Saturday, December 3, 2016

How I Shot it: The Philips Door

(Luke Vanderputten, menaced by three Fates, Amanda Meyer, Donna Tamraz O'Rourke, and Kat Astrophix )

Long Island has a thriving live entertainment community, be it in big theaters with local talent or small intimate musical performed in the basements of homes for music lovers. Retro Souls' Phantom Theater is one such local group putting on original live plays. This month, they are bringing back The Philips Door, which was first performed in 2015, for a Christmas run on .

Since I'm friends with Rob Frankenberg, the writer and director of Philips Door, I offered my services to take character shots of the actors in full costume and makeup to promote the show, much like I did for the Newsday shoot for the recent Killer Subjects play Retro Souls put on. The catch was the only time we could get all the actors together in full wardrobe and greasepaint was for about 10-15 minutes before a rehearsal after 10pm. That would leave me with very little time to set up, get the job done, and get the heck out so not to be in the way of their rehearsal.

Challenge accepted.

Aria Cadenza Moon as a fairy. 


I'm a firm believer in having a plan in place before I arrive at a shoot. For this shoot, I knew I would have very little time with the actors and I'd have to get my gear on stage and off quickly so they could rehearse. Rehearsal is a sacred time for actors and directors, and I didn't want to be a nuisance for any longer than I had to be.

I remembered from last year's staging of the play that the titular door was on the right side of the stage. Since they were performing it at Tribal Dance's Studio A again, the door would also be right next to a large dance mirror on the studio wall. I had little room for lights, and I had to be aware of the bounce from the mirror. Also, the play is a surreal dream like dark fantasy, with walking dead, demons, and the personification of death. I needed to make it look otherworldly if I was going to pull this off.

I decided on three lights. First was a Canon 430 EXII speedlite with a red gel pointed up at the door, which would be covered by the actor's body. No modifiers. This helped to separate the actors from the background and make the door look ominous.

Next, I wanted a bit of blue in the shot, to give a cooling color to the actors. I decided to put another 430 EXII speedlite in a 60x90 cm square soft box and positioned it on the right side. I wanted a little hardness to the light so I didn't put the diffuser on, but instead put the honey comb grid on to focus the light. I decided I was going to put it with its back against the mirror, and feather it so it didn't hit the door (the grid really helped with that).

My key light would be a 47 inch Godox umbrella octagon softbox, with its honeycomb grid on. Inside was my Alien Bees 800 strobe. I didn't want the key to bleed onto the red background or kill the blue light. I also didn't want a huge bounce coming from the mirror. So I decided to feather this one too, so the edge lit the actors and not kill my other two lights.

A crude drawing of my lighting setup that I had in my head.

The other good thing about using the Godox umbrella softbox is the ease in setting up and breaking down. My old softbox had a speed ring that attached the box to the Alien Bees, and had to be assembled each time you used it by inserting rods into the softbox. This took time and could be unwieldy. The Godox just opens up like any umbrella, and is easy to use. Since I had to be a ninja when setting up and leaving, this was the best choice. Also, using the two speedlites meant I didn't have extra cords to trip over and they could be moved with ease. Each strobe and speedlite would have a Phottix Odin trigger so I could remotely set the lights off from my camera.

That was the plan, but I didn't know what would change once I got there, so I had to be flexible and I was ready to change it if the need arose.

Calixta Starr as DEATH.


I got to the studio early. As Rob and Luke John Vanderputten (who is also the star) put together the set for rehearsal,  and Aidan P. Finnegan put together the audio for the full run through, the actors got into costume and makeup. I went to one side of the room and set up my light stands and lights, so they'd be ready to move into place as soon as I got the okay. I was set up in twenty minutes, and I waited for them to be ready for me.

The Shoot

Once I got the okay, I moved my lights quickly into place and grabbed an actor. Since Philip Martinez, in his undead makeup, was the closest, he got to be my guinea pig. I had set my lights to where I thought they needed to start for the settings I wanted to use ( 1/125th of a second, f/3.2 and ISO 250). The first shot showed me that my key was too powerful, so I brought it way down. The second shot was what I wanted. Perfect.

First shot, the key light is too bright and is killing my blue gel, as well as cutting down my red background gel.

Second shot after dialing down my key light, and it's exactly where I want it.

One by one I grabbed the actors and put them in front of my camera. I told each one, if they didn't fall into it naturally, to get into character. Each one gave me what I wanted and they needed only a minimum of direction. I took a few duo and group shots, and then I was done.

I thanked the cast and crew, pulled my gear to the side and started breaking down while they went ahead with rehearsal.



I left them to rehearse and drove home. As soon as I walked in the door I turned on my computer and backed up the files I had shot. I imported them into Lightroom, and for the most part I didn't have to do anything except bring up the clarity a bit. I outputted them, uploaded them to my site, and sent Robert the link so he had them to post in the morning. I was done by 1am in the morning.

End Thoughts

I'm very thankful that my planning panned out, and I got the eerie feeling that I wanted to in the images. Still, I never stayed married to a particular plan. I was ready to change at a moment's notice if the need came up. If I had walked in there with no plan, I would have wasted time setting up and trying to figure out everything right then and there.

I want to thank Phantom Theater, and the cast and crew of Philips Door for letting me into their rehearsal and letting me photograph them.

Performances on 12/3, 12/4, and 12/10 at Tribal Dance Long Island in Northport New York. Go to for tickets and more information.