Days Of Heaven : Films Landscape Photographers Should Watch #1

Having been shot almost exclusively in the golden and blue hours should rank Days of Heaven (1978) high on every landscape photographer's watchlist. 

The director, Terence Malick's technical brilliance is unsurpassed, his use of natural illumination throughout the film creating a sequence of images that amount to a stunning visual study of light, land and man's place within it.

Days of Heaven is one of a few films I've watched where a photographic quality is so evidently clear, this mainly stems from it's use of natural lighting in the entire film and Malick's decision to shoot around sunrise and sunset, even into the blue hour, gives Day's of Heaven this photographic, and often painterly magical quality. At the time, any set or location would have been painstakingly lit by hand, rather than naturally, so unheard of was this approach the lighting crew rang the studio claiming Malick was some unschooled idiot and the production be shut down. 

Malick, along with cinematographer, Nestor Almendros, routinely opted to change the script on fly, moving schedules and shot lists around to constantly enable themselves to best respond to light and weather; something every landscape photographer would be well accustomed to in the field.

Aside from his atypical and controversial approach to shoot set-up and scheduling, Malick doggedly pushed a naturalistic cinematic direction, eschewing any lighting aids and pushing film stock further and further, removing more and more in an reductionist exercise to strip away everything but bare natural light. The quality of light Malick captures throughout the film will make any landscape photographer dribble in envy and awe.

Days of Heaven is also beautiful study of the natural environment. Malick combines shots of the micro and the macro; comfortably contrasting tiny natural details such as a leaf unfurling with epic panoramas of vast open tracts of wild landscape. He succeeds in depicting the minute world, the intimate landscape, whilst telling us about world around it.

Themes equally at home in the work of Ansel Adams and Burtynsky have equal presence on the screen. For all the beauty in the landscape Malick captures, he reminds us that this is also a proto industrial landscape. The machinery of man is dwarfed in the landscape, often we see man and his works isolated amongst the enormous fields; man is clearly trying to master this natural space. Panoramic shots of harvesting machinery and the detailed depictions of man and machine labouring together to gather the natural bounty all work to reinforce this idea in the film.

Malick is hugely inspirational in his use of the power of an image to tell a story. Days of Heavens dialogue was infamously stripped back in editing; a process that took him 2 years to complete. Throughout the film he relies more on the power of the image to convey mood, themes and narrative, reflecting silently the character's lives in their new pastoral world. What little dialogue he does allow is limited mainly to voiceover, much like his 1st film, Badlands (1973).

Bathe yourself (quite literally) in scene after scene of gorgeous light, evocative imagery, and witness a true master craftsmen of light; it is hard not to watch in awe at Malick's eye and brilliance. It's hard not to be inspired in some way by Days of Heaven, a work of one of the last true film auteurs.

Paul Marsden

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