Creating A Signature Look With Lighting

William Hellmuth

Published 3rd November 2019

Creating A Signature Look With Lighting

As an LA-based DP, I view my role as a narrative storyteller. For me, cinematography is not just about getting some nice images – it’s about telling truths. I love being able to weave a story with imagery and capture something that’s real, whether through performance or visual symbolism. Lighting is one of my most important mechanisms for capturing those moments of truth.

One of my big inspirations is the award-winning cinematographer Christopher Doyle. I love his rich, but tasteful, colour palettes and artistic use of shadows and highlights. I would hope that some of these influences are reflected in my work, especially my newest project, a feature film called “Drive All Night.”

Directed by Peter Hsieh, “Drive All Night” traces one eventful night for a taxi driver who picks up a mysterious young woman. She takes him for the ride of his life, and the action unfolds in a series of visually captivating locations – a video arcade bar, a hotel room, the night-time roadscapes of San Francisco.

Colour plays a strong symbolic role in ‘Drive All Night.’

My approach to cine-style lighting is typically very minimal. I like to lean into what the environment is already giving me and enhance the natural light. Therefore, most of “Drive All Night” was lit with only four LEDs: two Litepanels Gemini Soft 2x1 and two Gemini Soft 1x1s panels.

My gaffer and I came up a scheme in which every character would be lit with a colour that symbolized that person’s particular journey through the story. The Geminis’ colour capabilities gave us the flexibility to dial in different colours on the fly, see how they were interacting with each other, and then adjust each light accordingly until the mood felt right. There’s no way we could have done that with traditional gels within the tight schedule we were working under.

For one scene in which Cara, the lead female character, sat at a bar table, we combined the two Gemini 2x1 panels with snap grids and two 4x4 diffusion frames to provide a key light for her face. We set the Gemini at 3,300 Kelvin and used a lavender gel setting to bring out really gorgeous hues on Cara’s skin. The two Geminis and the diffusion frames essentially created a giant wall of soft lights that keyed her with beautiful, flattering light.

In another scene, we used lighting to symbolize the taxi driver’s inner chaos as his world was increasingly shaken up by events of the night. We programmed the Geminis to fade very slowly and subtly from one colour to the another as the driver’s situation evolved. The changes are so subtle that they aren’t readily apparent to viewers, but the subliminal effect really helps communicate this character’s growing turmoil.

High-quality low light

The LEDs’ dimming capabilities also played an important role in setting the mood for “Drive All Night,” especially for the scenes inside the taxi. We wanted these scenes to be very dark, but even so, we needed a steady glow of light on Cara’s face. We got the effect we needed with a single Gemini 1x1, dimmed all the way down to 1.5%, as a book light in the front passenger seat. The Gemini 1x1 is so small that it was able to create the effect in a very subtle way, with just a bit of the lavender light. The light quality was outstanding, even at such a low level.

For the car scenes and several other practical location shots, we powered the Geminis with Anton/Bauer Dionic XTs – the same batteries that drove my ARRI Alexa XT camera with Sigma Cine Zooms alongside a 7-inch SmallHD monitor. The Geminis were dimmed, but it was still quite remarkable that we were able to run them on a couple of batteries for the entire day.

Thoughtful lighting, executed with ease

The Gemini LEDs are so lightweight and easy to use that they never get in the way of our creativity. That’s especially important on a production like “Drive All Night,” which had a very small crew. We could rig the lights really fast on location and start adjusting them right away to paint the look for a given scene. We simply would not have had that creative freedom with bigger, heavier lights that take longer to rig and need an external power supply.

I think a cinematographer’s job is to take a storyline and give it meaning. It’s important to understand what you want to say with your imagery first, and then figure out how to communicate that meaning through lighting and camera. With LEDs like the Geminis, I have the freedom to experiment with colour and try different effects, all with less hassle and using less power. These next-generation LEDs are essential tools in my storytelling toolkit.


As an established talent in the Los Angeles indie filmmaking scene, DP William Hellmuth strives to create meaningful images that visually reinforce the story or themes of whatever project he's shooting. William has shot for brands like NERF, Blizzard, Sony, Honda, Listerine, and more. Besides filmmaking, William enjoys spending time with his wife and kids (and dog), brewing beer, and playing nerdy table top games.

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