It’s often the case in popular culture that only posthumously do we acknowledge certain artists. This is despite the fact that as far as the medium of film goes, we are impacted by their works for a lifetime. We view examples of their craft repeatedly and they become a part of our culture. However, sometimes credit is given when it should be. This is the case with legendary film cinematographer Owen Roizman.
Roizman is responsible for such iconic films as The Exorcist (1973), The Electric Horseman (1979), Tootsie (1982), Havana (1990), Grand Canyon (1991), Wyatt Earp (1994) and many others. Each demonstrates in its own way the influence of light on the canvas of film. Each are examples of the hundreds of decisions that must be made by an artist as he decides to use color and light in particular to help convey a story or illustrate a scheme or character.
Owen Roizman was born in 1936, in Brooklyn, New York, as son of the Sol Roizman, a newsreel for Fox Movie tone News. Later, he graduated from Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania with a BS in Physics & Math. In 1997 Roizman won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the prestigious American Society of Cinematographers for his work in film. Some of his most influential works are:
The Exorcist (1973): In this iconic horror movie Roizman uses special backlighting to illustrate Linda Blair’s bedroom as she is supposed to be inhabited by the devil. The people who enter the room are supposed to be entering a place that is cold, eerie and forbidding. Backlighting helps in this case to create atmosphere and to also give the room itself character. Roizman’s use of sparse lighting in this scene was also practical as strong lights would have heated up a room that was supposed to be cold enough for each entrant to see his or her breath.
The French Connection (1971): In this movie Roizman uses the very simple but effective technique of actually spray painting a bulb in an already dimly lit bar scene in order to create a grungy mood.
Three Days of the Condor (1975): In this movie Roizman says that he used, “four #2 photofloods on the backs of actual streetlight to give them a bit of modeling.” Here he also says he used dimmers to accentuate the feeling of movement and changing light during certain dramatic scenes.
Finally, Roizman is one of the rare artists whose work is appreciated by many in his time and not just after he has passed which is all too often the case. This is perhaps because of how important film and storytelling is in our culture and how lighting contributes to filmmaking.