret to virality is making the viewer want to hit the play button again, and again….AND AGAIN!!!!! Passing a video along to a friend happens secondarily and is a natural occurrence of sharing, stemming from personally wanting to watch a video again and again.
In 2005-2006 you could put just about anything up on YouTube and it had a way-better-than-Vegas chance of going ‘viral’. There were lots of high-rollers in the early days of YouTube. The public was enamored with things ‘amateur’, in the same way they were (and still are), with ‘Reality shows’. After a while though, the public found it can only consume so much mediocre content on the net. Couple that with the explosion of the YT talent pool (and not-so-talented pool), the competition for viewership has become unreal. At the end of the day, there just is no getting away from the fact that the average human-being has just been very spoiled by Hollywood and will ultimately prefer eye-candy to eye-poopy at the end of every entertainment day.
Let’s say we’re creating a web series, a short film for distribution on the net, a commercial for a video contest, etc. etc,…and we want it to have staying power as well as keep/grow an audience. Well, we need to offer things the viewing public doesn’t regularly see in the video-du-jour on the net. We need to give the consumer eye-candy. One way to stratify us from the overwhelming majority of content creators on the web, is to improve the quality of light we use when we shoot, whenever and wherever we can.
Over the years, I have purchased smaller diffusers for different purposes but have never gone this big before. A few years ago while working on the Nickelodian lot for the show, ‘UNFABULOUS’, I fell in love with a diffuser they were using for a front lot outdoor shoot. Though I was on the set as an actor, I took the time to take notes on all the equipment being used (I always do). The diffuser they were using was about 20′ X 20′. An entire scene of 8 people were covered, and the lighting was soft with no shadows, yet it still felt like it was ‘outside’…because… it was. I truly was in awe of this piece of equipment. As a wedding photographer for almost two decades I understand the value of lighting and how it changes everything when you control it. The larger the scale with which you can control it, the more amazing the things you can do.
I can’t tell you how many times I have waited for the right overcast day to shoot a project (for even lighting), or had to shoot on the ‘north’ side of a building, or have waited for the sun as it disappeared and reappeared behind clouds every five minutes during an all day shoot. With a large diffuser, this is much less of an issue (though you still have to pay attention to exposure changes when the sun hides behind clouds).
This diffuser will cost between $100-$150 to make and can be done in a few hours. I’ll be honest and offer that I don’t know what diffusers of this size are selling for these days, but I will bet they cost a bit more than $100. Structurally, the frame is comprised of four 10′ hollow copper tubes, which can be purchased at any hardware supply wharehouse (home improvement stores like Home Depot™). The 10′ copper pipes are joined on the corners by four 90˚ elbows. I permanently taped (Gorilla Tape) the four elbows onto the two heavier gauge copper tubes. In this way I won’t keep losing the elbows from shoot to shoot.
The cool thing is that when I push the rods together into all four 90˚ elbows to form the square, the hand clamps that clamp the plastic sheeting to the remaining two copper pipe sides, keep the plastic stretched tight and also keeps the pipes connected.
The two pipes to which the 90˚ elbows are taped permanently are also sleeved through two sides of the plastic. So although they are not permanently taped to the plastic, they stay inside the sleeves when you break it down and wrap up the plastic around the other two copper pipes which makes for easy storage and set up the next time you need to use it. It takes about 10 minutes to set up. NOTE: There are different gauge hollow copper tubes available for sale. I use two of the thicker gauge tubes for the two sides that will be clamped down by the Matthew Stand Clamps, and I use a lighter gauge copper tube for the two that will not be clamped. They are both the same diameter tubing. This keeps the contraption lighter. The reason I use copper pipe instead of standard 1/2″ EMT or PVC is because copper is almost the exact correct diameter of rods used for the openings on the Matthew Stand Clamp. EMT/PVC is too large a diameter and will present grip problems.
The Plastic I use for the diffusion itself is a standard painters plastic. In this case I used Husky Plastic Sheeting (6 mil, 10Ft. width). There are varying .mils for varying amounts of diffusion. I use the 6 mil mostly because of strength. I don’t want to be patching or replacing this more frequently than is necessary. I estimate that every 6-12 months it might require changing out (it might last longer if my crew treats it with great care). Even at that frequency of change, the $25 or so annual maintenance cost still makes it a bargain when compared to new products that also require occasional maintenance, which can be very expensive. TIP: When you use the hand clamps to attach/stretch out the plastic sheeting to the two non-sleeved copper pipes, put an extra strip of gorilla tap where the clamp will land, instead of hand-clamping directly onto the plastic. Even though this is 6 mil. thick plastic, it is still good insurance on the plastic lasting longer minimizing the need for repair.
If you are curious to know what it would cost to have a professional repair done on one of the diffusers you could buy new from a manufacturer, go to www.canvasgrip.com for pricing. BTW, I went to the actual physical storefront for Canvas Grip, over the weekend. It is really just a warehouse in an industrial strip in Van Nuys, Ca.. Along with repairing filters and diffusers and pretty much anything ‘fabric’ in the filmmaking industry, they also sell things like sand bags and apple crates. They do most of their business online and through ebay, but you can will-call your order yourself if you live in the area, and yeah, it makes sense to will-call sandbags. I felt like a kid in a candy store. I picked up 10 new sandbags (a bunch of 25lbers., some 35 lbers. and two 50 lbers.). You won’t find a cheaper place for sandbags at this quality. Mmmm, gotta get me some apple crates.
There are a few things to consider when using painters plastic instead of a diffusion material like the Lee Grid Cloth. The painters plastic is not flame retardant and should never be used in proximity to self-powerred lights of any kind. This 6 mil. painters plastic (Husky brand), also has a subtle blue shift equivalent to about 100K-150K. Very easily corrected in standard editing software. Very nominal, yet possibly still something to consider if the job requires pinpoint accuracy of color match. Though most shoots are effected by native reflective sources during shoots and to a much greater degree than 100k-150k. If you must have flame retardant material the Lee Grid cloth that is sewable and comes in lengths of 25′ X 48′ costs around $160.00. for me, I will only ever be using this for outside scenes and the plastic will work well. My 5′ x 5′ frame on which I do have Lee flame retardant grid cloth is as big as I’ve needed indoors for a surface thru which to shoot light. maybe one day I will need a 10′ x 10′ or 20′ x 20′ for an indoor application and at that juncture I will line my copper tubings with the more expensive Lee Grid Cloth.
STABILITY: I set up the diffuser on just two Matthew stands for a 36 hour period to see how stable the rig would be in the wind. With three sandbags per stand (105 lbs.), it never once tipped over, or even got close to looking like it would. The cool thing is that however you tip, swivel or position this filter you can also use a third Matthew stand on one of the two remaining copper pipes to further stabilize the diffuser, a set-up procedure step I highly recommend. ( I’ll try to shoot a photo of what this looks when I use it on a shoot in about a week and a half and update this blog post).
Check out how light-light weight and compact this rig becomes when you roll it up. It can’t be more than 16-17 lbs. Keep all of the clamps you’re going to use with the rig when you pack it up. In this way you’ll always have everything you need when it comes time to set it up again.
Notice the reduction/removal of all the harsh shadows under her chin and the fabric of her blouse. Notice the softness of the lighting in her hair. Notice the more ‘even’ lighting of the bush behind her.
Well, if you decide to make your own custom diffuser, be sure to post a comment about your experiences here on the VCK blog. I’d love to hear how it went.