Film Lighting Explained

Film Lighting Explained: Halloween, Opening Scene

Watch how cinematographer Dean Cundey uses layers to create depth and keep us off balance in the opening scene of Halloween 1978:

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This video and series is about lighting theory, and some practical suggestions and guesses, based on my experiences and opinions. It does not contain information on actual fixtures or behind the scenes, since those remain under copyright. If this is not your thing please stop watching.

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In the opening scene from Halloween, directed by John Carpenter, with cinematography by Dean Cundey, we are introduced to the back story of Mike Myers. It all seems like one take, but there are a couple of hidden cuts.

The scene plays out as a point of view shot, and we come from behind the tree to see the house.

Halloween was made on a very low budget, and even so cinematographer Dean Cundey shows great knowledge of layering multiple color temperatures.

You have one large hard source coming from the right. It’s easy to pick because you can look at the shadows. It’s most definitely an HMI light, though I could be wrong because HMI lights were a new thing back in 1978. It could also be a tungsten light gelled, and since this was shot on film the color was designed to appear cooler on camera.

Even though this source is falling everywhere the front is lit by a tungsten source. There’s a jack o lantern on the right with a bright source inside so we don’t miss it. It would have been obvious in a large screen in a movie theater. And then the light in the top floor.

We already have so much information about the story. That’s what a great cinematographer does. On a low budget you have to make one light do multiple jobs, especially with a long take like this.

The fixture inside backlights the actors.

As we come to the side we have another source hitting the side of the house. These patterns are created with branches hung off camera, as far away from the light as possible. That’s how it gets hard shadows. And you can see there are hard and some soft leaves, so there is some layering there.

When we look into the room you can see how layering with color temperature works. The foreground is blue. Then warm, it’s a source from below, probably a baby or a tweenie. The shadows are an easy giveaway. The spill is controlled, because at the door the light is blue. That’s another light from the ceiling coming down. And finally the hall which is warm as well, lit by the chandelier. 

You can see how director and cinematographer use warmth to give us a false sense of hope. They are making out in warmth, so at this point as the audience we don’t know what we’re about to see.

As we go around to the back we have another light hitting the back.

The kitchen lights are switched on. They are warm, again giving us a sense of false relief. As the knife comes out we understand what’s going to happen.

As we exit the kitchen you can see the color layering again. Warm, then blue for the dining area. All the lights are on top because the camera needs to move through the house and we see most of the house so we can’t have any stands or shadows in the shot.

As we reach the hall, the boyfriend comes down. You can see how the blue bleeds through, and the cinematographer let it be.

Then the killer goes up the stairs and we have blue again, though there is no logical reason why it has to. As he turns can see the hot spot on the floor, it’s the light that made this section blue. You can see the barn doors if you look closely.

Then we enter the bedroom. There are two light sources wrapped in frost or something similar, which is why you don’t get hotspots. The two lights together also make the overall effect softer, as if it was a bigger light. Finally, the light reflects back into the room to make it four lights in total, and that makes it even softer.

There’s another light on the ceiling lighting the rest of the room, but it’s designed to look like it’s coming from the fixtures on the table. What they call “practicals”.

As we exit you can see how the practicals in the hall and the front of the house play their parts. The main light for the house is now a back light for the car and everybody else. Since this is a separate shot the lights might have been moved for aesthetic effect. 

This is what painting with light is all about. You can do this even on a low budget, if the production gives enough time and money. Nowadays with high ISO cameras you don’t need large fixtures, but you need the same number to get these effects.

Lighting doesn’t happen by itself, you know.