>Thinking of you, Conrad Hall (a random observation about a film he didn’t shoot)

>In the documentary Visions of Light (1992), cinematographer Conrad Hall makes the claim that he contributed to making “mistakes” acceptable. In other words, the kinds of photographic gaffes, such as light flaring in the lens, which previously would have required a retake, began to become expressive filmmaking elements, even normative. The example used in the film was Cool Hand Luke (1967) – a film he did photograph:

This particular scene from Cool Hand Luke is one of the hot “chain gang” moments in which the sun beats down on the convicts slaving away along the road. Certainly, one of the aesthetic goals of the camera work was to create the sense of the sun’s heat and glare. Having the sun’s light flare in the lens helped to create that sense. The danger of this technique is that it may foreground the presence of the camera too much such that the viewer momentarily is drawn out of the narrative and the “fourth wall” is revealed. What cinematographers like Conrad Hall (and director Stuart Rosenberg) understood, however, was that in the photographic world outside of feature filmmaking, especially in journalism, a lens flare is not only commonplace, but may in fact encourage a feeling verisimilitude. Hall, and others, realized that audiences were (maybe always have been) ahead of conventions, and he went for it.

So where in the world does this post really originate? Last night I showed Planet of the Apes (1968) [photographed by Leon Shamroy – a rather accomplished cinematographer] to my daughter (6 yrs old, going on 7). Early in the film, when the three survivors of the crashed spaceship are wandering through the desert (the forbidden zone – as we find out later), I noticed the following shot:

Here we have clear an obvious lens flare. In fact, the lens flare is placed such that it has a visual weight that structurally balances the image. Planet of the Apes was released only a year after Cool Hand Luke, and here Shamroy unflinchingly uses this “new” language of acceptable mistakes. [note: the film was shot in 2:35.1 aspect ratio which only adds to the epic nature of the story and makes the use of such cinematic techniques that more thought-provoking, in my opinion.]

In fact, the way the shot is used we see one of the characters walk in front of the setting sun causing the lens flare to disappear…

…and then re-appear again…

…thus emphasizing the technique even more.

What I find most interesting is the fact that the use of this technique in Planet of the Apes seems to have little functional, thematic, or narrative purpose compared to that in Cool Hand Luke. Nor does it go with much of the rest of the film’s cinematography, which is very good, but rather conventional. In fact, it seems to be used here merely because it is the new thing – a ’60’s thing maybe. Could it be that only a year after Conrad Hall was helping to pioneer new cinematographic horizons that those horizons had now become conquered, colonized, and kitsch-ified? That may too strong of a word. In fact, personally I like the shot in Planet, but I just find the connection a curiosity, and the predictive process of how art affects art typical.

btw, my daughter loved the film. She was fascinated by the ending. Tonight she saw The Princess Bride (1987) for the first time, which she also loved. I have to say, I get a kick out of introducing her to great and fun films.

4 thoughts on “>Thinking of you, Conrad Hall (a random observation about a film he didn’t shoot)

  1. >Interesting post, Tuck. The title alone caught my attention (gotta love Conrad Hall). It’s certainly food for thought.In fact, your observations raise another interesting question in my mind. At what point does something that is new/innovative not only become, as you say, “conquered, colonized and kitschified” but actually mandatory? In other words, it becomes such a part of the cinematic language that it in certain circumstances that is actually expected? I have seen so many shots in so many films where the sun causes a lens flare that I wonder whether it has not only extremely common now but, if maybe there is a shot in a film that seems like it should have a flare and yet it doesn’t, would we as an audience might actually feel like something is missing?

  2. >I think that is probably very true when it comes to new technologies. It also seems that such a thing happened after Godfather II when filmmakers begans using sepia toned images to convey the feeling of times past.

  3. >It also seems that such a thing happened after Godfather II when filmmakers begans using sepia toned images to convey the feeling of times past.That’s an excellent point. How common is it now to see sepia-toned images being used to convey something “period” or perhaps black-and-white to represent something that happened in the past (even the recent past)? It has reached a point now where if we don’t see either of these techniques used in a “period story” (for example if the ancient past is depicted using the bright, vibrant colors that it probably actually contained), then it somehow doesn’t feel “right” to us.

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