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WS of Ballroom

The Assassination of Jesse James – Warner Brothers


Looking at Lighting


The challenge posed by this location was twofold; it’s status as a protected building and the low ceiling.

I have been asked on numerous occasions about my use of ‘ring lights’ and this is a specific example of a scene lit entirely in this way. Their use in this case allowed me to attach a light tight to the ceiling and mitigate the problem of it being so low whilst also creating a soft central pool of light that seemed motivated by the existing hanging practical fixtures. As my initial lighting plan shows I used two sets of two concentric rings, a 6’ and a 4’, which were made in lightweight aluminum. Doubling the rings helped soften the overall effect of the source and distributed the weight more evenly as each was rigged to the pick point of the existing central chandeliers. I intended the outside ring to hold 500 watt mushroom bulbs and the inner ring 150 watt mushroom bulbs but, I believe, we ended using 300 watt bulbs on the outside ring. Either way, this might seem like a great deal of light and it would have been if everything were burning at line voltage. However, the lights were dimmed down to something like 30% of their line voltage in order to mimic the warmth of gaslight.

Lighting plan for the Ballroom

Ballroom Lighting Plan


You will also see in the drawing that there is a circle of silver foil on the outside of the outer ring. This was to cut the light from spreading across the ceiling and also act as a lens cut. The rig would be very close to the top edge of frame and be in a prime position to flare the lens. The actual practical lights that appear in shot held 100 watt household bulbs and they were also dimmed down so that the camera aperture was around 2.2 on 500 ASA stock.

I notice that I had written a reminder about smoke on the diagram. I generally jot down things I might need on the day of the shoot and in this case it was smoke. In fact we didn’t use smoke for this scene and only on rare occasions in the film.



This scene was originally to be shot in Canada during the main shooting schedule but we got a severe snowstorm and ended up shooting this particular scene in California.

Aesthetically Andrew Dominick very much wanted the riders to be softly lit from the front and appear enveloped in blackness, and when Andrew said ‘blackness’ that is exactly what he meant. So the technical challenge was to light the riders evenly from the beginning to the end of the track without bringing up the landscape in the background or the ground beneath them. The riders were wearing black costumes and their horses were also jet-black so my obvious fear was of seeing two white faces and not much else.

Ed on the horse in the darkness

Ed on the horse in the blackness


To concentrate the light on the track whilst cutting the backgrounds I decided on a series of 10 or 12 x 10K Fresnel lamps arrayed in a line and softened with a 4’ x 4’ frame of 250 or 251 diffusion. Each unit and its accompanying diffusion would be cut with a side divider in an attempt to channel the light along the track.

Lighting plan for Ed Miller's Death

Lighting plan for Ed Miller’s Death


The photometric chart for a 10K at a distance of 120’ gives 2.2 FC at full flood and 4.5 FC at full spot. At 460’ and at 50% spot I expected to have a stop of 1.4 at 500 ASA but that was a single lamp without diffusion. I see I jotted down 9 FC, which would give me a stop of 2.2 at 400 ASA, about 1 ½ stops under. Given that I was intending to use 12 lamps I felt I would be somewhere in the ballpark. I think on the day we used a series of 14 x 10Ks spaced at about 5’ to make the overall width of the light source around 65’. We had deliberately chosen a location with a slight rise at a distance from where the track was to be laid out, as this would allow us to set our lamps on the ground rather than on scaffold. At around 30’ in front of this line of 10Ks we rigged a series of pipes, which held a bottom cut and allowed us to keep the ground as dark as possible. What we had in essence was similar to a horizontal fluorescent tube, soft across its width whilst quite directional in the vertical plane. Of course, the distances are altogether greater but the concept is just the same.

Jesse appears behind Ed

Jesse appears behind Ed


For the shooting of the scene we worked off a Giraffe crane set at 45º to the track. For the wide shots the riders were obviously on horseback but for the closer shots with Ed Miller in the foreground we had Garret riding a dummy on wheels. His movements relative to the camera if he were riding a horse would have been a little extreme, as we wanted the overall effect to be slightly ‘dreamy’. We placed some spindly white birch trees alongside the track both to add some depth to the space and so that we would always maintain some feeling of movement.



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