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Tips and Tricks for Harnessing the Lighting Power of Fire

Lewis McGregor

Fire is beautiful. Fire is dangerous. Fire is a great way to light a scene! Here are some tips and tricks to consider before lighting your next video project with fire.

Cover image via Shutterstock

Fire is a beautiful form of light. It’s also wild and unpredictable. The soft incandescent flicker of a burning log fire is incredibly pleasurable to watch. It’s no surprise that many scenes take place around a campfire or under candlelight. It’s the perfect setting for exploring a character’s backstory or an emotional moment.

So, as you would expect, setting a scene around a fire or candlelight isn’t as simple as it seems. Fire, in nature, is sporadic. It can be tricky trying to control flames and the illumination they provide. However, if you have the right tools, it is possible. Let’s explore some of tips and tricks for harnessing the lighting power of fire.

Flicker Boxes

Tips and Tricks for Harnessing the Lighting Power of Fire: Flicker Box
Image: Roger Deakins’ lighting setup on Skyfall.

A flicker box is an excellent apparatus that you can acquire and incorporate into the lighting system you already have. The key to creating a realistic flicker is for it to be spontaneous and have no regular pattern at all. Flames are sporadic, the flicker needs to randomly increase and decrease in intensity — and a flicker box does just that. You simply plug your lamps into the box, set the levels, and let the flicker box do its thing, as seen in this clip from theC47.

Here’s another example (via Cammon Randle) of a flicker box being used by an independent film crew. You can see how effective the effect is even with just a single light.

Flame Bar

Tips and Tricks for Harnessing the Lighting Power of Fire: Flame Bar

A flame bar is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a gas-fueled tube that will have several flames protruding through small holes on the top. You can see in the still above (from Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) that Merry’s hand is creating a shadow on Sam’s leg, which is quite unusual, as the shadow is being projected from the side — yet, the fire is in front of them. This is because there is light out of frame enhancing the light that the campfire is creating.

The flame bar in the video above (via Pyrotechnology) might look somewhat aggressive, but you can obtain flame bars in a host of different sizes and shapes. Make sure that the beam is set to flood and not spot. Otherwise, the light falloff might become noticeable.

Dedicated Flickering Light

Tips and Tricks for Harnessing the Lighting Power of Fire: Flicker Panel
Image: Flicker FIRE® LED Firelight FX Panel from Magic Gadgets.

This is a light that has been specifically built to mimic the effect of a fire. It has several customizable preferences such as speed, intensity, color, and so forth. As a disclaimer, I’ve not used this light, so I can’t give a full review/opinion of it. But I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of these lights at a friendlier price range in the future.

DIY Options

Tips and Tricks for Harnessing the Lighting Power of Fire: DIY
Image via Shane Hurlbut.

There are plenty of household and professional lighting options that can mimic the effect of a fire flicker. You can buy large Christmas tree lights that mimic the effect of candles — at the correct color temperature, too — but I doubt these will illuminate your talent correctly. Nonetheless, with a shallow depth of field, they can make great background lighting if candles have already been established within your scene.

While on the topic of friendly price ranges, what about illuminating your subject with candlelight using a piece of equipment that only costs $30? In my video tutorial below, I run through the basics of using a reflector to mimic the bright flicker of a set of candles. While it doesn’t have the perfect results dedicated equipment would present, it certainly does the job if you don’t have the resources available to you.

How have you worked with fire light in the past? Share your experiences in the comments below!

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