The Revenant, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and with cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, has made headlines for being a cinema release feature length film that does not rely on the use of artificial lighting. This style of filmmaking has been seen before, when Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg came together to create the Dogma 95 manifesto.
The Dogma 95 manifesto uses an avant-garde filmmaking style, where one of its rules state that “Special lighting is not acceptable”. Although The Revenant does not follow the Dogma 95 ‘vow of chastity’ for various reasons, Lubezki has somewhat stayed true to his want of creating a movie using only natural lighting. “We wanted to make a movie that was immersive and visceral,” Lubezki told Variety. “The idea of using natural light came because we wanted the audience to feel, I hope, that this stuff is really happening.”
There’s only one exception to Lubezki’s rule, where one scene used a few artificial sources of light around a campfire to create a more consistent light source. It was said that the wind was causing the fire to behave in a distracting way, so light sources were added. The rest of the movie is said to be natural light.
A problem with films that only use natural light sources is with camera exposure. It was said that Lubezki originally wanted to shoot using film. However, after tests, dusk/dawn and dimly lit shots struggled with exposure levels, a digital approach was followed instead; allowing for a greater exposure without the addition of noise to the picture.
Shooting using the sun’s light is all well and good, but when you have a feature length film to shoot, it’s going to take more than one day to record. As the sun moves through the sky throughout the day – the colour temperature of the light on the ground changes, shown graphically below.
The changing sun position, intensity and colour temperature throughout the day, would lead to short record times, so that conditions can match throughout a scene, if shot over more than one day. One crew-member expressed their frustration with this shooting style by commenting “It’s 4 o’clock, and you’ve got an hour and a half of daylight, and it’s not the light he wants to shoot in”.
Modern camera sensor technologies have allowed cinematographers to experiment with using less and less lighting, but ultimately the inconsistency of natural light sources mean that there is still a definite need for artificial lighting.