Lighting and shooting a short action movie. Kerr-poww!

Short action film, “Watch Over Me”, warranted a post for two reasons; one for lighting sets and two for how you shoot action.

Two very good friends of mine, Simon Pearce (director) and Oliver Park (actor) asked if I would lens their new action film back in 2014. “Watch Over Me” tells the story of a drifter (Oliver Park) who comes to town and gets involved with a young mother and her relationship with a local hood. The majority of the scenes were set in a pub interior at night and the hood's office above the pub which was a set constructed at Bristol's Bottleyard Studios.

A hand-held style was adopted early on knowing that there would be a lot of action to follow so a Canon C300 was the camera of choice to produce a good quality image and yet be light enough to not rearrange my shoulder muscles too much! Hand-held also offered an “of the moment” feel and flexibility in the fight scenes. It was a nice challenge to keep the frame and composition having to follow the fights. Cinematographer Phil Meheux BSC once said that what he looks for in showreels when hiring operators is not just beautiful images but whether it shows well shot whip pans and the ability to keep the frame when finding people or objects on the move. We had actors being quickly thrown on to things, being flipped to the floor and making impacts up and down the body so it was great fun trying to keep up with all that.

Three Canon EF mounted lenses were picked in the range of a 16-35mm, 24-70mm and a 70-200mm. In true homage to the action genre, Simon wanted to shoot in an aspect ratio of 2:35, so we shot 16:9 and matted in the wider ratio in post. It was a good aspect ratio to choose as we knew we were going to be using the frame with a lot of medium size shots with characters facing off against each as they fight.

We wanted a moody look so I shot a stop under exposed. The majority of my readings were F2.8 and I exposed to F4. This stop was also what the slowest lens in the package would go to so I was covered if that lens was used. If you light to the fastest lens and the director asks for a slower lens, you may have backed yourself in to a corner with the lighting. This was a tip I read about from cinematographer, Owen Roizman, and it's always worth keeping in mind. Another couple of things I learnt from him which I now find myself employing are the following: He said, always set up a few 300w or 650w lamps and a few flags on stands close by. There will always be a time when you need a little something in the eyes or somewhere in the scene last minute and you lose time having to then rig something up. He also said, “Light your set, turn off half the lights and shoot.” We always over light. I found this on a few occasions when I'd turn off one of the 300w Arris just before turning the camera over and it always looked better off. The final point to shooting fast that I have found out is to learn to let things go. We could go on tweaking all day to soften that hot spot or flag that wall but you have to be able to give the director what he or she needs. Only giving the director 80% of his or her shots but making them look beautiful, doesn't make a film, but 100% of very good ones do. Spielberg said, “Learn to like your shots, not love them.” Wise words Steve...

Lighting the pub interior:

The challenge here was to keep things looking textured and moody and not too flat which pub interiors normally are. I also had to be able to move fast without big relighting jobs. I chose to shoot with a china lantern on a boom with a skirt to keep spill off the ceiling and walls. In addition, Arri 300w and 650w lights were used to for back-light. The china lantern was then able to act as our keylight and be swung around overhead mostly on the opposite side of the actors to camera. This enabled me to keep shooting on the fill side and give a little texture to the actor's faces. A 4x4 Kino-Flo was also used on wides to give a little more fill if required.

Lighting the office set:

I had read about a new set of lighting gels in American Cinematographer magazine that I wanted to try. Lee filters released the “Urban collection”; a set of orange/mustardy sodium colours to help duplicate street lights. I bought a few Lee 643 mustard gels especially for this shoot and they worked a treat.

The main lamp for the office set was a 5k coming in through the window. A 2k supported the 5k where I needed the light to travel a little further along the wall. The 5k and the 2k were gelled with my new mustard coloured 643 gels to give the effect of a street light just outside the window. I asked for two desk lamps to be added to help aid motivation for light sources, so I knew then I could key the actors around the desk with these lamps. An Arri 300w with 216 diffusion was then brought in to augment the practical desk lamps. The wide angle/master of the office was shot along the long axis of the room to give depth and geography, as well as showing the door in the corner for entrances and exits. Also this angle kept my camera on the fill side of the actors allowing the light from the desk lamp to creep around their faces nicely.

It's always challenging to keep all lights, directions, intensities and colour in your head. We might jump around in scenes and shoot half of one scene then half of another for any number of reasons. At the back of the room a second desk and lamp was added so I knew a could have a little back-light in the corner and that too be justified. For scenes facing that corner when I didn't have room to place one of my 300w augmenting desk lights on the floor, I had a 650w lamp creeping over the top of the set peering down and then covered with a flag to block out unwanted spill light from the studio. Smoke was added as the final ingredient to give a little atmosphere and help play the lights a little.

For the fight which starts in the main office and then carries in to the adjacent room, I lit the second room with two 650w lamps just outside the window and with no fill from inside. This made it very sourcey and hard but also gave us 360 degree freedom to move around that room. This was a look I saw in Andrea Arnold's film “Fish Tank” starring Michael Fassbender. The DP on the film, Robbie Ryan, shot one scene in a flat with very hard coloured lights from the outside. I stored that look away hoping to use it one day, so when this scene came up I adopted it for this. I liked the raw look it gave and thought it that suited this moment in our film too.


I've been filming fights since I was 11 back in my early films. Back then however we were making the sounds of the punches by hitting our chests as the punch was thrown or even using our mouths at the moment of impact! Good times... Early on we noticed the camera had to be in a certain position to see the punch connect and not see the gap. Then we progressed on to “hitting” each other with frying pans and garden chairs as the films moved on, how creative... This was all good fun, but now this was the real thing.

All the fights were planned and rehearsed by stunt arranger Joe Golby and his team. They are wonderfully skilled professionals who took the work seriously but not themselves. Joe was very open to suggestions and tweaks from me too which helps my job if a stuntman or the actor fell out of my light! The fights were broken down in to film-able size chunks consisting of about 3-5 moves per chunk.

Past that and we would need a new camera position or lighting set up to sell the hits connecting. As operator I had to make sure that the camera was in a certain place over the shoulder of the attacker for the first punch to work, then move a little for the second before dropping low to capture the arm break or whatever the move might be. It was a nice little adrenaline buzz having to keep one step ahead of the action. If I was late getting into position then the punch might lose it's impact. Lead actor, Oliver Park, had also done his homework. Undergoing a rigorous training program to keep himself fit and in shape, he needed to keep up with the stunt team. Rehearsing and memorising multiple fight sequences and then keep up that energy on the day takes a lot of work. Spending all day being thrown about and throwing others about takes its toll physically. The stunt team said he was the most prepared actor they had worked with.

We blocked the fights through a few times at half speed then turned the camera over to capture the action. Once we had one angle in the can, for the second take we might change the size of the shot slightly rather than just shoot another take of the same thing. Sometimes we would pop out wider or go in tighter for a little more frantic feel, and this then gives you a little something extra come the edit. Care was taken to make sure the punches and kicks played on camera and registered too. Sometimes, tiny little “beats” were added in to the action to let the audience catch up. If everything moves at a constant fast speed, there's a risk of things becoming a blur. We as the crew might know what's just happened but does the audience see it play on camera?

Director Simon Pearce knew from the outset that he wanted to shoot the majority of the action in mediums and I thought this was a wonderful approach. Any closer and you risk confusion just having arms and bodies flying through frame (Taken 2 anyone?). Simon was totally prepared and prepped for the shoot. Every angle had be shot already on a Canon 5D camera with the actors on set a couple of weeks before so there was very little discussion on the day. Shot wise we filmed our mediums and then the reverses of that part of the fight. Fighting plays a lot like shooting dialogue; you have an action and re-action. So we would shoot one side then the other. Sometimes to shoot the reverse however would mean a complete re-light in the other direction. So we found ourselves shooting all in one direction, then going back and picking up the reverse angles of the whole fight from each chunk. This would also mean make-up and costumes changes as blood had now appeared more prominently after a particular hit. For certain key moments we would punch in to a close up or a tighter shot of a particular separate action to emphasise things; a leg kick or finishing move.

The audience needs to see what is happening and where. If they have no sense of place then they can't enjoy the action as the sense of jeopardy is lost. There wasn't an overall wide shot for the whole fight but just for each section. Each section or chunk might be the two singles and a two shot or a wide if geography needed to be re-established. Sometimes these sections were joined together by a a two shot that would carry us to the other side of the room and then we'd be back in to the singles and reverse coverage again. If we were ever in doubt about the size of the frame, we came wider not tighter. Sometimes the action is very fast so if you can give clues to aid orientation like showing more of the space then the audience gets where they are instantly and then are free to enjoy the hits. Sometimes I asked for tiny tweaks to be made to the action for camera. A small turn of the head capturing the thug in pain or a cry of the throw by hero to help punctuate the emotional impact. We need to see the toll on the characters to keep the fight real.

Breakaway bottles, pool cues and glass were used for some of the action. These little extra elements help sell the fight and give it an extra layer of danger. Safety was of course a factor as even sugar glass can cut and get in your eyes. Framing also had to be right for these moments. We have to be able to see the glass strike or fly for the gag to play. Again we were back to the notion of the crew knowing what had happened but does it play on camera?

It was a lovely creative challenge to find all the right ingredients for each shot. For the action I always looked for an interesting angle where the background was good, when I could keep the camera on the fill side of the light AND an angle that fitted the action. Sometimes it wasn't possible to get all three but the angle that best fitted the action was paramount. I was happy to let some small lighting niggles go on the day too. Knowing that each shot would be on screen for seconds if not frames, the audience's eyes would be on the action not that slightly hot practical light in the top corner of the frame.

A special mention has to go to the fantastic crew. We had to move very fast on some of the shooting days so having people like Keith Scott, Neil Oseman and Greg Trezise around made my work a lot easier. Also when shooting fast action, the focus has to be spot on. My first assistants Mari Yamamura and Sam Smith kept things looking sharp all the way.

Overall a wonderful creative and enjoyable experience. On set all day with great cast and crew filming action scenes? No place I'd rather be.

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