Patrick Keating | Hollywood Lighting from the Silent Era to Film Noir

Whether you’re interested in classic or modern films, you can learn a lot from Hollywood Lighting.

312 pages. Columbia University Press, 2009. $27.50 (paperback)

Patrick Keating opens Hollywood Lighting from the Silent Era to Film Noir with a quote from the distinguished cinematographer Arthur C. Miller (seven Academy Award nominations, three wins) which sums up the “invisible” style of film-making often cited as the Hollywood ideal: “My opinion of a well-photographed film is one where you look at it, and come out, and forget that you’ve looked at a moving picture.” 

Of course a great deal of craft went into creating that invisible style and frequently Hollywood cinematography did call attention to itself as well—those twin topics as illustrated by films from 1917 to 1950 form the primary focus of Keating’s book. It’s a welcome addition to the field of film studies, treating a somewhat neglected topic and loaded with illustrations which explicate important points. Keating also gives due consideration of the conflict over the role of the cinematographer (was he primarily a technician or an artist?) and the various demands which cinematographers had to reconcile—lighting stars for glamour often conflicted with the script’s demand for realism, for instance—and discusses how innovations such as the introduction of sound and of color film influenced Hollywood cinematography.

Hollywood Lighting
is full of observations which seem obvious once you’ve heard them and which you will see illustrated over and over in almost any film from the era you choose to watch.  Some predate the cinema: for instance the convention of using dark tonalities and strong contrasts for male subjects and lighter tonalities and less contrast for females and children was recommended to American portrait photographers in the early 20th century. Not surprisingly, gender-specific lighting was carried into the cinema: for instance female stars were often front-lit, which softened their facial features, while men were more likely to be lit from the side which brought out the “character” in their faces. In fact a whole body of cinematic techniques was developed to make women’s faces look softer, from the use of more diffuse reflectors to increased fill lighting.

Keating discusses conventions of Hollywood lighting in several broad categories. Figure lighting included consideration of the subject’s gender and role in the story (“bad girls” in film noir were often lit different from “good girls”) as well as their commercial value in the industry—studio heads often insisted that their stars look glamorous no matter how improbable the situation. Effect lighting allowed artificial lighting to suggest natural forms of light such as lamps, candles and sunlight. Genre conventions often drew on precedents from the theatre and were applied at the scene as well as film level: for instance melodramatic lighting was also used in A-list films and comedic lighting in films which were primarily dramatic and the changes in lighting would cue the audience as to how to react to the scene.  

Many of the conventions and techniques discussed in Hollywood Lighting are still in use today, as is the parallel existence of two ideals of cinematography. On one hand you have the so-called realistic or naturalistic ideal of cinematography (based on conventions which are anything but “natural”) which seeks to be invisible versus the other you have more expressive or artistic cinematography which deliberately draws attention to itself—and it’s amazing how often people who are supposed to be experts mistake one style for the other. So whether you’re interested in classic or modern films you can learn a lot from Hollywood Lighting: if nothing else it should convince you that there’s a lot more to cinematography than three-point lighting and “high key for comedy, low key for drama.” | Sarah Boslaugh

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