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Murder Scene Cinematography

  • April 2, 2019
  • Shane Hurlbut, ASC
Murder Scene Cinematography
Shane gives advice on how to use police and headlight gags to create the perfect way to dispose of a body... filmatically speaking!

For this blog post we’re gonna be getting dark and gritty. We’re going to be making a murder scene on a budget. Grab your popcorn kids!

Shane speaking in Austin at the Illumination Experience


Here’s a question I once got asked…

What is your best advice for shooting a dramatic murder scene at night on a desolate road with little to no power supply? This is low budget so we are going to be using the available light that we have, which includes a couple of car lights, some diffusers, a police car with flashing red and blue lights, the police officer will have a mag light, so we could possibly use that as well for some of the shots. The premise of the scene is that a man’s car breaks down as he is driving to hide a body in the woods. Later on a police officer discovers him on the side of the road. That’s the short gist of the scene without taking the time to go into detail. What are your best suggestions as far as lighting? Given the circumstances, what would you do to light and shoot a scene like this, using available light sources and limited power supply? 

There was a movie, and it was the first one that the Coen brothers ever did and it was called “Blood Simple.”

Murder Scene Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights

What I really loved about the movie was his idea was that when we were with the characters, wherever they were, they were kind of lit by headlights, by taillights, by interior car, the dashboard lights, the dome light, but everything else fell off into black. It had a very powerful statement. It’s one of my favorite films that the Cohen brothers did and I loved the cinematography on it as well.

Murder Scene Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights

I think in this case you should do something like this. The character who is going down this road of trying to hide this body should feel like his area around the car and everything is lit by the bounce of the headlights off of the ground, so you could play that.

Murder Scene Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights

You could fire up the headlights and with these beautiful digital sensors that we have now, and playing maybe around 2,000 ISO, or probably a little more around 3200 ISO, I think you could get the real headlights to be able to bounce of some white cards and they would reflect. You could reflect them.

Now, obviously, you can use the headlights or if you can get the right angle on the scene of what you want to illuminate but you can also cheat that and you can do it with battery powered flashlights that you can move these cards around. You know, keep them stationary so it feels like they’re emulating and bouncing off the ground and the very soft subtle light that illuminates your actor. Obviously, the police lights, if they turn them on, you’re going to have those red and blue flashing lights that you can use.

Murder Scene Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights

I’ve used small little Rosco light pads or I went and bought the truck supply, somebody that supplies truck parts to the big rigs, and they have these really powerful LED taillights and you can run those off of a 12 volt battery so you don’t have to create a generator and they were so powerful, I was able to put them through diffusion.

A little diffusion, so wherever he was working around the back of the car, I would have the red taillight glow and when he was moving around the front of the car or in the car, I just simulated some dashboard light.

Murder Scene Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights

You can go out and buy, very cheaply, these LED’s from China that really pack a wallop and you can put them into a AA battery power pack and you can use that as your dashboard light, as well as to make it so it’s not so contrast’y. You put those bounce cards out to catch the headlight so it feels like that ambiance, but I think it would be really neat for that whole area to have these colors of the reds, the colors of the super white headlights and green up that light on the dashboard a little. Then you have this beautiful mix of color contrast that will add to the sea of black that is everywhere around this vehicle.

The mag lights with the cop, all that stuff plays beautifully. You can use his spotlight that most police cars have. Say, he’s in the car and the police car pulls up. You can ricochet that spotlight off of the mirror, the rear view mirror in his car, and it will do a great Sergio Leone slash across his eyes.

There’s always that kind of thing you can do, and then if you do want to emulate moonlight or distant light or something, it’s very easy to accomplish in a Home Depot way. I don’t think he would try to deposit this body underneath a street light, right? The best thing is to work this sea of black that I’ve described.

If you want to detail some of the forest in the murder scene, maybe taking one of those metal halide fixtures that you can buy from Home Depot for a very cheap price and take a putt putt generator, like a little 1K generator and hide it way back in the woods and put it up on a tall stand and call that your moonlight that edge lights and cuts through the darkness of what might be in the deep background around him and then you can literally move that light all around, whatever direction you’re shooting in to bring up the background, but I think the sea of black would be much more elegant and serve your story and the performances better. Just do a mix of those colors and you should have a very convincing murder scene on your hands.



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  • gags
  • headlights
  • LED
  • lights
  • murder scene
  • police lights