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How to Light a Dinner Scene

Double breaking and other tips from Four Minute Film School

One of the most iconic scenes you will find across cinema is the classic sit-down dinner. From James Bond to Pulp Fiction or American Beauty, these scenes can be the catalyst for pivotal plot points in a film’s story. But for many filmmakers out there the question lingers... how do you light one yourself? and where do you start?

Important factors like story and budget will always affect individual projects differently. But to help give you an example of one approach, we’re breaking down an episode of Aputure’s Four Minute Film School to demonstrate our take on a lighting setup for a “classy” dinner scene.

Today’s Scenario:

We have a simple scene with two actors sitting at a private dinner in a nice restaurant. We want to focus on the quality of light and make sure it feels motivated; that although it's artificially created, it feels natural within the space and is very diffused / soft.

The Wide Shot

Final frame from the wide shot

To start the day we’ll first set up our wide shot. The characters will be sitting across from one another and profile (at a 90° angle) relative to the camera.

With nothing but a dark image, the first lights introduced will be used to outline the talent from the background and create depth to the image. This is a key step to define them as the important focal points of the frame.

LEFT: 1x 300x (using hyper reflector attachment) + 4x4' diffusion frame + 6x6' diffusion frame + 45°control grid // RIGHT: 1x 300x (using Light Dome II attachment) + 4x4' diffusion frame + 45°control grid

To do this we’ll add 2x LS 300x bi-color LED lights; one behind each of our talent at a 45° angle. To create the soft quality of light with these sources, we’re going to use a technique called Double Breaking.

Double Breaking

An example of double breaking a light with diffusion from Video Gear https://www.youtube.com/user/VideoGear

This strategy is used to soften a light’s quality by projecting it through not one but two layers of separated diffusion material. Each layer scatters the light more when it passes through the material, compounding the effect and creating a larger light source. You can also go beyond this technique to try a triple break but it’s not something we’re going to dive into ;)

Tools

The 4MFS team implements this technique by using slightly different tools to achieve a similar effect on each actor.

Setup 1: On the left, the LS 300x is shown using a 55° reflector modifier projected through a 4x4' frame of diffusion, followed by a 6x6' frame of ‘Magic Cloth’ diffusion with a 45° control grid rigged in front of the frame. Notice neither of these diffusion layers are physically attached to the light.

LEFT: The first layer of diffusion is a 4x4' frame // RIGHT: The second layer of diffusion placed after the first is a 6x6' frame of Magic Cloth + 45° Control Grid

Setup 2: On the right, a second 300x was paired with a Light Dome II softbox (2.9' across) as the first layer of diffusion, and the second was a 4x4' frame of Magic Cloth with a 45° control grid also attached on the front of the frame.

LEFT: First layer of diffusion is a Light Dome II softbox // RIGHT: The second layer of diffusion placed after the first is a 4x4' frame of Magic Cloth + 45° Control Grid

Why would you choose one approach over the other? In this case, the setup with the Light Dome II takes up less room and is easier to hide to the right of the camera’s frame with the space available on set. The trade-off is the 4x4' source is not as large as the 6x6' on the left of the frame, therefore not quite as soft.

Something to keep in mind when executing this technique is knowing how much space do you have to work with.

Diffusion Material

A BTS view of double breaking setup #1

There is no perfect diffusion for every lighting situation so experiment and research to find the right materials to achieve the look you want on your project. There are great budget options like shower curtains or bedsheets if you don’t want to rent dedicated film equipment.

Keep in mind that diffusion materials will affect the color temperature of your lights in different ways and create inconsistency in your lighting on camera.

Aputure LS 300x used with a Fresnel 2x

Using a bi-color LED like the 300x will help you quickly adjust your Correlated Color Temperature (CCT) to match your different light sources. You can use a professional color meter such as a Sekonic C-800 Spectrometer to measure these values or a less accurate (but free) phone app like Sidus Link that carries a decent built-in color meter.

1.5 Stop diffusion vs 2.5 Stop diffusion (both included with the Light Dome II)

Lastly, whenever diffusing light you’re going to lose output, especially when double breaking it. A professional diffusion material will have information relating to the amount of light it will cut such as 1.5 f-stops or 2.5 f-stops of light. The higher this measurement of light loss the stronger the diffusion; as it will scatter the light more and less will reach a specific measuring point after passing through it.

So keep this in mind when choosing your lights or preparing your camera’s settings.

QUICK TIPS

A behind-the-scenes view of both double break setups complete

A few important notes to think about when using this technique for yourself.

  1. Using control grids is a great way to shape soft light, but must be rigged on the outside of the outermost layer of diffusion. The light must pass through a grid last. Notice the grids on both setups are after the 2nd layer? If they were placed on the inside layer they would control the spill into the second diffusion but the light would still be spread uncontrollably by the second frame; rendering them ineffective.

2. Use the order of small to large diffusion. When using this technique remember to place your smaller size diffusion closer to the light and larger diffusion farther away (closer to the subject). This way you will create the largest source possible AKA the softest source possible. Using two identical frames (such as 2x 4x4' frames is okay) but you should not place a smaller diffusion after the first as the light will spill around it.

Practical lights

A B7c mounted in an E26/27 socket being controlled by the Sidus Link App

For our next step of the lighting setup, we’ll be introducing some visual interest to our background. Currently, the actors stand out but the background is a black abyss with interrogation vibes rather than a classy restaurant.

To remedy this, the team introduced 3x B7c color-mixing lightbulbs, two inside lamps in the background, and one to the side of the frame. All the bulbs were set to the same CCT as the 300x lights and helped sell our double break sources as coming from naturally occurring lights in the environment.

Now our location is starting to come into focus.

Top light

A 300x + Lantern modifier can be seen armed in above the actors

As our cinematographer Kevin Reyes points out, there still isn’t enough exposure on the faces of the talent, and as they’re the most important part of the frame, we’ll need to add another light source to brighten them.

A third 300x is brought in and as there is no mounting point above the table to rig the light, it’s armed out instead from the side of the frame using a Modern Baby Boom Arm as a top light.

Be sure to always have a safe and secure rig whenever you are attempting to boom a light over actors or anyone on your crew.

The wide shot with the top light (excluding practical lights in the background).

To contribute an equally soft quality of light to the scene, a Lantern attachment is added to the light with a 360° skirt used to cut unwanted spill from the background. Now the talent's faces are better exposed and the audience can believe they are being lit from a natural top light just above the frame.

Behind the scenes, the team is also receiving some help from the lovely folks in the art department who dressed the table with a white table cloth. This creates a natural bounce from the top light to list the shadows under both the actor’s faces.

Final Lighting Setup

LEFT: The final wide frame showing the rough location of each lighting fixture // RIGHT: An overhead lighting diagram showing the placement of each light and modifier relevant to the actors.

Closeup #1

The final frame of closeup #1

For our first close-up, we’re going to compose an over-the-shoulder single, where the foreground character is “dirty” or just in view of our frame. The base lighting setup is almost the same but with some key differences.

Eye Light

An arrow pointing to eye light’s effect in character’s eye

The addition we’ll start with is creating a nice eye light for our actor. An eye light is a reflection of a light in a character’s eye that helps give life and emotion to their person. A little twinkle. In a moody scene like this, we wouldn’t see the details of our talent's eyes. Without an eye light, they would be black devilish pits and certainly not the look we’re going for here.

So Kevin calls for a third diffusion piece of diffusion to be put in front of our key light using an octagon frame. This makes the shape of the light’s reflection in the eye look more round and natural.

Foreground light

The MC light’s effect is enhanced and isolated to demonstrate its purpose.

Next, we’re going to help bring some dimension to our other character’s shoulder that’s sitting in the foreground. Currently, it looks like a black blob taking up space, but with a little help from an MC pocket RGBWW light and a little black tape around it to shape its direction, we can help brighten the foreground.

Motivated Light

An arrow points to the subtle addition to the back wall where additional light has been added.

The last addition, for minor detailing, we will add a pinch of light on the back wall to motivate the lamp on the left of the frame. Again, motivating light is essentially building on the existing in-camera light sources to justify where additional light is coming from.

For this need, we will use an LS 60x with barn doors to match the CCT of the B7c bulb in the lamp and increase its perceived brightness on the wall behind.

This subtly brings a little more color and dimension to the background.

Other Changes

Behind-the-scenes photo of closeup #1

Below are listed a few other tweaks to the setup moving from the wide to the first closeup you won’t hear about in the episode.

  • The second layer of diffusion is removed from the backlight (previously the right 300x light from the wide shot)
  • A second layer of diffusion is used to double break the lantern from above to create a softer effect on the face for the close-up.
  • Black flags are brought in to create more contrast or (negative fill) to the talent's face.

You may wonder, “Wouldn’t these changes affect the continuity?” But most of the time it’s quite forgiving to make lighting tweaks if you’re going from a wide to CU shot. As long as it looks good, it’s unlikely to distract the audience or draw attention.

Final Lighting Setup

LEFT: The final wide frame showing the rough location of each lighting fixture // RIGHT: An overhead lighting diagram showing the placement of each light and modifier relevant to the actors.

Closeup #2

The final frame from Close up #2

For the second closeup, we’ll stick to the same techniques but reversed the setup to shoot coverage of our second actor the same way.

The key takeaways again are double breaking our key light, adding a backlight, foreground light, background practical lights, and accent light to motivate the practical lamps.

Final Lighting Setup

LEFT: The final wide frame showing the rough location of each lighting fixture // RIGHT: An overhead lighting diagram showing the placement of each light and modifier relevant to the actors.

That’s a Wrap!

There are so many ways you can light a dinner scene, but hopefully, this example gives you a few ideas and techniques for where to start when tackling it for yourself on set.

If you have any questions about the lighting setup or equipment used be sure to ask below and we’ll get back to you.

We’re always open to hearing new ideas about topics and looks to discuss in our lighting tutorials so don't hesitate to reach out if there’s something you’d like us to cover.

Until next time, good luck and light on!

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Justin Rypma

Justin Rypma

Aputure Territory Manager (NZ🇳🇿&AU🇦🇺)