Axel Rothe - Cinematographer (Kameramann) / Colorist - Leipzig, Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt

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How to shoot a bar scene

I love the depth, texture and composition in this shot. Above the counter was a kino flo, the "way to bright" light was a cheap LED tube and the rest of the bar was lit by a litepanel for ambience and a ArriSun 575 through the lightly opened window blinds.

I love the depth, texture and composition in this shot. Above the counter was a kino flo, the "way to bright" light was a cheap LED tube and the rest of the bar was lit by a litepanel for ambience and a ArriSun 575 through the lightly opened window blinds.

By frequent request I’m going to break down the bar scene in a recent music video I shot with the amazing director Patricia (Trish) Kaube. Trish brought a unique vision to this project and it was a blast making it come to life. Shoots like these are why I became a cinematographer: building worlds and crafting images.

I recently posted this on /r/cinematography and it started a great conversation. When I shot that first scene I was a greenhorn when it came to lighting and framing – more or less everything. There was no real depth to the shot, the actors were crammed into a corner and the light was coming from – everywhere. What was I thinking? Well I was working it to my best intentions, but lacked the experience at the time and most of all the understanding of what light is. You can read more about this topic in my blog post about how to light from reference.

I think this comparison shows how much framing, depth and especially good lighting can make an image come to life.

We were going for a dinky smoky Berlin bar past midnight. The location was amazing and at ground level. My gaffer and I darkened the room entirely with the window blinds and turned on all practical lights. I walked around the location with my gaffer Philipp Fechner and got into the atmosphere and analyzed the possibilities to enhance or augment the lighting that we saw.

We knew that Trish wanted the actors to move from the back of the bar up and behind the counter. So that was quite the distance to cover. Our lighting package was two 1x1 LED Astras, a 4ft 4bank, an Arrisun 5 and two oldschool soviet 1,2kw HMIs – I swear they must have shot Russian propaganda with those things, they are ancient.

We set up the 1,2Ks outside to camera right and hazed the room. The 1,2Ks however didn’t pack the punch we needed and adding to that they were constantly tripping the circuit. Like I said – ancient HMIs. So we made due with an Arrisun 5 and set it in front of the window. The lamp really gave us those cool blue streaks. I set the white balance to 4300K, so that the light from outside would read blue and the tungsten lighting inside wouldn’t be too orange.

The actors moving through the room. A Litepanel bounced to camera left for a pool of light to move through, and another Litepanel gelled red hidden behind the wall to add some strong atmosphere to the scene.

The actors moving through the room. A Litepanel bounced to camera left for a pool of light to move through, and another Litepanel gelled red hidden behind the wall to add some strong atmosphere to the scene.

An Astra enhanced a practical light in the corner and another gelled red came from behind the wall. So they would walk out from the red light and through the several pools of light on their way to the counter.

Like most bars, the counter has lights above it. Mostly tungsten lights that hardly emit any light. So we hung a 4ft 4bank with tungsten bulbs, directly above. I had a cheap LED fluorescent left that I have used in several situations. We placed it in plain sight and it gave a nice glow behind the counter and separated the actor from the background. Now that I saw the footage – we should have used more ND Gel. The FS700 does not handle overblown highlights very well at all.

The Kino Flo serves as the counter top lighting, as was present in the location. The background is lit by a Litepanel to Camera right. The Bottles subtly lit with some color RGB strips, that were already there. They were so weak it hardly reads on camera. But it adds just a small touch of reflection in the bottles. Small things matter.

The Kino Flo serves as the counter top lighting, as was present in the location. The background is lit by a Litepanel to Camera right. The Bottles subtly lit with some color RGB strips, that were already there. They were so weak it hardly reads on camera. But it adds just a small touch of reflection in the bottles. Small things matter.

That was more or less the entire setup. For the later shots I moved one of the Astras to the counter and enhanced the throw of the Kino.

We had to move fast so we didn't have much time in the location and had to do a few setups. I'm still pretty happy with the results, though I know a hundred things that I would have liked to do differently, had I had the time and the budget. Like gaffer Frank Schmidt once said to me: "There is no such thing as a happy cinematographer."

Axel RotheComment