How Stanley Kubrick Made Magic From Reality

Sometimes it takes a deeper look at a master to bring us back to basics.

As still photographers transitioning to motion, there are a number of differences that we must get used to. Even the most skilled still photographer must often go back to basics when learning to light a moving image. And, just like learning to light a still frame, why not begin with learning from masters of the craft.

Stanley Kubrick couldn’t be a better teacher. The film director, whose legendary resume includes the like of "2001: A Space Odyssey," "A Clockwork Orange," "Lolita," and "Dr. Strangelove" just to name a few, began life as a still photographer with iconic Look Magazine. His unique point a view offered even more style to an already enigmatic artistic voice and lead him to produce some of the most defining moments in the history of cinema.

His use of tracking shots, zooms, and symmetrical framing all help to define the Kubrick style. His preference for having characters tilt their eyes up slowly in a very particular way helped to define a Kubrick look. And his late in life penchant for refusing to leave his home in London, resulting in shooting everything from "Eyes Wide Shut" (set in New York) to "Full Metal Jacket" (set in Vietnam) inside London, England, lead to a certain aura of mystery around the man himself.

But, perhaps one of his most important techniques, one within grasp of any filmmaker, was his use of practical lighting. While classical three-point lighting may often dominate the landscape, with a key, fill, and separation light par de rigueur, Kubrick instead preferred to use practical lighting to set the mood for his scenes. Put simply, he liked to let his scenes be lit from within the frame by illuminating objects that would actually be present in the scene. The famous candlelit cinematography from "Barry Lyndon" may be the purest example. But a closer look at everything from the interstellar space station of 2001, to the neon clad streets of "Eyes Wide Shut" show how Kubrick motivates his light using practical sources within plain view of the audience.  

This helps to add a touch of realism to the proceedings by motivating what passes before the viewer’s eyes. And by working closely with his production team to build the lighting into the set, the look ties together cinematography, production design, and character movements into one seamless package.

This video, by Entertain The Elk, paints a vivid picture of just how Kubrick put these elements together to achieve cinematic greatness.

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Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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