July 3, 2017

Watch: How Stanley Kubrick Mastered Practical Lighting

Is Stanley Kubrick responsible for cinema's shift to practical lighting?

As many of you know, practical lights can be defined as light sources visible within the frame that also serve to light the scene. These can include everything from lamps to candles to a blazing inferno.

Stanley Kubrick was one of the greatest popularizers of this technique, famously lighting much of the great Barry Lyndon’s interiors entirely by candlelight. Not only did this produce beautiful imagery, but it was also historically accurate for the picture and helped audiences suspend their disbelief.

As Entertain the Elk points out, “if the lighting is unbelievable, it will distract and take the audience out of the story.” This is the virtue of practical lighting.

Many classic Hollywood films employed the three-point lighting system, in which a subject is surrounded by three off-camera lights. The key light is the principal and often brightest light, which focuses directly on the subject. The second light, known as the fill light, is placed at the side of the subject and is employed to reduce any shadows created by the aforementioned key light. Lastly, the back light shines on the back of the subject in order to make it pop out from the background.

"Barry Lyndon" Credit: Warner Bros

Nothing about the three-point system promotes verisimilitude—there are no shadows on the subjects' faces, and everything looks pristine, as if the action happening on screen has a false perfection to it.

Because Kubrick wanted to inject realism into his films, practical lighting was his main entry point. Employing practical light in Kubrick’s fashion makes the audience feel as if they’re in on the scene; they see where the light is coming from and how it plays naturally upon the film's subjects.

Today, practical lighting is much more widely used, but perhaps that wouldn’t be the case if Kubrick had never rejected the classic Hollywood system and experimented on his own.     

Your Comment

11 Comments

Yeah, because John Alcott is just a dude, and Stanley Kubrick was the DoP.

July 4, 2017 at 1:17AM

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doman nelson
Director, Editor
166

"Kubrick's lighting" or "How Kubrick mastered practical lighting" - i laugh every time i read this bs.

July 4, 2017 at 8:40AM

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jellyscoffee
Writer/Director/DOP
81

I expect to be banished from this site for saying this but, I do not get the fascination with Kubrick. Just don't get it.

July 4, 2017 at 10:40AM

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Richard Krall
richardkrall.com
1604

Ain't for everybody. But him and Alcott made some undeniably great images.

July 4, 2017 at 1:13PM, Edited July 4, 1:15PM

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Joseph Elliott
Director of Photography, , Director, Editor, Composer
276

Kubrick absolutely knew his shit and was a lot more hands on than most, but yeah, it's frustrating to see people diminish a legend like John Alcott.

July 4, 2017 at 1:15PM

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Joseph Elliott
Director of Photography, , Director, Editor, Composer
276

With cameras such as A7S and the likes, we can now push ISOs upto 50,000 and yet get a clean workable image. Whenever I'm doing that, I always wonder what the likes of Kubrick and Hitchcock would have done with the tools we have today. I have no doubt that this is truly the greatest time to be alive as a filmmaker.

July 4, 2017 at 1:23AM, Edited July 4, 1:23AM

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Sahit Anand
Director and Co-Founder of DO. Creative Labs
380

I would imagine they'd make a couple of great indie films, then get hired to direct a Marvel movie. Halfway into production they'd get fired.

July 4, 2017 at 9:00AM, Edited July 4, 9:01AM

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Disney hates directors.

July 4, 2017 at 3:48PM

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Henry Barnill
Director of Photography
638

Master natural lighting? Shoot at dawn and an hour after and at dusk and an hour before. There, you're now a master of natural lighting.

July 4, 2017 at 11:04AM

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Richard Krall
richardkrall.com
1604

Practical light can be great but unfortunately, most pho/cinematographers do not for its visual aesthetics but because its cheap.
Your practical light on a film should still look expensive.. unless its being lit with the sun. Even then u should have the gear to wrangle the sun.
Dont just turn the camera on and say " okay, 8bit 422, do your stuff."

July 4, 2017 at 4:10PM

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Vincent Gortho
none
1069

Barry Lyndon is my favorite among the practical lights.
Kubrick is the master.

July 5, 2017 at 3:44AM

20
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Sameir Ali
Director of Photography
742