René GroebliUntitled from The Eye of Love series (1953)

Lately, I’ve been pondering darkness.

I know, I know… sounds like rejected Celtic Frost
lyrics; but seriously, another of the many unsavory side effects of the
shift from photography/cinematography to digital imaging is the
redefinition of how low-light scenes are represented.

Overlooking
the immense differences between analog and digital, Hollywood has
established an expectation for how things look at night that whether one
realizes it or not, is irreducibly stylized.

I
get asked all the time by folks to recommend cameras to fit a litany of
expectations which almost always center on a low price point and a
prodigious ability to handle low-light situations. People who aren’t
steeped in the technology seem to expect that there’s a camera out there
that’ll render your concert shots and exterior street at night scenes
as if they were Blade Runner
deleted scenes (overlooking that Blade Runner had arguably the best
production design in the history of cinema combined with the fact that
it was shot by Jordan Cronenweth, i.e. one of the all-time great cinematographers.

Working in low light is a challenge. Unless you’re Stanley Kubrick–who famously adapted f0.7 lenses made by Zeiss for NASA to shoot scenes in Barry Lyndon
with only candles for illumination–the recourse was to just let things
go too dark (I’m thinking here of the all but illegible evening walks
in Akerman’s otherwise masterful Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles and the most naturalistic representation of low-light cinematography Kiarostami’s–arguably the greatest living filmmaker–Where is the Friend’s Home?)

At
a certain point, certain (largely European) filmmakers started flooding
night scenes with ambient blue light (likely a way of rendering the day-for-night tradition more visually palatable)–I first remember noticing this in del Toro’s Mimic but Besson’s La Femme Nikita
preceded that and as anyone who has followed the latter’s career, you
know he’s incapable of formulating an original idea (although, at least
he tends to steal from the best).

Then along comes digital with
it’s fundamentally less shallow depth of field which in combination with
the theoretical impossibility of it ever rendering even half the
dynamic range of black that the human eye can read. The tendency has
been to invert things and to, when working digitally, treat white as you
would black when shooting analog. (Orange is the New Black does this super obviously.)

Then
there’s also color grading to consider. Toward the end of the analog
era, what came out of the camera was not even close to what made it onto
the screen. Lighting was modified with magic windows, color graded,
etc.

That’s still done today. But that thing that’s different is
that digital cinematographers aim for an in camera image that is
essentially flat. When you export it, it looks bleached–like one of
those Tumblr’s that adds a soft grunge tag to everything. Subsequently,
the footage is graded. Contrast is add, color is resaturated.

Anyway,
I was thinking what I was going to say about this image last night and
even though I swore I wasn’t going to keep watching it after last
seasons bullshit finale, I was watching the 3rd season premiere of NBC’s
Hannibal–a show that I consider frequently reprehensible but features the best production design
in the history of television. (The digital cinematography is also
astute even if I strenuously disagree on a philosophical level with the
excess with which it resorts to glossy close-up inserts; I’m more in
line with Aaron Morton’s work on Orphan Black
and his precocious consistency with regard to scale and the resulting
compellingly believable three dimensionality of space in his scenes.)

While
I think the artifice from which the darkness in Hannibal’s visuals
emerge befits the ostentatious amorality the show goes to such great
length to foster, I can’t help but wonder what it’d be like if it were
as willing to go real and truly dark like the above image instead of
amending its tenebrism as a post-production filter.

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