All filmmakers want the biggest, brightest, and softest lights they can get. Here’s how to make your own without using your entire budget.
This has been on my mind for a long time.
Ever since I first saw an Airstar balloon light, I wanted to use one. They make so much sense; you don’t need to use stands (for most models), which makes them versatile; they’re bright; and most importantly, they provide the softest and prettiest light on this side of the rental budget.
One big problem: there’s a lot that goes into using one. Generally, you’re going to need a tech from Airstar or a trained employee from the rental company to come and operate the light, and you’re going to need to get a giant helium tank (which is hard to come by these days). And, while I don’t actually know how much they cost, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that since rental rates aren’t listed on any websites, they aren’t cheap.
Even though I aim to use a legitimate Airstar-style light one day, I started to think about ways that I could build something relatively similar on my own to use right now.
This definitely isn’t the cheapest DIY build out there (the overall cost was around $300), but more than anything, I wanted to see if it was possible to create something that would actually work.
LED lighting technology has really advanced in the last few years, and it seemed plausible that the technology may have come far enough that LED strip units would be bright enough to make this whole experiment worthwhile.
The materials for this build were simultaneously simple and complex. On paper, there’s not a whole lot that you need; it’s how you apply the materials that makes the build more difficult.
Here’s what I used to build this light:
- 2x quad row LED strip lights
- 2x 350 power supplies
- 4x extra-wide frost shower curtains
- 2 power supply cables
- 50ft of lamp cord
There were a few other odds and ends, but they were so cheap they’re not really worth mentioning. (For example, I used some rope to tie the balloon off to some trees so that it wouldn’t fly away.) I also purchased some children’s swimming floaties for their inflation valves.
The heart of this design is the shower curtains. The material is easily meltable, it’s lightweight, and it’s cheap, which makes the curtains a perfect choice (I plan to make a more robust version in the future). Most importantly, however, a shower curtain is already known for budget diffusion. Using extra-wide, frosted shower curtains yields big, beautiful, soft light.
Without going into too much detail (you’re going to want to watch the video for that), the overall idea behind the process is pretty simple.
First, you start with two big pieces of shower curtain — the top and bottom of the balloon. Then, you cut the long sides and the short sides. This will create a somewhat-rectangular shape. Once inflated, the balloon won’t appear rectangular, but you need room for enough helium to actually lift the balloon. The extra space will help.
Once you have your pieces cut, you’re going to use an iron to melt them together using the highest heat and steam settings. You’ll use a ton of steam and heat (with a thick towel or cloth between the iron and the curtains) to fuse the pieces together.
Once you have all your pieces together, you’ll need to find some way to add two different valves (or holes). One to allow you to fill the balloon with air (or helium if you have the means). The other is for powering the LEDs.
This is where I used the valves from the children’s floaties. With some hot glue and a little effort, I was able to affix the two valves to the balloon.
Lastly, you just need to wire up and situate your LEDs.
The LED strips I used had adhesive backing, so I just laid them out carefully, making sure to provide even light. Then, after a bit of simple wiring, they were powered up and ready to go.
All that’s left is to throw on the lid (with a bit more ironing), and leak-test it. You should be ready to go.
Why You Would Use One
There are many reasons to use a light like this. One is to quickly and easily add a lot of very soft light to a night exterior scene. This comes in handy when you want some quick moonlight or a nearby streetlight. It’s also good for lighting cars, large spaces, or really just anything that calls for something big and bright.
Even if this light weren’t capable of filling up with air, I’d still think of it as the ultimate, super-cheap, giant LED flex panel. In many ways, it’s almost more appropriate to call it that than a balloon light.
There are a million reasons to use something like this. Perhaps you’re shooting in a location where you don’t have space for stands or lights, or you just need to squeeze some bright light somewhere and you don’t have any other option.
While I probably wouldn’t bust this light out in front of most of my clients, this is still a worthwhile experiment, and it’s something I’d definitely want to use on my personal projects or short films.
I love how lighting technology continues to advance. These super-bright LED strips are a great example. We’re only limited by our own creativity when it comes to lighting, whereas in the past, the budget used to be a much bigger issue.
So, get out there and tape some lights to some balloons or something. It’s fun.
Interested in the tracks we used to make this video?
- “Artificial Intelligence” by Julian Bell
- “Stay For The Weekend” by Julian Bell
- “Cloud Surfing” by Cymatix
- “Retro Vibes” by Wolves
- “Feels Like Summer” by Mattijs Muller
- “Lo Fi Waves” by Origami Pigeon
- “Stay Royal” by Origami Pigeon
- “Warmer Than Tape” by Sugar Beats
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