Did you use the hard-lighting style of that period?
Richardson: There was a strong reliance upon hard units, and part of that came out of a desire to re-create the feel and the sharpness of color and shadow evident in specific films of that period, both color and black-and-white. We used a number of period practical units for the premiere of Hughes’s film Hell’s Angels at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, which [production designer] Dante Ferretti built as a grand exterior set in Montreal. We used period carbon-arc lamps in sweeping motions, and off camera we used 10Ks and bounced Dinos for supplemental lighting.
Beyond that, it was period flashbulbs blasting in Howard’s face as he makes his way from car to the theater. We created flash paddles for the scene that each might hold as many as 20 flashbulbs, and the operator ran a metal element similar to a needle, which, when touched, created contact so they could fire rapidly. In addition, we used strobes and Lightning Strikes units. But for the principal tracking shots where Howard walks into and out of the theater, the flashbulbs didn’t have enough duration for the effect Marty wanted the blowouts were too rapid. So we used a Maxi Nine-light on a dimmer, and we’d blast it to full and quickly dim it back down. It created an excessive burnout beyond a level that the film could hold, approximately 11 stops overexposed. The image bleached to white, and for a moment you only see the character’s pupils, much akin to the red-eye effect from a flash on a still camera. The light hits the back of the retina and is reflected. We were taking these light flashes directly into the retinas of the character’s eyes. The result is haunting at times.
We recall this effect later in the film, when Howard is testifying in the first televised hearings held by Sen. Brewster [Alan Alda]. They needed an enormous amount of light to record this on TV back then in fact, when we looked at archival footage and photos, we noticed that the studio audience was wearing sunglasses! We shot the scene in Montreal’s City Hall, and we built period lamps into large, photogenic, practical illumination panels somewhat similar to a Dino bank, about twice the height and width. But the bulbs within the unit were much smaller in power than those in a Dino, and the housing was aged egg white, which gave [the units] a beautiful, soft quality. Furthermore, we had the light panels on dimmers, and when the TV cameras began filming, we brought the panels up to an extremely high level of overexposure to emphasize the disorienting effect they were having on Hughes. After a short period, on a dialogue cue, we brought them down to normal and used them at that color temperature for the remainder of the scene.
You’ve used dimming for psychological effect quite a bit. Did you have other opportunities to employ this technique in The Aviator?
Richardson: Yes, Marty asked for a number of lighting cues throughout the film. The light dims on the outside edges of the frame to create a place where he wants your eye to go, much like an iris effect. A small example of that happens just prior to Howard’s entrance at the hearings in the last act of the film. At that time, he was a wreck psychologically. He’s in a room with Ava Gardner [Kate Beckinsale], who’s literally putting him back together so he can appear for the hearings. At the end of the Ava scene, there’s an iris effect via the lighting that creates a solo image of Howard in a mirror as Ava recedes into darkness.
When Stephen [Nakamura] and I were timing that scene, he said, ‘So, Bob, what’s the motivation for this lighting?’ I said, ‘The motivation for this lighting is emotional.’ I’m not a firm believer that light needs to be motivated at all times. For me, reality and reason are not always dramatic friends. I don’t believe [cinematographers] have to work within any formal set of rules. If the story allows and the director agrees, you light for the reasons that enhance the story, whether they’re psychological or practical.
Did you use more of this psychologically motivated lighting as Hughes starts to deteriorate mentally?
Richardson: There’s a definite correlation between Howard’s mental breakup and that style of [lighting]. For example, his building the Spruce Goose, which we refer to as the Hercules in the film, was crucial for maintaining his mental stability and professional position within the industry. Dante built a faithful yet partial re-creation of the Hercules that was about 150 feet long in a warehouse. A long tracking shot, 160 feet, follows Howard and his partner along the length of the plane from a low angle. A greenscreen was placed at the beginning of the dolly to allow the visual-effects team to paint in the craft’s tail.
The plane was lit to have a red hue, and the work that’s going on inside glows red and orange. The lighting in the hangar for the tracking shot was cast in large, hot pools from hanging practicals on dimmers, which we accented with Maxis and Pars. The average stop beneath the practicals was four to five stops overexposed.
Within the plane, we lit with a great number of warm units, Dinos and Maxis at 20 percent, which accounts for the orange I mentioned earlier. For me, the inside is either Jonah’s whale or Calatrava’s City of Science ribs line the frame, we’re deep within the belly of the beast. Marty called it ‘Dante’s Inferno.’
The lighting is more overtly stylized in Howard’s private screening room, where he secludes himself. He’s taken up residence in that room and is naked by this point. First Katharine Hepburn [Cate Blanchett] and later Juan Trippe [Alec Baldwin], the head of Pan Am, come to visit him. Howard is on one side of the door, unwilling or unable to meet them face to face, and they are on the opposite. Their side is lit entirely with red light, which is vaguely justified by a red light bulb placed outside the screening room to signify when the room is active. On Howard’s side, a projector is showing footage of colorized battle sequences from his aviation films, and it’s projecting onto his body during various shots. You see planes rising over the floor and crossing his naked body, and fires and explosions rage as beams of light pattern the room.