James Carville once said about his relationship with Mary Matalin, “You can hate the sin but love the sinner.”
I feel the same way about Janusz Kaminski, Steven Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer. Mr. Kaminski is a real artist, a real painter of light. His sin? Working with Steven Spielberg, one of the more heavy-handed (think of a sledge hammer repeatedly whacking your head) directors.
Independent filmmakers almost exclusively use the digital medium, but we can all learn a few things from a master manipulator of celluloid like Mr. Kaminski.
In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Mr. Kaminski described how he made “Lincoln” look like a timeless movie—not by CG effects but by simply moving the lights.
“I felt you had to pull back a bit, so as not to jar the audience,” he explained. “One way of achieving that is to not light the walls. They were not 100% unlit, but enough so that the colors of the walls and carpets were muted. You have to think about the philosophy of light. It’s supposed to be motivated by natural sources. But if that logic doesn’t work for dramatic reasons, you adjust.”
“For example, the gas lamps of Lincoln’s time wouldn’t give enough illumination for the cameras, which are not as sensitive as the eye,” he continues. “You cannot photograph a Spielberg movie using just candlelight. Stanley Kubrick did some shots like that, but with special lenses and just in certain scenes. If you light with just an oil lamp, you will see only the lamp and the face next to it. So I used the natural light in the scene and moved the film lights back. It’s a trick, a cheat. But it works.”
Mr. Kaminski also explained why some people believe that the acting was better during the black-and-white film era.
“In color movies, actors are not always the main objects of illumination. Sometimes they’re not lit much at all, and audiences start appreciating things that aren’t the most important to the story. In black-and-white films, there’s no color to distract viewers. Consequently, actors in black-and-white movies are the main focus of the frame because they are often the brightest element in the frame. Because you’re not lighting the actors in color films, some attention is drawn away by that absence.”
Perhaps the use of black-and-white film in “The Artist” was the nudge that pushed the Oscar into Jean Dujardin’s hands last year.