The natural feel of soft light has always made it an attractive composition tool in drawings, paintings, photographs, movies, and video, but until recently, the reality of controlling this unruly beast has made it the b...te noire of light sources. Developments in sources, film stocks, and video imaging technology have enabled a more widespread use of large softlights by directors of photography and lighting directors, although the problem of light control has not seen such rapid advances.

While egg crates (metal grids that act like venetian blinds in both the horizontal and vertical planes, and which, incidentally, bear almost no resemblance to any known egg-storage device) may be effective on small softlights, they become rather unwieldy on 4'x6' (1.2x1.8m) sources. Enter commercial photographer Stephen Pilby, who had been experimenting with soft light for many years. Pilby decided that he wanted more variety of control than he was achieving with a black aluminum honeycomb on his medium Chimera Lightbank. "I began making various-size egg crates by fitting slotted black cardstock together and holding the many pieces in place using hot glue, but of course they were forever falling apart, and the egg crate, while lighter than metal, was still awkwardly heavy."

Pilby's photographic accessories business had expanded into the manufacture of large dyed-muslin studio backdrops, which prompted his next step: "As we were already working with seamstresses and industrial sewing machines, it was a natural progression to use fabric strips interconnected by slots and slits to weave the egg crates together." Pilby now holds US Patent #5556186 for that design. Several prototypes were tested and the possibilities of the commercial market were examined, even though there were still some serious problems to be overcome.

"By some wonderful coincidence, at just the right time we found a specialist in laser fabric-cutting," Pilby remembers, "and by using this technology we solved the problems of fraying and maintaining the precision required in cutting the slots and slits." Since then, Pilby's Edmonton, Alberta-based company, LightTools, has purchased its own laser-cutting facility with a 12' (3.6m) work bed that rolls under the 5'x5' (1.5x1.5m) computer-controlled cutting head assembly. LightTools makes the aptly named Soft Egg Crates from two grades of fabric; the heavyweight versions for overhead frames are made from 3" (75mm) strips of 14oz./sq. yd. double PVC-coated polyester, while the lightweight units for overhead frames and lightbanks are constructed from 2" (50mm) strips of 200 denier nylon. Both of these fabrics meet NFPA 701 and ULC s-109 large-scale test requirements for flame retardancy.

Since his initial experiments with cardboard grids, Pilby has been interested in their effect on the light output and distribution of the softlight. This interest deepened with the later development of Egg Crates for large sources that would be located at significant distances from their subjects, as the normally accepted inverse intensity relationships no longer hold. Pilby realized that he needed computer software to model these situations; his searches eventually led him to the Internet and the Usenet newsgroup, where he contacted and formed a working relationship with Ian Ashdown of byHeart Consultants Ltd.

Ashdown is the author of the rather stirringly titled Radiosity: A Programmer's Perspective and developer of the Helios32 radiosity rendering engine. He has developed computer models of large softlights and the various Soft Egg Crates which can be fitted to them. Not only has this collaboration e nabled a better understanding of the behavior of softlighting systems, but it has produced a set of rendered images of the light distribution and intensity from various softlights with Soft Egg Crates fitted. The accompanying figures show a 12'x6' (3.6x1.8m) softlight source and the effect of placing 30, 40, and 50-degree Soft Egg Crates in front of the source.

Pilby and Ashdown are currently working toward an interactive CD-ROM package which will allow a DP to visualize in 3D the location, diffusion, and Egg Crate configuration of a softlighting setup and to calculate the base exposures.

Soft Egg Crates were initially made for lightbanks from Wafer, Photoflex, Chimera, FJ Westcott, and Lowel-Light in three beam angles (20, 40, and 60 degrees), and are made available as accessories from the suppliers of these lightbanks. Photographers including Annie Leibovitz (who recently bought three 40-degree Egg Crates for her Wafer Hexagon lights) have taken to them enthusiastically. Many of the ENG crews who had recently started using lightbanks for their more natural look were concerned over the lack of control compared with their previous open-face units, and have picked up on the Soft Egg Crate as a compact, lightweight tool to remedy this shortcoming. Television lighting directors are using lightbanks with Soft Egg Crates in situations where the talent is close to translights or Chromakey panels, places where up until now, softlight sources have been avoided due to spill problems.

Recognizing that the control of large softlights presented a similar problem in film production, two and a half years ago LightTools started making 50-degree beam angle Soft Egg Crates to fit butterfly and overhead frames in sizes ranging from 6'x6' (1.8x1.8m) to 20'x20' (6.2x6.2m). Most recently, after field-testing prototypes on the shooting of the Rocky and Bullwinkle feature, 30 and 40-degree versions of the butterfly and overhead frame Egg Crates have been developed and are due to be released soon; demonstration units will be available from distributors for testing.

Matthews Studio Equipment, the US distributor of the Soft Egg Crates for the motion picture industry, has supplied them to the lighting and grip rental departments of Paramount, Warner Bros., Universal Studios, 20th Century Fox, and Sony (through West Side Production Services). They have also been purchased by many of the major equipment rental houses including Hollywood Rental Co., Leonetti Cine Rentals, TM Motion Picture Rentals, Panavision New York, Feature Systems, and Camera Service Center.

Despite the relatively high cost of these large-sized Soft Egg Crates, several individual key grips have also put them into stock: Pat Daily of The Grips from Hell used them on Primary Colors and The Wild, Wild West (see "Wild style," page 54), Gary Dagg used them with DP John Bailey on The Out-of-Towners, and Bob Miyamoto uses the lightweight versions on commercials.

Jeff Flowers, national sales manager for Matthews Studio Equipment, finds that many of the grips who now use Soft Egg Crates wonder how they managed before these things came along. "I have heard some of the old grips say 'A good grip, if he knew what he was doing, could do the same thing with stuff on the truck,' " recalls Flowers. "Perhaps this is true, but you could just as easily ask what we did before the car. We walked, but, boy, I'm sure glad we have those cars!"

Key grip Lloyd Moriarity first saw the Soft Egg Crates on the Matthews stand at the 1997 ShowBiz Expo West and was loaned one to try. "I had made my own white-diffusion Chimera frames and the light was beautiful, but it was just too wide for control," he recalls. "We had previously tried elephant ears [wide barndoor-style side flaps] but to get the kind of control we needed, they were just too cumbersome. The Soft Egg Crate gave us that control." Moriarity, who has used Soft Egg Crates on both My Favorite Martian and Rocky and Bullwinkle with DP Tom Ackerman, now has five of them which are commonly used over Chimera frames on 20kW fresnels. "In my view, Soft Egg Crates go hand-in-glove with softlights," says Moriarity. "We've found we can get quite subtle control over light levels by panning the softlight slightly away from the scene, allowing the Egg Crate to interrupt some of the light."

Moriarity is of the opinion that tools like the Soft Egg Crate may eventually change the face of the film set. "I recently stood back and looked at the way the lighting works on a production. There are a relatively small number of lights in use, but each one is surrounded by the pile of grip gear needed to control the spread of the light. Soft Egg Crates offer us an opportunity to gain more control of the light and substantially reduce the clutter."

Andy Ciddor of The Kilowatt Company has been a practitioner, educator, and writer in the field of production technology for 30 years. He can be reached at