1984 – ALEXANDER PALACE
Looking at Lighting
I was recently asked how my work might have changed since I began my career as a cinematographer so, since I am soon to review a new transfer of the film, I thought I would talk about some work from ‘1984’. Although this film was not my first feature it was the first I worked on that was of such a scale.
There were two very large crowd scenes in ‘1984’, one of which was a political ‘hate’ speech and the other was of a public hanging. The images that I post here from the film are of the ‘hate’ speech, whilst the storyboards relate to the executions. The lighting diagram was used as a basis for both scenes as they were shot consecutively to utilize the same location and extras.
Everything in the film was made ‘in camera’ so there is no visual effects work. The images that appear on the ‘Telescreens’ were achieved in various ways. We used actual televisions when the images were small; some of the larger screens were filled using back projection; and on one occasion we inserted the image as a traditional glass shot. For this the camera was set to photograph a landscape in the east End of London and the camera was locked down. On a piece of glass held at 45º in the foreground of the shot, both the framework supporting the screen and some distant Brutalist buildings were painted in perspective to the existing landscape. Onto this same piece of glass a playback image was then projected to represent the screen itself, care being taken that each element of this was held in the same relative focus. In this way the whole shot was achieved ‘in camera’.
But for the two scenes I am talking about here we used regular ‘cinema’ projection to achieve the final result. This was done utilizing two Carbon Arc projectors and specially prepared screens painted with semi reflective paint. This wasn’t the same surface as is used for front projection as it allowed us to shoot at an angle to the screen, which is not possible with atraditional front projection screen. The paint we used was similar to that used on hazard signs and, because it increased it increased the relative exposure I could shoot at, it was crucial to feasibility of the approach. With laser technology and digital cameras it is far easier to project a bright image onto a 45’ screen. In fact, you probably wouldn’t even bother projecting anything today as LED screens are such a viable option but back in 1984 this was quite a technical challenge. The two carbon arc projectors were mounted on scaffold towers, each set at about 75’ from the screens, the optimal distance given the lenses being used for the projection.
For both the scenes we shot the playback footage prior to the main unit shoot. Obviously, we were shooting ‘1984’ on film so there was a number of days turnaround time involved in preparing the footage for playback. The playback image was also re photographed off a TV screen in order to embrace the scan lines that we associate with a video screen. We did numerous tests to see what the image on a Telescreen should look like in our world and both Mike Radford and I felt these scan lines would be more suitable than a pristine ‘film’ image. In fact, we also used a small part of the screen of the TV so that these lines were more present than in our reality. Of course this all this took time to do and meant the playback footage needed to be shot well in advance of the actual scene.
Given that the playback was representing what was happening in real time, quite a bit of rehearsal time was necessary with the both speaker and the extras to sync their actions with their action on screen. An interesting knock on effect of the 180º shutters of the projectors was that only a ghostly image was visible to my eye when I was looking through the camera viewfinder. The extras and actors could see the image very well but through the eyepiece there was only a faint ghost of an image when the shutter of the camera was in sync with the shutter of the projector. (The sync had to be driven by the camera as I was using HMI lamps) If I could see an image through the finder it meant that something was wrong and the film was not being exposed correctly. Today such an effect can be done with digital cameras , instantaneous playback and with a far lower stress level but I think this was a lot more fun!
Before we began shooting ‘1984’ Alexander Palace had been virtually destroyed by fire. All that remained of the main structure were the exterior walls and it was this that provided us with a unique looking location in close proximity to London. The thorniest issue for us was the feasibility of rigging lighting from the walls, which was ultimately sanctioned after a structural study and some remedial work. Looking now at the lighting plan I did for this location I am surprised to see that I mixed both Tungsten lamps and HMIs, which is something I seldom do today. I do remember exactly why I did this, which was for a combination of both practical and aesthetic reasons. Primarily I needed the output of an HMI but I didn’t want the blue cast that using them with tungsten balanced stock would give me. The 6K HMIs were a new development at the time and were the most efficient lamp available for what I needed. However, using tungsten balanced stock with a rating of only 100 ASA, to gel the lamps would have meant losing more exposure than I could afford. The bottom line was to mix the hard directional light of the 6K HMI with the wider flood of a Maxi Brute to produce an image that was cool rather than blue. This would also contrast nicely with the playback image, which we had printed with a warm brown bias. The playback image was only registering at a little more than a stop over exposed at a 1.4 so I was not requiring a huge amount of light for the overall set but given the size of the location it was still a considerable sum relative to our budget. Given that we were shooting at night with so many extras we also needed some 7 generators for the set, the power being mostly used to run work lights between the make up trailers and the set.
How much would I do differently today? Just about everything but not so much for aesthetic reasons as technical ones.