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Sunday, January 3, 2010
"The stuff that dreams are made of."
”The Maltese Falcon”, 1941
I’ll forgo my usual carping about the trials, tribulations, and occasional indignities of Industry life in favor of a brief meditation on light. To me, it’s beyond ironic that below-the-line work (the foundation of the business) involves so much heavy lifting to create a finished product that weighs less than air. Movies and television are nothing more than images dancing across a screen – light, color, shadow (and sound...) carefully shaped into the world's most popular form of modern entertainment. But when everything falls into place –- a smart script, good director, talented cast, and an experienced, hard-working crew -- the results can be magical. Like all true magic, what the appreciative audience never sees (the seven-eighths of the iceberg below the waterline) is just as important as what appears on the screen.
But in the end, it's all just light, as ghostly, ephemeral, and mysterious as a dream...
The Oscars finally got around to honoring Gordon Willis, albeit thirty years late. Willis was his usual dyspeptic self – like any self-respecting New Yorker, he seems to consider Los Angeles a moral, intellectual, and aesthetic wasteland, and isn’t the least bit reticent about sharing his crusty opinions. I got a sneak-preview of sorts while listening to NPR’s rebroadcast of an all-too-brief 2002 interview with Willis, during which he attributed his failure to win the Little Gold Man to a dislike for the game of golf and his steadfast refusal to wear white shoes. Willis, it seems, felt that anybody who was anybody in LA back then spent every non-working hour playing golf while wearing white shoes – and for all I know, maybe he was right. If the interview isn't particularly long or in-depth, it’s still worth a listen. At one point, Willis talks about how much he loves the light in New York City – the myriad ways the hard East Coast sunlight is reflected and refracted between all those enormous towers of stone, concrete, and glass, creating fleeting images of stunning urban beauty. Having wandered around Manhattan a few times, I've seen enough to know he's right.
“Light means a lot to me in life,” he said, “and the light is terrible in LA, except in the Fall.”
Right again, Mr. Willis. Everywhere I’ve been in this world, the light is always better in the Fall and Winter months, but nowhere is the difference more dramatic than in Southern California. From Spring until late Summer, the thermonuclear fusion engine that is our sun blasts the holy crap out of LA like some monstrous Death Ray from space. The flat, blinding light floods everything with a bleached-out ugliness relieved only in the brief hours immediately after sunrise and just before sunset, when the sun hangs low in the sky like a big ripe orange.
One reason the film industry moved from New York to LA in the first place was for the light, but this was a matter of quantity over quality. In the early days, the crude technology of artificial lighting left most filmmakers at the mercy of the sun. Given the sheer abundance of solar illumination in this desert-by-the-sea -- where real weather (clouds, rain, sleet, ice, and snow) rarely intrudes -- LA provided a perfect location for the industry to flourish.
Back then, simply getting a reasonably crisp image on film was enough of a challenge -- it didn't really matter that hard overhead sunlight was ugly as sin. Still, it wasn't long before the basic techniques for controlling and modulating the unflattering natural light were developed -- and although our modern equipment is much lighter, stronger, and easier to use than what was available in the really old days, the same basic methods are still used to cut, soften, reflect, and otherwise modulate harsh sunlight to serve the needs of cinematography.
As Summer fades into Fall, the sun tracks ever lower across the sky. With those rays beaming through a much thicker atmosphere, the color of sunlight makes a subtle shift towards the warm end of the spectrum, offering a stark contrast to the crisp blue sky. This low, warm light banks off palm trees, giving them a metallic sheen, and skids along rough stucco walls to bring out a a world of texture seldom seen during the harsh Summer months. Everywhere you look – the natural world of landscapes or the urban cacophony of man-made structures – seems to glow in the rich buttery light, accented by shadows that grow longer, sharper, and more intense every day.
The lush Autumnal light turns the whole world into a painting. It's a truly gorgeous time of the year.
Working in set lighting introduced me to the infinite variety and qualities of light, on set and out in the real world. Eventually I learned to appreciate the light all around us – its directionality, tones, and ever-varying textures. Although the actual work of set lighting begins and ends with wrangling very heavy cable (and in between, requires setting and adjusting equally heavy lamps that are often extremely hot), the end result of all that sweating and grunting is the creation of something shimmering and bright up on the screen. Although I’ve only met a couple of DP’s who were big enough assholes to proclaim “I paint with light” (and one of those was a spray-painter, at best), when you get down to it, that’s exactly what a gifted cinematographer does.
The natural light-show all around us isn't there simply to please cameramen and film crews, but for everybody to enjoy. As the seasons unfold, I urge you to get out into the world, turn off your cell phone, and take a really good look at what's all around you. Once you learn to see it, there's a lot more magic in the real world than you'll ever find up on the silver screen.
And all you have to do is open your eyes.