Apr. 26, 2017

LED lighting case study: "The Handmaid´s Tale"

Cinematographer Colin Watkinson reveals how he lit a key scene in the TV series "The Handmaid´s Tale" with ARRI SkyPanel and L-Series fixtures.

Apr. 26, 2017

Working alongside director Reed Morano ASC, a cinematographer in her own right, Colin Watkinson developed the look for a new 10-part adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian story, "The Handmaid´s Tale." Looking to make frequent, subtle changes to color and intensity, Watkinson turned to ARRI’s color-controllable SkyPanel and L-Series LED lights; here he explains how he used them for one particular scene.

Tell us about this scene and the general lighting requirements.

It takes place in a bedroom, where the handmaid Offred is subjected to a conception ritual called “the ceremony” by a character known as the Commander, with his wife also present. The scene is uncomfortable and unpleasant, so we had to convey that feeling. Being at night, the lighting was driven by practicals; we also decided to keep the main curtains at the windows open, with just a little bit of light and color coming through secondary net curtains to give a sense of the outside and of depth.

What fixtures did you use for those window lights?

They were SkyPanels. Initially they were directed into bounce so we could have shadows from foliage outside, but later in the season, as it got towards winter, we turned the SkyPanels straight onto the windows. They all went back to a deck, so we could easily adjust the colors and intensity levels. This is what I love about them, because I don’t like the lighting to stay the same; I like to tweak things a bit so that a room feels slightly different every time you’re in it. That’s closer to reality and it’s so much easier to achieve with LEDs.  

I also had four diffused SkyPanels above the room’s beautiful curved ceiling, which I got them to make in four sections so we could pull segments out. The SkyPanels let me push light down and introduce the tiniest hint of blue. It was almost imperceptible but it’s definitely there, giving a slight ambiance over and above the practical lights.

Did the SkyPanels bring other advantages?

They are very maneuverable, so it wasn’t a problem if I needed to ask my gaffer Jonathan Gaudet to move them around the night before we shot. You haven’t got skirts and other bits, so they are much quicker to work with than a space light. Once you’ve got the cabling in, you can just say where you want to point them because they are so directional and versatile. Then there is the power consideration, which I’m not too involved in but I know there’s a cost saving. It’s the same with the L-Series, because you can plug them directly into the wall on location. Jonathan had never worked with these ARRI LEDs before, but he took everything on board and got his guys engaged with them. In the end he just loved them and he’ll be using them as much as he can in the future.

How did you use the L-Series lights in this scene?

The Commander was lit with two L10 fixtures bounced through a 4x4 mid-gray diffusion. We very rarely used anything white because it would ping the light around too much, so we’d use duller bounce and transmit through the mid-gray. Then I balanced it to get the right background separation and adjusted the color to exactly what I wanted on his face, which again would have taken a lot longer with tungsten. Having the L-Series let me play with color and see the results immediately.

Does LED lighting help when you’ve got practical lights visible in the scene?

Absolutely. It means you don’t need to worry about the practicals because you have this really powerful tool up your sleeve to balance the rest of the scene. You can adapt and experiment so quickly and so cheaply, without wasting time cutting gels. With the ARRI LEDs I can go anywhere, I can change from night to day in minutes and that’s a huge bonus. The speed is just phenomenal.