$20. Twenty freakin' dollars. and you can get 4x 24" paper lanterns from IKEA. (Plus, you have to add on the cost of super cheap clamp light sockets, or pick up the sockets they have at IKEA for about $3 each). The money is completely worth every penny. If you want to get really crazy, and I would suggest that you do, pick up a $10 dimmer plug from Home Depot or your local hardware store. In fact, get 4 when you can. But, I'm getting ahead of myself. Here's what they look like-
It's called the REGOLIT. ...And here is where you can order it if you aren't near an IKEA- http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/70103410/
called the HEMMA- http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/10175810/
And last but not least, the dimmer-
Which you can find at Home Depot for about $10 http://www.homedepot.com/h_d1/N-5yc1v/R-100001525/h_d2/ProductDisplay?catalogId=10053&langId=-1&keyword=dimmer&storeId=10051#.UC0GzN1lQ3g
(Don't worry about how it says they are out of stock online- you can find these at just about any hardware store or order them online).
China balls, or Chinese lanterns, or Chimeras (though I avoid this term, as that term, like its name, can mean something that comes in MANY forms, but I digress...) are a really handy tool to be able to fill a room with ambient light. They are also great for eyelights, for having a really nice light wrap around the subject you are trying to light, and for lighting things up without the hard shadows. You can pretty much just raise the light way up in the air or hang it, and it will light the room up nicely. We had a giant version of this in a helium 4K that DoP Morgan Susser used on the Foxy Shazam video for "I Like it", which I was 2nd AC and C Camera Op. Here is a picture:
But again, that was on a larger scale budget. If you don't have that kind of cash to spend, the cheapest and most efficient way I've found that truly works is the IKEA route. ...I'm starting to feel like I should get sponsored by them. Or at least free meatballs...)
Here's a couple of shots of them in action from "The Good Fight", my latest filmmaking venture.
In these two examples, we used blue cfl lights (which ended up casting a bit more purple than we wanted, but in camera with the Cinestyle profile on the 7D's, it didn't read as purple). These helped to just kick up little hints of moonlight (1st picture), and ambient darkness while still needing to be able to pick out faint details (2nd picture). Here are some screengrabs from the film itself to put in place with these stills, where you will be able to see the lights in action.
In photo 1 of the stills, you can see how there is a soft blue falling over the two actors. This was provided by a 1K with the full blue on it, but without the China Ball with the blue CLF in it, their faces were completely lost to heavy shadows when they essentially moved out of the light due to blocking. The China ball is providing the majority of the light seen in photo 1. I should tell you, though, that the total light set up was this- a 1K with full blue from camera left (according to the still), the china ball with the blue CFL directly next to camera left, a 650 Arri with full orange shot into a bounce being wiggled for the firelight look from below and in front of the porch, and another 650 Arri with half blue to camera right, at about 15- 20 feet away from the action, just to give a hint of backlight and rim. But the majority of the blue light lighting the actors is the china ball.
In the next shot, we can see the banister railings and some "moonlight" seeping in between the slats of the stairwell. This was entirely the china ball. The only other light we had for that shot was a 350 mounted outside the window with 1/4 CTB, the 650 Arri with Full CTO shot again into a wiggling bounce aimed toward the ceiling to provide the "firelight" from below, and the lantern practical, and the china ball to fill in the darkness to provide the faintest hint of detail. We also had the 1k with 1/4 CTB shooting through the window on the stairwell, and another 650 Arri with 1/4 CTB highlighting the tree outside the window (which you can't really see) in these shots).
This third shot just shows more of the same lighting set up, with the China ball again filling in the dark areas, but without lighting everything up.
I recently shot about 80 videos for SparkCoach, an offshoot of Sparkpeople.com, and I used the China balls on every single one of the shoots. They are quick and easy to set up, and provide an incredible light source.
Here's another shot of them in action, this time with incandescent bulbs and dimmers-
So, in the top right corner, is one China Ball, and in the top left is another. The one that almost looks like it in the center is, in fact, just the ceiling light, which, much to my delight, had a dimmer on it. We had lit this scene in this test shoot for an upcoming feature with the idea that it would take place in early evening, while slowly fading to night. Due to some crazy circumstances, our shoot schedule was pushed back to late evening, and we had to relight. This afforded us the opportunity to do more with less. We had a 500w FloLight pumping through two main windows in the downtown apartment by putting the light out on the fire escape VERY SECURELY (thank you Kyle Britenstein!), and what we were left with was a practical in the far camera left corner, and a larger lamp practical along the camera right wall. So- and this time I was DoP- I had a China ball almost directly above and slightly behind the larger practical and the other slightly above and ahead of the smaller lamp. I had Carter, our actor, stand at his marks, and noticed that the china ball to camera left was way too bright and ruining any kind of dramatic lighting I was going for. Everything just felt like it was cascaded in light and it felt... false. So, I simply found the opposite points from where lights were strongest, and I used the dimmers on the china balls to get the exact amount of light I needed to see the subject clearly, have him pop from the background and retain skin tone and definition and contrast, but also be able to have a heavy shadow and falloff. Essentially, the light from the fire escape lit him in white-blue daylight (55k color temp) from behind while the china ball to camera left provided eyelight, some light on the bookshelf, and on the rim of Carter's face , but the shadow fell off nicely by dropping it down about 1 and 3/4 stops. The china ball on camera right, we bumped down about a full stop (out of about 2 on those dimmers) and that provided some really nice warm glow within the room that not only fit the feeling of intimacy and sentimentalism, but also provided an exceptionally dramatic contrast to the scene. Hopefully I will be able to get some actual screengrabs up soon.
If you need any further convincing- they are incredibly portable, lightweight, easy to throw on a boom to follow your actor with (as Wally Pfister did during the Masquerade dance sequence in The Dark Knight Rises) to provide eyelight, and they are incredibly cheap for the versatility. For a video demonstration of how amazing these things are, check out the guys at Film Riot with this great video on China balls.
Check it out here.