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  • Dave Armstrong


Let there be (less) light!

Or the dark art of good cinematography.

Still from THE WATCHMAKER'S APPRENTICE documentary. A very young George Daniels...

So. In this world of digital plenty, I find myself trying to be more aware of the fact that I am easily distracted by lots of things.

This is not always a good thing. OK, it was fine for Leonardo D and Benji F to wear the polymath badge with pride, but they didn’t have the internet and youtube. Obviously Da Vinci, not DiCaprio BTW.

Now, you may say I am a hypocrite, as I do produce fodder for digital platforms, music and video. But as a creator, I think I should limit myself to maybe concentrating on 2 or 3 things rather than several dozen on a good day.

So next week, I am going to report on how I get on, but in the meanwhile (and just for you, yes, I mean you at the back)lets talk about LIGHTING. Or rather about too much of it.

"I try to make light feel like it's always motivated and natural in some way and hope that the lighting goes unnoticed."

Rachel Morrison : Cinematographer, Black Panther

If there is one thing I hated more than marzipan, it was OVER LIGHTING. I mean, the fact that I have now used my quota of all CAPS words for the blog must mean something.

‘How will this make my world better?’ I hear you ask. Well, if you are a film maker, then it might help you produce more pleasing images. If you are a mere film watcher, then next time you can irritate the hell out of your partner during lockdown by spoiling the flow of the movie whinging and ranting about the bleedin’ cinematography.

I have to hold my hand up though. I have been guilty of this many times and I need to be a lot more tolerant. After all the important thing about the movie is the story, isn’t it?

HOWEVER, there is a lot to learn about cinematography through the 20th century and if you are in the slightest bit interested just watch the amazing “VISIONS OF LIGHT: The Art of Cinematography” documentary. Think you can watch it online.

Also, I know now not to be overly critical. I didn’t know the circumstances, logistics or budget of the shoot. Or the pressure from the studios and producers to make the image brighter.

I suppose that’s a bit like record producers sacrificing their dynamics and dignity just to make their record louder than everything else.

In the old days there were great excuses and reasons to make the scenes pop- not just the sort of film stock and equipment available, but something else we forget.

Back in the day when movie theatres were about the size of a small town, you had to project a long way onto a big screen in a smoky cinema. AND then there was the popularity of drive-in movies. You had to project a long way in not so ideal conditions. You know, horizontal rain. Fog. And, more often than not, steamy windows. And not just from climate conditions.

In this article by David Mullen ASC at he talks about lighting in older movies. And he's a lot smarter than me. But for now lets go on a short journey together:

Murray Hamilton and Anne Bancroft from THE GRADUATE. Directed by Mike Nichols, Cinematographer, Robert Surtees. Mike Nichols/Lawrence Turman Productions

Take for instance some of the shots of the finale of the Graduate. Don’t get me wrong. This is one of my top ten movies of all times. Maybe the best directed comedy of all time. And did it spoil the movie. NO!

But look at the still of the fabulous Murray Hamilton and Anne Bancroft. Might be classed as “over cooked” today.

And I am not knocking the triple academy award winning cinematographer, Robert Surtees of Ben Hur fame!

SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t seen The Graduate, watch the whole movie first. I think that’s actually the law in the Isle of Man.

John Cazale & John Savage from The Deer Hunter. Directed by Michael Cimino, Cinematography,  Vilmos Zsigmond. EMI Films/Universal Pictures

Then to the other extreme just ten years later. Another one of my top ten. ‘The Deer Hunter’ bar scene shot by the revered cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond. Please read this amazing interview with Vilmos Zsigmond.

I think fantastic The Revenant was shot entirely with natural light - except for one scene and I think the rules for “DOGME” film-making are pretty strict about keeping it natural.

Famously Stanley Kubrick got a hold of a couple of lenses from NASA to help him shoot by candle light alone in these scenes from the sumptuous “Barry Lyndon”.

Roger Deakins- academy award winning cinematographer:’1917’ (and a bit of a hero of mine…)

Where is this taking me? Well, I think we can all learn to do the best we can with the kit we have, but we live in an age where film grammar allows us to be more sparing with lumens and filling the frame with light. Let it go to black in the shadows. You are allowed to. For without shadow there can be no shape. Shadows make things real.

That's for film makers. For viewers, well, as long as it doesn’t spoil your enjoyment of a good story, you probably don’t care that much. But the important thing is to be able to stay immersed in that movie moment. Anything like obvious artificial lighting that can rip you out of that moment and pull you back to reality. And who the heck wants reality?

Anyway, here’s a frame from one I prepared earlier…

DAM Productions- I shot this somewhere is Iceland with real firelight, a £20 led light, a small sheet of orange gel and a Canon C200. Shot in RAW format.

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