Friday, 22 July 2011

Visions of Light: the Art of Cinematography

This excellent documentary made in 1993 by the American Film Institute and the Japan Broadcasting Network is the perfect way to restore your faith in Cinema should you find yourself jaded from too many bad movies (a occupational hazard around here lately). Visions of Light serves a dual purpose – it’s a fine introduction to the often hidden art of cinematography while also providing a nice primer on the technical and stylistic evolution of American Cinema – from the early primitives, to the Birth of a Nation, the years of experimentation before the sound era came in, the signature films of the studio years, and the emergence of auteurist Cinema in the late-60’s.

Visions of Light gathers together over 20 directors of photography, among them some of the most important in modern American Cinema, to discuss the art of cinematography, illustrated with almost 100 well chosen film clips. The first section of the documentary concentrates on the great master cameramen of the studio system, who very often defined a particular style of the studio - the glamour of MGM or the hard gritty look of Warners. From the early 40's some outstanding painters of light began to emerge - Gregg Toland (The Long Voyage Home, Citizen Kane), Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons, Night of the Hunter) and James Wong Howe (Sweet Smell of Success, Hud). The spare stylistic look of Film Noir allowed cameramen to widely experiment with light and shade - the extraordinary starkness of John Alton's black and white photography on The Big Combo, the expressionist look of Russell Metty's work on Touch of Evil, and the hard New York street style of films like On the Waterfront, Naked City and later films like The French Connection and Dog Day Afternoon

Citizen Kane photographed by Gregg Toland
The best moments are when the cinematographers discuss their own work - Haskell Wexler remembers pleasing James Wong Howe with a second unit shot on the film Picnic, Conrad Hall reveals the famous reflection of rain running down Robert Blake’s face in In Cold Blood was achieved purely by accident, William Fraker explains Roman Polanski's idea for a peculiar shot in Rosemary's Bay, Vilmos Zsigmond discusses his signature soft lighting for McCabe and Mrs Miller, Gordon Willis confesses he might have good too far with his customary dark lighting in a scene from Godfather Part II, and Néstor Almendros describes shooting film at magic hour for Days of Heaven.

Days of Heaven photographed by Néstor Almendros
Cynics might feel that Visions of Light is no more than a show reel for the AFI - the selection of films is decidedly mainstream, and there’s little reference to European Cinema, but the documentary is undoubtedly a fine resource, and you might find yourself revisiting some old classics with a new set of eyes. Visions of Light is available on DVD in the US courtesy of Kino and in the UK on the BFI label. Both discs have similar transfers, the BFI from 2006 is perhaps the better of the two, but still somewhat lacking. The interview segments generally look good, but the film clips are sometimes poor. The b/w films look the best, but the colour films often look ragged, the colours at times blown out and the films are cropped from their original ratios. A shame considering the documentary is all about the images, but perhaps one day Visions of Light will be overhauled and remastered to full strength.


  1. Sounds great Wes, I've thought about picking this up a few times, it really is a shame that the clips look so poor when that's the whole point of the film. It's a fascinating subject so I'll probably go for it anyway. Great stuff!

  2. Thanks Mart... Yep, it's a fantastic documentary, and a really nice companion piece to Scorsese's A Personal Journey Through American Movies. There's nothing better than listening to film makers discussing their favourite films...

  3. I agree, Wes. This is a great documentary. There is also a good one on editing called 'The Cutting Edge', similar sort of format with editors talking about the craft. Fascinating stuff.

  4. I will watch any solid documentary on filmmaking - haven't seen this one, and truly dismayed to hear it's not able to present the clips in pristine condition - but definitely added to my "To Watch" list.

  5. Me too, I love a good film documentary, and we're spoiled nowadays that so many of them are turning up as DVD extras - I just need to find some time to watch them... The last one I watched was Hearts of Darkness which is just great - Apocalypse Now is my all-time favourite film so this is manna from heaven for me. But see this one Craig, don't let my griping about the quality of the film clips put you off...