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Lighting “Persona”

August 1st, 2014 by Michael Koresky Staff Writer for The Criterion Collection

Editor’s Note: This summer, Hulu’s taking you behind-the-scenes on some of your favorite films to explore how filmmakers use elements such as sound, cinematography, and lighting to tell powerful stories and create moments that are unforgettable. To celebrate Lighting and Color Theory week, Hulu Summer Film School is excited to bring you a special guest post from Criterion Collection staff writer Michael Koresky. Visit the Criterion website to learn more about Persona and the work of cinematographer Sven Nykvist

Simply put, cinema is light. Every recorded moving image in every movie you’ve seen from the earliest Thomas Edison experiment to the most recent Hollywood blockbuster is impossible without the light it takes to illuminate it. The camera lens is a device for capturing light. So light—as well as the more abstract notion of time—is what defines the art of cinema and sets it apart from other mediums such as music, literature, and theater—aligning it most with painting. It’s important, then, to pay attention to a given film’s lighting choices and notice how much they reveal about that film’s characters, story, and overall artistic point of view. Look closely, because with movies what you see is what you get.

One of the cinema’s greatest cinematographers, a true sculptor of light, was Sven Nykvist. He worked with such varied directors as Woody Allen, Nora Ephron, Bob Fosse, Philip Kaufman, Louis Malle, Bob Rafelson, and Andrei Tarkovsky, but he is best known for his collaborations with fellow Swede Ingmar Bergman. And perhaps none of their projects together is more strikingly lit than their extraordinary 1966 film Persona. It’s a master class in the delicate art of lighting for film, nearly every image expressing something sharp and distinctive about the human condition. This story, about an actress, Elisabet (Liv Ullmann), who one day decides to stop talking, and the nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), assigned to take care of her, is so visually compelling it could be watched with the sound and subtitles turned off and still communicate so much.

Said Nykvist in an interview:

“Sufficient time is rarely taken to study light.  It is as important as the lines the actors speak, or the direction given to them.  It is an integral part of the story and that is why such close coordination is needed between director and cinematographer. Light is a treasure chest: once properly understood, it can bring another dimension to the medium.”

Persona typifies this sentiment, and throughout it also displays the variety of ways a cinematographer can light a scene resulting in constant emotional impact. From scene to scene there is lighting either hard or soft, natural or ghostly, realist or surreal; illumination can come from the front or the back, it can fill a room or only brighten certain corners. It’s a visual tour de force; it’s no surprise the original title of Bergman’s script was Cinematography.

One of Persona’s most famous images is near the beginning, nested within an abstract prologue largely divorced from the proper narrative. A young boy reaches out to grasp elusive, enlarged images of the film’s two main characters. This is an example of high-key lighting, which usually comes from three sources and minimizes shadows to create an even look. In this case, as a result, the boy appears wise and innocent.

In contrast, look at this amazing flashback insert of the moment when Elisabet stops talking, during a stage performance of Electra. She is in dramatic close-up, her pained expression filling the screen, but her face is half in shadow, giving it an eerie quality. This technique, implying there are two sides to her—a light and a dark—will be a recurring motif throughout the film.

Sometimes the light can be adjusted and toyed with during the course of a shot for dramatic effect, as in this intense close-up of Elisabet lying in her hospital bed, the main source of light growing increasingly dark until she is all but obscured by shadows.

The lighting can come from any part of the set, of course, and the way it is aimed will subtly alter the mood of a scene. Here, Elisabet watches a violent news segment on television in her hospital room, and she is lit from below, which gives the scene the aesthetic of a horror movie.

Prioritizing of illumination on one character over another can create implicit drama and say much about character. In this scene, Elisabet is in shadow even though she is in the foreground of the shot, while a hospital psychologist in the background is more evenly lit. Since the doctor is speaking harshly to her, accusing her of intentionally playing the part of a sufferer, this lighting emphasizes the cold nastiness of the doctor and the negation of Elisabet.

Conversely, later, when Elisabet and Alma have gone to the summer island home where the latter will help the former recuperate, Bergman and Nykvist often illuminate and make Elisabet the visual focal point of a scene. This is fascinating because, as a mute, she is always the listener, while Alma is always prattling on. Our attention is directed to the passive Elisabet’s subtle facial responses. In this scene, there is a diegetic light source on Elisabet, as a lamp next to her bed serves to make her the center of our attention while Bibi tells her a dramatic story.

In another of the film’s most famous scenes, Elisabet approaches Alma’s bedroom during what looks like very early morning. This is an example of soft light, so diffused it looks like a dream; the light source from the background is so soft, in fact, that Elisabet seems to materialize from and dissolve back into the light.

Of course a good, old-fashioned glare of sunlight aimed directly at the camera can produce a wildly dramatic, natural effect.

At one point, we see the women’s profiles nearly silhouetted. This is because the main source of illumination here is harsh backlighting, directed toward the camera.

Above all it’s those close-ups half in shadow that are Persona’s claim to fame. Its climactic confrontation between Alma and Elisabet consists of a succession of amazing shots of the women’s faces all but split in two by darkness.

Said Nykvist about working on Persona:

“One of the more difficult tasks for me on Persona was to light the close-ups because they involved such incredible nuance It’s very important to me to light so that you can sense what lies behind a character’s eyes.  I always aim to catch the light in the eyes, because I feel they are the mirror of the soul. Truth is in the actor’s eyes and very small changes in expression can reveal more than a thousand words.”

Visit the Hulu Summer Film School page to view Persona and learn more about Lighting and Color Theory. 

Last comment: Oct 9th 2017 4 Comments
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  • In AMERICAN CINEMATOGRAPHER, April 1972, Sven Nykvist credits Ingmar Bergman for sparking an obsession with light. He says that without Bergman, he would have remained “just another technical cameraman with no great awareness of the infinite possibilities of lighting.”