Barry Lyndon (1975) is often heralded as the most visually beautiful film ever made; that accolade alone should pique the interest of anyone working in a visual medium, and should provide enough temptation for any landscape photographer to put on the popcorn.
Stanley Kubrick’s use of natural light in the film is now legendary, but that certainly isn’t unique, something I’ve covered already reviewing Terrence Malick’s Day’s Of Heaven -- which is an amazing study of natural lighting on celluloid. What is worthwhile for the photographer, is Kubrick’s brilliant, almost surgical, compositional precision.
In a conscious effort to replicate the age without the ‘moving picture’, Kubrick shot the vast majority of the film from a static position, like a photographer. Although his artistic aim was to emulate the painters of the period, it gives the entire film a determinedly photographic aesthetic.
Not only does Kubrick rarely ever move the camera, he composes these static scenes in such a way that the characters move through the frame, foreground to background. Like a landscape photographer, Kubrick seeks to impart flat 2D scenes with depth and three dimensionality, creating long paths of travel for the eye to wander with the character’s movement, or using strong natural diagonals (i.e. S or curves) from the natural scenery. A lone rider snakes across a moorland path; a stone wall wind over hills into duelling gentlemen; tree lined forest tracks meander and frame scores of Prussian soldiers impatient for battle.
Kubrick’s framing in the film is one even ‘masters of the frame edges’ like Joe Cornish should envy, it’s so fastidious. Examine the edges of these often lengthy scenes and you will find nothing extraneous, nothing rogue inshot. Every element, be it natural or man made appears purposefully and precisely placed. A road aligns perfectly with a frame edge; the bows of trees frame a stately home.
Another element Barry Lyndon demonstrates exquisitely is the use of the weather and natural elements to create mood. The film is divided into chapters of Barry’s life; as Barry climbs the social ladder and finds his path in Parts 1 and 2 we see brooding landscapes and nightmarish skies reflective of his troubled youth. Later in Part 3, Barry’s elevates his social status, which is rendered in soft golden light drenching opulent rooms of aristocratic piles, harking to the wealth, finery and comfort of Barry’s new found social status.
Kubrick’s use of lighting here is masterful not only through the craft of its capture, and the scenery lovely to drink in, it works to underline the tone of Barry’s life and lot. Rather than achieve this in post-production through the grade, Kubrick chose natural light above all.
Barry Lyndon has plenty to offer the retina’s of any landscape photographer to feast upon; gorgeous scenery, meticulous attention to craft, detail and set-up, a film heavy on photographic technique. It’s maybe no surprise that Kubrick’s himself was photographer before filmmaker, having worked as a staff photographer on the New York magazine The Look and it appears in Lyndon that he brought these learnings to bare in celluloid.
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