Though you may not realize it, water is a popular tool among cinematographers. Here’s how you can use it to make your film more visually interesting while on a budget.
When you’re making a movie, you need to take every possible opportunity to spice up your image (as long as it fits your story). There are many ways you can do this, from interesting lighting and set design to interesting lenses or color correction. And some visual upgrades are a little more expensive than others.
A somewhat unexpected resource is a very simple one: water. If you start to pay more attention, you’ll notice an abundance of water in movies and videos, sometimes irrespective of the need for weather effects. Water gets used very often in many different ways.
In the following video, Ted Sim from Indy Mogul shows us how to use water to add contrast and atmosphere to our scenes without blowing the budget.
I’ve always heard of big water tankers on bigger sets, and of course we all know that at some point we’re going to have a scene where we’re going to need some rain. So how do we get these effects without paying for a ton of resources?
It can’t be that complicated, right? Let’s figure it out.
One thing that I think a lot of moviegoers don’t really pay much attention to is a technique called a “wetdown.”
A wetdown is essentially exactly what it sounds like. You add water to the road or surface on which you’re shooting. This is obviously mainly beneficial on concrete or asphalt surfaces in outdoor locations. It brings an extra layer of specularity and contrast to your scenes. Even if it’s subtle, which it often is, adding water to the road or floor surface in your scenes can add a little more visual interest to a scene.
For example, in the scene above, the wetdown is relatively subtle, but you can see how it adds a nice degree of contrast and reflection to the street. Lights that would have previously just been adding a little bit more light to the scene are now adding a nice specular reflection to the street surface.
Reflections and specularity are very important tools when making cinematic images.
Luckily, you don’t have to pay for a water tanker and a “water operator” to come to your set and start spraying all over the place (sometimes filmmaking is frustratingly wasteful); most of the time, a couple of buckets or a hose will do the trick.
2. Rain Effects
Now this one probably won’t blow any minds, but you’d be surprised how few lower-budget productions don’t take advantage of the cinematic benefits of rain, especially as it relates to a return on investment.
Rain effects can add instant production value to your scene. When used effectively, the simple act of adding some rain to your scene will quickly and cheaply add an entire visual tone to your scene. (This is all aside from the other aesthetic benefits we mentioned before, like the added contrast and specularity/reflections.)
Luckily, you don’t need to spend a ton of money to get rain effects in your scene. It’s literally as easy as getting the right water hose attachment or using the shower setting on the one that you have. The perfect one (pictured above, via Indy Mogul) is a metal fan sprayer with flow control.
You’ll want to set it up on a C-stand and sandbag it to make sure it stays put. For the most consistent spread and realistic look, you’ll shoot the water high in the air at the max setting. This will allow the “rain” to fall in a natural way.
VERY IMPORTANT: If you want to use rain effects for a night scene, you’re going to have to backlight it for it to be visible. Otherwise, you won’t get any impact from the effect.
3. Steam Effects
Another way you can use water to add a layer of visual interest to your scene is a bit more unexpected. Steam.
Sure, you’ve got haze, and of course our good ol’ buddy fog. However, have you thought about what a bit of steam could add to your night scenes? Whether you’re going for the look of steam rising up through a manhole cover on a city street or some sort of hydraulic door opening on a sci-fi style spacecraft, steam will add some production value to your scene.
So, here’s the thing: I’d never even considered this, and in the video embedded at the beginning of this article, Ted shows us that we can buy a simple tool at a home improvement store called a “power steamer” that is typically used to strip wallpaper. I had never even heard of this before, and I’m super excited to give it a try.
So as you can see, water is way more useful for creating a cinematic look than you might expect.
This kind of stuff is, has, and will always be my favorite thing about filmmaking — the chase for those unexpected techniques that require only a simple trip to a hardware store for some added production value.
Pay attention to the scenes that are visually impressive to you and think about what makes them that way — and how you can find an affordable way to do the same thing.
Looking for more video production tips and tricks? Check out these articles.