“2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) Watching a Kubrick film is an experience unlike any other. As a director, Kubrick had an arsenal
of frequently used techniques and tools, that spanned his entire body of work,
including: symmetrical framing, tracking shots, zooms, and even a reoccurring character look,
aptly coined “the Kubrick Stare”. But in this video, I wanna explore a stylistic choice that isn’t always referenced, when considering Kubrick’s catalog of films: practical lighting. ‘Practical lights’ are light sources, visible within the frame, that also function in lighting the scene. They can include lamps, string lights,
candles, the headlights of a car… Pretty much any prop you can think of, that emits light. The options are endless. Now, Kubrick wasn’t the first director to utilize practical lights in his films. But I believe he helped popularize the aesthetic. Up until that point, the standard method of lighting
during the Golden Age of Hollywood, had been the three-point system, harking back to stage and photography techniques. In this system, the subject is surrounded by three off-camera lights. The Key Light is the principle, and often brightest light, shining directly on the subject. The Filler Light also shines on the subject, but from a side angle, in order to reduce harsh shadows created by the key light. And finally, the Back Light, which shines on the back of the subject, in order to separate the subject from the background. So, why was this lighting method the industry norm? Let’s take a look at a scene from George Cukor’s
“The Philadelphia Story”. Our stars Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart, are engulfed in a flattering, almost heavenly light, that accentuates their beauty, and also gets clarity to their surroundings. But if we look closer, we notice,
that nothing about this lighting is natural. There are zero shadows on our stars’ faces. Additional off-camera lights are used to make the actors’ eyes and wardrobe twinkle. But, where is the source of light within the story? From an audience perspective,
we see nothing in the wide shot. There are no visible lamps, or string lights.
It must be coming from the Moon up above. But that doesn’t explain, how both Hepburn and Stewart’s characters can be perfectly lit, when facing different directions. Something should be in the shadow. It doesn’t add up.
There’s a false perfection to the picture. In the early 1960s, the classic Hollywood Era was coming to an end – and in its place, a new generation of filmmakers were looking to step out of the studio sound stages, and inject a dose of realism into their films. Kubrick was famously known for his painstaking,
and often obsessive use of realism in his films. Let’s just disregard the fact, that near the end of his life,
Kubrick hated leaving his home in England so much, that he recreated Full Metal Jacket’s Vietnam, and Eyes Wide Shut’s New York City, in and outside of London. – No, no, but if you had a tea break at 4:00,
you don’t have to break for this team, right? – This must just be a, you know,
complimentary tea break. There are countless reasons to use practical lights. In the case of Barry Lyndon, lighting interiors with only candles is historically accurate, and helps the audience suspend their disbelief. If the lighting is unbelievable, it will distract
and take the audience out of the story. Here’s a scene from The Killing. The lighting is overtly different, from the previous brightly-lit scene from The Philadelphia Story. There’s nothing glamorous or romantic about this scene. Instead, it’s ominous and claustrophobic. Notice, how some of the actors even disappear into the background. With “Eyes Wide Shut”, Kubrick was able
to use scattered, practical lights, to establish our location,
and give spatial recognition to the scene, The lighting provides depth, separating the foreground from the background action. There’s clarity, which allows the audience
to soak in a lot of information instantly. The use of practical lights has become common practice, amongst working directors and cinematographers today. But that’s largely in thanks to directors like Stanley Kubrick; who rebelled against the romantic,
rose-colored lenses of classic Hollywood, that perhaps portrayed life, as we wish it were. And instead, captured life with all its darkness and shadows, as it actually is.