Stanley Kubrick, Practical Lighting

How Stanley Kubrick Mastered Practical Lighting

There’s no other movie experience as unique as watching a Stanley Kubrick movie. Even after his death, he is still regarded as one of the most creative, visionary, and idiosyncratic of our time. He gave us exemplary movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Full Metal Jacket, A Clockwork Orange, Spartacus, Paths of Glory, and of course The Shining.

As a director, Kubrick’s bag of tricks contained a variety of tools and techniques he frequently used to spin his entire collection of work. Some of the techniques he’s used over the years include, symmetrical framing, tracking shots, zooms, and a recurring look among his character that was aptly coined “The Kubrick Stare.”

In this article, we’re not going to be talking about any of those techniques, but rather a stylistic choice that is usually left out when mentioning Kubrick’s repertoire of movies and that is practical lighting. The good folks over at Entertain The Elk created this amazing breakdown of how Kubrick used practical lighting in his films.

Practical Lighting

What is practical lighting? Practical lighting is light sources captured in the frame that also acts as a source of light in the scene. Practical lighting sources can range from lamps, candles, string lights, the headlights of a car, and pretty much any light emitting prop you can come up with. The options are endless.

It’ll be wrong to think of Kubrick as the first director to use practical lighting in his films since they were others before him. However, the aesthetic of practical lighting gained such popularity thanks largely in part to Stanley Kubrick’s movies. Before then, the standard method of lighting used in the golden age of Hollywood was the three-point lighting system.

In the three-point system, the subject or character is surrounded by three off camera lights. The first light is the key light. It is the principal light, most often the brightest light that shines directly on the subject. The second light is the filler light. This light shines on the subject from specific angles to reduce the hard shadows created by the key light. And last but not least, the backlight. The backlight shines on the subject so that the subject is separated from the background.

One of the reasons why this was the industry norm can be fully appreciated in the scene The Philadelphia Story starring Katherine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart are bathed in a near heavenly light that accentuates their beauty as well as giving clarity to their surroundings. But the downside to the three point system can be seen if you take a closer look.

You’ll notice that nothing about the lighting looks particularly natural. First, the characters faces are casting zero shadows, then there is additional off camera light used to make the eyes and wardrobe twinkle yet there is not the source of light within the story. All of this gives the picture a sort of false perfection.

In the early 1960s, Hollywood movies were starting to take a different turn with directors wanting to add some realism to the pictures. Kubrick was famous for his painstaking and sometimes obsessive use of realism in his films.

There are many reasons to make use of practical lights. In the movie Barry Lyndon, lighting the interiors with only candles is not only historically accurate, but it also helps the audience suspend their disbelief. If the lighting is not believable, it distracts the audience and takes them out of the story.

In one of the scenes from The Killing, the lighting is overtly different than that of the one in The Philadelphia Story. While both lightings are overhead lighting, or at least The Philadelphia story attempts to mimic overhead lighting, the scene in The Killing is neither glamorous nor romantic. Instead, it appears ominous and claustrophobic, and there’s a sense that something dangerous might just happen. As you watch, you’ll notice how some of the actors even disappear into the background.

With Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick made use of scattered practical lights to establish the location, as well as give spatial recognition to the scene. He made use of the lighting to provide depth, to separate the foreground from the background action. It also adds clarity to the scene, allowing the audience to soak in a lot of information instantly.

The use of practical lighting is now a common practice amongst cinematographers and directors in Hollywood. But that’s mostly because of the success of directors like Stanley Kubrick, who rebelled against the romantic rose colored glasses of classic Hollywood. Those movies tended to portray life as we wished it could be and not as it is.

With Kubrick movies, the audience were treated to films that captured life as it is surrounded by both the light and the darkness. Without those successes, who knows where the movie industry would have been? Perhaps we’ll be stuck watching movies that made everyone seem like they had an angelic glow about them, or perhaps things would have naturally evolved eventually.

Whatever the case may be, we as audience owe great thanks to Kubrick not only for his work in cinematography but for the exemplary movies (like The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, just to name a few) that he gave to us.

If there’s one thing to Kubrick, it’s to dare to be different. Kubrick decided to try something still relatively new in Hollywood back then and turned it into a huge success. So whatever you’re doing, whether it is photography, or you’re trying your hands at directing, don’t hesitate to try something new.

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