I recently visited a large metropolitan art museum. As a photographer and cinematographer, like many of you, I have an intrinsic appreciation for art. I truly enjoy visiting art museums and looking at exquisite images that were created by master painters and sculptors hundreds or even thousands of years ago. It’s really quite amazing; no matter which country you’re in, a visit to the art museum brings you back down to the reality that all of us humans seem to respond to certain visual stimuli in the exact same way. Going from country to country, culture to culture, we all speak different languages, eat different food, have many customs that seem strange and in many other areas are “foreign” to each other. Yet when it comes to visual communication, the differences seem to melt away.How many times have you watched a subtitled film with all of the dialogue in a different language, the story and setting completely unfamiliar to you, yet visually, you realize that you speak the exact same cinematic language that the filmmakers and the audience in some far-off country speaks? An establishing wide shot to show where the story takes place followed by a medium dolly shot as it tracks the main character walking into a room. A close-up shot as the main character speaks to someone off-camera, followed by a reaction shot as that person listens to what the main character is saying. A frame composed by the director that tells a story that the dialogue and body posture don’t. A light on the scene that seems to amplify, yet somehow softens reality into that dreamy, otherworldly place called cinema.
I was walking through a gallery this past weekend that had dozens of masterpiece paintings by the Italian, French, Dutch and English masters. I’ve reached a point in my life where I’ve carefully viewed thousands of works of art in museums in many different countries. The paintings I was looking at—by Rubens, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Jan de Brueghel the Elder, the list goes on and on—somehow, after years and years of viewing, finally clicked. As filmmakers and video creators, most everything we do and try to achieve visually with lighting, a camera and with visual storytelling through composition and staging goes back to these painters. I’ve always instinctually known this, and I guess, took it for granted, but for some reason, during this visit, it was like being struck by an anvil: They didn’t call these painters collectively “The Masters” for nothing.
Since we’re not at an art museum, I’m going to help you out. Take a close look at the image above, The Supper at Emmaus by the Italian Baroque master Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (commonly referred to “Caravaggio”), executed in 1601, and now in The National Gallery in London. What’s significant about this painting is not just what it portrays (a semi-disguised Jesus appearing to three of his disciples), but how it depicts the subjects. The lighting is a wonderful example of a style called chiaroscuro, translated from Italian meaning literally “light-dark,” but for those of us who create images, this is a common method that we use to create contrast, mood and, most significantly, depth and dimension.
If you look at the light on the main subject’s face, you can see that he’s the primary subject simply because his face is the brightest, something most of us have achieved, either consciously or unconsciously when lighting a scene. Look at the way the light falls off the face of the bearded disciple to Jesus’ left. Compare the way the light falls off the face of the disciple to Jesus’ right. Look at how the light realistically falls off the edge of the tablecloth, with just a hint of ambient light revealing the rich dimensions of the tapestry-like edges of the tablecloth on the sides of the table. Almost any photographer or cinematographer would look at this image and feel that it not only is a beautiful example of composition (more on that later), but it’s a masterfully lit image that draws the eye exactly where the artist intended. It has a wonderful three-dimensionality, as well. It’s remarkable that this image was created 416 years ago, yet it still works beautifully today as a dramatic and compelling visual story. Caravaggio was an incredible cinematographer; it’s just that the technology of moving pictures had not yet been invented.
Okay, now lets move forward 167 years to England from Italy. This image is called An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump. Joseph Wright of Derby painted it in 1768. A few things about this image leap out to me. One hundred and sixty seven years later and chiaroscuro lighting has not gone out of style. Advances in technique, paint, brushes and canvas had obviously evolved. Wright’s depictions of the faces of his subjects have grown more sophisticated; they appear even more lifelike and detailed than the figures in Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus.
What strikes me as more incredible, though, is Wright’s composition. There are 10 figures crowded around a small table, yet it feels realistic, not claustrophobic. The bird in the experiment, ostensibly the subject of the title of the painting, isn’t the brightest subject in the frame; the little girl looking upward at the bird is. Or, perhaps the scientist conducting the experiment who’s looking straight at the viewer is the main subject. From a filmmaking point of view, the composition and the staging here are absolutely perfect. As a filmmaker, I look at this scene with rapt amazement—the boy underneath the full moon visible out the small window, the father explaining the experiment to his young daughters. This is a circular composition that completely works from a storytelling viewpoint; you can almost hear the dialogue of the actors in the scene. In this image, a master painter has used lighting and effective composition to tell quite a story with a single frame. Imagine what Wright could have done with a modern-day digital cinema camera.
These are but two images that I recently saw that struck me as strong examples of techniques that we use and strive to achieve today as filmmakers, photographers and videographers. There are hundreds, if not thousands, more master painters, sculptors and artists whose work is of artistic quality worth trying to emulate and adapt into our electronic medium. If you’re new to image making and filmmaking, as you learn, just realize that the beautiful work you watch today by master cinematographers and photographers has roots that go back hundreds of years to the Masters. We’re all still trying to achieve a level of artistry and beauty that these innovators depicted with brushes, paints and textured surfaces. Just like us, they tried to amplify and enhance reality, to make the golden light of a sunrise or sunset even more spectacular than it appears in real life, to enhance the beauty of a striking face, or a still life of individual objects, or the majesty of a spectacular landscape.
My hope is that you now have a little better understanding of why cinematography and photography are often referred to as “painting with light.” Go to a museum and study what the Masters did and try to integrate some of it into your own art. It will put you miles ahead of others who have no concept of the foundations of lighting and composition.