There has always been a reciprocal relationship between technology and film style. The development of different types of lighting equipment and the introduction of new film stocks have both expanded the range of lighting methods and effects available to the cinematographer. Many types of lighting units were first developed for nonfilmic uses, such as street lighting or searchlights. Only later was their potential for producing cinematic lighting effects explored. Although certain styles of film lighting arose in response to technologies that already existed, many other technical innovations were the result of experiments by enterprising cinematographers and gaffers. In some instances, the name of a certain lighting effect has derived from its first use in film. One example is the "obie," a small spotlight that was designed by the cinematographer Lucien Ballard (1908–1988) during the filming of The Lodger (1944) in order to conceal the facial scars of actress Merle Oberon. The history of film lighting is a complex chronicle of intersecting influences involving technological and aesthetic innovations, periods of relative stasis, and the gradual development and refinement of existing techniques.
The lighting techniques used in the early cinema of the late 1890s and the first years of the twentieth century were astonishingly primitive in comparison with those used in still photography. Filmmakers of that era did not adopt the range of artificial lighting that was already standard equipment in photographic studios and widely used by photographers to enhance the aesthetic appearance of their work. Instead, filmmakers relied almost entirely on bright daylight. For this reason, when films were not shot on location they were filmed on rooftop sets, or else in studios built with either an open air design or a glass roof. Thomas Edison's famous Black Maria studio, built in 1892, was based on a rotating structure that allowed its glass roof to be maneuvered to follow the direct sunlight. A greenhouse-like studio built by the French filmmaker Georges Méliès (1861–1938) in 1897 that featured both glazed roof and walls and a series of retractable blinds proved to be an influential model for the design of later studios. The availability of many hours of bright sunlight was so important to early filmmakers that it has often been cited as one of the reasons that the American film industry shifted its base from New York to California (although other reasons, such as the wide range of landscapes California could offer for location shooting, also were important).
The use of daylight as the main source of illumination provided visual clarity. It did not allow as many opportunities to create dramatic effects as artificial lighting did, however. Nor did it permit indoor or night-time cinematography. The first uses of artificial lighting have been traced back as far as 1896, when the pioneering German filmmaker Oskar Messter (1866–1943) opened his indoor studio in Berlin. By 1900 the Edison studio in America had begun to make regular use of artificial light to complement naturally available light. Examples of this practice can be found in Why Jones Discharged His Clerks (1900) and The Mystic Swing (1900). Although the use of artificial lighting was initially confined to replacing or augmenting sunlight in order to provide a clear image, by 1905 filmmakers had begun to explore the creative possibilities of artificial light. In spite of the fact that the technology had long been available, the potential value of harnessing it to further the aesthetic development of film style does not appear to have been recognized in the early cinema.
Two main sources of artificial light were used at this time. One source was arc lights, which produced illumination by means of an electric spark jumping between two poles of carbon. The other was mercury vapor lights, which worked in a way similar to modern fluorescent lighting tubes. These sources allowed the creation of directional lighting, meaning that a chosen area of the set could be lit more brightly than the other parts. As the practical and aesthetic benefits of electric lighting came to be accepted both in America and abroad, some producers adopted it as their primary source of lighting, and the first "dark studio" opened in Turin, Italy, in 1907.
In America, experiments with lighting effects continued, both indoors and out. A range of new techniques were discovered, although no significant technological innovations appear to have been introduced until the 1910s. The director D. W. Griffith (1875–1948) and his cameramen were particularly active in their exploration of lighting effects, which can be found in such films as Pippa Passes (1909), The Thread of Destiny (1910), and Enoch Arden (1911). The last of these is often cited as the film that introduced a significant new technique: the creation of a soft lighting effect on faces by using reflectors to redirect strong backlight. The innovation was claimed by the cameraman Billy Bitzer (1872–1944), although questions have been raised as to whether he was really the first to use this strategy. In the mid-1910s, Griffith also began to make increasing use of high contrast lighting that cast deep shadows across characters and sets. This style had emerged a few years earlier in the Danish and German cinemas. Due to its earlier use by the famous Dutch painter, it is sometimes known as Rembrandt lighting, a term attributed to the Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille (1881–1959), who used the technique in films such as The Warrens of Virginia (1915) and The Cheat (1915).
During the latter half of the 1910s, filmmakers adopted two significant new techniques, both derived from other art forms. One was the use of carbon arc spotlights, which had previously been used in theater and which allowed a strong light to be directed from a distance onto a particular actor or area of the set. The other was the use of diffusing screens, which already belonged to the repertoire of the still photographer. Diffusers could be used to transform a hard light into a soft light that did not cast such severe shadows. The increasing use of soft lighting techniques, whether they relied on reflectors or diffusers, had particular benefits for facial lighting. Soft lighting produced more flattering effects and, with the rise of the star system during this decade, it was becoming ever more important to make the actors look attractive.
The range of lighting sources that were used in film, and a growing appreciation of their potential to create specific effects, encouraged the development of more sophisticated lighting styles. It became common to use a combination of several lights to create a pleasing aesthetic that flattered the appearance of the actors and the sets as well as serving the film's narrative requirements. One of the best known lighting setups is the so-called three-point system, which was used primarily for figure lighting. The brightest of the three lights was the "key" light, which was directed toward the actor's face from the front-side. If this light were used on its own it would leave one side of the face in virtual darkness and cause the actor's nose to cast a large, unflattering shadow. To prevent this from happening, a second softer light known as the "filler" light was directed at the other side of the face. This light was normally positioned close to the camera, on the opposite side from the key light. It helped to balance the composition, reducing the dark shadows cast by the key light while preserving the facial sculpting. A third "backlight" was positioned behind the actor in order to create a halo of light around the hair. This served to separate the actor from the background and also helped to emphasize the fairness of blonde hair, which did not otherwise show up well on the monochromatic film stock that was used until the late 1920s.
A third type of light that came to be used in conjunction with the arc and mercury vapor lights was the incandescent light, which used a glowing metal filament, much like most modern domestic lighting. The cinematographer Lee Garmes (1898–1978) claimed to have used this type of light as early as 1919, although its first use is more commonly identified in Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1924), which was photographed by Ben Reynolds (c. 1891–1967) and William Daniels (1901–1970). Whatever the case, it was not until the introduction of panchromatic film stock in 1926 that it came into common use, when it was found that the color temperature of incandescents, or "inkies," was better matched to this stock than was that of the arc lights. Studios were quick to embrace the benefits of incandescents, as these lights required less electrical power and less manpower than other forms of electrical lighting. It was widely predicted that their use could halve the cost of film lighting as well as significantly reduce the amount of time spent in setting up and operating lights during the film shoot. A further decisive factor in the wide adoption of incandescent lights was the temporary abandonment of arc lighting with the coming of sound. Filmmakers discovered that the humming noise emitted by arc lights was picked up by recording equipment. Only in the early 1930s, after a way was found to silence them, were arcs reintroduced as a supplement to the incandescents that had taken their place as standard studio equipment.
The wide range of easily governed incandescent spotlights introduced in the 1930s allowed an ever more precise control of lighting effects. Complex systems were designed to ensure that every detail of the image was carefully governed. In his 1949 textbook, Painting with Light , the Hollywood cinematographer John Alton (1901–1996) described an eight-point system for close-up lighting (p. 99). It was based on the three-point system described above but included some extra lights that helped to improve the aesthetic effect. Three were directed at the actors: an "eyelight," which brought out a sparkle in the actors' eyes; a "clothes light," which showed up the details of their costumes; and a "kicker light," which added further definition to their hair and cheekbones and was normally positioned between the backlight and the filler light. Additionally, a "fill light" provided diffused lighting for the entire set while a "background light" illuminated the set behind the actors.
Around 1947 a new lighting aesthetic was introduced that had arisen in response to the techniques used for shooting newsreels during World War II. Shooting combat footage did not allow filmmakers any opportunities to create complicated lighting setups; instead, they had to rely on daylight, or else on a handful of powerful lights that provided a general illumination. The photofloods first introduced in 1940 were ideal for this purpose. Some fictional films began to emulate this rough and ready aesthetic. A wave of documentary-like thrillers ensued, which eschewed such complicated schemes as the eight-point lighting system in the service of greater realism. Many of these, such as Boomerang (1947) and Call Northside 777 (1948), were based on real events and filmed on location.
The 1950s saw a further erosion of the dominance of the lighting techniques that had characterized films of the 1930s and 1940s. One reason for this was the growing popularity of color filmmaking. The range of different hues meant that fewer lights were needed to differentiate between one surface and another. The backlight, which had been used to separate figures from the background plane, passed into near redundancy for a time. It still had other uses, though, one of which was to illuminate rainfall, far more visible when lit from the rear than when lit frontally. Some of the other changes in lighting technique during the 1950s can be attributed to the rapid expansion of television production. Television relied heavily on the use of live, multi-camera shooting on a studio stage. The lighting style that best suited this mode of production was one that offered a bright, even illumination of the whole set. Even though theatrical films continued to light shots with greater individual care than did TV productions, the high-key style associated with television became a widely accepted norm.
Regarded as one of Hollywood's most eminent cinematographers, John Alton is best known for his work in film noir during the 1940s and 1950s. His contribution to more than a dozen noirs helped to define their characteristic style of high-contrast black-and-white photography. Alton was also responsible for some very fine work in color, and he received an Oscar ® for the ballet sequence of the lavish musical An American in Paris (1951). His enduring reputation was cemented further by the publication of his classic textbook Painting with Light in 1949, the first book on lighting technique by a Hollywood professional and still one of the most revealing and readable.
Alton's work is characterized by a tendency to use as few lights as possible, an approach that allowed him to create arresting images both quickly and cheaply. The speed with which he worked and his refusal to follow in the established traditions of lighting technique reportedly made him extremely unpopular with other cinematographers and lighting crew members. Nevertheless, his economical working practices and the innovative effects he achieved made him the cinematographer of choice for such renowned directors as Anthony Mann, Vincente Minnelli, Richard Brooks, and Allan Dwan.
John Alton entered the film industry as an MGM lab technician and soon became a cameraman, working for some years in Europe and then in Argentina before returning to Hollywood. The film that first propelled him to the status of an A-list cinematographer was T-Men (1947), although he had previously racked up well over forty credits. T-Men was the first of his six collaborations with Mann, which would later include Raw Deal (1948) and Border Incident (1949). While it is considered one of the first "documentary-style" noirs, at times Alton's highly stylized lighting aesthetic anticipates his most famous work: The Big Combo (1955).
Like most of the films on which he worked, The Big Combo was a low-budget affair whose apparent production values were greatly elevated by the accomplished lighting technique. Alton's sparse lighting sources sometimes bathed faces in light against backdrops of blackness, or else concealed them in deep shadow. In the final shot, now seen as one of noir's most iconic images, he silhouetted the characters against a dazzling white haze. In this scene, as elsewhere, the set dressing is virtually insignificant since the players act out their parts in a world delimited by little other than darkness and light. For the seventeen-minute ballet sequence of An American in Paris Alton used some of the same techniques including silhouetting and deep shadows. These effects were sometimes used to draw attention away from cuts, producing dramatic results. Throughout the sequence, the rapid shifts between different lighting effects and colors within a single shot are dazzling.
T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), He Walked by Night (1948), An American in Paris (1951), The Big Combo (1955), Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography (1992)
Alton, John. Painting with Light . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Originally published in 1949. The 1995 edition includes a detailed introduction by Todd McCarthy.
In the 1960s and 1970s further changes in the dominant lighting styles of American cinema derived their main influences from trends in European filmmaking. The films of the French New Wave and, in particular, the work of the cinematographer Raoul Coutard (b. 1924), proved especially influential. Coutard first used his trademark technique of "bounced light" when photographing Jean-Luc Godard's Le Petit Soldat (1963). It entailed directing photoflood lights toward the ceilings of interiors so that a bright, even light was reflected down onto the scene. This technique came to be widely emulated. A contrasting trend of the late 1960s and 1970s saw many color films adopt a darker, more low-key style than had been used in earlier years. This aesthetic was integral to the somber and pessimistic tone of the narratives that flourished in this era, and Bruce Surtees's work for Eastwood can be seen to typify this vogue.
The most significant change of the late twentieth century was the introduction of HMI (hydrargyum medium arc-length iodide) lights. The HMI was a form of arc lamp that was centered on halogen gas enclosed within quartz and that had the same color temperature as sunlight. After some initial unreliability was solved, HMIs became increasingly popular throughout the 1980s. They remain one of the most popular forms of film lighting today, for both indoor and outdoor cinematography, as they are easy to use and consume relatively little power for the amount of light they produce.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the advent of digital cinema began to have a significant impact on the lighting requirements for certain types of filmmaking. While most theatrical features continue to be produced on 35mm film, which requires far higher levels of light than does the human eye, digital cameras are able to produce a clear image with a very low level of available light. This facility has proved especially popular with documentary filmmakers, as even indoor scenes can now be shot without additional lights. For compositional purposes, supplementary lighting is often preferred, however. Digital filmmaking using available light also has gained favor with filmmakers wishing to adopt a documentary style in the service of enhanced realism, as in the case of Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs (2004), a digital feature that was shot entirely on location using only available light.
Fashion in lighting style has varied considerably over the years. Nevertheless, in spite of this historical variation, certain conventions concerning lighting styles have developed.
In Painting with Light , John Alton identified three main lighting aesthetics that he designated "comedy," "drama," and "mystery." Comedies, he argued, should be brightly lit with low contrasts in order to create an overall mood of gaiety; dramas should vary their lighting schemes according to the tonalities of the narrative situation; while mystery lighting, used in thrillers and horror films, is characterized by a low-key approach that swathes much of the set in deep shadow. Countless films confirm the dominance of this way of thinking, from the cheerfully illuminated comedies, Way Out West (1937) and Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot ( Monsieur Hulot's Holiday , 1953), to the moody chiaroscuro of horror movies like The Black Cat (1934) and La Maschera del demonio ( Black Sunday , 1960). The continued relevance of this model is borne out by a project at the University of Central Florida where researchers in the Department of Computer Science have made significant headway in developing a computer system to identify film genres in contemporary American cinema. The programmers used lighting as one of the four formal criteria by which to differentiate genres (the others being color variance, average shot length, and the level of movement within the frame). Such a measurable relationship between lighting and different kinds of narrative shows the extent to which filmmakers have adopted lighting as an important narrational tool, and emphasizes the
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