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The Secret Reason "Criminal Minds" Looks Realistic

It's literally light bulbs. Behind the scenes of the Nov. 12 episode, "Hashtag." Mild spoilers for that episode.

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Ffilip Bolton is the show's assistant chief lighting technician, and even though his job involves light bulbs, it's incredibly important because without those bulbs, Criminal Minds would look terrible. (Full disclosure: My father — who is a television director — worked on the show in the past.)

You need proper lighting "to create depth in an image," Bolton said — in order to make something look three-dimensional on your two-dimensional TV screen, you need light and shadows.

On this particular Thursday in September, the crew arrived on set at 1 p.m. They started that day on the Nov. 12 episode "Hashtag" by lighting a scene that was literally going to be in the episode for less than four seconds: A group of children and an adult pose for a selfie, and then you see the selfie. Less than four seconds. More than a dozen people.

"We have to compete with the sun," Bolton said, explaining why he was setting up giant, super hot lights when they were shooting outside.


While they were setting up to make that selfie look like it was taken in the middle of the day because the reality didn't look realistic enough, one of the most critical parts of Bolton's job was lying coiled on the ground.

And, as it happens, power is a lot of what Bolton works on — he has to go on location scouts when the show shoots off of its soundstage, located just outside of the Glendale area of Los Angeles, and he goes to all the production meetings where they plan out each episode, because in addition to figuring out what lights the show will need, he also needs to figure out where they're going to plug everything in. Again, something that sounds so simple is actually pretty complicated when you consider that each of the lights runs on 1200-1400 amps, which is around 60 to 90 times what your outlets at home are usually pumping out. "Eeks!" are in order! Bolton, who was an airline mechanic in his native Denmark, is not an electrical engineer — he learned how to plan out an electrical grid on the job.


Bolton is holding a scrim, a screen that is popped over the lamp to knock down the intensity of the light. As you can see, the scrim, which is made of METAL, is BURNED just from being near that light!

Bolton used the windows in the ambulance to point HMIs through — an HMI is a hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide lamp that looks like daytime light, he said. Also, there is mercury in HMIs. Exciting!


Members of the lighting crew put "gels" over the windows, which were blue, translucent light filters about the thickness of paper — blue in this case because the light coming in through the ambulance windows looked too orange. Bolton said they have hundreds of them in an array of colors. You never know when you may need a gel.

The bounce is that big white rectangular thing with a light pointed at it. When the light bounces off the bounce, "it comes back very broad and soft," Bolton said. "It looks very much like it's outside and daylight's hitting him."

While they were shooting the back of this ambulance, the lights went out and three guys rushed to the distro box! Bolton later told me that someone had kicked the cord.


The man with the cap and the light bulb by the back of his head is Greg St. Johns, the DP.

The curtain's also good for hiding sparkling water.

This is a subtly creepy moment right before something very bad happens to this young woman, played by Ana Walczak. And she walks through a shadow, and it's just for a split second but it's so scary. Lighting! It's everywhere.

Counterintuitive! Everyone, meet the light that plays the moon in this episode of Criminal Minds.

One man crawled underneath to deliver a note to Walczak for the script supervisor. "And they say chivalry is dead," someone remarked from the darkness.

The light in a night scene has to be bluish. "When you're in total darkness, it's what your eye adjusts to," St. Johns said. It also can't have the same intensity as daylight — while they were shooting the scene, St. Johns had a crew member climb up a ladder and add a scrim to the light because it was coming in too harsh.

As they filmed, the director, Constantine Makris, gave notes to both Walczak and the actor playing her attacker. "Once you slice her throat, try and get your legs out of frame sooner," he said. It was strange to be in a room full of people quietly standing around listening to a woman screaming. At one point, they had to stop because there was a glare coming off the floor that needed to be fixed: The lighting has to be perfect.