NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN – THE BASIN AT NIGHT
Looking at Lighting
The largest and most daunting scene for me in ‘No Country for Old Men’ was where Moss returns to the aftermath of the drug deal and his one moment of kindness starts him on his inevitable last journey.
The location for this scene was chosen for the view it offered from the bluff, as well as the geography of the terrain in the basin below. The whole layout of the landscape was very important to the Coen Brothers. Beneath the bluff they needed a small hill on which Moss could park his truck and beneath this very specific areas over which the action could evolve. This action needed to continue across a sloping plain to where there could be river, which for various reasons needed to be at an entirely separate location.
For me the challenge was in lighting such a large area at night. My preference would have been to create a soft ‘moonlight’ effect; such as I attempted some years later on the film ‘True Grit’. However, given the space involved, it was going to be a challenge just to get an exposure on a 500 ASA film stock, even with Zeiss Distagon 1.3 lenses. At the time I had begun shooting with the Cooke S4 lenses, which I loved the quality of but were a 2.0. An additional complexity was that the script called for dawn to break from the time that Moss is discovered part way through the scene.
As you can see from the attached diagrams the space I had to light was quite large and it was not just a matter of lighting the human characters and allowing the background to go into complete blackness, as the landscape surrounding the action was a character in itself. Using the bluff was my solution. By placing my ‘moonlight’ there I could wash the whole area with a light that acted as a sidelight or a backlight but rarely as a front light. Of course, one of the real advantages of storyboarding a scene like this is that you can consider these parameters beforehand. To move such a lighting set up as I needed here would have been two days work so I needed to be sure I had chosen the best option.
I had used Musco lights before, for some quite similar scenes in a film called ‘Thunderheart’, so I knew these units would be a viable on this location if we could only gain access and permission to use them. Luckily, the land above the bluff was relatively flat and firm so to drive these vehicles into place was not a large problem. Failing the Musco lights I had considered erecting a large high scaffold to hold a line of 12K HMIs. A Musco is basically a large crane holding an array of 16 x 6K HMI lamps, which give an output of 96Kw. The output from three such units would be around 288Kw so a simple equivalent in terms of wattage would amount to 24 x 12K HMI lamps.
The problem would be the time taken to rig and the scaffold and this number of lamps because our schedule just didn’t allow for that. Besides, I would not have very much flexibility during the shoot with fixed lamps even with a much larger electrical crew. By using the Muscos I already had the lamps on a 100’ arm and each lamp could quite easily be re focus from the ground using a tried and tested remote control unit. The cost of the three units was pretty steep but compared to the rigging and de rigging that would have been required for any alternative it didn’t seem such a bad choice. As always, we had a lot to shoot in a short period of time and it was mid summer so the nights were short.
Musco lamps are usually used to light stadiums and concerts rather than being specifically designed for film work, so it was understandable that we needed to adjust our schedule for the availability of the units. In the end, because of cost and availability, I was restricted to using two of these units. On the night before shooting, my pre light night, I was standing below the bluff taking a light meter reading and It was quite apparent why I had initially wanted the three units. I had ordered in some extra HMI Par lamps but my meter hardly moved.
On the ‘floor’ we used large bounce sources to ‘catch’ the available light and to wrap it into a face. Sometimes I did use an extra lamp, perhaps a 400w Joker, to add to this soft wrap.
For the dawn silhouette effect that outlines Moss’ truck on the hill we used a line of about 7 x 12K HMIs behind the hill and simply pointed them at the sky. There was a long strip of duvetyn acting as a cut to the bottom of these lights so that nothing direct interfered with the ground. I tried a little smoke to enhance this effect but as this didn’t look right we spotted in the lamps and simply allowed what dust was in the air to create the silhouette. We had staged the action as best we could so that the true dawn would rise in the same place relative to the camera as the artificial one but, as luck would have it, it was cloudy when we shot. Consequently the blend is not so good. So it goes!
This last sketch of the final lighting in fact changed yet again! The HMIs used for the dawn effect behind the hill on which Moss parks his truck are marked on this diagram to be bouncing. This might have worked if we could have used smoke. But, as we were just lighting the air and whatever dust was naturally in it, we used direct lights.