Movies – Importance of Lighting in The Illusionist (2006) and Marie Antoinette (2006)

Movies – Importance of Lighting in The Illusionist (2006) and Marie Antoinette (2006)

Rembrandt said “all is light.” If our reference is the visible universe, I think he is right. In movies, even emotions are dependent on the way a film is lighted. That’s why I think DP (director of photography) is such a crucial part of a film crew, perhaps as important as the Director herself.

Two recent and one old movies bring home the point very forcefully — The Illusionist (2006), Marie Antoinette (2006), and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001).

The dark, muted and dusty green-brown-sepia light of The Illusionist was a perfect choice for this movie. That flickering, out-of-focus on the edges light scheme told you at one look that this was an “old” movie and we were watching something that happened “in the distant past.” The whole movie was shot in the colors of yellowing paper. I especially loved the gorgeous faded out dull greens and burnt-wheat browns. It was the illumination of a pre-electric era torch and gas light that matched the story very well. The light itself was a character in and of itself in this Edward Norton mystery with a twisty end that resembled The Usual Suspects (1995).

Marie Antoinette, on the other hand, has used a lighting with clear vibrant colors that refused the “story that takes place in the past” categorization. Nothing was faded in this movie. Nothing was dark or muted. The brilliance of the reds, blacks, yellows, blues, violets and especially the billowing pinks had the magic effect of transporting us, the viewers, back to the Versailles of late 18th century. Thanks to such lighting, we were no more removed from the setting (like in the Illusionist) but were a part of it. Why? Because the lighting screamed “today and now,” not “long long ago.” This film made a time machine out of the light.

Black and white lighting has long been the touchstone of most film noir pieces, even (strangely enough) when they are shot in full color, like most of the French film noir classics.

However, I have one film in mind which is sort of a “gold standard” in my mind for B&W lighting – the incredible and unforgettable The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) by Coen Brothers.

In some scenes the lighting is so sharp, so exquisite, so breathtakingly uncompromising that you forget the story and wish to relish every frame for its aesthetic value, just to celebrate the beautiful new language that just two main colors, without any grays in between, carve out of space and time.

The Man Who Wasn’t There represents the absolute minimum in lighting beyond which the visible universe ends. But perhaps that’s also where it all begins. Perhaps sheer black and white, with no grays, act as the binary gatekeepers to that part of the visible universe that falls within our frequency spectrum. Is that why B&W creates such a do-or-die urgency and emotional response on the part of all film noir fans?