There’s a skeptical notion in the world of filmmaking that affiliates the use of available or natural light as being cheap, the filmmakers lazy, or that the project was rushed – because the filmmakers were being cheap… and lazy. And there is, alas… some merit for those reservations.
Because the more equipment a filmmaker carries the longer it takes to get to locations, and once a light’s in place it still requires an assemble of extras to function – from c-stands to gels, diffusion, extension cables, shot bags, gaffer tape, pegs and often power from a generator. They’re heavy, their bulbs explode and there’s always downtime waiting for them to cool before they can be packed away. So if the filmmakers use available or natural lighting on their productions, there is considerable time and money to be saved.
Additionally, as newer DSLR’s can shoot at over 40,000 ISO with others 4k ready out of the box – why even light a scene at all? Why spend thousands of dollars on Arri Fresnels, Blondies, Redheads, Dedos or Kino Flos if you can get away with a primitive LED tacked on top of a DSLR with its ISO heavily cranked? Aside from the obvious problems with that train of thought, low and no-budget filmmakers do have a tendency of thinking this way.
Often independent productions will opt for natural lighting because they’ll only have a small window of time that they’re able to shoot on location – or lack the paperwork to film there in the first place.
In the past, European art cinema movements such as Italian neorealism and the French New Wave were reflectively characterized by their own country’s social and economic difficulties, filmed quickly and often on location. Disenchanted by their ever-dominant American counterparts, the directors of these genres produced films that purposefully went against the grain of the studio-centric Hollywood system during the 1950s and 60s.
When a low budget, independent film succeeds on an international scale, it can propel unprecedented wealth unto its creators. “The Blair Witch Project” (dir. Eduardo Sánchez & Daniel Myrick, 1999) reportedly cost only $25,000 after principal photography, and went on to generate almost $250 million worldwide, enjoying the largest cost-to-profit ratio since “Mad Max” (dir. George Miller, 1979).
Since then, the celebrated accolade has been passed to “Super-Size Me” (dir. Morgan Spurlock, 2002) and “Paranormal Activity” (dir. Oren Peli, 2007). A quality that all these films share is their use of utilising only available and natural lighting and being shot entirely on location.
With so much money to inflate and anti-Hollywood notions to stir, it’s easy to overlook that some filmmakers may simply enjoy the aesthetic and challenge of shooting only with available and natural light. Some of the most accomplished films on this list had sizable budgets, but the filmmakers decided against using electric lighting in order to enhance the atmosphere of their pieces.
This top ten list encompasses works where the filmmaker’s best utilized lighting from all these challenges; either from budgetary restraints, contempt for Hollywood, skillful laziness and of course, to compliment the film’s overall aesthetic.
1. Gerry (2002) – Gus Van Sant
Inspired by real-life events of two friends lost in a desert, “Gerry” is the first picture of Gus Van Sant’s “Death Trilogy”. With cinematography by the late Harris Savides, a majority of the film was shot outside during daylight conditions at desert locations in California and Utah after a failed attempt of shooting the picture in Argentina.
During a 2002 interview, Van Sant recalled how no production designers or a lighting department were hired because they hadn’t planned on needing them. He went on to say: “We just had a selection of locations, and we chose at that moment, or maybe the day before, where to shoot.”
Savides utilised sunrises and sunsets, shooting large portions of the film during “magic-hour”, a term coined by cinematographers for the hours of the day that the sun gently defuses itself on the horizon, resulting in softer light and redder tones.
While a single light and generator were brought along for the campfire scenes, after the first take the generator broke down. The filmmakers, with little choice, completed filming the scene using only the available campfire light. For the second campfire scene, Savides bounced additional light from smaller fires with plywood.
While the mesmerising cinematography in “Gerry” was revered, the film was met with mixed critical reception, with the general consensus being that the film’s minimalist plot left the audience feeling disengaged.
2. Idioterne (1998) – Lars von Trier
In 1995, Danish filmmakers Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg penned the “Dogme 95 Manifesto” – an avant-garde movement established to empower filmmakers by re-enforcing the strength of story, performance and theme in their productions. The manifesto shunned the aid of any music added in post-production, lighting, tripods, superficial action and special effects, amongst other elaborate conditions. “Idioterne” (English title, “The Idiots”) was von Trier’s first feature to implement the rules of the new manifesto.
Believing society has taught them to suppress themselves, “Idioterne” depicts a group of drifters on a quest to rejuvenate their “inner-idiot”. A raw and challenging watch, the group pretend to be disabled, manipulate society, ruin their actual lives on purpose, and then have an orgy. Shot on glorious MiniDV tape on cameras that offered essentially no control to the operator, the film looks like a home movie shot in the 1990s.
An emotional rollercoaster of questionable ethics and morale, “Idioterne” proves that filmmaking can be extremely watchable without studio extravagances. However it does also raise question as to what engages and entertains the modern viewer – are we really so numb that we require to be entertained by shocking, provocative and politically incorrect content? The film’s success certainly hints that we probably do.
3. Bloody Sunday (2002) – Paul Greengrass
Using only available and natural lighting, high-ISO film stock and handheld camera movement, “Bloody Sunday” feels like a cameraman is actually filming amongst the chaos of the Northern Ireland shootings as they unfolded in 1972.
The eavesdropping, cinema vérité camerawork often results in unflattering angles and backlit lighting, creating a realistic and highly intimate field-reporting aesthetic. Along with gritty locations and period costumes, “Bloody Sunday” presents itself as archived newsreel footage from both sides of the event played in chronological order.
Into his third decade of filmmaking, the captivating political drama “Bloody Sunday” brought director Paul Greengrass to the attention of producer Patrick Crowley, who then selected him to direct “The Bourne Supremacy” in 2004.
Since the success of that film, Greengrass has received a fair haul of criticism for the excessive use of shaky cam in his films, however the field-reporting aesthetic of “Bloody Sunday” has translated well into later docudramas such as “Frost/Nixon” (dir. Ron Howard, 2008) and “The Hurt Locker” (dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 2011).
4. Barry Lyndon (1975) – Stanley Kubrick
In an interview about “Barry Lyndon”, Kubrick was asked why he preferred the use of natural lighting in his films, to which he audaciously replied, “Because it’s the way we see things”.
Shooting for “Barry Lyndon” took place in several old English, Irish and German castles, and Kubrick wanted to authentically preserve their palatial ambience by shooting only with the aid of candlelight, just as the people in the 1700’s would have experienced the locations.
Armed with a specially altered Mitchell BNC camera and two extremely fast Zeiss lenses designed for NASA satellite photography, cinematographer John Alcott was able to photograph “Barry Lyndon” at apertures previously unseen in film. Shot completely open at f0.7, the lenses gave the candlelight scenes a rare aesthetic. The dancing candlelight flickers about the spaces from the breath of the actors, and the shallow depth of field draws the viewer closer to the intimacy between the characters.
While completely extravagant, Kubrick was able to translate the atmosphere of the historic locations as they might actually feel during nightfall. Today Kubrick’s Zeiss prime lenses are so revered that the German production house owning them specifically gutted a modern PS-Cam X35 camera to accommodate them. That’s right, Kubrick’s original NASA Zeiss prime lenses are now for hire – but at an inflated price, of course.
5. The Long Goodbye (1973) – Robert Altman
Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography’s recognisable for his use of natural light, Tiffen filters, dulled colour-palates and washed out highlights through the method of ‘flashing’ (sometimes known as ‘pre-fogging’) film before it’s exposed. The cinematographer adopted these heavily stylised techniques as a means of controlling what could be done with a negative in post-production – and therefore minimalizing what the studio could change.
These risky, manipulative tactics almost got him fired by Warner Brothers on “McCabe & Mrs Miller” (dir. Robert Altman, 1971). Recalling the experience in a 2014 interview, Zsigmond explained that Altman covered for him on that occasion and blamed the film’s qualities on a processing error at a lab in Vancouver.
So when Altman and Zsigmond reunited for “The Long Goodbye”, the duo already had some formidable history. Altman instructed Zsigmond to depict Hollywood as a deflated, run-down and retched place – a shadow of its former self, which would be suitable to the film’s drab, neo-noir scenario.
Zsigmond utilised his flashing technique in “The Long Goodbye”, with almost no supporting lighting, regardless of how backlit a scene was. Candidly stalking the characters throughout scenes, the wandering camerawork would’ve made it impossible to appoint any kind of studio-style lighting. The natural lighting, along with the continuous camera movement and desaturated colour palette beautifully set the tone of this 1970’s dystopian thriller.