Lighting WHITE HOUSE DOWN

“It was during the shooting of a period movie that my interest went toward lighting,” recalls chief lighting technician Jean Courteau, whose credits include 300, SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD and most recently, WHITE HOUSE DOWN. The summer blockbuster stars Channing Tatum as a police officer who must protect the President (played by Jamie Foxx) as the Capitol is under attack.

Now deep into a career with over 40 feature film credits as a gaffer, Courteau’s latest project reteams him with director Roland Emmerich. It also gave him the opportunity to light for cinematographer Anna Foerster, ASC. Though the film takes place in Washington, D.C., the majority of production was shot on stages in Montreal at Locations Michel Trudel. Gigantic exterior and interior sets of the White House were built with painstaking care; the team was challenged with making it all look seamless and real. Michel Trudel supplied the lighting package along with ALEXA Plus cameras, ARRI / ZEISS Master Primes, the ARRI / ZEISS Lightweight Zoom LWZ-1 and Fujinon Premiere Zooms.

Here, Courteau talks about making the big action extravaganza in one of the world’s most recognizable buildings.

WHITE HOUSE DOWN: Behind the Scenes Featurette

Check out the exciting set of WHITE HOUSE DOWN, shot at Locations Michel Trudel in Montreal, who also supplied the lighting package along with ALEXA Plus cameras, ARRI/ZEISS Master Primes, the ARRI/ZEISS Lightweight Zoom LWZ-1 and Fujinon Premiere Zooms.

WHITE HOUSE DOWN is not lit like a typical action movie. How would you describe the project?

When I got the call for that project I had not read the script yet, but the title said it all. It was a high-octane drama bearing Roland Emmerich’s unique vision. Most of the film would happen on stages with lots of mechanical and visual effects. It’s always a bit of a challenge to recreate the ambiance of big exterior scenes on stage. As well, recreating such an iconic place (especially for the art department) and giving it -- through lighting amongst other things -- a “personality” other than the one so often seen on TV or print, was also part of the challenge. What drew you to the production?

What drew you to the production?

I couldn’t be happier when they asked me to be the gaffer on the film. I had worked on THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW as the first unit gaffer with DP Ueli Steiger, ASC. My experience on that movie was memorable, the kind that makes you better in all aspects of shooting a movie.

But the key reason of my interest was the cinematographer: Anna Foerster, ASC. We met on THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, she was the director and DP for the second unit. Every body on that unit was very fond of her. I was really happy she remembered me and wanted to work with me. I have to say, the visuals on her previous project with Mr. Emmerich -- ANONYMOUS -- were very impressive. So I was looking forward for another great experience. And a memorable one it was, one more time.

What was the look, style and feel of what you wanted to establish?

We wanted to give the White House a different personality. A fine smoke was used on most of the sets to help materialize the light coming through the windows. In order to achieve a better color contrast between the shaft of daylight coming in the sets and the warmth of the practicals and multiple chandeliers, all of the film was shot using HMI fixtures. It was a premiere for me, and I was a bit nervous, because the technical challenges are numerous on a stage using HMI. Noisy fans in the bigger lights and ballast can cause problems for the sound department, as well as the high pitch noise of the bulbs in flicker-free mode, etc. But we went on using single 100 feet head cable to avoid too many connections (in order to put the ballast as far as possible) and other tricks to keep the noise to a minimum. We made everybody happy. I have to say, using HMI predominantly was the same technique Anna had used on ANONYMOUS and it was easy to admit that it is a great-looking film.

WHITE HOUSE DOWN Trailer

Shot and lit with ARRI: WHITE HOUSE DOWN utilized ALEXA Plus cameras capturing on ARRIRAW to Codex recorders with ARRI/ZEISS Master Primes, ARRI/Zeiss Lightweight Zoom LWZ-1 and Fujinon Premiere zooms. ARRI lighting fixtures included ARRIMAX 18Ks, M40, M18s and more. 

What ARRI lighting fixtures were used?

Most of our units were HMI, even if 90% of the film was shot on stages. We used almost all of the catalog: from the 575 to the ARRIMAX 18K. We used the smaller ones like the 575 and 1.2 Fresnel and/or PAR bounced for the interiors where a little less light was needed -- to the ARRIMAX 18K for exterior ambiance -- 18K and 24K Fresnels through the windows for sunlight effect. Not forgetting the 4K Fresnel, especially the compact M40 that we mounted on the 50-foot Technocrane for a moving sun effect.

One fixture I must say really impressed me was the little M18 (1.8K). It is so powerful for its size. Anytime we needed a quick fix on the bluescreen or close to a window, here it was delivering this power without any wait from the production.

Did you do any tests? What were you looking to do?


Our prep time was a bit cut short and the film started earlier than the original set date. So test time was a bare minimum to check hair/make-up/wardrobe, gels we were going to use and the ratio between sun effect coming in and outside balance -- also for the day exterior scene on stage.

How did you typically light the interior scenes?

For most of the interior scenes involving windows, we used an 18K Fresnel in each window with a quarter CTS. The interior was filled with very little light. The chandeliers and practicals were all dim to give an extra warm look of the interior. In doing so, (with most lights coming from the exterior) we give more space to actors and cameras.

Most of the “exterior” scenes were actually shot on stage. How did you light this?

For the exterior scenes all of the stages’ ceilings were covered with a white ultra bounce. We then used up to 10 ARRIMAX 18Ks to bounce into the white ceiling and added 18K and 24K Fresnels on Condors for the sun effect, always with the quarter CTS.

Is there a scene that was particularly challenging that you can tell us about?

On a film set what we often miss is space, depth to be able to put the lights as far as possible for a better spread and the least fall-off of the light. So we had this big interior practice golf course we were using as an exterior set. It was something like 400 feet long by 200 wide and 60 feet high. All of it was white ultra bounce ceiling and walls, surrounded by bluescreen and black velour on tracks, so we had all the options to create the visual effects, bounce or control the amount of lights. It was used for an exterior of the White House where the chopper lands and a scene where a plane crashes into the White House. Although we had kept around 20 feet on the side to put the Condors with 24K Fresnels for the sun effect and the ARRIMAX 18K for the bounced ambiance, we were [still] a bit close to the action, but we managed to focus and trim the lights so the end result didn’t suffer too much.

Is there anyone on your crew you would like to mention?

Filmmaking being a group effort I couldn’t go on without mentioning my crew. All of them worked very hard to make this project with a tough schedule happen seamlessly, but namely Sylvain Bergevin, my best boy, and Gilles Fortier, my rigging gaffer. Both of whom I’ve worked with for over 10 years and they really make me look good. Also, we had a great team of grips led by key grip Alain Masse. I have to thank them also for their relentless effort. I also would like to thank Michel and Yannick at Locations Michel Trudel for their everyday support providing us with all the equipment needed for the film.