How to build a cyclorama

Imagine being inside an empty egg. There you are, surrounded by white, with no horizon in sight. You’re depth perception is gone, but it’s not stressing you out, because you are calm, zen like, suspended in the illusion of endless space of silky white and smooth.

This is what a car sees inside a cyclorama, also known as a cove. And this is why we build cyclo’s to photograph cars. At izmostudio we have purpose built cycloramas, for photographing very high volumes of automotive media, and custom photography.

Many other parts of the media industry use cycloramas for all kinds of media production like fashion, large product sets (think furniture), movies, green screen, and television sets. Common to all are the smooth walls sans horizon, and the creative capacity to play with light, and shadow, on curvy cyclorama walls.

As common as cycloramas are, there are many times I see a blank look of confusion, when discussing cycloramas with different people. Maybe I’ve mistaken the calm, suspended, zen look, for a blank stare of confusion. In case it is confusion, I thought it would be cool to write a quick review of the three basic forms of constructing a cyclorama.

Building a cyclorama is basically building walls, with smooth curves instead of right angles. The difficult part is the corners, where two or more curves meet. The three different structural materials I’ve used successfully are wood, steel, and fiberglass. Each one has advantages, which I will review. All three different approaches, require some form of drywall and plaster. For our European friends, this material is known as Gypsum plaster.

finished cyclorama stage

Finished cyclorama stage

Building a cyclorama is like any construction project. The space you have available and the budget for time, materials and labor drive the process. Make sure that these elements will meet your production goals.

Producing video or photography of large shinny objects requires much more cyclorama than beautiful models with wind blowing through their hair, or a small green screen set for composite and EFX work.

Now that you know the size of the cyclorama that you need to cover the subject, and provide enough background from your field of view (FOV), lets look at the all important radius.

What is a Radius?
A full radius is half the diameter of a circle. A radius on a cyclorama then is ¼ of a circle to cover the horizontal distance from floor to wall, or vertical distance, from wall to wall in the corners.

The goal is to hide the right angle intersections from wall to floor, wall to wall, and possibly wall to ceiling, with a top radius. All radius joints need to be as smooth as possible, with no visible seams, just like the inside of our egg.

How much radius will you need? The size of the subject will determine some of this decision. The radius key is – the larger the curve of the radius – the greater the achievable distance from the subject, and the more cyclorama background you can have in the FOV without seeing the radius. Larger = smoother transition.

If someone says you can light a radius enough to hide it. Forget about it. Unless you plan to shoot on 100% white all the time ignore this distracting idea, and take the time to build it right, so you can focus on lighting the subject, and not fight with the background, or add extra post-production costs.

01 Pre-fabricated Fiberglass
Naturally this seems like the easiest solution – Pre-fabricated fiberglass pieces. You can buy radius pieces, corners, or as a complete cyclorama system. With the radius delivered to your door, it is relatively easy to install, and all you have to build is the structural (studs) and flat wall parts.

Pre-fab pieces of a cyclorama

The real joy of the pre-fab fiberglass solution is the corners, which I spoke about earlier as being – not so fun to build.
Some providers of pre-fab cycloramas offer a modular freestanding system – “cyc on wheels”. Ready made and modular sounds really cool for some applications.

Taking fiberglass one step further is a custom built solution, where a model maker can make the mold for you and then just push out the radius pieces.

The biggest advantage of pre-fab cyclorama systems, and fiberglass radius pieces, is that they can be used, disassembled, and re-installed, when your studio business moves. It’s worth considering the lease terms on your studio space, when making this decision.

In the USA Pro-Cyc is the leader and offers several pre-fab, modular, and permanent cyclorama systems.

In Europe talk to Hassan at Servix, or have a look at Colorama Photo in the UK. And for a superb custom mold and install check with Christian Bogaert in Belgium.

02 WOOD & DRYWALL
Wood and plaster are excellent materials for building more permanent cyclorama installations because these materials are more flexible to form, and a bit less forgiving to errors. In my case I always worked with a good contractor or carpenter to make the parts. Working with a contractor is a good way to approach this option because there are four professions required, framing, carpentry, drywall, and painting.

Framing the walls of your new cyclorama is basic wall construction. Make the frame to code for your local area!

Wood radius pieces

Wood radius pieces

Make the radius from 4X8 sheets of plywood. Use a table saw to cutout the radius. Place one radius at each frame stud. It is possible to get two 5ft.(1.5m) radius from one 4×8 sheet of plywood.

Make support blocks from 2×4”s. For the bottom radius, I would make one support block for every foot of radius distance. If you plan a top radius you could use fewer support blocks, since it’s unlikely anyone will walk or skateboard up the top.

Place two sheets of ¼” plywood on the bottom radius to cover. You might be able to use just one sheet depending on the amount of traffic and support needed. If making a top radius the plywood is not needed for support, and it adds too much overhang weight.

Wood cyclorama corner

For the corners use wood slats and chicken wire. These two materials will provide a good base to add plaster. Plaster and sand to make the corner shape. Start the corners at this at this step, or in parallel with drywall, since the amount of plaster required will have long dry times.

Now drywall, tape, and mud the entire cyclorama. Place the drywall horizontally on the radius. Although it seems a bit counter intuitive, the horizontal orientation will bend enough. A light misting of water will help bend just enough to get it in place. The reason for the horizontal bend is that it is less tension, and therefore less likely to crack over time with temperature and humidity changes.

The last step is to finish the surface by sanding, a coat of primer, and painting. Generally cycloramas are painted white. I would suggest not using a pure super white paint, for light exposure value reasons. And if your budget and sport the cost go with Silicate Dispersion Paints.

03 STEEL & DRYWALL

Steel radius support

The benefits of steel are its structural load capacity and lower labor cost compared to wood. Depending on where you are located the material choice can vary widely between steel and wood. Not to mention responsibly harvested sustainable wood. Commonly steel is a higher material cost, with a lower labor cost. Steel studs come pre-cut from the vendor, and are much faster to work with.

The process for the walls is the same with steel. The difference is in the radius. The actual curved supports for the radius are still made from wood. Although for this steel structural method, use ½ inch pressed particleboard, or chipboard in Europe.

Instead of layering plywood for the surface of the radius use steel studs placed horizontally the length of the wall. For a five foot radius, I used four horizontal steel studs evenly placed, from the top down through the arch of the radius. This method is super fast. Just screw the studs into braces on wood radius pieces.

The horizontal steel studs also provide the support for the drywall surface. Place the drywall horizontally at the top first, and down toward the bottom to the radius where it meets the floor.

A excellent Portuguese gypsum professional pointed out the that two thinner pieces of drywall are better than one thick piece, for resistance to cracking due to temperature changes. Who would argue with Portuguese gypsum professionals? Not me, so I took this advice and used two layers of ¼ inch drywall, for the radius surface, instead of one 1/2” inch sheet.

If you are installing a top radius one horizontal steel stud, with layer of drywall, is enough for the top return, without adding too much weight. A five foot overhang needs to be supported securely from the top and sides, so adding any extra weight to the top radius just means added expense for its structural support.

Painting a cylorama stage

The last step is to finish the surface by sanding, and making sure the transition joints are super smooth. I recommend good lighting for this finishing phase. Add a coat of primer, and then paint. I would suggest not using a pure super white paint, for light exposure value reasons.

These are three basic options for cyclorama construction. Albeit a little on the large scale for cars, but the methods will pan out at any size. Do you have some experience to share? Send us comments and pictures of your new cyclorama or one that you are building.

Steven Poe

9 Comments

  • Dominik says

    That is a very interesting post !

    thx !

  • Mark Fiorani says

    Why do you have to do the curve on the top too?

    • Mark,

      In most environments light naturally comes from the top. The top return allows for natural feeling bounce light. The other huge advantage is with subjects that have reflective surfaces like cars. All the top reflective surfaces see above and behind their position. A top return on a cyclorama fills in the top surface reflections nicely.

      Thanks for reading…

      Steven Poe

  • Tim says

    Steven,
    Please excuse my ignorance.
    What are the most common applications of the cyclorama and coved, L or U shaped cycs?
    Want to explore but not sure if I would have an application?

    • If I understand the question correctly – almost all cycloramas are U shaped where the wall meets the floor. The advantages are no horizon line, and lighting. An L shape would be a regular 90º angle like a normal wall, with no advantage.

  • Richard Swan says

    Thanks for a great article. I am planning a studio space mostly for portraiture and fashion, but would like to be able to photograph models with cars on occasion. What minimum dimensions/square footage would you recommend?

    • The bigger the better. If you have the space 40-50ft. walls work best for cars. If there is a car on a 3/4 angle and you are using the cyclo wall to light the side body a 40ft length is minimum for most cars, without a seam to fix in post. Then think about the space between the car and lighting/grip. And then the distance between the lighting and the cyclo wall. Smaller spaces can work, but take more time to produce in.

  • Gun Evren says

    Very well explained process. Can u please recommend paint type proper to paint the cyc numerously, as needed mostly green>white>green. And also how to degrade from super white, adding black? Thanks

    • Depending on the size of the cyclorama I would not recommend painting green>white>green. The cost of material and labor for a 2500 sqft. cyc (that we use) with top return is almost $10,000. Covering the green would require base coat of primer, and 2-3 coats of white. Depending on your geo location and humidity/temperature this could mean a week of studio down time. We have successfully used green screen material 20×20 draped on the cyclo, which is much easier and cost effective. Another option is to light the cyc walls green if you have enough distance from the subject to the cyc wall to eliminate any light spill. The problem with this – green light wash – technique is getting a seamless floor/horizon.

      Back in the 1980’s adding black was used to achieve ‘white with detail’ for cyclo’s. Current paints are available with off-white cool or warm tones which are much more consistent. In the U.S. Pratt Lambert High Hiding White works well or high quality interior flat latex paint. The goal is low reflectance values.

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