It might seem like there’s only so much a person can do in lighting an agrarian period piece, but Christensen proves that there are still a million ways to shoot any movie. A while back, I made a bit of a criticism of the night scenes in Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” (1975), because of how they chose to use only practical candles for lighting. In “Madding Crowd” we see wonderful execution of night scenes in a pre-electrical society that are done with complete artistry and still remain unobtrusive.
Instead of stubbornly sticking to a set of rules about how a period film should be lit, Christensen takes inspiration from reality and allows herself to apply it in a unique way for the purposes of this film. One of the most impressive parts of the lighting is how she frequently uses hard light in the interiors, but still keeps a gorgeous image. The sheer beauty of every shot, quickly becomes one of the staples of the film and it’s obvious that it can’t easily be sacrificed. However, using hard light helps to plant the film visually in the 19th century. You get the feeling that a scene is being lit by a few small candles scattered across the room, emitting light that’s a bit raw and unrefined. Soft lighting is essentially the default of modern cinematography and beauty lighting, so to completely forego it–especially in a movie with such a mandate on aesthetics–is an incredibly bold choice. Fortunately for Christensen, she pulls it off and makes it look easy.
It’s almost scary to think of making such risky choices with a young, famous actress at the helm of this movie. Like it or not, more than a few DP’s have been fired for failing to photograph their female leads as acceptably beautiful, but Christensen has a few things working in her favor. She’s shooting on beautiful Kodak film for starters. Even though it’s fallen out of favor in recent years for digital alternatives I don’t think there’s any digital sensor that’s quite as loving of a person’s face as you’ll find on celluloid. She also has in her arsenal a selection of Panavision Primo prime and zoom lenses, which have a long legacy of stunning imagery in cinema. The trickiest part, however, is her control of hard light, creating dynamic and sometimes even expressionistic shots. When I talk about lighting control and dynamism, I’m referring to the ability to selectively light certain areas of a frame, while intentionally lighting other areas differently or not at all. While the concept of good or bad lighting is of course subjective, the idea of avoiding “flat” lighting to offer more modeling, depth, and texture to an image is firmly engrained in us because it far pre-dates cinema itself.
If you take a look at this painting, “The Calling of St. Matthew” by Caravaggio (1599-1600), you’ll see that there are elements in and out of the frame that restrict the ability of the light to fall on all of the people and surfaces. That’s lighting control. It specifically directs the eye and gives focus to the painting. Without it, everything would be equally lit or flat, and the image would lose interest. The contrast that you get with more controlled lighting is usually very pleasing to the eye, that’s why a backlight always looks so good on camera. The obvious natural iteration of this is a sunset. On the flip side, lighting control is why a camera flash looks so awful. It's a hard light source, from the same direction as the camera lens that lights everything in view. You can see in Caravaggio’s painting, that by having the light source come in from the side of the frame, rather than the front, he’s able to cast shadows and create more modeling on the figures in the painting.
In Christensen’s case, she’s making extensive use of hard light, which is actually much easier to control than soft light, but this is where the art of cinematography becomes more of a matter of taste than ability. In fact, I’d say that most things in cinematography aren’t necessarily hard to execute. If shown a film, most professional cinematographers with their crews supporting them could probably figure out more or less how it was done. Rather, it’s the creativity in how one chooses to control the light that presents the difficulty. It’s choosing what should be lit and what can be dark. It’s deciding what color to light with and how bright. It’s a whole host of artistic choices and sometimes compromises that a cinematographer must make. The expressionistic element that I mentioned earlier comes in when Christensen goes so far as to allow entire swaths of the frame to fall off into blackness, which probably wouldn’t happen in real life. As the DP it’s her artistic duty to somewhat reimagine reality if she feels the situation calls for it. At that point the image is left up to her own sensibilities.
There's a moment in the film when Bathsheba and Liddy prepare to send a Valentine to Boldwood. It's a short and fleeting moment, that would later kick off the infatuation Boldwood has for Bathsheba throughout the rest of the film, but if you pay attention to how it's lit, it's completely unconventional. It's a day scene, but large portions of the frame are allowed to go completely black, which is typically reserved for night. I’d assume that there would be lots of soft light coming in through the windows, or at least if there’s hard light it would appear to come directly from the sun. That's entirely not the case here. The hard light illuminating the actors in the scene seems to be internal to the room they’re in. Once again, it gives the vague sensation that burning candles are lighting the scene, but that doesn't really make too much sense in the middle of the day. The beauty of it, is that it doesn't actually matter. It's not the cinematographer’s job to always render realism. There is something to be said about how estranged the lighting in this film feels compared to what we’re used to in modern movies. It somewhat plants the viewer in another time.
While I’d love to go on and on about how great the lighting was scene by scene, in the interest of brevity I'm just going to ignore the rest of it altogether because no discussion of this movie’s cinematography would be complete without a bit about the amazing camerawork. In the past I may have trivialized the difficulty in making beautiful images in English farmland, but I still have to point out that it's just so gorgeous when you see the sprawling hills and lush fields in “Madding Crowd.” To take it up just another notch over the many period films that capitalize on this kind of aesthetic, Christensen makes masterful use of zoom shots throughout the film. On paper the difference between a zoom shot and a dolly shot is simple: the zoom has the camera stationary, but changing focal length to magnify the image, whereas the dolly has the camera moving and changing its point of view during the shot. They make for a drastically different experience for the viewer because the zoom is an optical effect that's particular to cameras while the dolly is a natural movement, akin to how we move through space in our daily lives. That makes a zoom shot tend to come off as strange and abrasive because at its core, it's unnatural. This is easily scene in a number of television sitcoms like “The Office” (2005-2013) or “Parks and Recreation” (2009-2015) that use zooms for comedy. It takes a highly skilled cinematographer to unabashedly show the viewer a zoom shot and make it work imperceptibly in a quiet dialogue scene. She’ll often hide the zoom by panning or moving the camera while zooming, or zooming in on a moving object. Other than that, it's all about knowing the right speed and the right moment to zoom.
All around Christensen takes the path less traveled in making this film and her unique style shines through every shot if you pay attention. I have criticized in the past how movies with more noticeable cinematography tend to get all the recognition, while subtlety is more or less disregarded, but Christensen seems to strike a very interesting middle ground. Her work definitely stands out among the crowd, but not in an ostentatious way. She’s photographing the movie with a unique voice, but it’s an absolute joy to hear it as a whisper rather than a scream.
P. S. Sorry for the poor quality of photos this time around.