Lights. Camera. Action!
Whether used as slang to get out of bed in the morning or to ready your production crew for the next shot, most people are familiar with this traditional film cue, which whittles down the complexity of film-making into three succinct terms. And while the need for cameras and actors cannot be overstated, the importance of lighting fixtures in a set design often goes unnoticed, or, at best, is taken for granted by an audience.
Though cinematographers manipulate light in many different way for many different purposes, light fixtures themselves are most commonly applied as a prop to enrich the authenticity of a scene and as a tool (either on-screen or off-screen) to illuminate characters and settings. Both functions are invaluable in the making of a successful film. And, if done right, both are practically invisible to the untrained eye. Here are a few of my favorite fixtures that have made it to the big screen:
The Dark Knight
The Tolomeo Classic Table Lamp by Artemide can be found in the blockbuster 2008 film “The Dark Knight,” shot by acclaimed cinematographer Wally Pfister. In minute 34, the fixture can be seen on the desk of a businessman named Lau, one of many antagonists in the film. In this scene, Lau is confident, boastful even, that he has escaped prosecution in the United States for money laundering.
The Tolomeo, in this case, is used both practically and symbolically, lighting his desk (and his smug grin) while also serving as a totem for his security and power, as it is one light shining safely in a sea of office lighting. The metaphorical significance of this fixture becomes apparent as, a few seconds later, Batman cuts the power, darkening the entire building and leaving the Tolomeo as the last remaining light on Lau’s desk. As with the fixture, Lau is now all alone, a single dwindling light in the darkness; and as the audience, we experience that loneliness through this subtle tactic.
Staying with Mr. Pfister’s incredible career as cinematographer, we can see similar multifaceted lighting in the 2010 sci-fi thriller “Inception.” In minute 53, a team of high-tech corporate thieves, led by Dominick “Dom” Cobb, gather on a staircase to discuss how best to infiltrate the dreams of young heir Robert Fischer in order to convince him to dissemble his father’s corporate empire. In this scene, several Tube Top Table Lamps by Pablo Designs fill the space, providing a soft back light of the characters as well as a fill light for the surrounding setting.
However, the placement and prevalence of these fixtures reveals something more meaningful about the characters and perhaps the film as a whole. For they, like the characters, appear modern and business-oriented, but are also seemingly lost in a vast and endless maze of a cut-throat corporate environment. Such can be deduced in the screenshot featuring the character Saito, who is surrounded by Tube Top Table Lamps at the moment he stares at his team, confused and angered by the difficult, disorienting mission ahead.
The 2008 film “Iron Man,” from by cinematographer Matthew Libatique, is yet another example of lighting used as both a practical means of illumination as well as a narrative device. Though many fixtures can be seen throughout the course of the film, the Arco Floor Lamp by FLOS makes a repeated appearance as though it were a character all its own, showing within the film’s first ten minutes (at minute 10, as shown in the image above) and again during the end of the film when Obadiah, Tony Stark’s business partner, reveals himself to be the film’s main antagonist.
In both instances, the Arco Floor Lamp conveys both light and character, reflecting Tony’s sophisticated, but somewhat obtrusive disposition through its long, arching neck and white marble base.
Though it could be said that lighting is least among the Lights. Camera. Action! hierarchy, the before-mentioned examples are only a few of a near infinite supply offered by worldwide cinema that demonstrates its indispensability. And though we may not always notice, it is often a good exercise to pause that DVD, Blu-Ray or video stream and consider how inextricably linked lighting fixtures themselves are to the characters, the settings and even your own emotional response. You’d be surprised how much goes unnoticed.