Stacking Cookies (and we’re not talking Oreos)

Art Adams explains what happens when you stack several pattern-making devices (cookies) in front of a light.

I love stacking cucolorii (plural of “cucoloris”) and I thought it was time to write an article about how this technique works and why I like it so much. I was a bit stretched for ideas that would illustrate this concept… and then an eclipse happened. Why that made a difference is a very interesting story…

First of all, if you don’t know what a cucoloris (AKA “cookie”) is, look here.

Nature abhors a flatly-lit surface. Negative space in a composition can be stunning but generally our brains prefer variety to plainness. Legend has it that the first cucoloris was invented when the shadow of a ladder fell across a bed by accident, and the cameraman liked it so much he started hanging ladders in front of his lights. At some point his crew said “Enough!” and cut a bunch of random shapes into a piece of wood.

Cookies aren’t the only way to break up flatly-lit surfaces. I’ve seen crews use textured fabrics stretched across 4’x4’ frames to create an almost imperceptible shadow texture on blank walls. I’m also a fan of LightBreaks. I’ve used all sorts of random objects to create interesting textures, including empty milk crates, glass bowls and random bits of tape on windows.

For a number of years I shot a lot of corporate videos, and those were a great training ground as I could try out sophisticated lighting techniques without fear of failure—because, if I failed, I was the only one who noticed. The cornerstone of corporate video production is the “talking head” video, and often the most interesting thing in a talking head video is the background. I’d often find myself in a white conference room with blank walls and it was quite a mental workout to try to create a background that didn’t look like… well, a white conference room with blank walls. I’d empty equipment cases looking for something that would cast an interesting shadow.

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