Visions of Light Essay

Pages: 3 (1159 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Film

Visions of Light: Lighting…the Star

What's most immediately striking about Visions of Light is how the cinematographers themselves consistently play down their importance to the overall cinematic project even while their imagery argues eloquently that film should be primarily considered as a visual medium. As a result, work of what would otherwise represent undeniable artistry is usually subordinated to other creative functions and their sense of the narrative and commercial imperatives. Unless service to the story mandates an unusual effect, there is a strong tradition that good camerawork should be invisible to the casual moviegoer; even a relatively aggressive studio cinematographer like James Wong Howe trained his assistants to keep their most dramatic techniques in the background.

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Visions of Light also reveals some of the ways in which the studio system's commercial interests have shaped cinematic vocabulary. Early generations of cinematographers learned to light bankable performers to please either management or the performers themselves, and this in turn fueled the film industry's power to generate both glamour and celebrity. Producers eager to give audiences a spectacle (or simply tell a story on a lower budget) also influenced the way sequences are photographed. Until the transformation of the studio system in the 1960s and 1970s, it was unthinkable to shoot a feature film naturalistically -- as John Alonzo notes, Chinatown broke the rules by being "a major motion picture and I'm lighting it like a documentary" -- given the amount of money and prestige already invested in each project. As a result, directors of photography developed an extensive repertoire of in-camera illusionistic techniques to create a cinema that manufactures, not reality, but a more commercially compelling version thereof.

Essay on Visions of Light Assignment

Against the background of these concerns, I found the discussion of Days of Heaven especially suggestive as an exploration of both how cinema might have evolved differently and why the film industry turned out the way it did. Given a project in which photography would do most of the work of evoking a period and carrying the story, Nestor Almendros opted to abandon the illusionistic tradition of cinematography in favor of natural light, and in particular the so-called "magic hour" of twilight. This, he argues, better captured the realities of life before electric light.

In effect, natural light would become the star of the film, with the performers reduced to the role of speaking and moving models -- finally, the actors would serve light, rather than vice versa. While the specific qualities of that light allowed the production to achieve much of the romantic glamour that more conventional cinematographers had created through bright lights, diffusion filters, and other tricks, it also reduced Days of Heaven in some ways to a painstakingly controlled documentary film. Fully built sets, working machinery, and vintage costumes heightened the sense (itself largely an illusion, but a grand one) that Almendros was not so much creating an illusion of the way the past might have looked, but actually photographing the way it did look.

Much has been written about how this approach was grossly impractical and nearly doomed Days of Heaven to the reception that greeted Heaven's Gate a few years later. Shooting almost entirely at twilight limited the crew to a crawling half-hour-a-day schedule and left the scattered traditional interior sequences shrouded in gloom, reducing their ability to bear the weight of the narrative -- when they were usable at all. As it was, director Terrence Malick reportedly despaired of collecting enough coverage that he simply kept… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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Visions of Light.  (2010, March 21).  Retrieved March 31, 2020, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/visions-light/236286

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"Visions of Light."  Essaytown.com.  March 21, 2010.  Accessed March 31, 2020.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/visions-light/236286.