a cave, a long, long time ago. flames shoot up from a fire. they surge, retreat, then rise again. in the flickering light, someone is drawing a bison on a wall.
the expressive power of primeval light: that is still what we must aim for.
you cannot touch light but it touches you. by applying pressure on the retina, light rays imprint themselves in our body. some of these impressions remain with us through our entire life.
there are sources of light, some natural, some artificial, but darkness doesn’t have a source. even though we don’t think of it that way, it is truly our abode, our reference point, our default environment. even so, we are not self-assured in its midst. we grope for things, we fumble around. as our certainties weaken though, our prejudices subside as well.
we often think of darkness as the place of mystery, the unsaid, the unknown, the void. but it is also where everything springs from, the womb from which beings and objects suddenly emerge in full, resplendent colors. only afterwards, in the light, do we pay attention to them. only then do we see each for what it is, in its uniqueness: this man, this cup, this chair, this table. each reveals itself to us.
if the shot starts and all is lighted, beings and things are taken for granted. the light keeps them from appearing.
light wraps itself imperially on the objects it illuminates. it blends into their matter, changing their appearance, giving them a color, look or trait that wasn’t there before. under its aegis, the world reveals itself protean, modifiable at will. it is light that makes the world what it is every time we look.
for all its imperial magnificence, light produces its own darkness when its rays encounter an opaque body. unlike ambient darkness that can be gotten rid of at the flick of a switch, shadows are there to stay. they are also multifaceted. they vary their shape during the day. they multiply themselves in a room lighted by several sources. while mimicking their model, they can skew them, e.g. when they intersect perpendicular planes like a wall and a floor.
for jung, the human shadow reflects the hidden, dark side of our personality.
individualism anchors ideology in the united states. it is not surprising therefore that lighting privileges the principals on the screen. their faces are exquisitely chiseled, made to glow as those in george hurrell’s photographs. they are not only lighted preferentially compared to others, they are also individuated in whatever environment they happen to be in. conversely, because public sentiment in europe is generally more communal than in the umited states (some would say socialistic), it follows that, in films, spaces are lighted first and foremost, the protagonists receiving hardly any supplemental treatment.
lighting’s seminal moment in film goes all the way back to 1915 when alvin wyckoff put a practical light next to the protagonist in the opening shot of the cheat. in so doing, he made lighting dwell in the characters’ world. from that point on, films showed people lighted more or less as they would be in everyday life.
this said, movies were still in black and white. the image was therefore not yet entirely realistic. although the contents—people, furniture, streets—looked real enough, the medium somehow transfigured them, giving them a more formal appearance. black and white thus magically positioned all entities at a perfect distance from everyday reality. without ennobling it, the monochromatic image gave the world a stately look.
in that environment, lighting didn’t have to be fully lifelike. actors moving through space could be illuminated without having to justify the scheme every step of the way. two shadows behind an actor didn’t bother anybody. and no one was troubled by radical lighting adjustments on faces whenever the camera showed the same situation from a different angle. all of that was perfectly acceptable because of the abstract nature of black and white photography.
when color came in, technicolor dominated the scene. because the process favored well saturated, not quite realistic hues (look at women’s red lips), cinematographers only tweaked their way of doing things. it is only when kodak introduced the eastmancolor monopack with its much more true-to-life color palette that things started to change. all of a sudden what used to be acceptable looked rather ungainly. still it took nestor almendros to delineate what would soon become a new paradigm in professional lighting. drawing on an approach developed by georges de la tour and rembrandt, he fought against implausible lighting effects in otherwise realistic settings (take a look at the use of candles in dreyer’s vampyr). in his own images, he therefore aimed at replicating more accurately what would normally happen in our everyday world. although less showy than the gilded illumination found in the classical cinema, naturalistic lighting did not abandon the entire paradigm: it still glamorized as well as described, seduced as well as informed, signified as well as laid bare.
since then the naturalistic scheme has been applied mindlessly to countless films. to say that the prototype has become suffocating is an understatement. it doesn’t seem to matter whether it is this room or that one, denton, texas or bozeman, montana, a generic treatment is applied to all. from the opening image of most films, the lighting in effect tells us that nothing is going to happen here that hasn’t happened thousands of times before elsewhere.
once this skeletal scheme is in place, adjustments are made based on what happens in the story globally and in each scene in particular. what this means is that, having read the script, directors of photography (dps) stealthily dramatize the atmosphere in view of narrative developments yet to come. let us take hitchcock’s suspicion as an example. the protagonist arrives at home driving her convertible. as she exits the car, the illumination suddenly darkens. a cloud surely must have obscured the sun for a moment. once inside, she advances cautiously in the parlor while what looks like a gigantic spider web is seen on the wall behind her. no doubt the pattern originates from a large skylight in the ceiling. naturalistic lighting thus plays a double game. on the one hand, it justifies the visual phenomena, making them appear aboveboard (the cloud and the skylight). this is not us—the filmmakers—telling you a story, it is truly happening in the real world. on the other hand, with the same gusto as casting and music, it effectively (but unnaturally)guides the audience through the events in the story.
from the first shot to the last, naturalistic lighting superimposes conventional visual templates on fresh elements of reality. what we respond to therefore is not the thing itself but the pointer that is applied to the thing. as a result we don’t have to scrutinize what happens on the screen, look for evidence, or grasp for meaning, the lighting that is encrusted onto the scene does the job for us.
although it appears a cinch to implement compared to, say, expressionistic lighting, naturalistic illumination must in fact tread a narrow line between too much and too little. keep it simple and the images will be criticized for their crudeness, e.g. the libertine. overdo it and they become too fancy to pass for the everyday world. for a while, the difficulty of producing a perfect distribution of light values on the set in a short amount of time kept images realistic enough. it was no small feat indeed to decide on the amount of light which was to fall on a person or object so that the reflectance emanating from that surface would deposit itself on the film in harmonic proportion with all the other reflections filling up the frame. needless to say, to be able to do this quickly required years of practice. no correction in post could alter the balanced proportions established during the shoot. the image could only be made lighter or darker in toto, warmer or cooler when working in color.
digital changed all of that. first, the new medium got rid of the “surface noise” associated with the halides and the grains of film. digital pictures as a result look universally gorgeous, if glazed over. second, color grading makes it possible to nestle a scene within an ethereal color overlay, enhancing its look, endowing it with a visual consistency and a dramatic mood it could not possibly secure in the real world. third, with full color correction now available, each part of the image can now be fine-tuned in post in terms of both luminosity and hue. dps and colorists are thus able to work and rework each area of the frame till it is flawless. these digitally modified images have become as lustrous and ostentatious as those we find in glossy monthlies such as architectural digest. even when grungy locations are used in a film, the lighting sanitizes them till the stench is gone. this situation is not new. writing in the late twenties, walter benjamin already pointed out how easily it is for superb aesthetics to steal attention away from the content of social documentary photographs, turning, say, poverty into visually appealing forms, patterns and textures.
just as servants used to wax the parquet till it shined, dps and colorists polish their images to please the owners of the movies. because their work adds surplus value to the film as a commodity, it is well remunerated. yet i suspect that almendros, were he still alive, would question and ultimately fight back against this development.
when everything is beautiful in a film, the disparity that previously made it possible to single out an exceptional lighting scheme compared to less successful ones ceases to exist. beauty needs to be rare to have an impact on viewers. should a rape scene be as beautiful as a romantic one? so when every view—whether a living room in the daytime or an alley at night—is stunningly gorgeous, the whole experience becomes unnatural. most percepts in life indeed are neither beautiful nor ugly: they just are. as a result, films no longer connect us psychologically to the world we know. we do not care as much.
let’s face the facts: naturalistic lighting is no longer life-like. the scheme has hit an aesthetic cul-de-sac.
there is no point trying to emulate hollywoods’s gorgeous cinematography when working with a minimal budget. the result will always look sub-standard compared to what can be accomplished by the pros. turn the situation around. do what they cannot do. for hollywood cannot do small, cheap, or real. try your hand therefore at what could be called proletarian lighting. take a look at ice, a film about an underground revolutionary group in the sixties. even better, imagine you are in a cellar in sarajevo or aleppo with the civil war raging outside and make the most of every available light source. the light can be trembling, it can be intermittent, and it can move. don’t be afraid to let most of the set go dark for what we don’t see is always more suggestive than what is visible.
dogma’s constraints are equally fruitful here: stick to the lighting sources you find in your locations. just move them around to make them more serviceable or increase their wattage if necessary. there is no need to go beyond that. remember: no one has ever gone to a movie to watch its cinematography.
if you have access to a cheap green screen, you could have memories or reveries appear behind the actors. till now, there have been only two methods to bring the past into the present: you could superimpose a second image onto the first one—which most times produced a clumsy amalgam—or you could cut or dissolve one picture into the other. what the green screen technology allows you to do is to incorporate into the present elements of the past or the subconscious in a way that can be dramatically effective.
expressionist painters have shown it was possible to depict the world, not as it appears to the eyes, but how they felt or thought about it (franz marc’s blue horses). it may have been shocking at the time but today hardly anyone pays any attention to the animal’s unusual attribute. music video lighting too has accustomed us to accept all kinds of visual disturbances.
yet genuine expressionist lighting in fiction films is hard to find. in the cabinet of dr. caligari—the most famous film of the genre—lighting effects were painted on the set rather than obtained through spotlights. a good example though can be observed in ivan the terrible. as the czar makes his way into the throne room, his shadow becomes gigantic on the wall behind him. in most films, this effect would be motivated by strong flames from a fireplace. this is not the case here. the towering shadow originates rather in eisenstein’s decision to highlight ivan’s (and stalin’s) absolute power. whether he is in awe or repulsed by that omnipotence remains ambiguous.
unmotivated lighting too is hard to locate in commercial films. a great example can nevertheless be found at the beginning of suspiria when the protagonist gets into a taxi. all through the ride she is bathed in reds, blues and yellows without any attempt to explain where the colors come from. in the conformist, venetian blinds striate sunlight onto a couple flirting in a room. common enough but in this case storaro has the stripes of light sensually ascend then descend along the two bodies. there is no explanation for the effect. it is as if the light had a will of its own and decided to join the couple in the amorous mood. in american gigolo, richard gere searches a large room at night. behind him, on the wall, blue stripes suggest moonlight coming through venetian blinds. yet, as he moves to other sections of the room, the color given off by the “moon” becomes first yellow then green. again there is no attempt to justify the strange phenomenon. in the double life of veronique a light flutters inside a room. at first we believe it originates from a reflection coming from a window across the street. yet, after the latter is shut, the light continues to hover around, maybe suggesting the presence of some spiritual force. more radically still, in godard’s alphaville, light rotates around karina’s face, it is on, then off, then on again, it shifts from day to night during the scene, etc.
what would be involved in reviving a more experimental use of light? one could rethink the relationship between light and objects, for instance by incorporating the former into the latter. in other words, let’s revisit blade runner’s lighted umbrella shafts and position tiny led bulbs on clothing, objects, floors, walls, etc. we could also play with goethe’s double light. by this the german philosopher meant having a single source of light (e.g. the sun) produce shadows in opposite directions from one another in different parts of the scenery. alternatively, instead of sticking to a single lighting scheme for a scene, the face of a character could be lighted differently as the scene progresses. the background too could lighten, darken, or change color, in accordance with, or in contrast to, the mood of the character, the scene, the place, or just gratuitously. in this way the osmosis that we take for granted in film between a subject and light would be abandoned in favor of a more dynamic dialogic relationship between the two (bakhtin).
to go still further we need to engage the discrepancy found at the beginning of the bible when it tells us that light was created on the first day whereas the sun, the moon, and the stars appeared only on the fourth day. based on this, it should be possible to construe film lighting as an autonomous, sovereign medium, unconnected to everyday illumination. in the same way score music does not originate from the world of the characters and is thus different in kind from songs emanating from a device that can be located in the film, “score” lighting could supplement or replace source lighting all together. the change-over could even help revive cinema’s aging dramatics.