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Film

How Stanley Kubrick used natural light to wondrous effect in 'Barry Lyndon'

Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 period drama Barry Lyndon is a thing of absolute beauty. An elegant motion picture, taking its cues from the 18th-century portraits by the likes of William Hogarth, you could watch the film without sound and still be blown away by the majesty of its aesthetics. It is arguable that aside from 2001: A Space OdysseyBarry Lyndon is the most affecting title in Kubrick’s filmography, with much of this due to the cinematography, which remains one of the finest examples of the craft in existence. 

Different from the other pictures that the American auteur had directed, instead of having total control over the composition of shots, for the most part, Kubrick and his cinematographer, John Alcott (who went on to win an Oscar for his work), let nature take its course. Together, they went on the hunt for the perfect natural shots and only stepped in to mimic its grandeur when necessary, with this balance between the unnatural and the natural helping to create a film that was modern yet authentic.

Shot over eight months across England, Ireland, and parts of Europe, the movie is noted for the many abrupt changes in the weather in a single scene. Although Kubrick would later state that his insistence on using natural light restricted his ability to make “subtle aesthetic decisions”, the final product could not have been more pristine. With the untamed, pastoral atmosphere augmenting the narrative’s beauty beyond comprehension, Barry Lyndon’s beauty has only intensified over the years.

Although it is commonly mistaken that Barry Lyndon was shot entirely using natural light, its role in the film was still a defining factor in the final product. From the moody natural light peeking through the clouds during the early scenes in Barry’s native Ireland to the side profile of him standing in the red coat of the British army staring into a roaring fire, or the many candlelit scenes as he ingratiates himself in the nightlife of the European nobility, natural light pulses throughout the film. It compounds the sense of the natural order of things and the role that chance plays in the characters and our lives, denoting that we are pretty powerless when it comes to the natural world having its say on how our life turns out. This is clear in the climatic duel our titular rogue finds himself in.

It is a miraculous feat that several sequences were shot without electric light, as many of these scenes were filmed in the grand rooms of stately homes such as Corsham Court or Dublin Castle. Duly, the ones using only candlelight are triumphs, as shooting in this way in such an expansive setting is difficult in still photography, let alone with film.

However, Kubrick was determined not to make yet another artificially lit period drama. He stumbled across different combinations of lenses and film, which included the superfast 50mm lenses by Zeiss that NASA had used for the Apollo moon landings. After this game-changing discovery, the director had what he needed to bring his stunning aesthetic vision to life.

Behind-the-scenes of Stanley Kubrick film ‘Barry Lyndon’

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The lenses had enormous apertures, the lowest F-stop in history, and a fixed focal length, meaning that initially, Kubrick and Alcott had some issues. As was customary for the director, a little innovation soon alleviated these woes. They were modified by Cinema Products Corporation with the help of optics expert Richard Vetter specifically for Kubrick, as he wanted a wider angle of view to replicate the works of masters such as Hogarth, depicting a complete, nuanced scene.

The rear element of the lens needed to be 2.5mm away from the film plane, which required special modification of the rotating camera shutter. So when the new and improved trio of lenses came back, Kubrick and Alcott could easily shoot their scenes lit by candlelight, recreating the sentiment of the era when natural light was the only option.

Avoiding the electrical lighting at all cost was impossible, and most of the film’s shots were achieved with conventional lenses and lighting, particularly in part two, when Barry has struck up his friendship with the chevalier and makes his ascent to the higher echelons of society.

However, the panache with which Kubrick and Alcott managed to mimic the era’s natural light, specifically the light depicted in Hogarth’s paintings, is a real stroke of genius. It also gave the film a natural feel, a far cry away from the manufactured style of the contemporary period dramas that Kubrick disliked.

Artificial lights called ‘Mini-Brutes’ were placed outside and aimed through the windows to illuminate some of the more striking interior scenes. Tracing paper or similar plastic materials were taped to the windows to diffuse the unnatural electric light, which created the beautiful, almost spiritual flare effect. These techniques recreated the essence of the most remarkable 18th-century portraits, bringing Barry Lyndon’s variety of characters’ complex emotions are brought into view. 

Interestingly, in some instances where the natural daylight was allowed to come through, particularly in these luxurious old rooms, when recorded on Kubrick’s special film stock, it appeared to be blue-tinted compared to the incandescence of electrical light. This made the sequences much more expressive, something that the likes of Michael Mann and Paul Thomas Anderson would become masters at over the coming years. 

A masterpiece in cinematography and aesthetics, natural light is yet to be as integral in a piece of cinema as it was in Barry Lyndon. A masterpiece in every sense of the word, its beauty is exquisite and something everyone should experience. 

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