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Hollywood Lighting from the Silent Era to Film Noir

Hollywood Lighting from the Silent Era to Film Noir

Patrick Keating
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Hollywood Lighting from the Silent Era to Film Noir
    Book Description:

    Lighting performs essential functions in Hollywood films, enhancing the glamour, clarifying the action, and intensifying the mood. Examining every facet of this understated art form, from the glowing backlights of the silent period to the shaded alleys of film noir, Patrick Keating affirms the role of Hollywood lighting as a distinct, compositional force.

    Closely analyzing Girl Shy (1924), Anna Karenina (1935), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), and T-Men (1947), along with other brilliant classics, Keating describes the unique problems posed by these films and the innovative ways cinematographers handled the challenge. Once dismissed as crank-turning laborers, these early cinematographers became skillful professional artists by carefully balancing the competing demands of story, studio, and star. Enhanced by more than one hundred illustrations, this volume counters the notion that style took a backseat to storytelling in Hollywood film, proving that the lighting practices of the studio era were anything but neutral, uniform, and invisible. Cinematographers were masters of multifunctionality and negotiation, honing their craft to achieve not only realistic fantasy but also pictorial artistry.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-52020-1
    Subjects: Film Studies, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction: The Rhetoric of Light
    (pp. 1-12)

    Perhaps Arthur Miller did his job too well. Film is an art of light, but the art of Hollywood lighting remains so subtle that it usually escapes our attention. This is unfortunate, because Miller and his peers did much to shape our experience of the classical Hollywood cinema. Whether it is noticed or not, light can sharpen our attention, shift our expectations, and shape our emotions. In this study I propose to look closely at this art that was designed to go unseen and unnoticed.

    Three questions will guide this study. First, what were the major lighting conventions in the...

  5. Part I: Lighting in the Silent Period

    • 1 Mechanics or Artists?
      (pp. 15-29)

      In 1917 The Moving Picture World published a special issue covering all the major fields of filmmaking. In the largest article on cinematography, William Fildew wrote, “As to what constitutes the greatest difficulty in the making of motion pictures, I should reply the insecurity of the tripod in the making of outdoor scenes. . . . The tripod must be nursed like a contrary child. It must be firmly set.”¹ For Fildew, cinematography posed a mechanical problem, requiring a mechanical solution.

      Ten years later, the same magazine ran a story about cinematographer Joseph La Shelle. According to the article: “During...

    • 2 From the Portrait to the Close-Up
      (pp. 30-55)

      The American Society of Cinematographers wanted to create a public identity for the cinematographer as a skilled professional artist. The field of portrait photography provided the ASC with a useful model, in part because so many of the organization’s earliest members began their careers as portraitists, including Charles Rosher, Arthur Edeson, Tony Gaudio, John Leezer, and Karl Struss. Hollywood cinematographers quickly surpassed the portraitists in terms of technical resources, but the discourse and practice of portraiture would leave a lasting impression on the field of cinematography by defining the task of figure-lighting as an art of characterization and illusionism.¹


    • 3 The Drama of Light
      (pp. 56-81)

      In his remarkable book La lumière au cinéma (Light in the Cinema), Fabrice Revault d’Allonnes writes, “In classicism, one makes light with a theatrical spirit, if not a theatrical essence. Expressive, rhetorical: dramatized, psychologized, metaphorical, and selective.”¹ This argument proposes a bold new way to look at Hollywood lighting. In the view of some critics, classical filmmakers were so devoted to the ideal of invisibility that they produced a neutral, inexpressive style. For Revault d’Allonnes, expressivity is one of the core values of the Hollywood cinema.

      The Hollywood style is an intensely dramatic style. While several of the most respected...

    • 4 Organizing the Image
      (pp. 82-104)

      Composition involves the arrangement of distinct pictorial components into a larger whole. This definition sounds simple enough, but it becomes more complicated when we think of composition conventions in two different ways. First, composition involves the abstract arrangement of tonalities on the two-dimensional screen. A filmmaker might balance a highlight on the left with a highlight on the right, or intensify a highlight by placing it next to the deepest shadow. Second, composition is a representational problem. To compose a picture is to compose a picture of something: typically, a three-dimensional space occupied by human figures engaging in some sort...

  6. Part II: Classical Hollywood Lighting

    • 5 Inventing the Observer
      (pp. 107-125)

      In 1935 American Cinematographer ran a series of articles by A. Lindsley Lane, a camera operator at MGM. In an article about the camera’s “omniscient eye,” Lane writes:

      “All-seeingness” here means that the camera stimulates, through correct choice of subject matter and set-up, the sense within the percipient of “being at the most vital part of the experience—at the most advantageous point of perception” throughout the picture. . . .

      For the reason that genuine art conceals its own formulation, it may be said that a motion picture which in its showing gives self-evidence of its making is not...

    • 6 Conventions and Functions
      (pp. 126-159)

      Rather than argue that lighting should serve a single function, the American Society of Cinematographers consistently argued that lighting could serve several different functions. We might divide those functions into four general categories. First, lighting can help tell the story by directing the spectator’s attention, setting an appropriate mood, denoting time and space, and enhancing characterization. Second, lighting can serve the ideal of realism—an ideal that cinematographers defined in various ways, from the realism of detail to the realism of illusionism. Third, lighting can improve pictorial quality, by adding beauty or foregrounding innovation. Fourth, lighting can glamorize the star...

    • 7 The Art of Balance
      (pp. 160-198)

      In the climactic scene of After the Thin Man (W. S. Van Dyke, 1936), the elegant detective Nick Charles (William Powell) reveals that the apparently friendly fellow, David, played by Jimmy Stewart is actually a murderous psychopath. Right before the revelation of his crimes, David receives gentle glamour treatment from a diffused key-light in a front-side position (fig. 7.1). The film then cuts to Nick as he delivers his most damning piece of evidence. When the film cuts back to David, his soft key-light has become a hard top-light (fig. 7.2). At the moment of the audience’s realization, the lighting...

  7. Part III: Shifting Patterns of Shadow

    • 8 The Promises and Problems of Technicolor
      (pp. 201-221)

      George Fitzmaurice’s 1924 film Cytherea featured sequences photographed in Technicolor’s new two-strip process. The film’s cinematographer, Arthur Miller, had never photographed a color film before, and the Technicolor Corporation provided a cameraman, J. A. Ball, to collaborate with him on the color sequences. In an interview, Miller once described his experiences with Ball: “He said, ‘Well, can you put a little more light under this couch.’ It was right near the edge of the set, and I said, ‘I can do it, and I will, but it usually isn’t very bright under a couch. He said, ‘I have to go...

    • 9 The Flow of the River
      (pp. 222-243)

      In a beautiful passage from “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema,” André Bazin writes:

      By 1939 the cinema had arrived at what geographers call the equilibrium-profile of a river. By this is meant that ideal mathematical curve which results from the requisite amount of erosion. Having reached this equilibrium-profile, the river flows effortlessly from its source to its mouth without further deepening of its bed. But if any geological movement occurs which raises the erosion level and modifies the height of the source, the water sets to work again, seeps into the surrounding land, goes deeper, burrowing and digging....

    • 10 Film Noir and the Limits of Classicism
      (pp. 244-264)

      In the history of Hollywood lighting, no style has received more attention than the film noir. With its darkened corridors and blinking neon lights, the style expands the limits of classical Hollywood storytelling, making it more extravagant and more expressive. As several historians have pointed out, there was no single noir style. There were studio noirs and location noirs; soft-focus noirs and deep-focus noirs; gray noirs and black noirs. To be sure, capturing all of the subtle distinctions and covering all the noir conventions would require a book in itself. Instead, I try here to answer a more general question:...

  8. Conclusion: Epilogue
    (pp. 265-266)

    A logical end date for my historical account can be placed around 1950, when the careers of many great Hollywood cinematographers came to an end. Some cinematographers passed away: Joseph August (1947), Gregg Toland (1948—at the age of 44), Joseph Valentine (1949), Tony Gaudio (1951), and George Barnes (1953). Other cinematographers retired, including major figures like Arthur Edeson, Victor Milner, Arthur Miller, Sol Polito, and Joseph Walker. Several veterans switched to a new medium, lending their expertise to television. Karl Freund, who used three-camera shooting on I Love Lucy, is the most famous example, but he was soon joined...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 267-288)
  10. Index
    (pp. 289-296)