How to Light a Round Table Discussion

About a year ago, I had a chance to film a long discussion with a Christian pastor and 3 Muslim American leaders to discuss 9-11 and the impact it it had on them. We wanted to do, literally, a round table discussion. This blog post is about how we filmed it.

After some preliminary brainstorming and location scouting that included everything from conference rooms to living rooms to a coffee shop, we settled on something a little more isolating: A single table, with the participants being very close to each other, in a darkened room. The conversation lasted an hour and a half. A 35 minute version of it is below. You can just jump to any portion of it to get a sense of the look.

So our challenge was, what’s the best way to shoot and light something like this? As soon as the shoot was finished, I made a quick how-to video.

The first time I saw a China ball used in lighting was in the Tim Burton film “Big Fish”. It was filmed in Montgomery, AL when I lived there, and it seems half the town got to be extras at some point or another. There was a scene in a big circus tent with Danny DeVito walking backwards, talking as he walked. I watched them do a number of takes, and noticed that there was this blob-like ameba of people (nine of them, to be exact!) moving in tandem to record this one actor walking backwards. There was the camera man, boom mic operators, and others whose jobs I couldn’t begin to guess. And one of the people had a China ball light on a long pole, held up over his head and as close to Danny DeVito as he could get it. It wasn’t a super bright light, but it provided just the extra little bit of kick the scene needed to make him stand out from the background. And it was much easier to just walk with the actor and move the light than trying to hit him with a light from far off and keep the light even.

T]he “Film Fellas” webisodes at are what inspired my round table look, by the way. One thing I’ve found helpful when pitching ideas is making them as concrete as possible. I’m not a storyboard artist, so usually it means scouring the web to find a sample that comes close to the idea in my head. So even though we location scouted, I remembered these videos from and suggested the look we ended up using, and it won the day.


  1. Neat stuff Rob!
    Thanks for sharing what works for you.

  2. Rob, Lighting a oblong table for a
    political debate. Four men, two across from each other, moderator on one end. I like the China ball idea, was thinking three, 24″ diameter? Or did you use 18″ when you lit the Muslim Roundtable? White tablecloth makes sense. Thanks.

  3. Hi, Pat! You know, I really don’t remember.And I’m not working at the same place anymore or I’d just go take a look! I think I used the 24″ ones. And when it comes to diffusing light, bigger is usually better anyway. They’re so cheap, you could probably get the 24″ ones and still have money left over in your budget to order 4 smaller ones if those are too big for some reason. The only reason they might be is you might be limited in how you hang them, and they really might be crowding each other for space. When we did it, the balls were right next to each other, touching. I think we just took out ceiling tiles and ran the wire down. We were in a big room, too, so that we had darkness behind everyone with the light falloff. You can still occasionally see a camera or operator in the background. If you have nice zooms, you might be able to back everyone way up so they’ll be in darkness, too. You’ll need to manually back off on the exposure on your cameras or everyone will get ghosted out using auto-exposure. Let me know how it turns out! (And test extensively in advance!)