Creating Worlds (Bringing the Ancient Middle East to the Midwest)

Ark Encounter Teaser :60

Director/Producer: Benjamin Wilt (
Director of Photography: Nicholas Matthews (
RED Epic & Cooke S4s with ¼ BlackPromist
Graded in DaVinci Resolve & Cinegrain added

Frequently, I’m working on locations where space is highly constricted, the walls and ceiling don’t move, and the lighting and schedule dependent on controlling, shaping, and blending available light and film units together to tell the story. When Director Ben Wilt showed me the script for this teaser and said that we’d be shooting in Cincinnati in a warehouse, I knew we’d have the exciting challenge and joy of working on a stage (albeit a fabricated one in this circumstance).  We’d be transforming a drab warehouse interior into an another world.


Ben wanted to set up Noah as a major character of the park and hint at what some of what people might see in the upcoming attraction, without revealing too much. (For an insider look at the director’s perspective check out!ark-encounter-teaser/c1lpq.) This was a perfect opportunity to paint with light, enticing the audience with the mystery of the main character and the world. The lighting had to enhance the authenticity of the set, feel motivated emotionally and physically, and set an underlying tone for the teaser. While we hoped to capture a Disney-esqe mystery and flair, the eloquent text that the dialogue was pulled from, dripped with raw emotion. This informed the camera-work and the low-key lighting.  Ridley Scott’s films Gladiator & Kingdom of Heaven were among the references we discussed–particularly the authenticity of the art design and the moody yellowed palette of Gladiator.

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Initially (and very briefly) we considered trying to find a location that we could redress for Noah’s workshop, but given our fast-paced timeline, the specificity of the space, the lack of Ancient architecture in the Midwest, and our budget, it simply wasn’t feasible. After shooting tests in a variety of halls, we met with the production designer for the Ark Encounter (and this teaser) and settled on a specific set of dimensions for Noah’s workspace that felt psychologically appropriate and pragmatic for our budget. I had no idea how they would take this initial list of dimensions and transform it into such a beautiful, organic, and authentic set. It was a blast collaborating with such a skilled design team to bring this world to life.

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Working with the Art Department from the beginning, allowed us to create a unified color palette and have the set work for the lighting rather than competing against it. From the start, we wanted broken shafts of light that we could pass through, adding mystery, creating realistic atmospheric elements, solidifying the illusion of 3D space in a 2D medium with depth cues, and obscuring the film tools just outside the windows. To accommodate that goal, they built these large bay windows with ornate lattice-work to break the shafts of light apart. Additionally, I was able to have the production designer build these handmade, period-accurate oil lanterns, which worked as accents on the wall and our key light on Noah. The lantern smoke motivated the fogged atmosphere (created with a fog machine which we fanned prior to each take) and allowed us to see the beams._mg_1670img_1488

The tighter a budget is, the more carefully you have to invest every dollar. With our budget and the small size of our G&E crew (myself, one grip, the director, and our camera-operator and one day for pre-light), I needed to know how much power we’d have/needed, how many and what units it would take to achieve this look, and how much cable we’d need to run. If I made a mistake, there wasn’t more money or time to rent additional units. As a result, I drew up a lighting plot as the rough basis for where we’d generally place the units.

We needed an affordable parallel beam option that packed a punch without requiring a generator/best boy or a mess of units, stands, and wires. We had Mole Richardson ship 3, 2k Molebeam Projectors out to Cincinnati to create the effect in the main windows and we used a few Source 4s to punch through the final window on the right (given that we wouldn’t see the double shadow they were casting).

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These were the perfect units to create a realistic look of hard evening sunlight punching through the windows and lighting the room. We backlit the fog as much as possible to emphasize the beams on camera. Additionally, we paired dimmed down 1ks with chimeras to softly bring up the ambient levels of the space overtop of each beam. And we keyed Noah with 3 spotted fresnels bouncing up off his architectural blue-print.  This reinforced the illusion that it’s a variety of flames (not just one light on a dimmer) keying his face.  The units were run through Magic Gadget 2k flicker boxes to give us more precise control over creating a realistic flame effect.


Checking the frame during our pre-light.


Because we were doing effects work and shooting in very moody light, the Red Epic provided the optimum image quality for the best value. We shot wide-open on Cooke S4/is with a ¼ Black Promist at an 800 ASA base. The Epic captured this warm, low-lit color palette and stylized look quite well.


Camera department sets up another shot.


Camera Op and AC prep the Epic

On a side note, the power of raw is never more apparent than in the quick montage of workers building the ark, where we matched closeups shot in daylight with closeups shot within the Creation Museum under artificial lighting simulating the sun.

I love projects like these where it takes everyone working together from the director, dp, production designer, matte painter, makeup artist, compositor, carpenters, camera operator, G&E, etc, to fulfill a singular vision. It was a privilege to take a small crew with a modest budget for a period-piece commercial and to try and create a big spot. And, at the end of the day, it’s always great to hear the investor say, “Wow.”


A photograph I snapped while metering exposure on “Noah”


Another Noah shot I snapped. Love the look in his eyes.

We worked with a variety of terrific vendors including: Gripmeister Lighting, the Camera-Department, Hammer TV Grip and Lighting, Mole-Richardson


Nicholas Matthews is a director of photography who specializes in story-driven commercials, narrative films, and music videos. To see more of his work visit


2 thoughts on “Creating Worlds (Bringing the Ancient Middle East to the Midwest)

  1. Nick,

    I did not realize so much prep work went into lighting a space. I noticed the shafts of light created by the lattices immediately when the commercial started up. Really cool. The final picture of Noah is haunting. Would you say those are the eyes of a man who knows the apocalypse is coming? Keep writing your blog even if no one is reading. It’s a testament to your work ethic and skill set.

    • Thanks for the kind words. Every project I’ve ever done since those early high school days shooting in the backyard has stretched (and terrified) me. Sometimes the results are worth it. This was one such case.

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