The Best of the Best

I was looking online the other day to see what films were considered to have the “best” lighting. I know what my personal opinions are, but I wanted to see what the experts had to say. I found a TON of ideas, o[pinions, lists, etc before I came across this extremely well written and well informed piece by screenwriter E.M. Bookman.  Mr. Bookman is so concise and in my opinion, accurate that I decided to share it with you in just a slightly edited form.

Indiscernible and usually overlooked, the lighting of a film set is all too often an unappreciated art form. The tireless work of a skilled lighting technician typically goes unnoticed by the movie going masses and, when done properly, that’s the way it should be. Natural yet synthetic, subtle yet bold, the final product should effectively be a paradox: an unseen vision.

There’s no Oscar for our friend, the lonely Gaffer. No, their labor of love garners no individual accolades or glory. Instead, their hard work is considered to be an extension of the cinematographer. Still, shouldn’t there be some kind of award for those films that do it better than others? After all, every single thing we see on film is light. As Cecil B. DeMille once said, “Lighting is to film what music is to opera.”

The Oscars honor movie sound with two awards, yet lighting receives bupkis. Cinematography is more than the use of lenses, creative angles and stunning composition, it’s also the art of light. Most every scene in a movie is lit with a mind boggling array of equipment and a Gaffer with an overworked light meter. Next time you notice how striking those talented actors look up on that big screen, remember that it’s primarily achieved through the use of artificial illumination.

Here are a few of the very best:

barton_finkBARTON FINK: Barton’s isolation and looming madness is made even more apparent by that shadowy dump of a room he’s sequestered himself in. Dark, ominous, and depressing, the contrast created by the shadows in The Hotel Earle make Barton’s struggle seem even more lonely and desperate. Charlie Meadows’ treacherous rampage down the burning hall is a brilliantly lit masterpiece as well.Schindlers-List


SCHINDLER’S LIST:Lighting for black and white is a different critter altogether. Certain color tones either come out garish or washed during filming. The art is in the light. Delicate in parts and bold in others, the lighting of this film’s various scenes mirrors the ever changing mood. Despair, hope, anger and triumph are all reflected in the light.

The contrasts in this film are numerous and effective as well. The pale faces in the darkened alleyways for example, as well as the bright candles in the dark, are images that show us the duality of man and the boundary between good and evil. Oskar Schindler’s face is seen as a contrast as well. Often veiled in shadow, his complexities are subtly implied. Even the use of black and white is a metaphor showing us the contradictions of our nature.

SHADOW OF A DOshadow_of_a_doubtUBT: Hitchcock utilized his arsenal of director’s weapons like no other before or since. He was more than the master of suspense, he was also the master of light and shade. For example, early on in Shadow Of A Doubt when we see Uncle Charlie’s rented room, sunlight coming through the blinds create the shadows of an artificial jail. Without us knowing it, Hitchcock has sneakily given away his checkered past. It’s amazing what one can imply with just a tungsten lamp and a few scrims.

The scenes with Uncle Charlie and his niece always seem to be dimly lit any mysterious. Yet when the two of them are in a location with the rest of the family, the lighting seems brighter and safer. Hitchcock uses this subliminal tool to make us buy into the nefarious intentions of Uncle Charlie. That’s why Hitchcock remains the master manipulator.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY:It’s impossible to describe this film’s incredible lighting without sounding like Captain Obvious. Everything about it was impossibly well done and mind-bogglingly complex. Kubrick was always known as a pioneer and this film still stands the test of time, continually dropping our jaws with it’s amazing light show. I mean, how did they manage to create the reflections in Bowman’s face shield as he hurtles through the tunnel of light?

Another technical challenge to this film was the dichotomy of disciplines. Kubrick needed, wanted, and had to have, the most synthetic light possible for the interior shots aboard Discovery One. The more artificial the better. Yet the moon shots and the dawn of man scenes required an honest realism. Stanley and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth pull off the transition admirably. Still awe inspiring to this day, 2001 was a game changer.

CITIZEN KANE:One of theCitizen-Kane big boys of cinematic epics, Citizen Kane is the total package. Everyone knows about this leviathan’s heavyweight credentials, but its virtues extend beyond story and acting. Part of the magic lies in the light. Moody and deliberate, Orson Welles’ masterpiece is the bellwether for cinematic lighting and can mainly be credited to cinematographer Gregg Toland. The many cavernous rooms of Xanadu are a personification of Kane himself: Imposing and ominous. Each scene was meticulously lit and shot in a manner not seen in Hollywood before, making it the true original it is today.

Much like Spielberg did with Oskar Schindler, Welles and Toland did with Charles Foster Kane. Both films feature shadowy compositions which belie men who love attention and living in the spotlight. Yet, underneath all the bravado, they suffer from the same insecurities as the rest of us. Strange how lighting can humanize even the largest of personalities.


ANGEL HEART:Absolutely under-appreciated as a director, Alan Parker is truly a genius when it comes to cine
matic lighting. For example, one of Parker’s signature moves utilizes light coming down from a window we can’t see. This effect, shot in a studio, shows us how small the character is when compared to his struggle. The light and shadows coming from a window up on an infinitely high wall paints a daunting portrait. The character’s conflict subconsciously becomes an almost hopeless endeavor.

Parker’s films rely heavily on mood created by light, more so than most other directors. None of his pictures do this quite as well as Angel Heart. Dark and sinister, a foreboding story such as this needs equally foreboding lighting to make an impact. Harry Angel’s nightmare descent into hell via elevator is truly a lighting aficionado’s sweet dream.





Tech History- Saltwater Dimmers

The history of film and theatre-from the ancient Greeks to Marvel Studios, milestones in advancement and artistic achievement are well known and well documented.wireless dimmers

Sadly,  film and theatre tech history has only recently become a hot commodity so there is not a lot of valid info available. Lighting has such a rich history that even with little info available, I could go on for days- but one bit of info has always intrigued me.

Years ago I was spoke with a lighting designer who told me about her time doing tech for shows at a state fair. The equipment, she said was outdated and a little terrifying. Terrifying? Yes, terrifying. They used saltwater dimmers. Say what? Oh yes saltwater dimmers that made all your arm hairs stand up when you operated them-I had to find out more….

The first dimmers were directly controlled through the manual manipulation of large dimmer panels, but this meant that all power had to come through the lighting control location, which could be inconvenient and potentially dangerous, especially with systems that had a large number of channels, high power lights or both.

Early examples of a rheostat dimmer include a salt water dimmer or liquid rheostat; the liquid between a movable and fixed contact provided a variable resistance. In a salt water dimmer, there were two metal contacts in a glass beaker. One contact was on the bottom, while the other was able to move up and down.

The closer the contacts to each other, the higher the level of the light. Using salt water dimmers was a tedious and precarious task that included filling the beakers with water, checking the concentration of the salt, and raising or lowering the top contact. Salt water dimmers were not efficient due to the evaporation of water and the corrosion of the many metal pieces. These dimmers were colloquially known as “pis pots”, for obvious reasons. Many old theatre electricians still recount stories of how they were initiated into the art by being requested to “top up a pot” and receiving a shock, as unbeknownst to them the pot was live…

Well we have certainly come a long way! Can you imagine what those old stagehands would think about our wireless dimmers? They would probably be shocked!