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”