Learning from the Masters: “Raiders of the Lost Ark”

I’m doing a project right now that has a scene where three characters board a boat, and due to the tight schedule we want to cover it in a single shot. A reference that immediately came to mind is the shot at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark’s second act (1hr30) in which Indy and Marion say goodbye Sallah and board the ship.

The more I studied this shot, the more I realised how utterly masterful its direction and cinematography are, so much so that I felt compelled to write this blog post about it.

Raiders_boat_scene small

It was initially memorable for me because of the skill with which the talent and camera were blocked to pull off the scene in one shot. The camerawork is fairly simple: it dollies left with the characters, settles for most of the scene, then dollies back to the right at the end as Sallah walks off. The varied blocking of the actors keeps the shot interesting during the middle section. I love how Sallah’s delighted reaction at the end is captured in the same shot, by the simple expedient of having him turn to camera. Doing this must have saved hours on lighting a reverse shot that a lesser director might have insisted on.

But what I love most about the shot now is the elegance, simplicity and beauty of the lighting, which demonstrates a number of key cinematography principals:

  1. Using brightness to delineate depth – i.e. a bright background and a darker foreground.
  2. Colour contrast – a cool moonlight from one side and a warm source (presumably representing a streetlamp) from the other.
  3. Cross-backlighting – both sources are on the opposite side of the talent to the camera, giving the maximum shape to their faces, giving them beautiful profiles and retaining depth by keeping the camera side in darkness.

And all of this is achieved by two lamps:

  1. A large daylight source way in the background, off frame right, lighting up the smoke (to supply the bright background), raking the side of the ship and edging the camera-right side of the talent.
  2. A smaller tungsten source off frame left, edging the camera-left side of the talent.

Douglas_Slocombe_BSCineThere are some practicals in the background too, but 99% of the work is done by those two sources. To me, that’s absolute bloody genius.

Sadly Raiders’ DP, the legendary Douglas Slocombe OBE, BSC, ASC, passed away in February, but his exquisite work lives on.

Learning from the Masters: “Raiders of the Lost Ark”

Lensing Ren – episode 5

Season one of Ren: The Girl with the Mark has come to an end, and to ease the pain a little, here’s one last video breakdown of the show’s cinematography. This week I talk about the exterior scenes from daylight through sunset to night.

Here is the lighting plan for the final scene:


Check out the article I wrote during the shoot about the sunset scene if you’re still hungry for details. And here is an unpublished blog post I wrote during the shoot about the village night exteriors…

The 2.5K HMI backlight
The 2.5K HMI backlight. The dimmer board for the Cyclotron can be seen in the lower right.

The last two days of principal photography on Ren were actually night shoots. It was great to take the village set that I’d shot in natural light for five weeks and chuck some of my own light at it.

In his American Cinematographer interview about The Monuments Men (February 2014), Phedon Papamichael said, “My big night-exterior lighting setups usually have one source” – often a backlight, judging by the examples given in the article – “and then I use whatever practicals are in the shot.” My approach is much the same, though a big source for me is a 2.5K HMI, not an Arri T12, sadly!

One of the Urban Sodium-gelled 800W Arrilites beefing up the braziers
One of the Urban Sodium-gelled 800W Arrilites beefing up the braziers

I knew our key shot was going to be Ren’s POV looking up the street to the Kah’Nath Master flanked by several archers, with Karn and Baynon in the background. I set up my 2.5K dead in the back of the shot, its stand hidden by the furthest house facade.

Another of the Urban Sodium-gelled 800W Arrilites beefing up the braziers
One of the Urban Sodium-gelled 800W Arrilites beefing up the braziers

The plan was for the archers to light their arrows from two braziers, one either side of the street, so Chris Dane and Amanda Stekly dressed these in accordingly. I set up an Arrilite 800 near each one, choosing Urban Sodium gel to give the “firelight” a grungy colour appropriate to the bad guys. (I was shooting on a tungsten white balance to turn the HMI moonlight blue.)

The dimmers controlling the Arrilites
The dimmers controlling the Arrilites

Chris – by this time well-attuned to my lighting needs – also rigged a third brazier to act as the key light for himself (Karn) and James Malpas (Baynon), towards the back of the set. The Arrilite for this one I gelled with full CTO for a yellower, friendlier colour.

All three Arrilites were run through in-line dimmers, and various bystanders were co-opted to flicker them throughout the evening.

The Cyclotron

I rigged a Cyclotron behind the window of the background house – four 100W bulbs under a sheet of CTO, wired to Colin’s dimmer board so they too could be flickered, suggesting firelight inside the house.

The Celotex bounce board
The Celotex bounce board

I figured that the front of this house would still be very dark, being out of range of the Arrilites and facing away from the HMI, so I had gaffer Richard Roberts rig a Celotex board to bounce some of the HMI light back onto it. As it turned out, when it got dark and we fired everything up, there was lots of bounce off the set pieces closest to the HMI anyway. This was a nice bonus that gave us more options when blocking Karn and Baynon’s actions, without having to set up extra lamps.

A sunset view of the lighting set-up from roughly the master camera position. The LED panel on the right was used only as a work light.
A sunset view of the lighting set-up from roughly the master camera position. The LED panel on the left was used only as a work light.

When the braziers were lit and the Master and soldiers strode onto the set in their awesome costumes (courtesy of Miriam Spring Davies and stand-in wardrobe supervisor Claire Finn), we all felt we had a truly epic sequence in the can.

Ren archers

If you’ve missed any of Lensing Ren or Ren itself, here’s a playlist featuring every episode of the fantasy series, interspersed with the corresponding cinematography breakdowns:

Lensing Ren – episode 5