Dripping With Light!

I feel compelled to write about the current fashion in cinematography, what we might refer to as “extreme realism.” Extreme — and controversial — it certainly is. Where some cinematographers have left their impressions with closely controlled lighting and precise balancing, others have made their signature with unorthodox lighting and framing approaches, relying heavily on available light and spontaneous, handheld camera movement. But how do you know when something is genuine as opposed to a trick or a fad?

There is historical precedent. For instance, the New Wave cameramen broke with a tradition of formalism and encouraged a fluid reality defined by inspiring camera movement and unpretentious lighting. But in today’s world, digital capture has provided us with the ability to register available-light situations that can be absolutely riveting — or plainly boring and uninteresting.

I recently ran into Andrzej Bartkowiak, ASC, and when I spoke to him about the naturalism he has so eloquently executed during his career — specifically in Prince of the City — he smiled and commented that he used a lot of light. I was aware of rumors that he preferred to light with the “stray light” of carbon arcs and that his hard-gel budgets could demand many thousands of dollars — but, in the end, who cares? He created a most wonderful and unique realism in Sidney Lumet’s signature dramas.

Then there is the late Harris Savides, ASC, who infused American Gangster’s naturalism with poetry; Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, whose images of undeniable reality for Prisoners are hauntingly unforgettable; and, most recently, Greig Fraser, ASC, ACS, whose visual language in Lion is so eloquently explored and emotionally strong that it made me cry.

What sometimes makes me cry for altogether different reasons is the “DSLR fad” that assumes you can follow the style of the cinematographers mentioned above by simply setting the chip to 3200 ASA and dialing the iris like a wheel of fortune.

Searching for some common factor that separates the exceptional from the mundane regardless of style, I turned to art, and juxtaposed in my imagination the works of Rembrandt and Jackson Pollock.

Rembrandt can be seen as the extreme of realistic perfection. His work demonstrates great attention to lighting and the representation of human expression. Notable are his dramatic and lively presentation of subjects, devoid of the rigid formality that his contemporaries often displayed, and a deeply felt compassion for mankind, irrespective of wealth or age.

Pollock’s abstract expressionism, on the other hand, is characterized by his wild embrace of color and shape. He produced his images in a revolutionary way, throwing acrylic paints on large canvases; he moved further and further away from the usual painter’s tools — easel, palette, brushes, etc. — preferring instead to use sticks, trowels and knives to drip his paint. His methods, in fact, at one point earned him the nickname “Jack the Dripper.”

Rembrandt and Pollock form a most unlikely pair, but I needed some theoretical common ground as a point of reference when considering similarly disparate representations of cinematography. And I found that common ground in these artists’ expression of emotion.

Rembrandt’s case is quite clear; his enormous body of work in oil paintings, etchings and drawings all speak to the human condition. Pollock’s world is more obscure, but his images are undeniably riveting. And when viewers are confronted with the works of either artist, they experience the same emotional moment: tranquility.

Pollock once said, “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.”

Maybe it’s in that statement that we can find a way to make sense of the “realism” that drives cinematography these days. Maybe we should give ourselves over to the emotional experience of an image instead of cherishing the technological yardsticks. Maybe we should let our light “drip.” In the end, it’s all about what you feel.


Kees van Oostrum

ASC President