Film Lighting Tutorials

How to Light a Scene with Chinese Lanterns

Chinese lanterns are a cheap and inexpensive way to light a scene. Let me show you how.

Chinese lanterns are a cheap way to get soft light. I show you what they are and how to use them efficiently:

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What are Chinese Lanterns or China Balls?

Chinese lanterns are also called paper lanterns or china balls.

They are made of paper and have a light in the middle. This is usually a regular household tungsten, fluorescent or LED bulb.

Which China ball to get

I refer to these as China balls because of the round spherical shape. Paper lanterns come in different shapes and colors, so when I say china ball, I’m specifically referring to the spherical shape.

Get one that is white in color, or you’ll have color issues. Typically the white is slightly warm so take that into consideration. Custom WB and check your color before shooting.

As far as sizes are concerned, the most useful is definitely the 12″ (one foot) size. But sometimes for softer light you might also find the 24″ useful.

For a warm effect, you can also get CTO gel (Amazon, B&H)

What bulbs work best for china balls?

Important: Please get a certified electrician to do all this for you, because you are playing with AC current. Don’t take this lightly.

I recommend high CRI Dimmable LED 20 Watt bulbs (Amazon, B&H).

For power a 10W bulb is great for starters. In the video I’ve used a 14 W bulb and it works great as well. If you find a dimmable LED bulb, then I definitely recommend a 20W bulb.

Advantages of LED over other types:

  1. White color, or bi-color.
  2. You can get multi-colored LED bulbs now that can be controlled via an app.
  3. Dimmable without loss in color.
  4. Doesn’t get as hot so you can actually gel them directly.
  5. They draw less power for more light.
  6. You get battery operated bulbs nowadays (or rechargeable ones).
  7. They last a lot longer.

Rig them with good quality sockets (metal is preferable, avoid plastic) and heavy duty wires or cables. The one I’ve shown in the video is overkill, but I have it designed to accept all types of bulbs with different wattages. I believe it’s a 20-feet cable.

You’ll also need extension cords for longer runs.

How to hang or rig China balls

The bulb is supposed to hang right in the middle. The entire thing is designed to be hung on a grip arm on a C-stand, or a ceiling fan, etc.; or if you’re outdoors, tree branches or whatever. You can use cable ties or metal wires to secure the cable in place so it doesn’t move.

You hang the china ball using 18AWG (or lower) metal wires it to a grip arm and voila, you have light. You might want to hang to two points of contact so the ball doesn’t spin. This is only necessary if you’re flagging one side and it might just move off balance during your shot.

What you need to do is raise it high enough at a 45-degree angle to your actors. You can cover the bottom hole with some baking paper or 216 diffusion if you want to. The reason it has these holes is so heat can dissipate. Even LED bulbs generate heat, so you don’t want to close the openings if you don’t need to.

If you have a green tinge with LEDs, use minus green gels. LED bulbs are getting better by the month so you don’t have to worry about it too much.

How to flag china balls

I’m biased here. I’m not a fan of flagging china balls. The time it takes is not worth the effort on a film set. But, if you can prepare your china balls in advance then there’s nothing wrong.

You can use black chart paper and tape or pin them. You can also try lightweight plastic clips, but you must assume your paper is going to tear.

But the best way is to spray paint some of them in advance. You can use cheap black spray paint. It’s just paper. Treat china balls as disposable items.

The most common flagging position is the cover half the surface with black, like a half moon. Horizontally and vertically.

When to use China balls to light a scene

Sit-down conversations

It’s great for sit-down conversations in a living room or dinner table. The light will be 3 or 4 feet above the head, not more. The lower the better. Try to keep it just out of the frame line without causing flare.

If you string a few china balls in a living room you have a chandelier effect, very soft and beautiful light. Rigging it takes time, flagging it takes even more time, but it’s worth the trouble. The key is to prepare everything in advance. You don’t want to rush to the store on the morning of the shoot. You don’t want to solve china ball problems on location.

Night forest scenes

Light up parts of a forest if you’re doing a night scene. Your actors will have a nice soft “fill light” so you can follow their expressions. You can string them along the path at about 4-6 feet distances and it will look great.

Beware of moths though!

Use car headlamps/headlights for moonlight and china balls for key light. Running extension cords is a huge hassle, so you can even try battery powered LED bulbs for your night scenes.

Following an actor

You can also attach a china ball on a boom pole and ask an assistant to follow an actor, though this is just for subtle fill and circular catchlights. If the light is too strong it will spill over to your set and the effect will be visible.

What china balls cannot do

Don’t make china balls do work they are not designed to do. For wide scenes, moving actors and such it’s a huge hassle. You’re better off using space lights or softboxes.

The most professional replacement for a chinese lantern is the pancake light Chimera makes (Amazon, B&H). You can see it’s got built-in flaps for flags and so on. That’s a light designed for rugged production use.

There are two big problems with china balls.

  1. The first is they’re made of paper, so they tear easily. You also need to carry many bulbs just to be safe. They break too.
  2. The second major problem is the light just spills everywhere. Flagging it is a pain.

Bottom line, though, is that if you know what you’re doing, then Chinese lanterns can be a great and inexpensive way to light your scene. This is why they are still used on professional film sets when they don’t waste time.

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