A shot in the dark
When a script calls for darkness or night, it always causes problems for the film maker.
In the days of the great studios, they were able to construct whole street scenes and light them accordingly so as to make it look real. However, when the scene was wider and larger, out in the country for example, it was necessary to do something else. For most of the time, “Day for Night” was the answer.
The audience had to accept that every night in the story on screen was a moonlit night. The scenes were shot in broad daylight, and only when the sun shone, which cast shadows as if it was moonlight in the final effect.
The scene was then printed, by under-exposing the print, so as to give the impression of darkness. It was never very convincing, but most people understood the reasons that it had to be done. It became commonplace and was accepted by most people.
Today, with high speed film stock, it is possible to shoot in a street or even a whole town using available light. Even in the darkness of the countryside, a single artificial light source is now sufficient to enable a scene to be shot.
It is sometimes possible to obtain the desired effect without recourse to expensive solutions.
During the 1968 Monte Carlo Rally, I wanted a night shot of Monaco from the southern side of the harbour. I wanted, at the same time, to be able to see the outline of the buildings. Vittorio Dell Valle and I went to an apartment on that side about half an hour before sunset. We found our scene and waited. The sun went down and we could still get a good exposure with our Ektachrome film. About fifteen minutes after sunset, the street lights came on, followed by lights from houses and the hotels.
About twenty-minutes after sunset, we still had sufficient light to shoot. This we did. The result was that the final scene looked like a night shot. Cars, with their headlights on, were driving through the scene. All the main buildings were outlined. However, that was a single shot. For all other night shots, we had to rely on lighting.
On the final circuit of the Monte Carlo Rally, the cars pass through the Col de Turini. There are no lights there, it is pitch black and the cars pass through several times. All the interested parties got together, the Newsreels, the documentary makers and the broadcasters and we pooled our flares. The scene had a touch of magic as a section of a couple of hundred metres was illuminated by hand-held flares. The cars were filmed sliding from side to side as they made their precarious way through the Col. It was one of the more exciting scenes in the Rally.
A favourite method of giving some atmosphere to a film comes from low key lighting.
This is a favourite ploy of “Midsomer Murders” among many others. Sometimes I watch this programme and for ten of fifteen minutes I am unable to identify anyone because the lighting is so low, the features are unclear. To me that is. By the time they decide to come out into the light, I don’t know who the characters are.
Some productions seem to remain in a permanent state of darkness, and low key lighting, with constant rain added. Talking of rain, have you ever seen a shower in a television drama. No ? It is always a downpour.
I do not advocate abandoning low-key lighting, but I would like to be able to identify the characters. Unless of course, the plot requires that I don’t.
One advantage of low-key lighting is that the art department need not be meticulous, since the detail of props used in the scene cannot be seen.
Feature films are made with the original intention of showing them in cinemas. Cinemas are dark interiors, so that the finest detail can be seen on the screen.
Films for television are made to be seen in the home where, usually, there is, at least, one light switched on in the room. I wonder if television film producers ever view their productions in a room that resembles the conditions experienced by the home viewer.
They might also try to listen to the dialogue to see if they can hear what is being said.
But that’s another story.