August 14, 2017
video essay

Watch: How the 'Revolutionary' Cinematography of 'Barry Lyndon' Drives Kubrick's Story

Barry Lyndon
Barry Lyndon's cinematography works seamlessly with the film's story to create a haunting look at a vanished world.

With his visual collaborator, cinematographer John Alcott, Stanley Kubrick would arrive at the the painterly look of his 1975 adaptation of The Luck of Barry Lyndon, a relatively obscure 1844 novel by Thackerary.

In his latest video essay, Cinema Tyler examines the cinematography of the film, how the visual effect was achieved, and its necessity to the story of an 18th-century rogue and pretender to nobility—a man whose life was lived in the shadow of a coming political cataclysm for his newly adopted class, a revolution he could not fathom. Check out the video, as well as a few examples of how the film used one of the most modern of art forms to tell a story of a time when the world had yet to travel by train. 

A painting come to life

Though the video covers all of the camera work in the film, including the famous NASA lenses used to film scenes by candlelight alone, it also delves into the equally challenging and complex outdoor, daylight cinematography that eschewed electric light. As Cinema Tyler puts it in the video, the opening shot of the film is an almost perfect distillation "of the entire film—a story of fate versus coincidence symbolized by a duel in which the victor is near random."

Many scenes mimic the work of painters of the time.

Combined with the ironic narration, which introduces us to "the humor in the absurd perception of civility" in which the story takes place, the effect is mordantly funny and chilling at the same time. Many scenes throughout the first half of the film consciously mimic the work of painters of the time such as Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable, known for their "lyrical landscapes" and "ethereal portraits," according to author Thomas Allen Nelson in his classic study of the director, though Kubrick adds a cinematic touch, of course. 

Nelson writes of Kubrick's ongoing solutions to his career-long desire to merge "form and content," to make story and visual one, inextricable, and also of the lengths to which the director was willing to go. From the beginning, until Redmond Barry establishes himself as a titled gentleman, multiple setups are tagged with languorous zooms either into, or out of, the scene. Rather than physically moving the camera towards the action, or away from it (as in a dolly shot), there is a zoom. Thus, the camera remains static but the elements within the lens itself move, changing the focal length (from wide to telephoto or vice versa) and achieving an utterly different visual effect, one which exaggerates the feeling of largeness and smallness within the frame as the focal length changes. In the video above, the film's zooms up until 2:37 or so are indicative of how these zooms establish the world of Redmond Barry during his rise to become the titled Barry Lyndon.

"Kubrick could tell an actor or crew member what he liked, [but] he couldn’t tell the clouds what to do." 

Nelson writes that the zooms move the audience into a "given scene without fragmenting the space...[or] the time." The lens work backs away leisurely from the intrigues of Barry's world of scheming ambition and resolves into pictures that resemble the paintings of artists such as Gainsborough. Paintings, after all, were the best visual representation of the era, in the century before the invention of photography, so the style feels natural, and also gives a "lyrical ordering" to the storyworld, one in which the immensity of the natural order dwarfs the the petty human conflicts within it. 

Kubrick lyndon shooting behind the scenes
Stanley Kubrick operating handheld camera on the set of 'Barry Lyndon', an army boxing match, where the ring is made of bodies.

John Alcott described in an interview how the fickle Irish weather changed almost every day, sometimes moment to moment, with storms that sometimes lasted only a few minutes. As Kubrick wanted to shoot the many outdoor scenes with only natural light, the director used an Arriflex 35BL.

Alcott said, "Kubrick would continue shooting whether or not 'the sun is going in or out'". They were able to do this because the camera's aperture control was larger than normal and allowed for on-the-fly "changes to the aperture of a lens from a gearing mechanism on the outside of the camera." These changes helped compensate for small alterations in light, and were a way to help Kubrick maintain some control of a situation which, though crucial to the film and its themes, still probably rankled an artist so used to working in circumstances that he controlled down to the last clothespin. As Tyler puts it, "Kubrick could tell an actor or crew member what he liked, [but] he couldn’t tell the clouds what to do." 

barry lyndon behind the scenes kubrick dolly shot cinematography alcott justin morrow no film school cinema tyler video essay
One of the three, 800-foot dolly tracks constructed for an early battle scene.

Up close from far away

Another exceptionally challenging sequence was the first large battle scene, which, in Alcott's words from the interview linked above, "opens with a tracking shot [that was] filmed by one of three cameras running simultaneously along an 800-foot track." As Tyler notes, this shot was particularly difficult because it starts at the end of 250mm zoom lens, and "the more you’ve zoomed in, the more exaggerated each little bump in the camera movement registers," but they worked out a system of stabilization which minimized movement. And in fact, all the close-up shots in the sequence, too, "as well as the wide ones, were filmed from the end of the 250mm." 

If you've never seen the Barry Lyndon, you really should do yourself a favor and watch one of the most unique Hollywood pictures ever made and, arguably, a film where Kubrick, fresh from the disappointment of his postponed (permanently, it would turn out) Napoleon project, told a smaller story from almost the same time period. It packs tremendous power, is unlike anything in his canon, and especially stands out from the vast majority of period pieces ever distributed by a major American studio. It is a film that is, in the end, inescapably and sublimely itself.      

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