The secrets of lighting the shiny, curved, reflective surface of cars.

Have you ever shined a light into a mirror? That’s pretty much the same as trying to light a car. No matter where you shine a light at a mirror, you see the light looking back at you. So when you’re filming a high-end anthem piece for one of the the top car brands in the world with a ton of shiny reflective cars, what do you do? How do you eliminate anything that may detract from the sexy car porn? We love cars, and perhaps more importantly, we love filming cars… Lighting challenge accepted. 

Scene: AlterEgo HQ. Action: phone rings. Great friend and collaborator, Senior Writer/Producer Tom Heijne, is on the line and said he needs a bunch of amazing cars ranging from the ‘50s to modern, both domestic and exotic. Lucky for Tom, we know a guy, (PS- we always know a guy). We call up Tony, another good friend of ours who owns a beautiful dealership called Flemings Ultimate Garage, and he served up over 70 options in our palette that matched our needs, all in incredible condition. Among them, a ’65 Shelby Cobra, ’03 Ferrari 360 Modena Spider, ’51 Mercury, and the ‘Justin Kanner special’, a supercharged ’69 Chevy Camaro SS.

With our subjects chosen, we turned our focus back to the lighting. A car reflects its environment. If you’re outside, the sun or streetlights will illuminate a mirror image of the sky, the road, buildings, street signs that surround it. And inside, well, you just see everything within those four walls, including you. Because one challenge wasn’t enough, we decided to make it more difficult by pitching a 360 dolly track. The cars and environment needed to look good from ALL angles. There was nowhere to hide. The environment had to be a seamless and intentional part of the look. A character in the scene, if you will, that was sophisticated and sexy enough to hang with the cars it was cast alongside.

With that in mind, we began to figure out what this character looked like. A sleek and classy feel, but a bit dark and moody for some added mystique. We wanted you to feel like you got invited to the back room at the bar that is reserved for VIPs… A speakeasy type place where you have to know someone who knows someone to give you the password. In the lighting world, what is the equivalent? Very strategically placed practical lights meant to be IN the scene, not hidden. We also made the choice to wrap an entire 81x45x13ft showroom in black duvetyne. (That is basically all the duv in the state. Not kidding). That way the background falls off nicely to black, soaking up all the light, creating a bit more contrast in the reflections of the cars. The black had a dual purpose, one that not only created contrast but also enabled us to hide wires, equipment and crew.

Our biggest player was a singular HUGE soft light source. We hung a 20×20 silk directly above the hero car with a black skirt around it to knock down the light spill on the walls. Big soft even light doesn’t have a start or stop, a hotspot or color shift. It elegantly rolls across the tops of the cars, smoothly falling off along the curves whereas small lights and darker shiny cars have very defined specular reflections. These cars already have beautiful shapes, but it’s the light and contrast that help define them. 

Main Subjects: Check. Background set dressing: Check. Main light source: Check. But we were still in an enclosed showroom, with no way to hide our camera and dolly. And further, we pushed ourselves to find a solve that actually added to the story/look/feel of the piece to make it stylistically stronger. That’s when we had a lightbulb moment–or perhaps more accurately, a neon-bulb moment. When you think of the car culture of the ‘50s and ‘60s… or ‘80s… or any era if you’re cool… you think of an entire slew of different colorful neon signs. Drive-ins, diners, bars, Route 66, Miami Vice, Magnum P.I., underglow. All the coolest icons had neon to accent their swagger. We got to work and built a bunch of fluorescent tubes and wrapped them in CTO for a nice warm glow that would play nicely off the daylight temp cool big soft light. We mounted them 2-stacked and horizontally to reflect off of the cars, highlight their curves and to elongate them. 

Hm. We haven’t gone far enough yet. We need more lights. The cars we’re filming didn’t stop at 200hp, or 300 hp… The Camaro alone had 750hp. Since the scene reflects the subjects, when they don’t stop, we don’t stop. More is more.

Taking in the background of the scene into consideration, we decided that a spotlight above each of the cars in the back row would give them a cool little halo, allowing them their moment to shine as supporting characters. And to maximize their individual beauty as supporting characters even further, we attached battery tenders to the cars to allow us to turn on each of those signature headlights.

To further reflect the feel from our vintage cars and enhance the speakeasy scene, we used a beautiful set of vintage Lomo anamorphic lenses, thanks to cinematographer, friend, and collaborator Nick Gardner. These have great shallow DoF, lower contrast and of course, sweet, sweet lens flares. Now, if we throw two little Dedo lights in the back pointing to the front of the room, they will hide and reveal themselves as we dolly around the cars. In a piece where the cars were static, that helped create a further sense of dynamic motion.

I know what you’re thinking…we probably needed ONE more light source, right? Good. That’s what we were thinking too. Since we were in such close proximity to the cars, there was no real way we could hide the dolly, unless we took another panel of CTO wrapped tubes and mounted them in front of the dolly below the camera. Now, as the dolly rolls around the car, the main reflection is just more orange tubes. And since they’re in motion with the camera, they allow light to roll on, over and off the car’s curves, further accentuating the great lines and details of the car and building even more motion into an otherwise static subject. So, by adding more light, in a way we were able to hide the lights. That is to say, they became an intentional part of the scene rather than an offensive or distracting reflection.

For final touches, we hazed the shit out of the room. Cheech and Chong would have been proud of the visual smoky thickness we unleashed. It helped to lift the blacks, lower the highlights, and add atmosphere to our VIP mysterious high-end world of vintage and exotic cars, frozen in time. 

In car cinematography, the biggest trick is… not just using tricks. It’s making every light, every camera setup, every set dressing an intentional and necessary part of the scene. And if we have one takeaway from lighting these shiny mirrored works of art, it’s to never, ever stand between a strong light source and the car. That’s when you get trapped, seeing yourself or casting your own shadow, and we promise you, that’s not what you want to reflect on. You’re welcome.

So who wants to go for a ride?

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