China Balls: The Classic Affordable Lighting Hack
Chinese paper lanterns, or China balls, are great low-budget tools for getting beautiful, soft light. What makes China balls unique is their ability to throw a soft, diffused light in almost all directions. This omnidirectional light makes them suitable for a wide range of lighting applications. For example, you can hang a China ball or series of China balls from a ceiling to increase a room’s overall brightness, place one above a table during a restaurant conversation scene, or even use one as a soft, wrapping key light. But the best part is that they’re cheap!
China balls come in a variety of sizes and colors and can be purchased online, at Asian markets, or found at most home decor shops. I like the 30" ones for getting a large, soft source. You’ll want the all-white ones, unless you have particular creative use in mind for color versions. A word of caution though— finding an all-white China ball at some Asian markets can be tricky, as white is the color of mourning in China, and is associated with death.
Once you have your China ball, you’ll need to buy a standard light-socket assembly. Try to get one with some reach—I recommend one with a power cord longer than 7 feet. Also, make sure to use porcelain or brass sockets, not the plastic ones. Now, when it comes to light bulbs, pick up some photoflood or photography bulbs (tungsten and/or daylight colored, depending on your needs), but household bulbs will also work. You’ll want to hang the bulb about halfway down in your China ball to give it the most distance from the paper.
A word of caution: tungsten light bulbs get hot. If a hot bulb touches the paper or, worse, breaks due to being dropped, the lantern will catch on fire—believe me, I’ve seen it happen. So, please, be careful. With a 30" China ball, you can go up to around 250W, but I wouldn’t go any higher. As an alternative, you could use LED or fluorescent bulbs, which produce less heat than tungsten bulbs.
It’s worth considering having several China balls in your arsenal; the reason being that it’s relatively hard to control the light beam from them. In many situations, you’ll want an omnidirectional light, but there will also be times where you want to control the spill. While you could use duvateen fabric, trying to gel a China ball is not fun, and often not practical. A neat trick is to paint half of a China ball black to block light output on one side of it. This is a quick way to cut out undesired spill and saves you from wasting time on set trying to gel them.
China balls can be rigged in a variety of ways. I prefer using C-stands, but you can hang them from basically anything using clamps or gaffer tape. You can also mount one on a lightweight boompole (or any pole for that matter) to get a “floating” light source that can move with the actors during a scene. Academy Award-winner Wally Pfister, ASC, used this very technique to add extra fill light to actors in scenes from The Dark Knight. This is also a great way to add a little extra fill light during night exterior walk-and-talk scenes.
A China ball is the perfect addition to any light kit. Whether you’re shooting a student film or a high-budget production, you never know when a China ball will come in handy.