Masterclass in Lighting from Oscar-Winning Cinematographer Dean Semler

Over the past few weeks, we've talked about lighting a few different times. First we shared a perspective on lighting Hollywood films from renowned gaffer, John Higgins. Then we wrote up a post about methods for improving your daytime exterior lighting. All of these posts have some helpful information, but lighting is such an expansive craft that it takes constant study and practical application to improve your skills. Today's post: a masterclass in creating artificial firelight from the Oscar-winning DP of Dances With Wolves, Dean Semler.

One of the hardest parts of cinema lighting is using our artificial lighting technology to re-create the incredibly complex things that natural light does. There are several natural light scenarios that are harder to replicate than others, however. Re-creating fire light is one of them. Here's Dean Semler, who won the Academy Award for his cinematography on Dances With Wolvesas he talks about how to light the interior of a teepee, and sell the notion that it is being lit solely with natural fire light. This video is a bit old and low in resolution, but the information is absolutely invaluable. Check it out:

What I absolutely love about this video is that it walks you through the process of lighting the teepee, and the characters in it, from several different camera setups. It doesn't take a "one size fits all" approach to its lighting, which is certainly one of the things that many young filmmakers try to do.

In order to maximize the tonal and emotional resonance of each shot, Semler subtly manipulates various lighting techniques, such as using large, soft sources for his close ups, and using a combination of Tota lights and natural fire light for the wide shots. And even though the lighting in each setup is different from each of the other setups, it all cuts together and maintains the same aesthetic. It's truly masterful work, and something that we can all learn from.

One of the constants through all of Semler's lighting setups, however, is the fact that he uses flicker boxes in order to create the realistic flicker of the fire. Unfortunately, flicker boxes might not be an affordable option for low-budget filmmakers. But worry not, because there are certainly low-budget alternatives that can look just as good. Perhaps the easiest way to achieve these flicker effects on a budget is with several cheap dimmers being quickly manipulated by several different people. Another cheap alternative is to throw some CTO on the reflective side of a flexfill and have someone move the flexfill around somewhat erratically to create a sense of light flicker.

What do you guys think of Semler's lighting techniques? Have you ever needed to re-create firelight on a set? How did you do it?

Links: Kodak Master Class Series: Lighting 'Dances With Wolves' -- YouTube

Your Comment


Kodak Master classes are boss. I ripped a few and had them lugging around on my harddrives - nice to see they're on youtube.

Very awesome post.

November 20, 2013 at 12:56PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


23:27 - poor 1st AC =(

November 20, 2013 at 1:14PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Michael Solomon

That poor girl haha. Pulling focus might just be the hardest job on set. It stresses me out like crazy!

November 20, 2013 at 1:56PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Rob Hardy
Founder of Filmmaker Freedom

This is Great! We'd also watch Kodaks masterclasses, on lights in film school. Still holds up today!!

November 20, 2013 at 1:43PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Oliver Jeppe Hagde

I've done great fire light with 2 clamp lights rotated in a circular pattern on the orange side of the reflector bounced back. We shot everything that way, then light a fire and then shot an over the shoulder for the establishing. Looked awesome. Its a little work intensive on the wrists for a couple of people but oh well! ;)

November 20, 2013 at 1:56PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Great find and great article Robert, on a role!

November 20, 2013 at 2:26PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Just in time for my "by the fire" scene. Yes.

November 20, 2013 at 9:19PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Daniel Inzitari

The great thing about being an avid student of film is that I saw this instructional video months before I was asked to shoot an exterior fire scene for a student film. Even though we had limited resources, I remembered how this was done and lit a scene that I think came out pretty damn good.

Skip to 0:41

November 21, 2013 at 1:18PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Thanks :)

November 24, 2013 at 6:10PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Interesting how the fashions of the times change how things are done. Specifically when the gentleman mentions anamorphic flares as being "ugly" and doing the best he can to cut them. Whereas now, especially in recent years, it's become something of a fad used by various filmmakers (amateur and professional) to add "pissazz" to an image. I don't think either approach is "wrong" or "right" per se, but it's an interesting observation nonetheless.

November 24, 2013 at 7:33PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Marcus Sun

I like his approach along with several excellent comments. This was excellent. Wouldn't it be lovely to have some of that gear. I don't know how many of you have worked with Cinematographers but they possess an incredible analytic mentality and most who I have with are calm as with Dean here. I loved his commercial comments on lighting and the time it takes. Wonderful video

July 25, 2014 at 8:10PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM