Working with Candlelight in Cinema - True Practical Lighting

Even though technology has come a long way, you have to have some kind of lighting in order to film. Generally, cinematographers bring in giant ARRI lights to help make a scene look realistic, but for the BBC TV series "Wolf Hall," they opted for a more natural approach. Cooke Optics TV sat down with cinematographer Gavin Finney to talk about how he used candlelight as the only source of light during nighttime scenes.

Sure, cinematographers use practical lighting (like lamps, televisions, or any light that is in the frame) all the time, but what is so crazy amazing about Wolf Hall is, they only use candlelight for their nighttime scenes. No big camera lights through windows at all. There were a few reasons for Finney to do this. Many, if not all of the shots are hand-held, so where would they set up camera lights anyway? Also, camera lights get hot, and because they were shooting in 16th century homes with precious paintings and tapestries, the wouldn't allow those lights to be brought in.

After watching this video, it makes me want to run out and buy candles to try my hand, but Finney is quick to point out, not all candles are created equal. Because of where they were filming they were restricted to using beeswax candles, which turns out is the same candle the characters the actors were portraying would have used. Even though these candles were a single wick (compared to Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon" which used double and triple wicks), they had a thick braid, which helped the flame stay big and beautiful.

Using candles on a big set like this makes me happy I wasn't the script supervisor. Candles burn down at different times, so for continuity, they had to extinguish and re-light after each and every take. Also, because candles are props and lighting, both the art department and light department had to look after them (and if your not familiar with how things work on a set, you never help outside of your department, so this is a very unique situation).

There's just so much about this video that was really cool, and I'm definitely going to binge watch Wolf Hall now to see all of the lighting and camera work. What's the most interesting practical light you've used on set? Have you used candles before (photographers too!)? I'm curious to hear about how you've used them!

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Sean S.'s picture

You might want to add the NSFW label because of the Barry Lyndon segment shown at the 1:02 mark.

hen lindenhoff's picture

You might. Then again, you might not. What are you afraid of?

Tru-Vue Inc's picture

The use of candles is stunning. Creates a "real" situation and brings out the drama in what you are capturing!!! :-)

Marc Bee's picture

I got sick of strobes years ago and have been doing a lot of my work with candles and other small, continuous light sources.