Film Lighting Explained

Film Lighting Explained: Candy-Colored Clown, Blue Velvet

Watch how cinematographer Frederick Elmes paints a harsh reality in the iconic “candy-colored clown” scene from Blue Velvet, directed by David Lynch.

Watch how cinematographer Frederick Elmes paints a harsh reality in the most beautiful way possible! We look at the iconic “candy-colored clown” scene from Blue Velvet, directed by David Lynch:

The entirety of Blue Velvet is beautiful to watch, mostly for the colors and textures chosen by director David Lynch. It’s just an amazing world that has inspired thousand of cinematographers since.

Even famous art photographer Gregory Crewdson is inspired by the lighting and look of Blue Velvet.

The scene we are looking at happens at night. We’re already well into the film and it’s positively a bad time for our hero, Jeffrey, stuck in the back of the car with a bunch of goons. But that’s not the scary part.

The scary part is Frank and Dorothy. Jeffrey is going to learn a thing or two about himself. In many ways he shares Frank’s tastes. And this is stated outright during the scene. It’s possibly one of the reasons Frank doesn’t kill Jeffrey at the end of it all; but not before making sure Jeffrey understands his own inner self.

The scene is in two parts – inside the car and then outside, near a closed factory. If you’re wondering why the frame looks so good, it’s because this was shot in anamorphic. Anamorphic format is made for cars. Just look at the car compositions of Tarantino.

The car scene was shot by what is called the “poor man’s process”.

They’re not on the road, but in a studio. Lights move to give us the impression it is night. The scene starts with a bunch of close ups so the tone is set. The speed at which they are going has been established. The light is front on, and there’s a second source for the back as well. It is broken up by the frame of the car.

They move the car, the actors act and the camera shakes a bit if necessary, all the time we think they’re actually moving. That’s the poor man’s process, because it’s a lot cheaper to do this than actually film on a road at night. Another great film to learn the poor man’s process is The Godfather, the scene where Michael is in the car with Solozzo:

Finally Frank decides to stop the car and they’re outside a factory. There are two or three lights here. One for the factory itself, one for the car, and one more from the same direction closer to camera. It’s a softer source but you can see it is flagged off from the car but lights the foreground.

Then there are smaller fixtures inside the factory so we know where we are.

Back inside the car, Frank turns around, and someone opens the door and the car lights come on. It’s right above and not very soft. You can see the HMI light at the back backlighting the actor and the car.

Also observe the windshield. It’s dirty on the left and clean on the right. So it was probably created to hide the background, and also look good at the same time, since it sort of echoes the shape of the steering wheel. In reality Frank wouldn’t have been able to see a thing due to flare from that, but creatively the shot looks amazing.

The reverse shot as a strong light as well, it’s hard, and when they step out of the car there’s a strong light in the back, probably too strong, but who cares. The scene is just so powerful you don’t really see it.

Here’s the most interesting part lighting wise. Somebody holds up a flashlight and under-lights Frank. Why? Who knows? It just looks weird, and it gives him catchlights so he looks even more menacing than he is.

You can see in addition to the side lighting there’s also frontal fill light for exposure. Film didn’t have the same latitude in the shadows so you had to use fill lights or it would just go black. With modern digital cameras you probably wouldn’t need to fill. On the contrary, you might see too much.

The reverse shot is side lit, but softer. Frank is hard, Jeffrey is soft. One of things to note here is the lights are flagged so they don’t spread all over the place. This creates separation between the foreground and the background.

Then we have the close up of Frank, which is also interesting, because someone had the unenviable task of pointing that flashlight during his best take. One of the best places to look at the number and shape of fixtures is in the eyes. In his eyes you can see two fixtures on the right. One’s from the flashlight, and the other is the fill. 

The lighting in this scene is literal and probably too honest. And it wouldn’t be a David Lynch film without beautiful music and great sound design. 

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.