This simple shot is interesting not so much due to its lighting – which is tasteful and effective – but because of how it’s exposed. Though it may look effortless to the casual viewer, a great deal of calculation went into its execution.
The challenge boiled down to the way in which cinematographer James A. Contner balanced the levels of fading sky light to the practical lamps around the table and the supplementary unit off camera left.
Let’s assume that an incident meter reading of the existing twilight read T2.8. Dialing the iris to that value would’ve exposed the shot normally and rendered a bland effect out of touch with the scene’s demands. Instead, Contner exposed two stops under key at the lens (T5.6), which placed the sky at the right level but caused everything else to appear murky and ill defined. To correct that, he set the practicals and 6K HMI at one stop under key (T4). This added just enough contrast to give the image some texture while maintaining the broader look.
Eastman’s 5294 was a tungsten balanced negative stock; note that there was no 85 filter in front of or behind the lens, nor was the 6K given any color correction. Combined with careful printing in the lab, this helped imbue an overall coolness to the image. For color contrast, the practicals were left to their natively warm temperatures, in the range of 2200˚K.
The camera sat at the end of a Louma crane, which at the time was a new weapon in the cinematographer’s arsenal. Though it lacked the telescopic and stabilizing capabilities of today’s sophisticated arms, it got the job done with a minimum of fuss.
One other factor was at play during this set up, and it too is not so obvious: the earth was rotating! Dusk shots are always a panic-inducing experience for movie crews, given that the short window of usable light slams down quickly. In this instance I recall only one or two takes being needed to get the job done.
To this day I think it’s a cool shot!