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Seventies=better than now


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#1 cal bickford

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Posted 23 November 2007 - 01:24 AM

hi all, I'm an aspiring filmmaker trying to teach myself about lighting right now. I've been snooping around the internet trying to find out about 1970s cinematography but to no avail. I love movies from the seventies and I'm trying to figure out what makes them so beatiful. Why are movies like The Long Goodbye, Network, Invasion of The Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry, Klute, All the President's Men, etc etc so much more beatiful than todays pictures (I know some of you might disagree with this)? Mainly I'm interested in the types of lighting setups that were used as I think I've got a pretty good idea of the other factors. A lot of it is probably the actual content of the image and the aesthetic of the time (brown El Caminos driven by men in cream sports jackets etc). Poorer lens and film stock resolution (+ more makeup though this has more to do w/ lights probably) result in a more illustrated and unnatural look, almost animated if you will. But the lighting seems much more naturalistic to me (with the exception of overlighting in lowlight situations in response to filmstock's reduced sensitivity). In other words, if you go watch a (IMO) piece of crap like bourne ultimatum every scene someone is lit with an orange gel from one side and a blue one from the other. Whereas, a lot of the 70s (and earlier) films seem to have a much more "white" light. So after all this rambling I guess what I'm wondering is:

A)what types of lighting systems did they use back then? And what are the primary differences from now?

B)Does anybody know any good sources of information on the subject? (I've listened to all the director commentaries on the dvds but they never mention anything about the types of lighting used. FYI the best commentaries are by altman and kaufman talking about Long Goodbye's post-flashing and Body Snatcher's use of colors etc respectively.)

Edited by cal bickford, 23 November 2007 - 01:28 AM.

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#2 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 23 November 2007 - 01:34 AM

The 1970's issues of "American Cinematographer" are a goldmine of information.

Lighting was mostly tungsten, other than some carbon arcs for daylight. Sometimes FAY globes were used for daylight-balanced lighting. Zsigmond used an early form of Xenon lighting for some day work in the early 1970's. Otherwise, it was mostly the common tungsten lamps we use today, plus homemade softboxes using photoflood and other light bulbs. Gordon Willis was big on those, the overhead softboxes with lightbulbs inside, and a piece of diffusion underneath.

A lot of day interiors for "Barry Lyndon" were lit with Maxibrutes shining through windows covered with tracing paper (something like 1000H).

There was also a lot of available light photography back then, especially when shooting under fluorescents and other industrial lamps.

Harris Savide's work is the closest I've seen for a modern cinematographer using that 1970's aesthetic.
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#3 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 23 November 2007 - 01:53 AM

Well, one thing's for sure, Gordon Willis wasn't afraid of playing a scene in the dark, as these frames from "The Paper Chase" demonstrate:

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#4 Dan Salzmann

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Posted 23 November 2007 - 04:54 AM

I believe there are a few reasons for this impression:
1) People are bludgeoned with more imagery today than in the 70's-Internet, more TV stations, more advertising, more, more, more. So the theory for some is that in order to have an impact on the spectator you have to do MORE. More colour, more camera movements, more special fx, more more, more so things just simply get muddled. Too many spices in the broth so to speak.
I do not think that a relatively minimalist masterpiece like "Dog Day Afternoon" would get made today.
2) I don't believe that motion pictures in the 70's were referencing TV commercials in the 70's very much and there was no MTV. Today the over the top eye candy extravaganzas reference TV commercials, MTV and even worse they reference other eye candy extravaganzas so things can spiral. All this continues because marketing has "evolved" into an incredibly complex and calculated monster. When a film is linked to promotional tie-ins to breakfast cereals, fast food promotions etc. the film is less about "art" and more about $. Bad.
3) Technological innovation mixed with incessant consumerist mental formatting equals:
I can so I must so I will and more than the last person to do it. Technological innovation also leads to more focus on the "Hows" of things than on the "Whys" which I truly believe is of major importance to a true artistic process. I think that when technology evolves to the point where in standard wedding videos the couple will fly, a lot of people will get bored with just pure eye candy and start concentrating more on artistic intent.
I hope this is not naive optimism.
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#5 Tim Partridge

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Posted 23 November 2007 - 07:05 AM

I've said it many times before but to me the peak of the art of cinematography is the seventies.

What I think the decade was strongest for was that transitional mentality. You had cameramen still practicing old school hard light (Freddie Young, Ernest Lazlo), a boom in soft/bounce light with the younger generation as well as extreme low light (Gordon Willis, Owen Roizman and Bruce Surtees) and then many cinematographers who sat in the middle and employed different lighting as and when (Unsworth, Richard Kline, etc). Yoh had all the best of the old and the new.

Add to this the technology- stocks had just gotten faster at 100asa although still "medium" by today's standards, lenses were getting faster, zooms were being played with, flashing and Chemtone were lowering contrast, everyone was pushing. Operating was classical mixed with verite as and when. Oh, and there was also a love throughout the decade for anamorphic photography (and with that directors knew and encouraged DPs to stage ambitious compositions for the big screen). However, the optics as mentioned were heavily flawed, filmstock latitude not wonderful, and all these elements combined it just created this frenzy of excitement on the screen that hadn't been seen before and hasn't been since.

Look at 1974's Oscar nominations for example- TOWERING INFERNO, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, CHINATOWN, EARTHQUAKE, LENNY- Excusing the two least interesting looking nominees (one of which won the Oscar!) these films couldn't have looked more different than one another. The variety was enormous.

Dan,

I think more than media influence today is the knowledge of what format the film will end up at for home viewing. That has really hurt cinema, epsecially as far as composition and framing is concerned.
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#6 Dan Salzmann

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Posted 23 November 2007 - 10:58 AM

Maybe it was as well the effects of psychedelia that made things more interesting-not to imply that these directors took drugs but more that the times reflected psychedelics in terms of art, music and general culture.
Look at Kubrick ("Clockwork Orange"), Frankenheimer ("Seconds" was really tripped out in my opinion), Coppola with "The Conversation" etc.
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#7 John Holland

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Posted 23 November 2007 - 12:42 PM

Cant agree with that just think people were more prepared to be bold and try new things with producers who supported them more difficult now with more producers on the credit list than the cast sometimes, most of which have done some sort of business degree and are just 25 year old budding accountants.
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#8 Dan Salzmann

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Posted 23 November 2007 - 08:56 PM

That I'll agree with. Several people have told me that many producer types in Hollywood don't say "I have a film coming out on (date)", they say "I have a product coming out on (date)".
Frankly that gives me the shivers.
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#9 Joseph Zizzo

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Posted 24 November 2007 - 09:26 AM

the seventies was definitely a golden age for filmaking in general...

"easy riders and raging bulls", which i'm sure you've all read, tells the story amazingly well. hollywood was lost creatively. they were trying to compete with tv on its own ground, with vacuous stuff like the frankie and annette series, and they were getting killed. so when dennis hopper came along and wanted to make "easy rider", they said what the hell, lets roll the dice, its cheap enough. when that film made a fortune, and at the same time the aforementioned technolological advances were happening, and with influence from the french new wave, director-driven filmmaking was born in hollywood. dp's were freed from convention, and they became collaberators with these amazingly creative directors. the art of cinematography evolved in leaps and bounds in this environment...

has anyone ever seen, "the landlord", one of willis' early films, directed by hal ashby in 1970? it is kind of a harbinger of what we think of as independent film today, and its one of my favorites.
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#10 Walter Graff

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Posted 24 November 2007 - 10:37 AM

One of the things that many don't consider in such conversations was the fundamental change in the way stories were told from the seventies on. Prior to then most films were more screen plays developed from stage plays and the like. From staging to acting they were stiffer and more like a filmed play than a real life slice of life often occurring solely on a sound stage. The fundamental change to a more realistic view of life with filmmaking in the seventies where stories were looser, actors improvised, and films were shot on location created a era of films that have a much more emotional connection to the audience. I Spend lots of time listening to directors commentaries of classic films. One of the best I've ever heard and one that gives you a real understanding of the paradigm change that occurred in filmmaking is John Badham's commentary on Saturday Night Fever. He caught so much flack for this film and was even fired after making it for allowing the word fcuk to be used in it. It is defiantly worth renting just to hear Badham's commentary of how filmmaking up until that era was a different animal and how films such as SNF and others like it changed the way films were made from that moment on.

Unrelated to the topic but so amazing. If you get the disk you'll hear Badham tell the story of how the Bee Gees were hired to write five songs for the movie but never saw a script or a talked about the story, simply handed in five songs. Towards the end of the film in a pivotal moment for Tony Manero, he makes his first trip out of Brooklyn to see Stephanie Mangano who has now moved into the city for work. Badham goes on to talk about the scene where we see Tony get on the subway and how he had some transitional music playing to cover it. He wanted to make a Montage of Tony's trip and turned to his editor and asked if they had any more songs from the the Bee Gees left. The editor said they had one more left. Badham said we'll have to use it. So as he said, he used it because of necessity. That song, "How Deep Is your Love" became one of the Bee Gee's greatest hits, and helped make Saturday Night Fever one of the best films of the time.

Also interesting about the film is how much it looks like one of today's low budget films in terms of overall quality. It was a very low budget film at the time. But once again shows how story always trumps anything else.
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#11 Joseph Zizzo

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Posted 24 November 2007 - 12:58 PM

that's true, walter, and its a great point. when the opportunity arose, there were directors more than ready to work that way. "saturday night fever" is i think one of the underrated gems from this era, i definitely need to go watch it again.

i also agree with dan that psychedelic drug use - or more accurately the social revolution that was going on at the time - was the cauldron in which these films were made. it was the catalyst... which of course started in the 60's. people were throwing off the repression and superficiality of the 50's. the realities of the vietnam war could no longer be denied, with ghastly tv images flooding people's homes on a nightly basis, and people were doing drugs and having revelatory experiences. people didn't want to watch tab hunter ponce around as if none of this was going on, they wanted to see raw, honest movies that reflected and explored the brave new world they were experiencing on a daily basis.

the insightful and fearless filmmakers working in that environment, with reams of untold stories to tell and ready to break with the conventions of the past, teamed with bold cinematographers, with lighter cameras and faster lenses and stocks to work with, made some of the best films ever produced.
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#12 Tim Partridge

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Posted 24 November 2007 - 01:27 PM

To expand on Walter's feelings, I think Seventies Hollywood also opened the doors to directors who were more savvy on the technical side, more aware of the process of filmmaking, pushing it to the limit. I'm refering to directors like Robert Altman, who for instance could probably have shot something like NASHVILLE himself, but was very collaborative with his DP (Paul Lohmann on that) in making sure they did the Chemtone flash for the exterior ensemble big takes. Looser certainly for the performers and also to the mise en scene, but Altman had far greater overall control of his vision than just say shot lists, performances and how things should cut.

At the same time however I am a big fan of guys like Bily Wilder from the Golden Age, Robert Wise and Hitchcock as well because they knew how to stage action (in one shot with no cutaways), tell stories and generally avoided using technical gimmicks to disguise a bad script. The Seventies again however was transitional in that you still had that mentality but also with the fresher thinking of the Altmans and Polanskis, etc.

Let's not forget outside of Hollywood too- particularly the influence of new wave.

Re: SNF

I don't agree that the look is "cheap" as suxch by todays standards. I think Ralf Bode's photography still impresses (especially on the dancefloor) and also don't forget all of the steadicam used throughout to iconic effect!

On the music side: David Shire. That name defines great Seventies film music!
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#13 James Steven Beverly

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Posted 25 November 2007 - 02:21 AM

You have to remember, the studios had lost anti-trust suits and the studio system was gone by the 70s. The world had changed and the cooperate world had bought the studios for tax reasons, the moguls were no more. A new generation of film makers had just graduated from film school which had never been taken seriously under the studio system. The old guard couldn't make movies that appealed to the younger, more sophisticated generation and the public at large who after Vietnam and Nixon had grown skeptical of the fairytale view of American life and wanted a more realistic cinema. Copolla, Scresese, Lucus, Frankenhimer, Ashby (Whom I had the great privilege of working with), Pekinpaw, Kubrick, Jewison, Carpenter, Hooper all these yumg Turks were given the freedom to make films in their own vision because of ONE film, Easy Rider.

At a time when the old guard were making one bomb after another, this little low budget film comes out and explodes onto the scene and all the money men wanted a piece of that action so these young guys for about 5 to 7 years had unprecedented freedom to make their movies the way they saw them and their success changed the way movies were written and made. The studio execs really never did get it, American Graffiti was almost released as a TV movie for Christ's sake. Spielberg and Lucas kinda inadvertantly messed that up in a way because with Jaws, they opened everywhere at once which had never been done before and because it was so successfully they realized it was more profitable and less risky to do it that way because they made their money back almost immediately and the merchandising from a film had never been a big part of the business before but that all changed with Star Wars .

The studio lost an ungodly amount of merchandising income because Lucas retained those rights as the studio thought they were worthless. Having learned their lesson as mega corporations always do, the merchandising is many times the reason the film is made. These two films opened the the way for the next change in film making. Studios now realized they did know how to make money without the pesky demands od these guys and took back control and also people were disillusioned by the end of the decade and were ready for escapism so the blockbuster was born which were like the epics in scale but took advantage modern technology, Apocalypse Now, Batman, Robocop, Predator, Aliens, big movies with big budgets

Edited by James Steven Beverly, 25 November 2007 - 02:26 AM.

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