Lesson 3 Lecture & Discussion
On the Set

In this lesson, we’ll be covering the technological basics of moviemaking: light, and the lenses that capture and control it; filmstock, which records the light; and the camera that exposes the stock. After that, we’ll take an initial look at the source of that light—the subjects in front of the camera—and talk a little about the relationship between the subjects and the technology. Finally, we’ll spend a few minutes discussing the categories, or genres, we use to organize different types of subject matter.

In Lesson 2, we laid the foundations for understanding this technology. Now, let’s investigate the technology itself before moving on, in Lesson 4, to examine the philosophy of moving pictures and the movie techniques, such as montage and mise-en-scène, that the technology enables filmmakers to create.

Most of the topics covered in this lesson could apply just as well to stage drama as to film. The singular difference between the two is the technology of the camera (including its lens and the filmstock on which the image is recorded). This was the key that greatly expanded the possibilities of the theatrical stage.

Chapters 2 and 6 of How to Read a Film give a pretty thorough exposition of that technology, first in its mechanical and chemical guise, and later in its electronic and digital form. Here, we’re going to talk about what all that technology means.

Lights! (and Lenses)

As you’ve hopefully gleaned from the reading for this lesson, film is about painting with light. The emotional force of the light and shadow in a film frame is at least as great as in still photos or paintings.

Edison's Black Maria was the first "film studio." The structure could be rotated, and the roof opened, so that sunlight could always be kept on the stage during filming.

Lighting is the most underrated element of the film art—perhaps because its history extends back before film into 19th-century theatre. Sir Goldsworthy Gurney invented the "limelight" in the 1820s. Its extraordinarily intense white light (produced by burning lime in an oxygen-hydrogen flame) revolutionized theatrical production as it replaced the old-fashioned oil lamp. Theatergoers in London in the 1820s and 1830s were probably more shocked by limelight than moviegoers of the 1930s were by Technicolor or audiences of the 1950s were by Cinerama.

Before limelight, the only function of theatrical lighting was to provide a modicum of illumination so that audiences could see what was happening on the stage. After limelight, theatrical lighting became an art. For the first time, a producer or director could modify our sense of the staged scene through lighting.

This was the seed from which movies would grow.

But the earliest filmstocks required more intense light than even Gurney’s limelight could provide. So, for the first few years, movies were shot in bright daylight. Thomas Edison built the Black Maria to move the set so that it stayed correctly lit by the traveling sun.

The invention of the carbon-arc lamp allowed movies to come back indoors, and by the late 1910s and early 1920s, filmmakers were intent on building cavernous indoor stages where they could control all aspects of the lighting and escape the tyranny of nature’s sun. (They weren’t yet called "soundstages"—but they soon would be.)

If you asked the average moviegoer what a cinematographer does, she’d probably reply, "He runs the camera." But running the camera is the easy part of the job. Lighting the set and the scene is where the art comes in. Indeed, in the UK, the cinematographer is still referred to as the "Lighting Cameraman"—in other words, the cameraman who is in charge of lighting is the boss.

The Author Reflects:
An Industry Chasing the Sun

This course is being written only a few hundred feet from where American film was born in Greenwich Village. Long before the Village became the hotbed of American Bohemian culture in the 1920s, it was home to most of the early film companies, from Edison to Biograph.

In the 1970s, I was fortunate enough to attend the dedication of a plaque commemorating the original site of Biograph on 14th Street. Blanche Sweet and Dorothy Gish, stars of D. W. Griffith’s Biograph films, were in attendance. Griffith used to shoot in the streets of the neighborhood and, in his films from 1908 or 1909, you can still see houses that are standing today.

Filmmakers soon abandoned Greenwich Village (and Fort Lee, New Jersey, where they shot westerns and other outdoor reels) for the riches of Los Angeles. There they found a variety of locales from ocean to mountain, from forest to desert, all within one day’s travel.

But they were originally drawn to Los Angeles for the copious sunlight. Early filmstock depended on it. In Los Angeles, though―for better or for worse―filmmakers were isolated from the theatrical and literary culture that remained headquartered in New York. It’s interesting to conjecture what American film history might have looked like if sunlight had not been so economically critical to the business and filmmakers had stayed in New York.

James Monaco

Classic Hollywood style calls for three main sources of light on the set: key, back, and fill. The main light is the key light. The back light illuminates the background. The fill light fills in areas where the key light is weak. But the number of combinations of this trio is infinite, and cinematographers are still devising ways to orchestrate their lights more than 100 years after it all began. (You’ll read more about lighting schemes and the specific applications of these lights later in the course.)

The other key job for a cinematographer is to choose the lens. If you aren’t yet clear about the striking difference between the images captured by telephoto, normal, and wide-angle lenses, please take another look at the diagrams in your book on p. 81.

Lights, lenses, and filmstock are interlocked in an intimate triangle. It’s all about light, but the light that you can use depends on the ability of the lens to transmit it and the stock to record it. As lenses improved (mainly after 1960) and filmstocks increased their speed, whole new styles of lighting were opened up for filmmakers to exploit. For example, the less light you need (because you have faster filmstocks and lenses), the easier it is to capture fast-moving action. Alternatively, you can use this extra capability either to shoot your subject more naturally (because you don’t need very bright key lights) or to increase your depth of field (because you can open up your lens further).

The key example here is probably Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975). Kubrick, always the technophile, used a unique lens developed for NASA to shoot a scene by the light of a few candles. His aim was to re-create the feel of the 18th century. With that NASA lens, he could have shot the film 200 years ago before the invention of the limelight.

You are probably yawning. "Who doesn’t shoot their kid’s birthday party using ‘the light of a few candles’?!" Yes, for the last 20 years or so, everyone can do this. But 30 years ago, it was a cinematographer’s feat equivalent to flying to the moon (which actually happened earlier). If you are going to appreciate film history before the 1980s, it is important to understand how difficult this was at the time and how great was the thirst for light throughout the first 90 years of film history.

The art of lighting a film depends heavily on the technology of lenses. As that technology has improved, the "palette" of artistic techniques that a cinematographer wields has grown considerably.