11 Harrowhouse (Aram Avakian\Arthur Ibbetson, BSC) is an odd, dated film that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be.  Nonetheless, I sat through it one night and noticed a great example of how far you can go to cheat the lighting while still delivering expert-level cinematography.

            Film students – listen up!  What you’ll learn here is pure gold!

            The moment in question begins at the 11:35 mark; stars Charles Grodin and Candice Bergen are menaced by a silent thug in an underground passageway.  Like the rest of the movie, it’s unremarkable in every manner save for one: the key light is set in a radically different position for each of seven camera placements.

            If we were to use a source-lit approach as the yardstick of success, the scene would be a total failure.  This was an old-style, hard light movie and the soft practical fixtures recessed in the set’s ceiling barely play a cosmetic role.  The same applies to the apparent daylight streaming down the exit stairwell.  While we generally strive to create a more natural feel today, cinematographers of Ibbetson’s time had no compunctions about using a flame thrower to kill a mosquito.  Look at most any film made prior to the Golden Age of the 1970’s.  Night\exteriors in remote locations were commonly lit like Times Square on New Years Eve!  Some of that is due to their technology, but I’d put forth a different reason.  It was just how things had always been done.

           Modern cinematographers also take liberties with their shot-to-shot lighting, but I can’t ever recall pushing the envelope to the extent Ibbetson does in this cramped space.  Even so, his photography works remarkably well and I assure you – unless they happened to be a professional, not a single member of the viewing public was aware of what I’m discussing.  If his only motivation was to make the actors look good, he succeeded with flying colors!

            Have a peek at the accompanying clip and make note of where the actors’ shadows fall.  As long as exposure, contrast and color are matched from shot to shot, you have an enormous flexibility in where to place the key light – whatever the thought process behind that might be.


2 thoughts on “11 HARROWHOUSE (1974)”

  1. Some of this is due to the attitude back then regarding lighting actors (especially actresses) that making them look good trumped the reality of where the light was coming from, it was just a different mindset back then. If fact, I think to some degree that sticking with the reality of the natural light, where Candace Bergen would have been backlit and her face dark in her close-up, would have been more distracting to audiences of the time who were conditioned to a certain lighting standard for close-ups. And one could argue that seeing the performance should be a priority even if it works against the mood of the scene, or being more artful with the lighting. I’ve sometimes added more light to a scene than I wanted to because the director and I just felt that the viewers really wanted to see the emotional performance of the actor at that moment, despite the fact that the story said that the scene was in moonlight during a black-out, etc.

  2. David – Everything you say is true; we’re all faced with those troubling choices from time to time… Do I stick with the reality of what the shot would be or do I do what’s better for the story, even though I might not like it as much? But this clip was meant more to illustrate for students just how far you can cheat what you’re doing and still deliver an excellent, believable image.

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