J. Belmar Kail,
Instructor, Department of Cinema,
University Southern California
American Cincmatographer • February, 1936
We often hear some cinematographer say that painting with light is the most important thing in motion pictures. Well, that is true; he can take care of the close-up of the star with reflectors for all the effects he wishes to get, but when he is compelled to make the exterior scene in the studio he has to create the illusion of reality. Light is his medium; he must use it as the artist would his pigments, even if he is shooting in black and white he can get all the tones and subtle qualities that will have the psychological reaction to the audience mind that they are seeing an exterior. Atmosphere that is made up of light only, real trees placed in proper relation to the painted backing must blend into the whole thru the light the cameraman allows to come through his lens.
In the first photograph at the top you will see how well the artificial tones are made to seem real. The gradations from the foreground to the subtle tones in the background are in true value to the real exterior. Light coming from above where it actually does in nature, but is soft and mellow so that the eye can feel in harmony with the scene. The artificial light, that is, that which comes from the lamppost and through the windows, must show a contrast to the natural lighting. The bits of props that are placed about this scene give it realism; the watering pot perhaps is its truest note, because some little thing like that makes one feel that people had actually been there working in the garden. The ladder at the side against the wall lends atmosphere. All pictures, day or night, are taken with the light coming from one angle; the reason is simple, natural light changes during the day, and as shots in the studio are taken at different times, the light source must be always the same to match with every scene. There must be no sudden jumps of light playing all over the scene. You could never sit through a picture if it was made this way.
Photos 2 and 3 are of the same scene; it is a little interior of an European inn, with careful study of light and design. The ceiling beams are shown with their ornamental design which is characteristic of such a place. The lighting is subtle and such as one would find in Europe. The arrangement of the chairs and tables are home-like. The little things placed on the wall sing their song. Now contrast it with the same scene cluttered up with garlands and streamers, tables looking like some American cafe, no unity in composition, lighting flat and meaningless, beams are lost in the jumble. It could be New Years in any city, but it never is, nor never could be, European. There is no painting with light, just a sorry mess. No indication of where the light might be coming from. Avoid this at all times and you won’t regret it.
The first picture at the bottom on the left is typical of the sets made in major studios. Refinement, balance and good design. The furniture is in keeping with the massiveness of the architecture. Soft, mellow light through the large window is interesting and leads the eye to the stone arch entering on the rear of the room. The balcony stands out in relief against the archway with light coming from some other part of the mansion. The lighting fixture on the left side of the room is in keeping; the heavy drapes belong in this scene. People moving about this room even if it were today, would fit into such a place. The lighting is highly dramatic as the costumes worn in this picture were the accenting note. This is good composition.
The next two pictures are in the “modern manner,” French in fact. The lighting system used is real as far as the concealed fixtures are concerned. The overhead lighting would certainly help any actor walking through the doorway. The highly polished floor adds a note of its own. This is texture in its proper relation and with the metal furniture they too belong. The last photo is a very fine textural composition; the wall of the penthouse opening onto the roof is very definite in character. The sculptured panel fits into the design perfectly; the polished floor of the roof is odd but lends dignity and richness to the whole atmosphere of the scene. The arrangement of the trees in the background balance with the composition. The rail in the righthand background breaks the massiveness of the retaining wall running around the roof. The furniture is well placed for cinema action, not too much of it, but what is there, is good.
The amateur would do well to study the pictures of stills from Hollywood and see that in most cases they are very well thought out in composition and textural qualities. The lighting is dramatic and well chosen and detail is all important to the type of picture. When you are making your home movie don’t try to light up your interiors like the proverbial Xmas tree; it is not the amount of light that makes a good picture, but the care as to how it is handled. Move your light about until you have found the best place for your dramatic action and then shoot. From time to time you will see light plots diagramed; they are for particular cases, so don’t hold fast to the rule that there is only one way to get good lighting. Experiment and you will soon find that many new lighting plots will come up. Chart each one after ycu have made the shot; you may need this some time, and all plots should be filed away. Write in your problems and I will be glad to assist you.