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Is It Smoky in Here? Shane Hurlbut Shows How to Use Smoke to Achieve Different Lighting Goals

05.11.12 @ 10:37PM Tags : , , ,

Say what you will about Shane Hurlbut, but there aren’t too many professional Directors of Photography who take the time out of their crazy schedules to try to give back to the community. Shane’s most recent work that we’ve covered here was the Canon-sponsored film “The Ticket,” shot in 4K on the Canon 1D C. While I saw that film at NAB (and wasn’t too crazy about the quality of the footage coming out of that camera), it doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s a professional DP who knows a thing or two about lighting. In his newest blog post, he gives a good run-down on how to use smoke to achieve different lighting goals.

1. Encapsulate a Time Period:

2. Impose a Mood:

3. Create a Style

4. Smooth a Woman’s Skin

I had the chance a few months ago to help out on reshoots for a short film. A particularly tough establishing shot took place in a warehouse, and the first time the scene was shot, it felt like something was missing. When we came back to reshoot the scene, we smoked up the room before shooting, and there was a wonderful texture to the light that was being pumped into the room from the windows. The resulting footage popped a lot more, and it helped set the right mood for the following scene.

Something as simple as smoke can completely change the mood of a scene, and affect the way the audience perceives it. You should go check out the Hurlbut Visuals blog for Shane’s full thoughts on each of the points above, as well as his recommendation for a SAG-approved smoke machine, which is the Roscoe model pictured above.

Do any of you like using smoke in your shoots? If so, what purpose was it serving in the scene?

[via Hurlbut Visuals]


We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

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  • Smoke or haze? As far as I understand it, haze is a lot more consistent and lasts longer – unlike smoke. I was under the impression that Hollywood mostly uses haze machines, unless the terms are being used interchangeably?

    • Yes it’s all the same. Smoke, fog, haze, etc.

      • shaun wilson on 05.12.12 @ 5:14AM

        Depends on what type of solution is used in the machines, haze machines use compounds to make it linger more in the air where smoke machines can use solutions that make it sit low in a more denser spreads.

      • Not all the same thing. They each have very different characteristics. Haze is usually the preferred choice for motion pictures as it tends to hang in the air a lot longer.

        • I was more referring to the general artistic use of the word – different mixtures are obviously used to achieve different results.

  • Ridley Scott has used this technique for years, I think he developed it from his television commercials. Adrian Lyne, Alan Parker and a few others seemed to perfect the technique in the late 70′s/early80′s.

    Great article.

  • A _Bee Smoker_ works well to give the feeling of a shaft of window light passing through dust motes in the air. If the smoke is too heavy it looks fake, that’s why you would use the light smoke from a _Bee Smoker_ for this effect. You really only see the smoke where the light passes through it. Used on many features/TV series, I’ve worked on.

    Heavy smoke, from many (10-12) Mole-Richardson smoke machines, were used so that you could see the cone of laser light around V’Ger. Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Shot at Apogee’s Annex, Van Nuys. Screen Credit Chuck Embrey …. photographic effects gaffer: Apogee, Inc.

    To simulate fog, several different features.

    Hollywood is mostly smoke-and-mirrors. ;-)

  • konstantinos on 05.12.12 @ 7:12AM

    It is really interesting how when certain bloggers or “experts” write a blog post there is almost always one or two product links involved.I also find very interesting the fact that these people never produce inspiring work themselves.I can’t think of one film that Shane shot that exhibited brilliant use of photography.Professional,yes.But not pushing the envelope artisticaly.Deakins on the other hand has produced some of the most remarkable work over the last years and he also shares it on his site.Yet it almost never is product related and strangely not that succesful a read.

    • I actually didn’t know Roger Deakins had a forum and that he makes the effort to answer most of the posts, really great material if you are interested in valuable information regarding cinematography. Thanks for pointing that out!

      • Lots of good info out there, but most people seem to prefer getting their info from amateurs. Too bad.

        BTW I’m not talking about NFS, who posts good info from across the net. My pet peeve is internet gurus who are just one page ahead of their fans 8-0

    • Agreed, Roger Deakins’ forum looks great.

    • I didn’t know Deakins had a forum, it’s awesome! I’m getting tired of blogs only promoting products basically lately, and really expensive ones. Your comment was the best piece of info I’ve read in some days. THanks.

    • Shane’s first movie The Rat Pack is some great good as anything
      Deakins has done.

    • Konstantinos, I respect your preference of Roger Deakin’s work and I really like his forum as well. However, I think that it’s a mistake to assume that you can’t learn anything from someone like Shane Hurlbut. It’s not worth arguing whether or not his work is artistic or not. All art is subjective and GREAT artists are indeed rare. He has worked enough years on a variety of projects to have earned the respect of his peers, hence the ASC honor. He certainly has mastered the “craft” of cinematography. Without a solid foundation of craft, it is very difficult (in a technical field such as cinematography) to ever transcend into great art. I believe that Hurlbut’s posts in general provide some very useful advise for other filmmakers to improve their craft. I’ve learned from him even though I’ve been in the business a LONG time. I don’t have to love all of his films to respect his work. I also appreciate that he shares some of his decision making process. It’s important to understand the “why” and not just the “how to.” Artistry begins to take form with these questions and the interpretation. I know that some filmmakers promote products. Hopefully they do it with integrity – meaning they only endorse stuff that they really believe in. In this case, I believe that Hurlbut was only being specific with brands in order to be helpful to filmmakers making choices. I don’t believe he was trying to pimp any products for monetary gain. I think that everyone knows that Hurlbut has a cooperative relationship with Canon. I don’t think so with Rosco. In fact, he mentioned that it didn’t work as well as a hazer. Roger Deakins recently sung the praises of the Arri Alexa in American Cinematographer. I don’t hold that against him. We want to know his preferences – and why he makes his choices. We can learn from Hurlbut, Deakins, and many others.

      • konstantinos on 05.16.12 @ 8:15AM

        Randolph,i understand what you are trying to say so I will try to answer accordingly even though I cant express myself as articulately as you, since english is not my native language.I won’t argue on wether it is possible to learn something frome Shane or not.Of course it is.It is possible to learn something from everyone let alone a professional and accomplished director of photography.I will not even try to explain why I prefer Deakins’s work since it is a subjective matter as you mentioned yourself.The thing is that you probably missed my point.I mentioned Deakins in order to give an analogy.Because in a way they are both communicating openly their ideas and tactics.Also they are both working professionals that run personal sites.But their ways of doing so are distinctly different.I dont think I have ever read anything written from Shane that didnt involve a product link.Of course someone can easily prove me wrong by digging through his blogposts enough but I know for sure that he is going to have to try hard.That says something to me. I dont mind being kindly pointed towards a direction but I have grown to hate extreme product placement.This in itself is a huge issue to be discussed here but generaly this form of advertisement plagues so many blogs that I actually think it is hurtfull.

        • konstantinos on 05.16.12 @ 8:40AM

          Of course Shane is not the only one doing so.He is one among many.In his defence he is one of the few that actually had a career (obviously he still does) prior to becoming a blogger/salesman.Others are just that.Bloggers salesmen vimeo celebrities.But their word counts.They are opinion leaders.People listen to them and invest their money accordingly.Rarely someone will mention the fact that you have to invest anything but money.Ironically some will even say that it is not about the gear but then cover an article about some new amazingly overpriced piece of equipment.
          I would be very very interested to see an article written about the personal equipment todays top cinematographers and directors own.I doudt that more than 30% of them will even have a camera.
          Many arguments can be said and of course there is no golden rule.Sometimes you have to buy something to promote yourself.But you get my point…

        • So, you would deny his ability to earn a living? Whether or not he has an affiliate relationship with the various products he talks about is irrelevant.

  • Most fog and haze solutions are glycol and water mixtures, although at different ratios for different applications. There are formulations for low-to-the-ground fog, but these are used in conjunction with dry ice to cool the fog which allows it to settle. A close friend of mine works in technical theater.

    As an aside, for those trying fog machines in operating residential or business spaces, they do have a tendency to set off smoke alarms.

    • For the heaven scenes in Heaven Can Wait (1978), Joe and God walk around in knee deep heavy fog.

      This fog was created by dropping large block of Dry Ice into large vats of boiling water, two if I remember correctly. The set was built 10-12 feet off the stage floor and was surrounded by a wooden lip. The fog rolled over the lip and dropped down to floor level. The fog produced by boiling Dry Ice is CO2, this displace the oxygen, so every twenty minuets they had to open the large stage doors and evacuate the CO2. Don’t try this at home ;-)

      BTW If you need just a small amount of smoke you can buy canned smoke or spray smoke from any theatrical supply store.

  • So old school. 25 years ago I use smoke cookies. basically discs made of cork or something like it you actually lit up. for a room shoot just a small piece was good enough. we’d usually burn it in, of all things, a film can :) of course they eventually became illegal to use. they were popular though because they were cheap, simple, portable and didn’t require power… of course it was a smoldering bit of something and I’m sure some productions over used them making for health concerns… the good old days…

    Haze and smoke are different. Haze is smaller particles that hang in the air, smoke is larger particles that are thicker / denser and produce more effect. any concert you’ve been to has used a hazer to enhance the lighting effects… you didn’t think all that smoke came from the audience, did you ? :)

  • Daniel Mimura on 05.20.12 @ 12:56AM

    The easiest and cheapest thing I’ve found is using a bug fogger for about $60 from a hardware store (with the Rosco fluid shown in the picture). It doesn’t take any power and it’s light and hand held so you can walk through set more easily and fog it where you need it. I don’t know if it’s “SAG approved”, but the fluid is, and any SAG sets I’m on, I’m not doing the f/x, so it’s not my problem.

  • In the clips number one and four I would never have guessed they had been using smoke.
    Smoke, not visible in the picture, but as a light diffuser – that was new to me, but it makes perfect sense.

    There’s new things to learn every day, I guess! :)

  • Smoke from a $70 fog machine, Zeiss CP.2 25mm lens and a Canon 7D:
    Just love combining fog and 2K fresnels…

  • Our community theatre is producing “Les Miserables”. The production takes place in a school. Could you tell me the best way to achieve fog with out setting the fire alarm off? The school will not let us dismantle the stage alarm.

  • So why the high holy f*ck would you write an article about his article?