A much heard line about cinematography is that it’s nothing more than ‘painting with light’. You have to imagine a movie frame as being a blank canvas, except a canvas starts out being white, while a movie frame starts out completely black. It’s by exposing it to certain levels of light that you slowly fill up the frame and paint it until it’s filled with the image.
It’s a nice way of looking at film, and I guess it’s a good thing to remind yourself of every once in a while. It’s good because it’s so easy to forget that you start out in black, because just as with a painting, you hardly ever see the empty canvas. A painter does, when he starts out painting, but a cinematographer never sees the blank frame he needs to fill up. He just needs to imagine it being there, especially in digital cinematography, as there isn’t a real frame to begin with.
So why is it important to remember? To me it’s important because you need to remember that everything in front of the lens is like paint, it leaves an impression. And like a painter, you need to be aware of every piece of paint that ends up on your canvas. And for a painter it’s easy, because the only things that end up on his canvas are things he himself puts on it. Paint doesn’t rub itself on the canvas at it’s own will, it must be painted on. Not so with light. Light is everywhere, and it exists before, and long after a cinematographer chooses to capture it on film. And if you’re not careful, light will fill up your canvas whether you like it or not!
So you need to look, you need to be aware of that light and try to use it like it’s paint. If a chair is in your frame, it’s actually the ‘light coming of the chair’ that enters your frame, and you have to judge whether that light compliments the composition, or whether the frame is better off without the chair. And then when you take it out of the frame, it doesn’t magically turn black behind the chair, you don’t leave an empty space. Maybe a part of a wall comes into view with its own type of light.
So…painting with light. Quite a long story to start off my blog with, but worth telling as it’s exactly what entered my mind as I watched Million Dollar Baby (2004) last night. Why? Because director Clint Eastwood, and cinematographer Tom Stern, are not afraid to show the blank canvas in that movie, the blackness of the frame, and thus emphasizing the few parts of the frame that are lit. In that film, they rarely fill a frame completely with light. Darkness is often part of the composition, especially as the story moves towards its dark conclusion.
And by showing so much darkness I suddenly became aware of the concept of ‘painting with light’. Because those two or three things that were exposed stood out so much they had to be exposed completely by intention. Nothing in the frame was probably lit by accident. As they say, minimalism is the best filter to better appreciate the individual elements. Kinda like meditation. So this time, my story is about light and darkness, about painting with light, about leaving out light to better emphasize your subjects.
Million Dollar Baby
Movies that base their content, their theme, on a plot twist are difficult to describe without spoilers. And Million Dollar Baby is a great example of that. If, by any chance, you have not seen the movie and want to see it, I urge you to wait on reading this post until after you’ve seen it.
Then again…The movie is almost a decade old and I’m pretty sure that most of those who wanted to see it, have seen it, and that the twists of the story have been well exposed ever since the movie won the major oscars back in 2005. So yeah, I’ll consider myself to be free to discuss the movie in full detail.
Million Dollar Baby is advertised as a boxing movie featuring a classic framework of the young protege, who is a low-life outcast, and her reluctant (at first) older trainer who coaches her to great heights and successes against all odds. It’s Rocky, it’s Karate Kid, it’s every classic fighting movie you can imagine. Except at a certain point it ceases to be one. When Hillary Swank’s character Maggie breaks her neck during an accident in the ring the movie screeches to a halt and then quietly and quite subtly starts exploring the themes of defeat, death and eventual euthanasia by the hands of the very trainer who brought her to success.
Through the willful murder of its main character, Million Dollar Baby became quite a politically controversial movie. Euthanasia was, and still is, by no means a socially fully accepted procedure, especially in the United States. But Million Dollar Baby, in my mind, succeeds in not being political of itself. It tells its story with quiet integrity and though you feel sympathy for the eventual decision to kill off Maggie in the end, and that choice seems to be supported by the moral compass of the story, Scrap (mr. Morgan Freeman of course!), the movie doesn’t suggest a happy end. Clint’s character Frankie kills of Maggie, thereby creating a kind-of peaceful, happy end for her, but it’s suggested it cost him so much he leaves. ‘I don’t think he had anything left…’ Scrap tells the audience.
So the story is dark, and increasingly so as it progresses, and in a way it’s about the little bit of light that perseveres in a cold, dark world. The friendship, or maybe just the father-daughter relationship that develops between Maggie and Frankie illustrates this so well. There’s nothing magical or grand about their relationship, they’re just two socially isolated people with close to nothing to lose that hold on to each other, almost out of necessity as to not fall away into darkness completely.
Having said that, you can imagine that a movie based on these themes and characters might be filmed in a way that emphasizes the contrasting shades of light and darkness and that is exactly what the cinematography does. More than many films, even more than most Film Noir movies, Million Dollar Baby is bathed in the cold, black darkness of shadows. Characters move in and out of the shadows, and are often only partially lit, even across their faces and eyes.
Take, for example, the moment when Frankie decides to start training Maggie. She is standing below a small little keylight and Frankie is standing just at the edge of illumination. At first his entire upper body is blacked out, and then when the two meet eye to eye, they’re only illuminated partially. These lightning tricks give the film a kind of intimacy that fits the idea that these two people are alone in the world, together. As if the entire world is no larger than the space between them.
This setting is repeated again later on when Frankie and Maggie are road tripping at night and they have a short moment of bonding (“well, you’ve got me…”). Again the outside world is completely absent and we only see their faces partially illuminated. Again it feels as if there’s nothing else to the world than these two people, and their bond.
So when their bond is torn as Maggie’s neck is broken and she is reduced to a hospitalized state, paralyzed from the neck down, the darkness creeps in even more. Especially for Frankie, who is guilt ridden over pushing Maggie this far and seems to get consumed by his personal demons, even estranging his trusty friend Scrap for a moment. He literally becomes isolated in his world and this culminates in a moment of devastating beauty that contains my One Shot moment.
Frankie has just visited Maggie in the hospital and he is starting to realize that her condition is inhumane and she is unfit to be reduced to such a state of silence and immovability. He walks back to his gym at night and starts to prepare some stuff for the inevitable ‘murder’ he’s about to commit. Scrap comes to visit him and the two reconcile. But the mood is anything but optimistic as the realization is dawning on both men that the only positive outcome will be the eventual death of Maggie. As she has become a substitute daughter for Frankie, it’s written in every line of his face that he doesn’t want to accept that inevitability.
Tom Stern chose to light this scene with just a minimum amount of keylight. Morgan Freeman is illuminated only by a backlight, framing his posture while barely showing his facial expressions, and Clint Eastwood is half-lit on his face, surrounded by deep, dark, nothingness. Here, his predicament is fully illustrated by the cinematography. There is nothing left but the doubt on his face. There is a comforting truth in knowing that ‘you’ve had your shot’, as Scrap puts it, but it’s a bitter pill to swallow, and through Clint’s performance and directing and Stern’s spare cinematography the audience has as hard a time swallowing the pill as Frankie does.
It’s a perfect example of how being selective in what you show can enhance the image and the emotion it needs to portray. When you really want to isolate someone, sometimes it’s best not to strip the set clean or take out the actors but to take out the light and show the nothingness of an empty frame.