On Roger Deakins’ Instagram, he recently posted a quote from the incomparable Conrad L. Hall: Connie used to say he wanted his films to look ugly, to capture something that we [cinematographers] shy away from [beautifully lit images] in making movies. Ugliness can have a certain beauty as well. There’s a strange dichotomy going on there.”
What is Ugly Cinematography?
What Hall was championing is eschewing the most flattering and revealing lighting set-ups; withholding visual information is just as important as withholding narrative information. And “ugly” cinematography by a Deakins or a Hall or a Libatique or a Debie won’t be ugly-ugly (which for most means poorly composed and lit), but where harshness overrides the glamor.
Take a look at this clip from IN COLD BLOOD (shot by Hall) and notice the high contrast lighting doesn’t illuminate Robert Blake (yes, that Robert Blake) in a way that makes him look agreeable or even handsome. But the beauty of the image is sublime.
Hollywood’s cinematography aesthetic (which is wide-ranging, yet still restrained) has the primary duty of injecting the life into the dream factory’s product. However, whenever you are lucky enough to stray from the conservative mandates and sculpt the light for narrative purposes (which means actually lighting your scenes and not going with the available light because it looks “authentic”), then you can reach masterful storytelling heights with more emotional and visceral impact.
THE FOUL UNLIT LOOK
The current trend, however, is to go for lighting that doesn’t look lit… the rationale being, I’m guessing, scenes that appear artificially lit feel more artificial… but then you have to ask yourself, “is that true?” I can think of some wonderful shots that are obviously lit, when the goal is to appear “unlit.”
You can’t complain about cinematography that is masterfully ‘lit” as long as it’s effective… the ascendancy of Fincher, who drives his DPs to achieve a look that is hyper-stylized, yet with intangible execution (see GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and SOCIAL NETWORK), and the lush work of Roger Deakins has navigated the “trend” to this aesthetic. Yet, rabble rousers like Benoit Diebe go the other direction, and that’s what is appealing about their cinematography.
Whatever you do, don’t be “beautiful”; be unique and challenging and let the beauty shine through that.