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Lighting: Shooting in a Bubble

By Allan Wachs

Editor’s Note:
One of the major issues of film and video production lighting is control. From the days of daylight-only filming through Klieg lights and now LED, DPs have been trying to control the lighting of their sets. Tools of the trade, such as scrims and diffusion boxes, are just part of the ongoing challenge of controlling all aspects of lighting. In still photography, when shooting small, highly reflective objects such as jewelry for catalogs, the photographer often will depend on a tent or diffusion box where the light is softened and highlights are eliminated by passing the light through a translucent material that is color-neutral. That concept has been expanded to a fully walk-in capable shooting stage under a bubble—a Photobubble.
Here is the story, by Allan Wachs, CEO of The Photobubble Company, Hollywood, California.


PhotobubblThe Photobubble was originally invented as a solution to another production problem. In 2003, I was producing the first Prius commercial for director Roman Coppola and we were given the task of filming a car at speed (55mph) in a reflection-less environment, so that a “sea-of-holes” world could be created for a car to travel in without having the producers spend a fortune and a great deal of time pulling a world of reflections out of the car’s exterior in post. Through one of those “sometimes cool stuff just happens” moments during the bidding process, I was given a budget of virtually no money to create this environment.

Whiting out an entire stage was way beyond the money I could scrape together out of the corners of our awarded budget, nor could I find a similar amount of money to create a clean environment out of a practical location such as the Sepulveda Dam. What to do? That’s when inspiration struck. Roman remembered a conceptual art group from the late 1960s and their experiments with inflatable environments. After discussions with our production designer, Steve McHale, our team taped together a bunch of clear plastic garbage bags in the offices of the Directors Bureau, grabbed a table fan, and the next thing we knew, we had a dozen people sitting inside this make-shift inflatable structure. We realized this just might work for the Prius job!

Erecting the Photobubble inside a warehouse shooting stage.

Erecting the Photobubble inside a warehouse shooting stage.

We next found an empty hangar down at LAX, and Steve, with the help of his art director, Tom Iacino, designed and built the first Photobubble out of a polyethylene material that Steve sourced. Open at one end and totally air supported by two air movers, the first Photobubble was 250’ long by 100’ wide by 40’ tall. No one had ever seen anything like it before. DP Larry Fong lit this huge whale of a structure with a couple of mini Bee Bee Nightlights and a ring of 18K’s around the circumference. The Prius entered at speed from outside the bubble, followed by a Cayenne with a Russian Arm, and it worked better than anyone could have hoped for. At the end of the shoot, we thought the concept might be able to help many other productions beyond ours. Thus, the Photobubble Company was born.

Our first job as the Photobubble Company was in New York City for Anonymous Content shooting a series of spots for Intel featuring the Blue Man Group. A unique feature of the Photobubble that came in handy for this assignment was that additional holes or doors could literally be cut into the material and it would not deflate. In addition to a cool environment so their make-up wouldn’t run, the members of The Blue Man Group needed stunt rigging to pull off many of the gags that were intrinsic to the spots. Various holes were cut in the ceiling to drop rigging lines through for sight gags, and air-conditioning was pumped into the bubble to keep talent cool and make-up applied. All production problems solved.

The Blue Man Group used the Photobubble for its flexibility and creative lighting potential. The Blue Man Group used the Photobubble for its flexibility and creative lighting potential.

The Blue Man Group used the Photobubble for its flexibility and creative lighting potential.

Recently, we got a call from a production designer seeking an estimate for us to create and install one of our Photobubbles for an upcoming Old Navy commercial for which she was designing the sets. Production’s problem with this assignment was that they would be shooting two spots in one day with a major star spokesperson (Julia Louis-Dreyfus,) who only had 10 hours of availability, and the spots were to be for two totally different sets and scenarios.

Normally, these two spots would have been shot on two different practical locations, but there was no time for Julia to travel and to shoot two spots within a 10- hour timeframe. More often than not, production companies use the Photobubble for its ability to supply a beautiful, even reflection-less light, like shooting in a 360-degree soft box, but for this Old Navy project, it was needed to provide a 360-degree contained set, which allowed for an adjacent set to be built just footsteps away on the same soundstage.

By incorporating the Photobubble into this project, the production designer was able to create a bustling, immersive backstage fashion show setting with a cast of 40 and the intimation of a fashion show runway happening just around the corner. Lit entirely by LED Mac Techs, there was no re-lighting inside the Photobubble from shot to shot. The crew was able to move quickly and efficiently within the bubble to make their day and satisfy Julia’s schedule requirements.

The Photobubble can be projected upon with advanced projection and lighting systems or lit with multi-colored LED’s to create the first 360-degree EFX stage. The possibilities are enormous not only in budget savings and time savings in physical and post-production, but the creative freedom for storytellers is boundless.

It is perfect for transforming less-than-perfect environments into pristine, clean rooms suitable for any film imagination. Every Photobubble is custom-made with our specially formulated material, hand-built on-site. At the end of each production, each Photobubble is recycled. Due to a lack of wind-resistance, we only build bubbles in enclosed spaces: soundstages, warehouses, hangars, convention centers, etc.

The Photobubble can be designed and installed in almost any size or configuration that will suit the needs of the production. Among the many advantages are fully coved walls and ceiling with a 360 degree area of view; green/blue screen application; the bubble can be painted (or rear projected upon) for day or night sky effects; and rigging and lighting can be lowered through holes cut into the structure. In addition, this can all be done at a reasonable cost with a quick set-up and break down. Photobubble sizes have ranged from as small as 20’ wide by 30’ long to as large as two football fields. The cost of a Photobubble is determined by the size of the bubble, the location of the shoot, and the duration of usage.

We are seeking directors and producers from within the feature film world, as we believe movies have yet to scratch the surface of the Photobubble’s creative potential. With the advance of LED technology, new frontiers of application are constantly being explored.

We are also looking for strategic partners to set-up the first pre-lit Photobubble stage that would further increase production budget savings and accessibility. We want to work with people who are excited about presenting the Photobubble to the feature film and visual effects industries.

For more information, see www.photobubblecompany.com.

November 19, 2015