Designing A Child’s Fantasy | DP Angelo Coli | Cine Designer Case Study

Cinematographer Angelo Coli transforms a child’s living room into the ocean floor using clever lighting and camera work.

Cinematography Database: Tell me about yourself and what kind of work you do right now?
Angelo Coli: I am a 28 years old Italian cinematographer based in Milan, the city where the majority of italian commercials get made and where I started off as a camera assistant almost 9 years ago. Now I work as cinematographer mostly on commercials.

CD: What was the director’s concept for this commercial?
AC: The story of the “Under the sea” video is a strange one. The director, Giancarlo Spinelli, and I met on the set of a commercial when we were both at the beginning of our careers. Since then we developed a strong work relationship and began to share the ambition to work on high end commercials and build up a competitive reel to show also outside of Italy. It is difficult to be offered projects that are going to make for good showreel material, so we often use our spare time, in between jobs, to produce our own concepts. This also gives us the opportunity to experiment new techniques.

This particular video was born as a test commercial, produced by a production company from my hometown, Genoa, called “e-motion” with which we have a good relationship: they provided their Red Camera, lenses and some lights. The budget was extremely limited and we were lacking many necessary professional figures (no production designer, for example) but during the pre-production process we fell in love with the concept: we ended up putting lots of unrequested (and unpaid) free time and thoughts in it. Just to make a couple of examples, the director reinvented himself as prop-maker, building the two different sized diving-helmets, and I took care of creating the glowing elements of the set (the colored lanterns of the stairs and about 50 transparent jellyfishes).

The director wanted to give this child’s adventurous exploration a both dreamy and unsettling mood: in the end everything had to be also playful, but mainly misterious and surreal. The story procedes building up the illusion of being underwater: in the last “jellyfish scene” we knew that the house setting was probably not going to be there at all. As the director was convinced there was not going to be any close encounter with smiling and happy fishes, he gave me the task to establish a dark mood. From the beginning we were aware that the light was going to be the key element of the scene. Light is in fact the main product advertised in this commercial, as we discover in the last shot of the video where we see the caustics on the ceiling being generated by a small device attachable to the lens of a smartphone.

CD: Can you talk about the pre production process for this spot?
AC: We began pre production focusing a lot on finding references and examples for what we wanted to do, but the research was hard. What I ended up doing was in fact to start “playing” with a Cinema 4D project in which I started adding underwater props and testing compositions. Since our resources was very limited and we were fairly new to this kind of production design heavy work, the 3D world of unlimited resources was mind blowing and saved us a lot of pain and expenses.

CD: What camera and lenses were you using?
AC: We shot with a Red Epic with the 6k dragon sensor. Unfortunately for the lenses I was not given a choice but I have to say I am really happy with the results I got from the Red prime lenses, which we were so kindly provided.

CD: Can you talk about the lighting in the bedroom?
AC: The lighting in the bedroom is really simple. Simplicity and logic are important factors I keep in mind when I light, and especially in the first and third part of the video where we are in the kid’s room, I wanted to save the “wow factor” for the underwater scenes. At the same time we had to present the main character in her own environment, a space where she belongs, as a young, brave, and slightly undisciplined child wide awake in the middle of a stormy night. For this reason I lit it in a dramatical way, but keeping it also as natural as possible, in order to have a more efficient gap between reality and escalation of fantasy once underwater. To find this balance was the main challenge here.

For this scene it was also incredibly important to talk with the director about the position of the bed relative to the windows, and the kid’s relative to her bed lamp.

This discussion involved a good amount of testing which we were able to do in 3D as well, without having to constantly change the position of a really heavy bunk bed (not a job for just two people). Thanks to Cine Design I was able to light and pre visualize what we wanted from day two of post production. We decided to have a practical light behind the kid providing a justified backlight, and letting her key herself with the torch reflected on a white page of the book, while having some moonlight filters from outside the window, for which I used a kinoflo with 5600K tubes. I also used props with shiny surfaces to add some reflections and light to the scene without sacrificing its darkness, but always in coherence with the set design and the character’s personality.

CD: Can you talk about the lighting in the living room? How did you get the water “caustics” projected on the wall? Was that from the “Firefly” projector? What was the light in the scuba helmet?
AC: For the living room we came up with as many possible options for light sources to have on frame, in line with the idea of a living room turning into the sea abyss.

So first a lamp, then the treasure chest with industrial warm led strips all around the edges, the projector, and the many jellyfishes we designed, with paper core lit by tiny single led lights. I always read about the importance of communication between Dop an production designer, and having done both jobs on this project, designing my own light sources, I cannot stress enough how wonderful it was.

As for the main character I knew I was gonna put some light inside the helmet so I went for a warm color to make some chromatic contrast with the blue of the environment. I fell in love with a light angle from straight down her face, giving the requested creepy feel in a way that reminds the “narrating a scary story pointing the torch at your face” sort of thing. For this I used an industrial LED strip, wrapped in Lee 250 half diffusion to make it a bit more gentle and spread out.

This way I had her face always keyed without effort and my only challenge on set was to shape up the roundness of the helmet with reflections, without over illuminating the rest of the environment. I think this is the part where Cine Design came most to my help, to test the different angles of reflections and spaces required using just my Mac book pro. To create these reflections on set I used two kinoflos bouncing on poliboards put behind the sides of the main character.

For budget reasons we had to shoot in a house with white walls so we immediately felt the need to have a permanent solution for the backgrounds. We decided to have caustics there, bright elements moving out of focus and also using them as a narrative thread between the scenes. We began real world testing but soon realized that the best way to go was CG. This gave us a much more controlled effect.

CD: The models of the room are really great, did you model them or find them online?
AC: I modeled the rooms based on the house we knew we were using. I used Set designer walls and furniture for most of it. Some things like the scuba helmet I easily found online, others I learned how to make online or watching your videos.

Check out Angelo’s work at his website and Instagram.

You can watch the final spot HERE