Courage Under Lighting

A case study in set lighting for a music video. We deconstruct a set and examine the lighting approach.


Recently I had the opportunity to direct a music video for a local Chicago band called Flatfoot 56. On this particular project, the narrative would be completely shot on a sound stage and the performance piece of the band would be shot at one other location. Lighting the performance location wound up taking roughly eight hours to rig, utilizing around 22 heads and drawing about 23,000 watts. So where did we end up and how did we get there? Come and take a ride along with us; our first stop is in Gary Indiana. Read on…


The Project
I don’t direct a whole lot, I consider myself primarily a DP. And when I do direct I still find myself approaching things from the standpoint of a DP. So I’ve found that it helps me to collaborate with a highly-qualified DP; it helps to minimize my micro-managing that department, at least to some degree. On this particular project I worked with long-time friend and fellow DP Chris Gearhart. Chris and I have one of those rare working partnerships where we have developed a shorthand and have similar sense of style and approach that seems to make projects flow smoothly.

Just a little background on the project; the song for this video is all about the working men and women in the 1940s during WWII. It’s about their courage and sacrifice to pay the price for the benefit of the next generation. While working on the treatment, I knew I wanted to bridge the gap between the 1940s era and 2010 where the band was playing. I decided to do that visually using the location they were playing in. I wanted a location that would have existed in the 40s and had been abandoned much like the men and women of that era that we were speaking about. The environment would stand in as visual bridge tying the band in 2010 back the era they were singing about. I wanted a location that existed in that time period and had been forgotten, like the heroes in the song. To do that, the location selection would be very important to this project. Below is the treatment for the project:

“Courage” by Flatfoot 56
Director: Kendal Miller

Courage through everyday sacrifice. A Celebration of American work ethic.

Visual Styling:
Vintage, mid 1940’s. Band performance will be in a place of urban decay, wardrobe and styling is modern. Ship and Shipyard will be CG pieces.

The overall emotion should feel uplifting and encouraging, summoning the strength of the viewer, raising their own courage to tackle the challenges in their own life.

Intro (25sec)
A steam whistle cuts through the still morning air. It is a warm morning and the sun is barely up yet on the Chicago docks. A line of workers stand at the gates, lunch boxes in hand, hardly awake. Slowly the gates open and the men shuffle in, we crane up to reveal a Chicago shipyard with 2-3 vessels on land in varying degrees of completion.

Verse 1
Born to a fighter on the deep south-side
A sweaty blue collar, but you didn’t mind
The cost of a family meant your blood and tears
Fourteen hours in a world of gears

It is the locker room, men drop off their lunch boxes and grab their gear, welding goggles, and assorted tools.

Your daughter, your son, the joy of your life
They’re all that remain of your cherished wife
You bore the weight with a steadfast air
The world around you just didn’t care

As Henry, (mid 50s) opens his locker we see a worn old portrait of a woman, and next to her a photo of him with his kids, carefully taped to the inside of his locker. He touches it reverently, a reminder of why he is here.

Chorus (1:00-1:19)
Courage, your name means something to me
These heroes, they last through time
Courage, your name means something to me
A champion of the daily grind

Band performance is intercut with montage of Henry at work welding in the yard, showers of sparks and sweat.

Verse 2 (1:20-1:31)
Not because of a movie or a magazine
But because of your example you inspired me
Sacrifice in the midst of pain
You bring a tear to my eye when I hear your name

Quick montage of portraiture shots set in locker room or in the ship, poses to camera, worker 1.

You hit the beaches in the Second World War
You carried it with you when you came home
Everyday was a courage fight
A colored soul in a world of white.

We see John, a young man, as he grabs his gear from his locker, a photo of his brother in a uniform, he picks up a dog tag and hangs it around his neck,
before closing his locker, a reminder as to why he is here.

Courage, your name means something to me
These heroes, they last through time
Courage, your name means something to me
A champion of the daily grind

Band performance intercut with montage of John hard at work in the yard with a grinder.

Bridge (2:08-2:19)
Not because of a movie or a magazine
But because of your example you inspired me
Sacrifice in the midst of pain
You bring a tear to my eye when I hear your name

Quick montage of portraiture shots set in locker room or in the ship, poses to camera, worker 2.

Instrumental Break (2:20-2:42)
Focus on just the band and their performance as they rock out.

Chorus (2:43-3:01)
Courage, your name means something to me
These heroes, they last through time
Courage, your name means something to me
A champion of the daily grind

Band performance intercut with montage of different people at work showcasing diversity…Henry, John, women, show the scale, and scope of the work. Continue this through the next chorus. Cuts become upbeat and energetic…

Courage, your name means something to me
These heroes, they last through time
Courage, your name means something to me
A champion of the daily grind

Band performance intercut with montage of different people at work showcasing diversity…Henry, John, women, show the scale, and scope of the work.

Not because of a movie or a magazine
But because of your example you inspired me
Sacrifice in the midst of pain
You bring a tear to my eye when I hear your name

Portraiture shot to camera of worker 3.

Outro (3:32-3:49)
As the song closes the camera turns to reveal an old man sitting in a chair clutching a photo, he has been the sole witness of the band’s performance. The photo in his hand is the photo of his family from the locker room in 1940…It is Henry…his sacrifice has left him alone, unrecognized.

On the next page we will examine the location scouting process and rough lighting concepts. Continue to Page 2…

The Location
I originally scouted this particular location for another project that I had in development. However, while talking to the band and discussing a visual style for the performance, I realized I already had the perfect location. It was an old abandoned church located in Gary, Indiana. The church featured gorgeous architecture that would speak very specifically to what I wanted to say visually for this song. A location that, like the generation the song spoke about, time had forgotten and left in desolation. Gary, Indiana has a great film office, so after securing the proper paperwork, I hit the road to make an initial scout of the location accompanied by DP Chris Gearhart and Production Designer Pablo Korona.

The first step was to narrow down an area to shoot and make some rough angle assessments. Using a DSLR to roughly judge field-of-view, we started stepping through the vast shot opportunities the location afforded. Finally after some discussion, I decided on a perspective I really liked. This angle afforded a diverse look at the architecture, the columns provided a great sense of scale and majesty to the space, while the brick and broken sides spoke to the desolation and decay I wanted to evoke. All of this was tied together perfectly by the incredible ceiling overhead, and I loved the stained glass in the far background. The layers of texture were terrific. So now that the initial angle was decided, the real work began. As you can see from this photo, exacting care with lighting would be what would make this location really sing.

Initial Strategies
We roughed in all the measurements and sketched out the space on paper. Chris and I began to consult about shooting day or night. While day would have definitely been more affordable, it didn’t give us the mood we were really after. Nor would day allow the ability to paint the architecture with light the way we wanted to, and control the audience’s eye. So we decided to shoot at night. In tackling any large setup like this, the easiest strategy is to break it into smaller chunks and work from there. Working with the room first to create the tone and atmosphere, we roughed out some ideas as starting points. I knew I wanted to model the light on each of those awesome columns, and I needed to lift the ceiling bright enough to read at the same time. It seemed as though up-lighting that hit each column and then spilled into the ceiling was the obvious solution there. Up-lighting also allowed us to preserve some shadow areas in the arches and ceiling that would have been lost by lighting from other angles. Any time you can have lighting heads doing double-duty is a great way to work within a tight budget!

In my opinion, the real challenge in a setup like this is preserving the shadow areas. Once you get so many lights kicking around in a space, it doesn’t take long for all that ambient light to destroy the mood and the contrast you worked so hard to create. I also knew that I wanted to really accentuate the gaping holes in the side walls. Without something to help light those areas, the great texture would just fade into total darkness and be lost. We knew we wanted to kick some big shafts of light that would rake across the edges of the brick and also use the shafts to create a middle-ground behind the band. More on that challenge later…

The side walls are layered behind the columns, and while the shafts of light would bring some detail to that, we realized we would need additional lights raking from the back to bring up the texture in the brickwork. One final piece was needed to finalize set lighting. One of the narrative cues involved the band setting up this “concert” for single audience member. So in order to carry an element of the concert feel into the performance piece, I wanted to add strong backlights behind the band to bring a little punch. Another architectural feature I knew I wanted to use in some shots was the stained glass window in the background. So we planned to add two up lights behind it brighten up the glass a touch. The trick on that light was to rig it at the correct position and angle so as not to cast shadows on the panes. The last remaining pieces of the puzzle involved adding a bounce to lift the ambient in the room, dial in detail in the shadows, and put in a key light for the band.

Initial overhead sketch noting BOAL (Beams of Awesome Light):

On the next page we will examine the lighting color choices, and our initial lighting test. Continue to Page 3…

Next, Chris and I talked about color temperature. I wanted to push the color spectrum to the golden side for the architecture, meanwhile contrasting the shafts of light and the back lights to the blue side. Chris suggested simply working with variants of CTO and CTB gels to push tungsten and HMI lights further into their respective color hues. We would set our key lights at 4600K somewhere toward the center and then add 1/8 CTO to the architecture tungsten lights to push them even more to the orange side. We would add varying degrees of CTB to parts of the set lights to raise the color temperature, depending on exactly how blue we wanted it to read. I loved the idea, it perfectly balanced what I was attempting to achieve visually.


The Lighting Test
After roughing in a quick lighting diagram on location, Chris wanted to go back at night with a 2K Mighty Mole and generator to run some tests before finalizing our lighting plans. So late one night we loaded up some gear and went back to Gary. Upon arrival, we set up the genny and started roughing in angles to determine whether what worked on paper would work in practicality. It was a great exercise, because while most everything worked great, it revealed a difficulty in getting the beams of light outside the walls to play correctly. There simply wasn’t a good way to rig them and get the angle we needed, as trees growing outside the church preventing us from getting a crane in close enough to get the height we needed. The only place to work the crane was from street level, and then we were being flagged by a lot of trees, costing us a lot of light loss. There were only a few options:

1. Use a MaxiBrute on a crane at street level, we would need to use VNS (Very Narrow Spot) lenses to get enough punch to create our shafts of light; because the shafts were narrow and we had multiple heads, we could aim them through the trees and get what we needed without too much flagging.

2. Create some sort of scaffolding or stands such as crankevators just outside the windows with 1.2K pars equipped with wide angle lenses to get enough spread, and just try to get them as high possible.

3. Back way off to street level on a crane with something like a 12K or 18K HMI, and get our height angle correct, letting the trees and branches create a breakup effect.

A few things needed consideration; the first was power draw. With a 300 AMP genny scheduled to be on set, we wanted to have some headroom for our power consumption. The second consideration was cost; the crane was looking like it would be around $1,500 – $1,700 additional that we just didn’t have in the budget. So the best bet, and most workable solution seemed to be the 1.2K pars, and shall we say some creative rigging from the crew. Now that we knew what we needed to account for in the way of angles, it was time to figure out what heads would be needed and finalize the lighting overhead.

We were shooting on Chris’s Red One package, and I wanted to rate everything at 175 ISO because I’m deathly afraid of Red’s noise floor and wanted to make sure we didn’t have to push the footage too far in post. Working off those numbers, Chris worked with photometrics to get a final lighting diagram together. As he was crunching the numbers and final details, a few potential issues started to show up in our plan (yet another argument for extensive pre-production).

Initially we wanted the punch afforded by the Mighty Mole 2K Pars for our up-light on the columns and ceilings, but those heads caused several problems. Firstly they added a lot of power draw. Secondly, the heat on the heads would make it very hard to gel those heads without burning through gels all throughout the shoot. We were already going to be dealing with a very compressed shooting schedule, and these were variables we could not afford to risk on the day of the shoot. So Chris tossed me the idea of replacing the 2K pars with ETC Source 4’s. Running at around 750W, their power draw was significantly less. Also the shutters on the heads would allow us a greater degree of control without adding a lot of clutter in frame, and due to the optics of the Source Four, the effective light output was just about the same as the 2K Mighties. Most importantly, heat wouldn’t be an issue…allowing us to add the CTO we wanted to those lights without burning up our gels.



Continue to Page 4 for the final lighting diagram and the conclusion of this challenging project…

Lots of work in pre-production combined with several lighting test and a lot of homework, allowed us to execute this rig and finish ahead of schedule. We took our initial sketches of the angle and function of the lighting and then Chris translated that into exactly what each head would need to be to achieve that. This allowed us to walk on to set with an EXACT idea of where every light and power run would be. The grip and electric departments took the the overhead and executed the layout. Once everything was done all that was remained was building up and powering on the camera. We tweaked a few positions here and there but for the most part it was executed to about 95% of our original sketch when we first scouted the location.

In the end, our final lighting diagram ended up looking something like this:


If you really want to geek out about all the specs, you can check out Chris’s full lighting notes here.

And here is the final project, Flatfoot 56’s “Courage” music video:

Kendal Miller is a Chicago-based Director of Photography and FreshDV contributor. Find out more about Kendal at

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I’m passionate about storytelling, and creating. Whether its directing, or shooting I love the process, the work, and the reward. Creating is a long arduous task to work towards and achieve, but the rewards are…

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