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December 21st, 2009
Spark Blog: Behind the Scenes at the Museum of Natural History

Most of the scenes you’ll see in The Human Spark are natural conversations that Alan Alda had with the scientists we visit. But before we start filming, there’s a bit of artifice in order to make sure everything looks natural. Read on to learn about some of the work that went into lighting a scene at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.


Setting up. Note the lights in the upper corners of the picture. Credit: Larry Engel

By Larry Engel, Director of Photography

The American Museum of Natural History is truly the icon of natural history museums. It sits majestically between Central Park West and Columbus Ave on the Upper West Side of New York City. I remember visiting it as a kid when my parents took my brother and me to the museum to see the dinosaurs and dioramas. It was an out-of-this-world experience and totally surreal. Cavernous halls, huge beasts, totem poles and canoes. Bones and more bones.

Its facade was used as the museum exterior in Howard Hawk’s great screwball comedy “Bringing up Baby” with Gary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. When I show the opening scenes of the film in my theory class at American University, I fondly remember walking up the museum’s grand steps and entering another world, far removed from the bustling streets of New York City just outside.

Unloading all the gear from our three vehicles. Credit: Larry Engel

Unloading all the gear from our three vehicles. Credit: Larry Engel

Today, we’re here with Alan to pay a short but important visit to Ian Tattersall, one of the preeminent archeologists in the world. He’s a large man in physique and stature. And his office, lined with classic wood and glass cabinets holding ancient clues to our distant past, is cavernous. I expect Cary Grant to appear from behind a cabinet carrying a bone.

Gels, used to change the color of the light. Credit: Maggie Villiger

Gels, used to change the color of the light. Credit: Maggie Villiger

Although this is not the first scene that we’ve filmed, nor the first location, it may very well wind up as the first scene of the series. Because we have limited time to set up and a big space with which to work, producer Graham Chedd and I have decided to bring in a gaffer (the person who is responsible for setting lights on larger productions) to help light Ian’s office. We did a preliminary scout a couple of days before to determine what look we were after, what range we wanted to give Alan and Ian to move, then what lights we needed and how many people we’d need to get the job done.

So our local gaffer and I worked out a plan of action. On shoot day, he and his assistant brought a truck that came with lights, stands, stingers (extension cables – so-called because of obvious negative potentials), gels, dimmers, ladders, and a lot of other stuff. We parked underneath the museum and it took about an hour to move all our gear through the museum (being very careful not to damage any exhibits, including one on human origins that Ian had curated) and up to the office.

We had decided to not use a big window in the room as a light source because we didn’t want to fight changes in sunlight over the course of the day. I do sometimes use this natural light source as a key light (the main light of a scene), but usually I do that when I’m only at location briefly and the window is a north-facing one (giving generally even light over the course of our time there). We also wanted not to use lights that would produce too much heat or harsh shadows. We settled on a type of fluorescent light that is balanced for daylight (or film tungsten light) called Kinos. They come in different lengths and numbers of bulbs per fixture.

A cart of sandbags and apple crates – that is, weights and stepstools. Credit: Maggie Villiger

A cart of sandbags and apple crates – that is, weights and stepstools. Credit: Maggie Villiger

We ended up using about three or four banks of them along with a couple of harder-shadow lights. All were set high, some on tall stands secured with plenty of sandbags or propped up on top of the cabinets. It was crucial not to damage the facility or, obviously, any of the skeletons and other bones and artifacts that were stored there. It was also important to us that we lit the space so that Alan and Ian weren’t forced to stand immobile in one position but could move about the room organically. This would make their interaction more comfortable.

I really enjoyed this location because of the wonderful sense of history and evolution with skulls and re-constructions of heads from our ancestors all around the room.

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