Lighting is another aspect of filmmaking that has a foot in both the artistic and technical camp; light is, after all, essential to conventional image making. Obvious I know, but unless you are making a film with a thermal camera, light is how it all works. Lighting is also – alongside music – a good way to illustrate how a scene should make the viewer feel, without the need for dialogue. It has the ability to allow a film to sit in the future, be romantic, fearful, supernatural; decadent even. Not just with the use of colour, but with the way the light is modified or positioned. It is another aspect that will often, when it’s done right, go completely unnoticed.
I know… I’m talking as though we are all shooting high-budget feature films; rather than the low-budget shorts and documentaries most of us usually spend our time working on. However, there are many approaches to lighting for different situations, irrespective of budget. When shooting interviews, for example, for the most part we filmmakers want the pieces to look intentionally lit, or in a way that can be kept uniform within the context of the work. Sometimes it is just not possible to spend a great deal of time on lighting. Sometimes it may even make the situation too intimidating for the subject. I’ve shot hundreds – if not thousands – of interviews, and for some subjects it’s better to keep the interview simple, rather than making the situation more uncomfortable for them. After all, we don’t want to run the risk of them backing out at the last minute because they feel ill at ease. This call is down to you and your skills as a producer. Even with a nervous subject there are things you can do: backlighting with daylight through a window and bouncing light into the face with a white reflector, for example. This can give separation from the background without the need for additional lighting fixtures. Like I said, in a roundabout kind of way, in this instance it very much depends on your priorities.
When it comes to approach, not only is three-point lighting the best known, it is also a good place to start in most cases; if nothing else, it’s a good way to explain basic principles. I may be teaching some serious egg sucking here, but here we go anyway. Three-point lighting consists of a key light, a fill light and a back light. In terms of lighting an actual person, the key light illuminates the face, the fill light softens the shadows and the back light adds an outline of highlights to the shoulders and hair; thus helping to separate the subject from the background. There it is; it’s a simple principle… now go and break it!
I watched a tutorial recently where a soft key light was used and the fill light dropped in favour of a ¾ light (more or less directly opposing the key light), and it looked great. That’s the beauty of digital cameras with LCDs and/or monitors; you can try things. Gone are the days of measuring and calculating light ratios; you can see it in real time, so you get to be more creative.
People often talk about high-key and low-key lighting. This is often misunderstood, depending on how you read it, as it is counter-intuitive. High-key lighting is flatter, lower-contrast lighting. Traditionally used in classic Hollywood productions, it is flattering as well as consistent, and often easier to use, as the setup has less need to change for different angles and shots. Everything looks bright and cheery with little or no shadow. It is used less often than it used to be in film, and is considered to have very little dramatic effect.
Low-key lighting, however, is full of drama; mostly lurking in the shadows that oppose the strong highlights. Not for the faint-hearted, as with low-dynamic-range cameras it is easy to lose detail in the shadows and highlights by crushing the blacks and blowing out the whites. But then, this level of control is what lighting a scene is all about.
Anyway, I did promise not to ramble on about technical details and theoretical technique too much, so we’ll leave that where it is and try to apply it, and other approaches, to some films made by people who really knew what they were doing.
For me, this is a fantastic example of how invisible and unobtrusive lighting can be; only becoming noticeable at all when it is to be used to make a statement. Low-key lighting is used throughout the film to great dramatic effect; as well as small amounts of colour. Tim Robbins’ character, Andy, is often lit with warmer colours than the rest of the cast, to show his internal optimism; as a contrast to the dull, featureless, often silhouetted space the other characters live in, portraying their lack of hope. Even in the outside scenes, in the exercise yard, the prisoners are mostly shot from the shadow side. One notable change to this is when Andy plays an aria over the PA system. The camera flies over the prisoners as they look at the speakers. The sun hits them as Morgan Freeman’s narration states that just for a moment they all feel like free men.
There is no doubt that lighting The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was more involved than it seems at first glance. Let’s face it, when the sun is high in the sky and your cast are wearing wide-brimmed hats, exposing faces fully in all circumstances is no mean feat; though it has been widely reported that Leone instructed Delli Colli to “pay more attention to light than in the previous two films”. An interview with Delli Colli states: “Leone wanted full light for long shots because he wanted the details to be visible on screens of all sizes, and close-ups with the individual hairs of the characters’ beards visible. It was impossible in Spain. He wanted deep, long shadows – the deepest and longest we could get – and the sun went down late. On the set, we prepared in the morning and then we just died waiting for the right light.”
In my view the lighting had to be high-key, as Delli Colli wanted to shoot lots of close shots of eyes as a window into the souls of the characters, allowing the viewer to read every expression and clearly see every bead of sweat, every twitch, every look.
Probably the most notable thing about the way The Godfather is lit is the use of very soft, overhead lights. This often creates dark shadows around Brando’s eyes, making for greater mystery surrounding his thoughts and thus difficult to read; allowing greater detachment. This use of overhead light has been attributed to necessity, due to the way Brando was made up, and was adopted throughout the film. Willis was affectionately nicknamed ‘The Prince of Darkness’, as he had a tendency to under-light scenes. Even he thinks he went too far sometimes with the darker scenes in The Godfather; especially as the studios complained that it would make it difficult to screen the film at drive-through cinemas.
For me, the most remarkable thing about the way Forman and Wexler lit One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, is the fact that the lighting is unremarkable. It is bright, mostly even and rarely moody. In fact, it barely looks lit. It is exactly as you would expect a fluorescent-lit psychiatric ward to look. Often in the less prominent parts of a scene you can see a slight green hue, as you would expect from fluorescent strip lights of the time. And that’s what is so clever. It would be very easy to add drama to the scenes with light and shade. Considering the situation and location, it would also be very easy to use clichéd impressionistic imagery; but that would be promising a depth that isn’t supposed to be there from the beginning. The depth comes from the performance; and from the fact that the viewer can see the increasing gravity of McMurphy’s (Jack Nicholson’s) situation, without him ever fully realising it.
For the most part, lighting style is an integral part of the production design process and unless you are supremely confident in your vision, can require many hours’ lighting tests; especially in difficult locations. None of this means you have to use the latest, most sophisticated or most expensive lighting fixtures. Light itself is a basic thing. It’s the way you use it that makes all the difference