How to Use a Trash Can to Create Portable DIY Fire Lighting Effects

One man's trash can is another man's treasured lighting unit.

Lighting scenes that take place around a crackling camp fire, a burning building, or even near flickering candles can be a little complicated. Not only is it dangerous to put your cast and crew near open flames, but these light sources are often not bright enough to get a decent exposure. But in this tutorial, DP Shane Hurlbut A.S.C. shows you how to mimic the uneven light of a fire by repurposing an old metal trash can. 

First, here's a quick trailer that shows how this DIY lighting effect works on set:

And here's the tutorial:

Video is no longer available:

There are a ton of professional and DIY ways to create fire lighting effects. There are LED lighting units that will do the whole job for you, but they cost upwards of $5000. You can set up any pro light and attach it to dimmers/light effects equipment, but then you'll have to use a ton of modifiers to control the light.

Hurlbut's DIY build solves these issues and more: it won't cost much, the trash can itself shapes the light, and it's portable—you won't have to lug around a ton of different lights and C-stands every time you change shots.

Now, to get that flicker effect, Hurlbut uses a Magic Gadgets Shadowmaker, which retails between $1200 to $1300, but you can rent one of these units for $50 to $75 per day. If you want to save a little bit of money, the Magic Gadgets Flicker Box produces a similar effect for $400 or about $20 per day.

This isn't the only DIY fire lighting effect Hurlbut has come up with. He also built the "Medusa Light", which is certainly interesting to look at, but requires quite a bit more work to pull off.

Video is no longer available:

Credit: Hurlblog
Credit: Hurlblog
What are some other ways filmmakers can create DIY fire effects? Let us know in the comments below!     

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Why not just use LED christmas lights and save a lot of money and trouble? At the right shutter speed they flicker in campfire-type way.

October 21, 2016 at 5:07PM, Edited October 21, 5:07PM

J Robbins

Wouldn't that limit you to a specific shutter speed? Seems like a creative sacrifice...

October 22, 2016 at 1:12PM


An easy way to get a flickering light is to use a fluorescent starter unit like the GE FS-2. They run around $2 each. If you have any old fluorescent units lying around, they likely have a starter you can use. Basically, the starter is wired into the hot side of a cord and the light will flicker randomly. If you use three of these flicker cords in conjunction with some steady non-flickering lights, it approximates a fire pretty well. WAY cheaper than the other options out there. Just remember that you have to use incandescent lights for it to work properly. LEDs do not work for this. There are several videos showing how to build this online. Just search for "fluorescent starter flicker light" on google. Hope someone finds this information useful. Cheers!

October 22, 2016 at 4:23PM, Edited October 22, 4:23PM


When I take a shot of camping, I alway use the real fire. But it had lots of problem. Building this DIY light is really amazing trick, I surely use it in next time.

October 24, 2016 at 12:02AM


Gasoline and a match.

October 25, 2016 at 11:21PM, Edited October 25, 11:21PM

Jeff Macpherson
Writer / Director