Film Lighting Explained

Film Lighting Explained: Plato’s Cave, The Conformist

Watch how cinematographer Vittorio Storaro channeled Caravaggio to tell the story of Plato’s cave, using just two lights.

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This scene is an allegory on Plato’s cave, which you’ll find in Plato’s Republic.

Basically, if you were born in a cave and never went out, and all you saw where shadows of things, you’d think that was reality. We are always bound by our own experiences and impressions of things.

The scene takes place inside the professor’s study, and Marcello, the protagonist, visits him for reasons I won’t reveal to avoid spoilers. He reminds the professor of his own lecture on Plato’s cave, and the professor thanks him for bringing back the ‘good ol’ memory’.

Then the professor turns the tables and puts Marcello in an uncomfortable position by questioning his motives. At which point Marcello starts to change, or let’s just say he begins to learn more about himself.

By the way, please watch the entire film. The cinematography of The Conformist is one of the great landmarks of cinema. 

Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro lit the entirety of The Conformist in this kind of shadow play. He was motivated by The Calling of Saint Matthew, by Caravaggio, to let light be truth.

You can see how the scene is lit similarly, with a strong ray coming in from outside the right window.

There is also an abundant use of smoke or haze in the room, which is somewhat justified by the ashtray on the table.

Then Marcello closes the left window. At the same time someone turns a dimmer and cuts the fill light. The fill light is probably bounced or through diffusion, and is warm and soft. You can see its effect is considerable if you compare the scene without it. Big difference.

Marcello closes the window, which is a metaphor for the cave. He wants to bring the professor into his reality, his past, and his memory of things. All this time the light is just from the big tungsten source outside the window, possibly gelled with CTB.

Then he steps to the back of the room, at which point we finally cut to his long shot. Notice how the shadow is lower than the head. The light is at a 45 degree angle to the right. The motivation is as if it’s coming from the window. If you really just lit the scene with the light outside the window and turned around to shoot you’d see that the light spreads everywhere on the back wall, not just the center as you see in the film.

So it is a second light placed on a stand, and not the window light. That also explains why the shadow is a lot lower than it would be in real life.

But that’s okay. It’s a creative license the cinematographer enjoys. It doesn’t have to match technically, only aesthetically.

Then finally, at the end of the scene, the professor reopens the window, because in a way he wants to tell Marcello his perspective is not all that real or true. They are at odds, and it’s the professor’s way of ruining Marcello’s theater, if you will.

When the opens the window, the shadow behind Marcello disappears, and he is surprised. The point here is there’s no direct connection between Plato’s allegory and the lighting of this scene, but it seems like that. You feel it, and that’s what cinematography is supposed to convey. If you think of it as art. You’re using sound and image to tell a story more deeper than words can, otherwise we can all just read the novel, right?

What this scene, and the rest of the movie taught me about lighting is that it doesn’t have to be technically accurate, or just purely functional. You can make beautiful images that stand the test of time and still have a deeper meaning to convey.

There’s also economy. It only took a total of just two lights. One big one outside the window, but it doesn’t have to be too big nowadays. I think a 4K HMI would do it. If you use a smaller source the light won’t have the same spread. You could try pushing it through diffusion of course. With today’s digital cameras you should be able to make it work on some level. You need fill light bounced, which could be an LED panel or a tweenie. The same panel can be turned around and raised higher up for the reverse shot and that’s it.

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