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How to Light a Dramatic Interior Night Scene on a Budget

Give your film a professional look with simple lighting solutions
Photo of interior lighting in a movie

You don’t need the most expensive gear to make a quality film and if you take the time to learn a few things about lighting, the camera that you are shooting with matters even less. Light matters in filmmaking and can be a great tool for expressing the moods or feelings of your characters. Steve Ramsden of DIY Filmmaking walks us through his tips for lighting a dramatic interior night scene in a new video below.

Ramsden used this particular lighting setup to film a dialogue scene between two characters in a short thriller he recently worked on. Ramsden didn’t have very much time with the actors he was working with and decided to use a two camera setup to maximize efficiency while shooting.

He set both of his cameras on sliders so that his shot could easily become wider or tighter while he was rolling. Although he used two cameras, he shot one at a time so that he could light his subjects individually.

Ramsden’s location was a private home with a window that looked out at a back garden—that garden was an important plot point in the short, so it was crucial for the curtains to be open and for the garden to be visible while shooting the interior scene. This meant that Ramsden needed a way to light both the room and the garden outside. Here’s how he did it.

Interior Lighting

Ramsden used a set of inexpensive LED light panels to light the interior of the room. He gave his key light a soft glow so that it could imitate the kind of light that a table lamp might give off. He did this by using barn doors on the light panel and adding a sheet of diffusion.

If you don’t have an LED lighting kit you can easily use a table lamp and a piece of tracing paper to imitate the technique. The soft key light was placed to the opposite side of his actor and had the camera positioned on the shadowed side of his actor’s face.

He placed his backlight behind the actor and raised it up with a stand tilted down. This light pulled the actor away from the background by adding a bit of a highlight on his hair.

Ultimately, Ramsden decided he didn’t need to use his third LED light as a fill, in part because of the large white sound blanket he’d hung to make the room less echoey when capturing audio. But he did find the background to be a bit uninteresting, rather than using his third LED panel he pointed a desk lamp at the back wall to illuminate the details of the brick.

Exterior Lighting

Ramsden started by turning on the two lights that were on a shed in the back garden, but to make the rest of the garden visible in his shot he needed to set up something that would imitate the glow of a full moon. However, he was unsure what the weather conditions would be that night and didn’t necessarily want to leave something outside in the elements.

He decided to shine a light from one of the upstairs windows of the house in order to make the garden pop. He used an Aperture C300D Mark II set at about 30 percent intensity to accomplish this. He added a color temperature blue gel, which he taped to the window, to the light to mimic the way the moon would look at night.

The lights in the interior scene were all set to tungsten, which he also set his camera to, which made a nice contrast of warm light in the foreground, and cooler bluer light in the background.

The Shoot

Ramsden shot from the perspective of the character seated in the chair with the garden in the background first. He then flipped the interior lights to the other side of the room to shoot the dialogue scene of the standing character. The scene only took a few hours to shoot, and the results were both moody and cinematic. Check it all out in the below video.

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