A New Filmmaker's Guide to Using Gels to Add a Stylized Look to Your Film

Explaining what different colored gels are used for on set.

Even if you're a beginner you probably know a thing or two about gels. They're sheets of transparent polyester...they come in a bunch of different colors...they give light a different color temperature...etcetera, etcetera. However, knowing what they're used for is just the first step; the next is knowing how to use them to create different lighting effects. In this video, Ted Sim of Aputure breaks down a bunch of ways to put colored gels to work on your set and explains what different colors are typically used for.

  • Moonlight: White or silver gels work great for moonlight, but cyan and steel blue give you a more stylized look.
  • Party scenes: Bold colored gels can get you that party look and using small light fixtures is great if you want to take the look even further.
  • Sunsets:  Golden hour is magical, but it only lasts several minutes. Try placing a 1/2 CTO on top of a straw gel to make that dreamy look last forever.
  • Candlelight or fire: One or two full CTO gels should get you a similar color temperature, but you'll need a dimmer and a cookie to really sell the effect of a lively fire. Red and amber gels can make this look more dramatic.
  • Sharp red or blue: Colors can communicate many things to your audience. Using sharp red or blue can add a lot of moodiness to your scene.
  • Urban jungle: If you want to create a grungy, urban look, try sodium vapor green or sodium vapor orange. Ted suggests using these in tandem with a cyan moonlight if you're going for the cold, desaturated, dystopian sci-fi look.

There are countless ways in which to use gels. Share some of your techniques and ideas down in the comments!     

Your Comment

10 Comments

And then, always the very same question ... how do you efficiently store and carry your gels ?

September 29, 2017 at 4:46AM

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ron fya
253

I roll them inside paper towel cardboard tubes and stand them up in a milk crate.

September 29, 2017 at 4:58AM

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Christopher Green
Commercial Director and Cinematographer
102

Roll them up in packing tubes if you don't have a lit kit to store them in. And have a bag of clothespins ready to go.

September 29, 2017 at 5:05AM

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Josh.R
Motion Designer/Predator
1157

I bought this gel pack from filmtools, you just roll them up in the bag and go, a bit pricey but you'll only ever need to buy it once if you take good care of it. http://www.filmtools.com/lindcraft-gel-pack-g50.html

September 29, 2017 at 7:01AM, Edited September 29, 7:02AM

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Elmoutasam Aziz
Chief Learning Officer
210

I am really over this Aputure YouTube channel and their super amateur "tips & tricks". Especially considering most of their video topics have been extensively covered by others before them. They should stick to making affordable, mediocre equipment.

September 29, 2017 at 8:39AM

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Chris Kas
Jack of all trades
497

Then keep scrolling instead of making rude comments??

September 29, 2017 at 12:26PM

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Nerris Nassiri
Actor/Director
74

Are you asking me a question?

October 2, 2017 at 2:32PM

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Chris Kas
Jack of all trades
497

Young filmmakers often make the mistake of thinking what they shoot must resemble the final shot they imagine. This of course leaves out the art of color grading. So rather than lock in a color for your scene ("I want this really blue!!") just shoot it, and add the color later- it's easier to add than to take out.

The biggest reason is skin tones and keeping them looking good. When I teach, I suggest students only worry about diffusion, and never colored gels (a light CTO or CTB perhaps, but no more than a 1/4). The softness/hardness of light is very hard to change in post, whereas color is easier.

September 29, 2017 at 9:47AM, Edited September 29, 10:04AM

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Chriss Williams
Film Professor
174

There's no way to recreate the look of colored light, like the way it mixes with other colors or surfaces and the subtle changes it causes to the hue of shadows. Like with most arts, you need to master it before you can use it properly. But to dismiss it like you do and suggest the "fix it in the post" route won't do anybody good. This results in even more badly planned and badly executed projects which shows in the product.

September 29, 2017 at 2:39PM, Edited September 29, 2:45PM

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DingDong
2231

Hey Chriss! Did you teach at BU back in 99? If so, I was in your class then! Hi! After a decade long detour in Thailand, I’m now a cinematographer and colorist working on feature docs out of San Francisco. Curious about your advice here. While it’s easy to put a color wash over the image, or subtly tint the shadows or highlights in post, it’s pretty difficult to fake a highly stylized color palette of light. As one example, the saturated purple hues in certain scenes in Moonlight could only be achieved in camera by lighting the set. I hear you though on wanting your students to get basic lighting and contrast ratios down first. Should have them shoot black and white reversal like we did back at BU : )

October 2, 2017 at 8:47PM

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Jamie LeJeune
Director of Photography
323