10 Great Movies That Best Utilize Available & Natural Lighting

6. Walkabout (1971) – Nicolas Roeg


Working as his own cinematographer from a 14-page script, Nicolas Roeg’s acclaimed cult film, “Walkabout” offers some of the most beautiful, intimate and visually contrasting cinematography of the Australian outback ever caught on film.

Following the story of two lost, white siblings in the desert that befriend an indigenous man on his walkabout, the film examines the relationships between the Westerner’s self-governed ideologies and the union of the indigenous man and his surroundings. This is masterfully amalgamated in a shot of the Aboriginal boy (a very young David Gulpilil) walking backlit against a setting sun that elusively depicts the flag of the first Australians.

Through extreme close-ups of plants, rocks and wildlife, Roeg transitions the landscape from day to night, beautiful to hostile. The growing attraction between the aboriginal boy and white girl against the contrasting environment amalgamates once the children arrive on an abandoned farm.

Roeg shot at his own pace with a skeleton crew consisting of a few industry friends and his young family. Because of the loose shooting schedule, Roeg was able to leisurely document indigenous wildlife, breathtaking sunsets and sunrises. When the desert sun reached its highest point of the day and created harsh shadows on the actor’s faces, Roeg would place reflectors on the ground to balance them.

Like many films predating the Australian Film Revival, including “Wake In Fright” (dir. Ted Kotcheff, 1971), the film’s confronting undertones led to it being largely ignored for many decades. Today however, the film is considered an Australian classic that set the benchmark in quality for the following resurgence.


7. Amadeus (1984) – Milos Forman


Based on Peter Shaffer’s play, Miloš Forman’s film adaptation of “Amadeus” is probably the sore-thumb entrant of this list. The film picked up eight Academy Awards in 1985, including best picture and was by and large absolutely shot with very expensive lights. However, there is one scene that was shot using available light out of necessity – and the filmmakers’ approach is one of the most extravagant examples of natural lighting in cinema.

Principal photography took place in Prague, chosen for its stunning and near-pristine 1800’s architecture. After months of negotiations with the Czech Ministry of Culture, Forman was permitted to film inside the historic Stavovské divadlo provided they did not alter the building in any way – which proved difficult as the theatre was still lit by limelight.

Due mostly to neglect from the communist era, the Stavovské divadlo was literally a fully functioning 18th century theatre in 1983. A combination of legal necessity and filmic authenticity lead to Forman’s decision in shooting the theatre scenes solely by candlelight.

The production team built a scaffolding structure inside the auditorium that didn’t come into contact with the theatre’s walls or roof and suspended seven purpose-built chandeliers. In total, the location was fitted with eleven chandeliers, burning somewhere between 120-270 candles each. Varying sources estimate over 5,000 candles were burned over the production of this scene. Due to the alarming amount of lit candles in the historic building, firemen were nestled at intervals throughout the auditorium amongst a crowd of some 500 extras, all in costume.

The end performance of Mozart (Tom Hulce) in the theatre offers further intrigue being the actual theatre where the real Amadeus Mozart had premiered his opera “Don Giovanni” almost 200 years earlier.


8. Children of Men (2006) – Alfonso Cuarón

children of men

The Oscar-nominated director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki adopted a cinema vérité aesthetic for the dystopian setting in “Children of Men”. With considerable portions of the film shot by a single hand-held camera, the desaturated tones, ominous characters, mise en scène and use of natural light construct an increasingly paranoid and fragile sense of the first world on the verge of collapse.

Director Alfonso Cuaron explained that Lubezki “didn’t use any electric lights. Like, you see all these exteriors – there’s no light… even at night there are no electric lights. Everything in the refugee camp is lit by fires”. Lubezki wanted the film to look “as realistic and naturalistic as possible”, even instructing the art department not to design visionary props in spite its 2027 time setting.

The long, handheld takes in “Children of Men” proved to be nightmarish for the studio during production. One of the final shots of the film goes for over nine minutes, took four days to prepare and was shot three times, worrying the studio that Cuaron was “playing film-school games with its millions”.

With a reported budget of US $75 million, the production could’ve easily used electric lighting if they’d really wanted to. But what makes “Children of Men” that much more impressive, is that even with a considerable amount of CGI at play, the filmmakers were able to restrain themselves from doing so.


9. Festen (1998) – Thomas Vinterberg

The Celebration (1998)

Shot entirely on a consumer camcorder, Director Thomas Vinterberg released the first Dogme 95 film in 1998, “Festen” (English title, “The Celebration”) to much critical acclaim, including winning the Jury Prize at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival.

What makes “Festen” so engaging is how it draws out the drama and politics of the highly dysfunctional, albeit wealthy, Danish family. As Helge’s 60th birthday party disintegrates into shambles, the viewer’s sympathy seamlessly shifts from character to character as further revelations are realised.

The clever use of the visually unimpressive Sony DCR-PC3 camera gives the film an eerie, intimate home-movie aesthetic. Following the rules of the Dogme 95 Manifesto, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle didn’t use a tripod and utilised only available and natural lighting throughout the feature. Although the camcorder offered him very little operator control, Mantle’s thoughtfully constructed movement ensured there’s never a breach in consistency, even during some of the most visually unflattering moments.

Penned three years beforehand by Vinterberg and fellow Danish director Lars Von Trier, the Dogme 95 Manifesto was lauded by the success of “Festen”. Armed with a fantastic script, crew and cast, “Festen” truly is a “celebration” of what can be achieved against the restraints of Hollywood conventions. Although momentum has slowed for the movement, amateur, student and professional filmmakers worldwide all enjoy the challenge of creating new content abiding to the movement’s rules.


10. À bout de souffle AKA: Breathless (1960) – Jean-Luc Godard


So influential was Godard’s first feature “À Bout de Soufflé”, that it was hailed as the Manifesto of the French New Wave by critics before it’d even seen a general release in France. The film has been dissected, analysed and examined by students, critics and filmmakers alike for decades, because Godard’s approach to filmmaking was so perpetually different to his Hollywood counterparts.

Like many other entrants on this list, “À Bout de Soufflé” is characterised by its candid, documentary style camerawork, the casting of the gorgeous Jean Seberg, the careful placing of mise en scène and natural lighting. Although it differs to other observational films in that it’s extremely stylized and self-aware. The film depicts Paris, its people and lifestyles with admiration in spite the country’s current social problems.

Godard’s own problems while shooting were purely financial, troubles he overcame by developing innovative alterations to the characteristics of narrative filmmaking, such as jump-cutting mid-edit around an actor’s performances, or to mask any variations in lighting.

Possibly more extreme, Godard instructed cinematographer Raoul Coutard to shoot with ultra-sensitive Ilford film stock designed for photographers so that they could shoot on location and be less dependent on electric lighting.

In spite Ilford film’s perforations not aligning well inside cinema camera magazines, Godard found the Éclair Cameflex CM3 had sprocket holes that corresponded well with the 17.5 metre reels of Ilford film he’d stitched together. “The professionals were horrified”, recalled Coutard of the experience. The Cameflex was so loud during filming that much of “À Bout de Soufflé” was dubbed in post-production.

Godard once abridged a quote by D. W. Griffith saying “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun”. Judging by the magnitude of success of “À Bout de Soufflé” has received in academic study, popular culture and the reconfiguration of the filmmaking form itself; it doesn’t look as though he’s about to be proven wrong.

Honourable mentions:
Deliverance (dir. John Boorman, 1972)
Days of Heaven (dir. Terrence Malick,1978)
[REC] (dir. Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza, 2007)
The Crossing Guard (dir. Sean Penn, 1995)
Ten (dir. Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)
& the other Dogme 95 films

Author Bio: Jake Houston Harris is an Australian/American filmmaker based in Melbourne, Australia. A filmmaking all-rounder, Jake enjoys writing, directing, and shooting his own projects, including music videos and short films exploring the themes of life, death and social incarnation.