Realistic and expressionist lighting (7 replies and 5 comments)
I'm reading Nestor Almendros' book and the way he talks about his realistic approach to lighting (keeping the natural light of a location when possible or using artificial lighting only to correct or "help" the existing one) reminded me of you. I'd like to know if you consider him an inspiration and what are your thoughts on a more expressionist style of lighting such as, for example, Storaro's style, have you ever felt the need to shoot a certain film or scene with a light that is not so motivated and just feel-based? Of course the film of yours that first comes to mind is Blade Runner but even in that one the crazy colors and lighting is justified by the distopic scenario.
Thank you very much
Roger has done some expressionistic lighting now and then…
Thanks! It's funny how b&w seems to take this kind of lighting better (generally speaking) because as it differs from real life in the lack of color, it already makes us suspend the need for verosimilitude
Nestor Almendros did some expressionistic lighting now and then too, not often, but in “Still of the Night” there are some moonlit dream sequences.
Could you explain what is expressionistic lighting and what is the difference realistic lighting and expressionistic lighting.
If you take the movies shot by Vittorio Storaro for reference, you'll see a lot of the times the color is so strong is not realistic and so is the lighting, which motivation is usually secondary and it looks kind of "polished". Of course, it has a lot to do with the movies he's shot (Dick Tracy or One from the heart are designed to be the opposite of realistic) and the directors he's worked with (Carlos Saura usually likes to let the audience be aware that what they're seeing is a movie). Storaro has studied a lot of philosophy and science and has a whole theory about how light and color convey emotion based on the work of people like Hipocrite, Newton, Goethe... so when he designs the lighting of a film he's usually more focused in which colors and lights will tell what the narrative of the film have to tell than what is the light that a certain place will naturaly have. I personally love his approach and so I do with Deakins or Almendros' one, I just think it is a matter of personal style, but I'd like to hear (or read) Deakins' thoughts.
It’s not a well-defined term and lighting can both be expressionistic and logically motivated. Technically expressionism distorts reality to enhance the underlying emotional state of the character or the psychology of the scene. Horror films are the most common examples of this kind of visual technique — the creepy apartment of the creepy serial killer in “Se7en” (doesn’t mean that that scene isn’t mostly lit naturally by practicals — but the effect is nightmarish, dreamlike.) It’s a bit related to the romantic notion in literature of the “pathetic fallacy”, which is when nature reflects the emotions of the scene (i.e. it’s raining during a sad scene.) So there are degrees of being expressionistic — you can be quite subtle about it, you don’t have to get into a “Cabinet of Doctor Caligari” territory. Film Noir is an extension or evolution of German Expressionism and yet it also has elements of documentary realism.
I’d also say that Storaro’s lighting can be quite source-motivated at times — the light bulbs lighting the nighttime Playboy Bunny scene in “Apocalypse Now” creates both a surreal, dreamlike effect and is yet an example of seeing the lighting in the shot, so it’s all motivated logically. Same for the nighttime BBQ scene where Kilgore’s men cook steaks, lit by helicopter lamps and flashlights, work lights in the frame. It was all part of Storaro’s idea that the U.S. Army be represented by “artificial energies” — electricity — in the natural jungle environment, as if they didn’t belong there.
Yes! Indeed Storaro tends to motivate his expressionistic lighting and Apocalypse Now is a great example. However there are times (I'm thinking of a lot of scenes from Cafe Society) when the source doesn't match exactly its motivation, like a shot where you can see a bright mid-day sun in the background and at the same time the characters are lit by a very warm and angled sun. As you say, expressionistic lighting can be logically motivated or it can be "Cabinet of Doctor Caligari" (which, by the way, is funny how they relied on painting the lights and shadows on the walls sometimes more than in using real light for the "chiaroscuro" effect).
Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge! It's a real honor
By the way, this is the shot from Cafe Society I was referring to! cheers
There is a difference between supposed 'expressionist' lighting that feels real and lighting that takes the viewer out of the film. 'Caligari' or 'The Third Man' or 'The Conformist' have expressionistic lighting that is not exactly real but, in context, feels real. The 'worlds' of these films have a unity that even more naturalistic films often fail to create. The use of garish colors can distract more than enhance a story. In a film like 'To Live and Die in LA' the color-scheme adds to the nightmarish vision of the city but there are some films, and I don't want to be too specific, where style takes priority over substance.
Thanks for your insight Sir Roger, I would like to know now that you mention style vs substance, how would you address as a DP that you are adding too much style rather than having a cohesive film. Any experience you share or tips would be awesome.
I guess that is just down to taste and having a good dialogue with the director. When you have a close collaboration with a director you find that one of you will 'censor' the other and pull them back from making a shot that, however impressive it might be in isolation, is only ostentatious within the story flow.