Wrapping a Christmas Film: Lighting, Audio and Directing on a High Key Set

Last Friday we wrapped principal photography on the film adaptation of The White Envelope Project’s “For the Man Who Hated Christmas.” This is a beloved contest-winning essay and true story of a remarkable Christmas tradition. Giving101 (the non-profit that controls the rights to the story) brought us in to bring this story to life for the first time ever on film. I wanted to share some behind the scenes photos and at the same time provide some tips when shooting on such a set.


We used the high key look for this film and it presents some challenges. (High key refers to a super-white background, a la those “I’m a Mac. I’m a P.C.” commercials.) The main challenge is blowing out the background enough to get that bright, white background, while at the same time exposing the subject enough so as not to make her a silhouette.

We had a wonderful space to shoot in at Studio Space Atlanta. They had all the accouterments you’d want for a cast and crew: a couple of dressing rooms, a huge CYC (pronounced “sike”) wall, as well as a kitchen and lounge area. (A CYC wall is an all-white wall and floor that curves where the wall meets the floor, thereby giving you that “endless” looking background). Another thing that was great about where we shot is that they also had all the lighting equipment we needed. That was HUGE. Normally you’d have to rent from one place then transport your equipment to the shooting location. It was extremely convenient having everything we needed right there.

As I said, the “key” for lighting this kind of set is blowing out the background. For this shoot we used four 4k softbox throw lights. These babies eat up a lot of energy (even the cords powering them got warm). To light the main actress we used a Diva 400 Kino Flo as a key light and a Westcott softbox as a fill.

This is one time when it is very important to get RIGHT in camera the first time, otherwise you’ll spend a lot of time in post trying to fix parts of the background which aren’t perfectly white and/or bright enough. (Trust me, I know. 😉 The more light you can throw on the background, the better. You can aid that by moving the light source closer to the white background. The challenge there is making sure the lights don’t get in your shot! (See our set up above).

I shot at an aperture of between 4.5 and 5.6 with the main actress. You want the depth of field deep enough so if the subject moves a little, she doesn’t go out of focus. But you want to keep it shallow enough to aid in blowing out your background. For scenes with larger groups of people, I stopped down to f8.


For audio I used my Sennheiser ME-66 shotgun on a rented boom pole and mic holder. However, the acoustics of a stage setting like this isn’t great for recording this kind of audio. I still got some background noise bouncing off the walls. So, I also used my Sennheiser G2 wireless lav system, wiring the lav underneath the actress’s black turtleneck. I was shooting with a DSLR, so I recorded sound into my Zoom H4N. Every now and then we had to stop for a plane flying over or a train going by (such is the lot if your set is in an industrial area), but other than that, capturing great audio was a snap.


There are a few directorial things I had to keep in mind on this set:

Eye line: Every scene was essentially shot in the same location on the set. So, when there were shots that I knew were to be cut together with other shots and the eye line had to be maintained (i.e. the 180 degree rule), I made a note on my shot list about where to have the actors looking.
Kids: There’s a running joke in the movie business that the two worst kinds of people to direct are kids and animals. Well, we had a number of kids on the set and they were a joy to direct. The secret is 1) getting down to their level (literally), 2) encouraging them by showing your excitement at their participation, 3) making it seem like each of their takes was great (even it wasn’t exactly what you wanted), and 4) giving them freedom to interpret a character however comes natural to them. After all, it’s been a few decades since I’ve been a kid, so they do have some expertise in that area over me. 😉
The Hollywood Experience: just about everyone in the cast were volunteers from a couple of large churches in the area. They have experience in elaborate stage productions, but this was the first real “movie” set for most (if not all) of them. So, I did something I’ve always done since the days of shooting on a Sony PD150. Regardless of whether or not I actually needed to sync audio with video, I used a slate and called “action” to play up the “Hollywood” feel. You’d be surprised how much people enjoy participating in that process. Sometimes I’d have one of the extras clap the slate. It adds to the excitement and enjoyment for everyone. A happy set is a successful set.

The film adaptation of “For the Man Who Hated Christmas” will air online in just a few weeks. I’m pretty excited and honored to have helmed such a beloved story and one that could become an instant holiday viral “classic.” I’ll have a follow up blog post when it airs. In the meantime, enjoy the rest of the photos. Many thanks to my beautiful wife Tasra for providing the behind-the-scenes photography.

If you have any questions about the shoot, feel free to leave them in the comments and I’ll reply via the comments as soon as possible. Do that instead of e-mailing me directly because then everyone can benefit from the question and answer. And don’t worry, there’s no such thing as a “dumb” question on my blog.