How to Composite Lighting Tutorial

In today’s TSL lesson we are shooting in the Concord and Lexington area of Massachusetts. This lesson will be a how to composite lighting tutorial. This is the perfect place to shoot the elements or plates we will need to create a composite showing a Revolutionary War battle scene. We will show how we shot and combined images from 5 shoots to make our final battle scene. We will shoot the background plates first, then any plates that need to fill in the action, and finally the “hero-shot”.
As a part of this lesson we will also show how to create a rig that will allow your actor to lean forward as if he is running. This rig creates the look of forward movement while still giving you the ability to control clothing and motion blur.
Finally we will discuss how to shoot explosions as a part of a composite. Yes explosions.
Keep those cameras rolling and keep on clickn’.

Video Transcription

Jay P: In today’s Slanted Lens lesson, we’re shooting in the Concord and Lexington area of Massachusetts. This is the perfect place to shoot the elements or plates that we’re going need to create our composite image showing a Revolutionary War battle. In this lesson we’re going to show you how to shoot and combine images from five shoots to make our final battle scene. Let’s look at how we shot each layer of our composite.

When shooting a composite, it’s best to shoot the background plate first. This gives a frame work for the final image. I knew I wanted a hillside so the scene could have images higher in the background, a place to put the cannons and the other army. I really wanted something that was shot in the Minute Man National Park, adding that kind of historical significance to the final image.

Julene and I walked the fields of Concord where the Continental Army first fired on the British. We looked at the field at Lexington, where the first American casualties occurred. The place we finally settle on was on Battle Road. You know, I’ve been looking for this background in several different places, but we found this little home with a field, and this will become the perfect background plate.

I’m going to shoot it on at least two, if not three, levels.  The first one I’m going to shoot at is eye level. I also shot this at a very low level. This gives me options when we go to composite. The reality is that I need to make a decision of which level I’m going to shoot this at, so I can shoot all my other images the same. In the end we decided on the eye level image. This will become the camera angle for the rest of our shots.

You know, we needed battle images of the Americans clashing with the British. It’s a pretty expensive proposition to get everyone together to create such a scene. Too expensive for our budget, so we headed to a reenactment to shoot our battle scenes. At a reenactment we have soldiers shooting at each other, all in their uniforms, black powder going off. It really gives us all the texture we need to create the background battle scene.

We shot images of the actual reenactment from the sidelines. I was not able to stop or control the process so we got what we could get from the sidelines, from the spectators point of view. I tried to focus on confined groups that we could cut out for the final image.

I knew that I wanted a cannon group up on the hill, so I was shooting that group, and the smoke that was coming from the cannons, without cropping them. If I keep them isolated, then I can reduce them and use them in the background. Uncropped groups are far more valuable than things that are cropped. This group of images we’re going to call the background battle images. That’s our second shoot. I got some great Glidecam shots as I followed people walking down the street.

The next shot is going to be the foreground battle. You know, I wanted more control of this group so I asked a group of re-enactors to come to the field at the end of the battle so we could shoot them running together, kind of clashing together. I’m going to use the ambient light as the main light source. Here’s our first image with just the ambient light.

I am now trying to get my light to match the light we had on the battlefield earlier in the afternoon. Now I’ve added a strobe from camera-right, behind the actors, to act as a rim light and imitate the sun we had earlier. Here’s our final image with our strobe light on camera right. I’m going to allow our actors to blur as they run together. That gives a feeling of motion to this background plate.

I’m using a Dynalite powerpack with a Photoflex large softbox as my light source. I’m going to run this with this portable Dynalite power source.  Our next image that we’re going to shoot is our hero shot. We ran out of light that night, so we had to bring back or main talent the next day to do our shoot. We shot him in a park along the river next to Harvard.

I’m going to use my tried and true motion rig. It simulates motion and allows us to control the look of the talents clothing and their feet. I shot Donny Osmond using a rig that is very similar to this. In this case, we’re on location, so we’re going to build a simple version that can be made in just a few minutes.

To build this rig you’re going to need a saw, a screwdriver, two and a half-inch screws, a four-foot two by two, and a two-foot one by four. Cut the two by two on a 45 degree angle. Cut the end of the two by four on a 45 degree angle. Center and attach the one by four with the screw to the two by two. Center it on the end of the two by two that you cut on a 45 degree angle. As simple as that is, you know have a rig that your talent can lean on and create a look of forward motion. Here’s our rig at work on set.

In this set up, I rotated our talent around to where the sun became the rim light and then we put a softbox at the camera, to open up the shadow side of his face. This gave us a look that will match both the group that we shot after the reenactment, and the people on the battlefield during the reenactment.

Now for the fun part. We’re going to shoot some explosions. We’re going to shoot our explosions on white, so that as we composite them into our image, we’ll allow them to be translucent. We’re going to shoot explosions using an air cannon filled with debris, firing through a small hole in a piece of plywood. First we cut a hole in the piece of plywood, then we took that piece of wood we just cut out and we set it back about five inches.  This is going to create a barrier that will spread our debris as we fire through the hole.

The front side of the plywood has a burn bar arching around it. We always keep a Sterno burning on set so the minute the gas is turned on, it lights up immediately. We don’t want a stray pool of gas hanging around on set that might get lit by some stray flame.

The air cannon had a piece of pipe running out of it horizontally across the ground, and making a 90 degree turn. At that turn we attached a funnel. This becomes the loading are to put all of that debris and things in. We loaded it with dry leaves, brown fuller’s earth, and flour. When the air cannon pushes the flower into the air and past the flame, it’s going to combust.

Here’s some of the explosion plates we shot. Flour, when it’s spread out thin in the air, acts just like gasoline. It creates a fireball. Truly, don’t try this at home. You should not do this unless you’ve got a special effects guy on set. Here’s our final image after all the compositing is finished. Julene is now going to take us through the compositing process from a placement and perspective point of view.


Okay. This image is a composite of about 22 images. Here’s the background and we chose as image that has this house and the trees high in the background, so that it would still show when we place other images in front of it, and create a sense of depth. In our next image, we have four different images of British soldiers. There’s kind of a ridge here that I could place them on so that they blend in well with the background.

In the middle ground we have a skirmish going on and this is a composite of four images as well. They were all shot at the same perspective. I didn’t have to worry about adjusting their bodies or anything, because they were all shot in the same setting.

Here, closer to the foreground I’ve placed some fallen images to fill in the ground and just to add to the drama of the scene. And that’s one thing you need to pay attention to. You don’t want to shoot your images too high or too low in comparison to each other, so that they all blend well together.

Here is our flag bearer. He was a composite of two images. I had to do a little bit of work in getting his legs in the right position. This part of his body is one, and this part of his body is another. So I did move his legs around a little bit, and do some work on the flow of his jacket.

Okay. In this image I just brought in another British soldier here in the front because it just needed something else to tie in with what’s going on here in the front. Here in the very front we have a cannon blast. I used four different images of flame, smoke, and leaves flying to create this cannon blast.

In this image I used a couple gradients. There’s a white gradient from the top, just to give it a haze. There’s a dark gradient at the bottom to add to the detail of the image. And then I added some smoke in the foreground to blend the flames into the front with the grass. And that’s our final image.

Jay P:

This has been a lot of fun. We’re done here now on the East Coast and we’re headed back to L.A. for our next shoot. It was nice that we were so close to the mother ship of Lens Pro to Go. We drove over, picked up our equipment, used in these little towns outside of Boston, then dropped it back off. It was great to be here, so keep those cameras rolling and keep on clicking.

composite image lighting

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  1. says

    Guys, I love the Slanted Lens, but the final image here is really not up to snuff. It looks really amateurish. The photoshopping here is not up to professional standards at all. Video has a lot of good advice, but man, that final image is just not good.

    Sorry to be such a downer, but I love your tutorials so I was really surprised by this one.

  2. Graveatitte says

    This will be the right weblog for everyone who desires to discover about this subject. You understand so much its pretty much tough to argue with you (not that I essentially would want?-HaHa). You surely put a new spin on a subject thats been written about for years. Very good stuff, just wonderful!


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