As any film fan will tell you, light and sound make up so much of the enjoyment of a film. Just think of a film-maker like David Lean, and his films ‘Great Expectations’, and ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. Or Carol Reed’s use of light and soundtrack in the superb ‘The Third Man’. You get the idea. Some films have been made by their use of lighting, and become legendary for the cinematography that resulted. ‘Cat People’ (1942) is an example of how simple lighting techniques, and use of shadows, turned what could have been an average film into an acknowledged classic.
Then things began to change. I first noticed this when I went to see the film ‘Heaven’s Gate’ (1980) at the cinema. Michael Cimino had made an expensive and ultimately flawed film that ran so far over budget, it almost bankrupted the film company behind it. It also divided the critics, and audiences stayed away. I actually thought it was a very good film, but for one thing. Cimino had decided to use ‘natural sound’. This was very apparent when characters were speaking in front of a noisy steam train, or trying to make themselves heard during a raucous party scene. As a result, those conversations were inaudible to the audience, and any plot developments resulting from the scenes had to be guessed at.
Not long after, films started to get darker, and I don’t mean their themes. ‘Natural lighting’ became the thing. If the characters were outside at night, then it was pitch black, and we had absolutely no idea what was happening, unless the script explained it. I sat in cinemas peering into the gloom, or straining to hear what was being said. And this was at a time when Dolby stereo was being rolled out, and picture quality had reached a new peak of perfection too.
I see the argument. If somewhere is dark, like a cellar or cave, or outside in a forest at night, then it is going to be dark. That’s realistic, yes I get that. But if the audience is then left to simply imagine what might be happening, and who is doing what to who, then there is no point bothering to go and watch the film in the first place. People whisper, I understand that too. If they don’t want to wake the kids, or wish to conceal a plot secret from a character in the next room, they talk quietly. That’s also realistic, I know. But if we can’t hear what they are saying, then why are we bothering to follow the story?
This has nothing to do with my age. Despite wearing glasses to read any print, I have no issues with watching films, or looking at TV shows. My eyesight is good enough for almost everything, but not ‘natural darkness’. And I am not remotely deaf. I only have my TV volume set at 17 out of a possible 30, and can hear all normal conversation, even spoken quietly. But if I can’t hear something on screen that is not meant to be heard by other characters, so delivered in a hushed whisper inaudible to normal people, I have to question why I am continuing to bother.
More recently, this has migrated to TV drama. Made worse by flat-screen LED televisions that rarely have ‘true black’, night scenes in dramas now favour ‘natural darkness’ too. As a result, us viewers are left literally in the dark about what is happening, so that the director can claim to be ‘on trend’ with his vision of the adaptation. This reached a peak when the BBC serialised ‘Jamaica Inn’. They hired a great cast, an equally good writer to adapt the story, then filmed most of it in pitch darkness, with whispered conversations. So many people wrote in to complain, we can only hope such vanity will not be repeated in future.
My tip to those film-makers and TV directors is to look back at great films and TV series of the past. We want to see the drama, not imagine it. If a room is historically candle-lit, then by all means throw in some candles. But also light the scene, so we know what is happening.
Artistic credibility is one thing, but presenting something impossible to watch is just pointless.