Lighting: Bigger than a Breadbox – by a Lot
Documentary cinematography isn’t all about people and places; sometimes it’s about things and their history.
By T. Hunter Byrd
In many ways, the story of American expansion Westward is the story of railroads. Trains held the fascination of generations of children long before airplanes and cars took over. Those of us of a certain age grew up with American Flyer and Lionel trains and perhaps “graduated” to the smaller but finer detailed HO- and N-gauge models. Some never got over that love of trains.
“One of the things my dad was interested in was trains,” recalls Stephen Hussar. “That was his main thing, railroads.” Hussar has been a cinematographer, still photographer, and producer for almost 30 years and produced an hour-long special for PBS titled Restoration Stories. “I’ve always been fascinated by restoration projects, both the processes themselves and the motivations of the people who dedicate themselves to reconditioning pieces of the past. One of the features in the program focused on the Wiscasset, Waterville & Farmington (WW&F) Railway Museum in Alna, Maine. During the shoot, the museum was making plans to restore an 1891 steam locomotive that had literally been locked away in a barn for over 60 years.”
WW&F was a narrow-gauge railroad, one of those that were unique to Maine. “I was on the Internet one day,” Hussar says, “and I saw Wiscasset, Waterville, and Farmington Railway had a website. This was back in 2000. And I remembered the WW&F from when I was kid, and I thought, ‘Wow! There’s a museum to this little railroad that my dad had taken me to.’ When I was there with my father in the early ‘70s, the railroad was gone—it had stopped operation in 1933. There was nothing left, just a right of way through the woods.”
But a local group decided to restore some of the WW&F. One member bought several miles of the right of way, which is essentially just a trail through the woods on an embankment. And he started to build the museum, and people began to show up and ask if they could help. Now it has over 1,000 members, two steam locomotives and coaches.
Hussar’s show started airing in 2005 and he kept in touch with the volunteers at the museum. “They started restoring Number 9, an 1891 steam locomotive, and I kept going up and shooting little bits of it so would be fairly well documented. I’m there once or twice a month, trying to get footage.”
Over the years, they’ve been adding on to the buildings to the point where they now have a machine shop where they can build and rebuild with authentic machinery. “One of the volunteers is a professional mechanical engineer, a machinist, which is great,” says Hussar. “Using the old tools is really fun for him, and everybody that comes in to help him gets trained on all the old tools and machinery. It’s really something. Still, there’s a bit of practicality involved. There are certain things you just can’t do in the old ways anymore.”
For example, replicating the boiler jacketing has been quite a process. “The locomotive was built in Portland, Maine by the Portland Company, which doesn’t exist anymore,” Hussar explains. “The spec sheet exists in the Maine archives, and calls for the jacketing to be made of something called Russia Iron. It’s a sheet of pure iron—very thin, but iron—and polished to this incredible shine. Unfortunately, you can’t get that anymore. There’s no way to make it. Machinery doesn’t exist.”
So the master mechanic and a retired chemical engineer from Kodak worked out a way to replicate the shine on modern sheet iron, imported from England. Hussar remembers, “They figured out exactly what shape, by using sheets of vinyl as a template on the actual boiler, and loaded those dimensions into a computer and came up with the cutting pattern.”
Following along as the restoration took place, documenting the steps along the way, was a long term project for Hussar. Because the work was being done in a warehouse-like building, lighting the job was a challenge. As Hussar notes, “Mixed lighting was the problem. Sunlight through high windows, work lights for the restoration, overhead lights, even sparks from machinery. A daylight balanced Zylight F8-100 LED Fresnel became my main light in the museum’s machine shop. The facility has warm 150-watt incandescent lighting throughout, along with windows that add sunlight, so I used the F8-100 to make it appear like the key light is coming from the windows.”
Hussar continues, “I’ve used HMIs for years; I love that the F8-100 stays cool and it doesn’t take time to warm up to provide precise color temperature. The light coming out of it is even and controllable. It’s extremely well-made. It’s a great Fresnel and it happens to be an LED.”
The F8-100 is very bright but only draws about 90 watts, so you can plug it into a standard wall socket without blowing a fuse. It can even be powered by a standard 14.4V camera battery, which was helpful in the museum. “It’s a very visually interesting location with all of the shop machinery being historic and authentic,” Hussar says. “It’s not like I’m working in a hurry, but it simplifies things—the fewer wires running around heavy machinery the better.”
Not all the shots were indoors. “I think back on an exterior night shoot I did some time ago with the train,” Hussar recalls. “I had to light the area with tungsten lights running off a generator. The shots came out just fine, but the shoot would have been so much better and easier with the Zylight F8-100.”
Hussar compensates for the mixed lighting in the restoration facility but prefers to not mix his own lighting. “I started using the F8-100 almost exclusively. I’ll either bounce it into a white card, if I need something soft, or I’ll use it direct if I need it look like the sun is actually falling on something.”
You don’t have to be in love with trains to appreciate the work being done in restoration shops all over the world. Hussar sums it up, “When you go to a place like that, where the rest of the world is put on hold, time kind of stops while you are working there, and you’re watching people solve problems much as they would have done 100 years ago and more. It’s pretty amazing—everything that needs to be restored is this incredible can of worms. You take something apart, and you find out you need a part that doesn’t exist anymore, so you have to make that part. They’ll make a pattern for it out of wood, and then they’ll bring it somewhere and have it cast, and then machine it to make it fit, and the restoration continues. It’s uplifting to watch. It really is.”