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by Aditya

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I was recently joking around with some friends about building a small gingerbread town, and taking some macro shots of it. My friends came up with the idea of actually doing it, only instead of just taking some random still shots, they suggested creating a little time-lapse stop-motion capture video.

We decided to go ahead with it all, however I have one big snag: Lighting!

How exactly should I go about lighting such a small scene in a way that illuminates it enough for the purposes of creating a video, creates nice shadows, doesn't overpower any lighting we place inside the scene (i.e. street lamps, mini christmas lights, lights inside the gingerbread buildings), etc?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I've been involved in a number of stop-motion short films over the years. Here's some things I've found that you'll need if your goal is to have the best look possible:

  1. Continuous lighting. Continuous lighting will allow you to shape your shadows before you shoot your scenes.
  2. Big lights. With small lights it can be easy to end up with a situation where one part of the scene is 'dialed in' and looks right, but another part of the scene looks off. The bigger your light source is (or light sources are), the easier it will be for you to make every part of the scene look right.
  3. Get them far away. People tend to underestimate how far away their lights will need to be in order to not cast harsh shadows or have the lighting be 'right' in one part of the scene, but 'off' in another part. This can be offset somewhat by...
  4. Add diffusion. You'll probably want to diffuse the light in order to knock down the shadows, but also because unless you have a very large space with which to hang lights, you'll probably find that you don't have quite as much room as you'd like (do we ever?).
  5. Watch your shadows. In stop motion it can be very easy to cast too long of a shadow, which can ruin the illusion (e.g. the shadow of the streetlamp in the scene stretches halfway down the block, which doesn't happen in real life and looks 'wrong'). The solution is usually to get the lights up high in order to shorten any shadows to a 'realistic' length. This is the real key to keeping up the illusion, and generally its the first thing you want to check for as you're building the lighting for your scene.

Generally speaking, 'house' lighting is potentially just fine as long as you can combine individual sources in order to create a larger level of illumination than can be achieved by just a bulb or two. The real key is knowing how to wire up enough lighting elements to get the job done. Where 'pro' level lighting will shine (har har) is in being able to illuminate a larger space with fewer total elements. This is important because unless you're using a warehouse or a large garage type space, you're probably going to start running into heat problems, so it potentially becomes a tricky balance between the level of light you need to have, and the level of heat that you can't afford to deal with (think melting sets, or melting crew members...)

Now having said that, I have worked on productions that have rented (or in one case owned) 'pro' level lighting equipment, and I've also worked on productions that have successfully used common halogen worklights such as those which can be found at a home improvement store and homemade scrim (halogens are dirt cheap, but they throw a ton of heat, so you'll want to take that into account before going this route).

While I won't claim that 'quality' light isn't important, in my experience it is far less critical than making it big, making it diffused, getting it as far away from your scene as possible, and engineering the angles to produce the most 'realistic' shadows. With stop motion it really is all about combining these variables to produce the most realistic shadows possible (either that or completely eliminate the shadows entirely) in order to preserve the overall illusion...

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Thank you very much! These are very helpful tips. Any chance you have some specific light source recommendations? Could I do this with the regular lighting I have in my home, or would it be better to buy some independent camera lights? Could I build my own lights? –  jrista Feb 8 '11 at 21:59
1  
"Regular" lighting is probably not the answer. Even if it's coming from the right direction(s) with the right balance, you'll be so used to it that it'll be hard to force yourself to see what's there. There's no need to buy anything "photographic", though; building something that will do the trick is easy and (relatively) cheap. If ~$25 plus the cost of four 40W CF bulbs for 160W in a 40"-square softbox doesn't sound too extravagant (or too bubblegum-and-paperclips) I'll post a design I've used as a (non) answer here. –  user2719 Feb 8 '11 at 22:55
    
@jrista: I answered your followup question in the body of my answer... –  Jay Lance Photography Feb 9 '11 at 8:15

I would do the following:

  1. Make the primary light source a bright, far away light. A spot light would be a good idea.
  2. There should be some secondary light, very soft, to fill in shadows (And simulate the sky/clouds)
  3. It really doesn't matter the brightness of the light, because you can expose the image for as long as you'd like.
  4. All in all, lighting on a tabletop with typical overhead lighting would probably give you about what you want, there will be some firm shadows, but there will be detail visible in the shadows. Of course, if you do this you'd be better off with one bright light instead of several dimmer ones.
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If 'twere me, I might be tempted to fire the overhead key light (the sun) through a glass pane and use a translucent cookie (cukaloris) to simulate passing clouds. It depends how real you want to get -- fairytale cookies coming to life, or something more like an Aardman production (eg: Wallace and Gromit) –  user2719 Feb 8 '11 at 15:21

For stop motion capture, I'd probably go continuous so that I could see the shadows. Stop motion is like video, you need to see the light before the shot. In fact, it really is video, you're just halting the frame advance.

The structure of the light, however, will very much depend on the setting. If you're trying to emulate sun, then more focussed light, such as that from using a grid or a snoot is more comparable since the sun is actually a small, bright, light source from a camera perspective. If you're looking for more even lighting, then a softbox setup is probably the better option. Either way, you can find CFL based continuous lighting options for very low cost or you can roll your own.

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Hey, why not just use natural sunlight? How long is your video supposed to be? If not too long, then shooting in an open area (or near big window) in a partially overcast day should give you exactly what you are looking for - the natural look.

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That's an intuitive answer, but it will actually cause nothing but problems. Remember that 1 second of film footage will take 24 separate photographs, each with a bit of movement to the characters... It can take literally hours to put together 1 second of footage and even on a cloudy/overcast day the light will change drastically over that time period. Unless a person doesn't really care what it will look like, the only way to accomplish even a small stop-motion animation is with complete control over the lighting sources... –  Jay Lance Photography Feb 9 '11 at 2:48

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