I just recently wrapped up shooting a short documentary about Dan and Steven and their store DS Bicycles (4215 N Elston Ave), a local Chicago-based bicycle shop located in Irving Park. It was a short, one-day, shoot with director Justin Roy, gaffer Samuel Johnson, and with sound done by Thomas McDonald.
I got involved with this project from the beginning. When I purchased a used bicycle from Dan and Steven's other bike shop, Nearly New Bicycles, in Uptown (4075 North Broadway) I was immediately inspired by the atmosphere and vibes I got inside the shop. The shop was small, packed with bikes– old and new– and had a pleasant metallic smell. Dan fixed me up with a great old Schwinn. Shortly after, I told Justin about the bike shop and he seemed to get inspired by the story as well. He contacted Dan, asked if we could make a short documentary about him, and the deal was done.
DS Bicycles, is more than a bicycle shop, it's a place where people can meet up, hangout, talk bikes and listen to music. Dan opened the store without an intention to grow a huge business, but rather as a safe haven for kids and teens in the community.
Due to limited equipment and time, Justin and I decided that we would try to make most of the light available at the location. We wanted the film to have a naturalistic feel– based off of Dan's and Steven's characters.
When Justin and I scouted the shop a week before the shoot, we saw that there wasn't much room for lights or grip equipment– we had to make use with what we had. There were three fluorescent fixtures in the ceiling, but I made sure to have them turned off at all costs as they added a terrible green cast to skin tones. In the workshop area there was a single hanging tungsten bulb, which I thought could work to define the setting. We ended up not using the single light on the day of the set as it casted too much light on the walls and we had no flags or rigging available to shape the light in another way. (note to self for next time)
We decided to film the first interview in the work shop, located at the far end of the shop, which, unfortunately, significantly diminished the amount of available light. We were forced to rely on our small lighting package consisting of three small Fiilex LEDs. We had one light set to daylight and bounced off a piece of bounce board. The other LED we set to tungsten to motivate the workshop-tungsten esthetic and placed the light behind our subject as a hair light. The third LED we also set to tungsten and had bounce of the ceiling as our tungsten fill. I added a small pocket sized LED on the tool counter to raise the levels on the background a little– so that it wouldn't be too dark.
I wanted to create patches of light and dark in order to separate Dan from the background and have him as the focus of the interview. As cinematographer Billy Williams states, "..when I'm lighting I think in tones of black-and-white and gray rather than in color. When I'm lighting I always try to get separation, a light subject against the dark, or a dark against a light. I like to rely on tonal separation rather than just relying on the color to separate it... you get a greater perspective in composition, a greater depth... by doing that, you can emphasize what you want the audience to view."
To be honest, I wasn't satisfied with the lighting set up for our first interview. It felt very flat, and forcefully mixed the tungsten and daylight sources. I also found it too different from the rest of the shots. Despite this, however, I did learn a lot about lighting for interviews. If I had the opportunity to light the interview again I would have lit two LED sources (set to tungsten) through diffusion coming in from the top off the camera's right, or I would simply have moved the location closer to the window and relied mainly on natural light like I did in the second interview.
With Steven's interview, we tried to recreate the original lighting plan I had planed– and it worked out much better. We had the light from the window through some white translucent as our key light. Sam had the ideas of placing and LED behind Steven to raise the levels in the background a little higher, and also to place another LED facing towards the back of Steven's head. This added a little kick, that seemed motivated by the window and gave a really interesting effect on Steven's glasses. The natural negative fill coming from the environment was enough to create nice contrast on Steven's face.
We were lucky enough to have an overcast day– which gave us pretty much a constant source from the window. However, towards the end of the shoot, the clouds began to break and I was forced to dial in the ND up and down.
After Steven's interview I decided to have Dan sit in for some additional questions in the window light setup.
Some other frame grabs from the shoot:
I thought I would share this incredibly powerful short interview with Roger Deakins, especially what he says about documentary filmmaking.
Also, this short documentary by Daniel Soares about NYC freelance creatives.