Focal Press (imprint of Butterworth-Heinemann - Copyright – RotoVision SA 1998
“My parents were missionaries in the Congo and one of my very early memories is of looking at images from Africa captured on a wind-up film camera. They showed African men building a church with my father, and the captivated me. Later, when my parents returned to Africa, I was sent to live with my aunt and she gave me my first stills camera. Apart from photography, I also loved sport as a boy. When I was 16, I worked as a newspaper delivery boy in order to earn the money to buy a Keystone 8mm camera, which I could use to film the athletes in slow motion during a competition in order to understand a new high-jump technique being used by American athletes to improve their scores. That experience got me interested in shooting film, but my parents didn’t want me to go into the cinema because, to them, it was sinful. However, my stills photography earned me a place in a school of photography in Stockholm.
Once in the city, I was free to go to the movies every night. I decided to become a cinematographer, and soon I got my first job as an assistant cameraman. I worked for many different cinematographers, and also had the opportunity to travel to Rome, where I was employed at Cinecitta as an interpreter as well as an assistant. Shortly after my return to Sweden, a cameraman for whom I was working suddenly became sick and I was able to take over. I underexposed the entire first day’s of work; fortunately, the director shouldered part of the blame, otherwise my career as a cinematographer would have ended then and there.
Through another stroke of luck, I met Ingmar Bergman. Göran Strindberg was to have shot Sawdust and Tinsel, but he decided to accept an invitation to go to Hollywood, and the film was offered to me. Initially, I was quite apprehensive; Ingmar was known as the ‘demonic’ director. But from the first day, we worked well together. Perhaps we understood each other because we were both the sons of pastors. There was a good atmosphere on those early films. We had very low budgets – there were around ten people in the crew and a cast of four or five actors. Everyone did everything. Everyone helped everyone else. When I came to make The Virgin Spring, my second film for Ingmar, I remember we had an exterior night shoot. I added some artificial light to the scene because I thought the natural light was boring and I wanted to see the actor’s shadows dancing against a wall. The next day, when we saw the rushes, Ingmar screamed, “God Damn it! How can there be shadows when the sun has gone down?” The incident marked the beginning of our journey together into light. Because Ingmar had worked in the theatre, he was fascinated by light and how it can be applied to creating a mood. Had I not met him, in all probability I would have remained just another technician with no great awareness of the infinite possibilities of light.
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. In his autobiography, Ingmar wrote about how we both became utterly captivated by light: “The gentle, dangerous, dreamlike, living, dead, clear, misty, hot, violent, bare, sudden, dark, spring-like, falling, straight, slanting, sensual, subdued, limited, poisonous, calming, pale light.” Gentle light is what you might use if you’re photographing a woman and you want her to look very beautiful and soft. Dreamlike light is also very soft. I prefer to achieve this with light rather than low-contrast filters. Living light has more contrast and vitality, while dead light is very flat with no shadows. Clear light is more contrasty, but not too much. Misty light might involve the use of smoke. Violent light is contrastier than living – such subtle distinctions influence how an audience perceives and reacts to the images on screen. Spring-like light is a little warmer. Falling light is when the angle is very low and you get elongated shadows. Sensual light is for love scenes. As I worked with Ingmar, I learned how to express in light the words in the script, and make it reflect the nuances of the drama. Light became a passion which has dominated my life. Generally, there is never enough time in the preparation of a film to explore properly the availability and possibilities of natural light. Ingmar, however, insisted on two months preparation for any film, during which time we would make an extensive study of the beautiful, sparse northern light we have in Sweden and discuss how to apply it to the story of each film. Before we shot Through a Glass Darkly, we would go out in the early, grey morning light and note down the values that were to be had and how these values changed as new light patterns and effects were created whenever the sun broke through. We wanted a graphite tone, one without extreme contrasts, and we determined the exact hours when this mood could be obtained naturally. At this time, we came to believe that artificial studio lighting was absolutely wrong – it had no logic. Logical light, by contrast, was light, which appeared real, and it became our shared obsession. A naturalistic light can only be created with fewer lights – sometimes none at all (at times, I have used only kerosene lamps or candles.)
Light was to play a vital role in Winter Light, which was set in a church on a Sunday over three hours. Although the church was to be built in a studio, Ingmar and I went to a real church during our preparation and took photos every five minutes to study how the winter light changed over a similar time period. The bad weather outside the church during the story meant that there should never be any shadows inside, and we promised ourselves that we would re-shoot every time there was a shadow in the rushes (and we did.) Then, towards the end of the film, there is a vital scene between the teacher (played by Ingrid Thulin) and her priest (Gunnar Björnstrand), where we planned for the sun to come out for about 30 seconds. That is light which was thought about and meant something in the story. But otherwise, we did not stray from the indirect, shadowless winter light. Since then, I have tried to avoid using direct light, working mainly with bounced light in my quest to stop a film looking lit. I was helped in this by developments in the sensitivity of raw stock, which enabled us to follow the example of the French New Wave and shoot increasingly on location.
When we came to film Persona, we virtually discarded the medium shot. We went from wide shots to close-ups and vice versa. Ingmar had seen a certain resemblance between Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson, and the idea had dawned of making a film about identification between two people who come close together and start to think the same thoughts. The film gave me the opportunity to explore my fascination with the face, which has earned me my nickname, ‘two faces and a teacup’. One of the more difficult tasks for me on Persona was to light the close-ups because they involved such incredible nuance. I like to see reflections in the eyes – which irritates some directors, but is true to life. Capturing these reflections helps to give the impression of a human being thinking. 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.
One of the unique privileges of working with Ingmar was that there were a few actors who were always in his films. I came to know their faces intimately, and learned how to photograph every detail. It takes time to learn how a face will take light. For me, the actor is and will always be the most important instrument in a film. My ability to capture the subtleties of a performance depends on using very little light and giving the actor as much freedom as I possibly can, and also on treating him or her in such a way that they never feel manipulated or exploited. I make a point of not annoying actors with light meters or by shining light in their eyes, and I will always tell them what I am doing. When I worked with Ingrid Bergman on Autumn Sonata, I wasn’t used to working with stand-ins. The first day, Ingrid said to me, “Sven how can you work without stand-ins?” For a moment I wasn’t sure what to say. I didn’t want to admit that it was mostly for economic reasons; nevertheless, what I replied was also true: “It’s different to light with the stand-in, because the actors give me inspiration, if I can light them.” She said, “I will sit behind the camera the whole time, and whenever you want, I’ll come up and stand where you need me.” She was wonderful to work with. People often forget the personality connection between the cinematographer and the actor is so important. Good actors react to their lighting.
Making the transition from black and white to color was not easy for Ingmar and me. We felt that color raw stock was technically too perfect; it was difficult not to make it look beautiful. When we came to shoot The Passion of Anna, we wanted to control the color palette so it would reflect the mood of the story. We managed to find a location with very little color, and everything in the film’s design was intended to simplify the colors in front of the camera. I wanted to avoid warm skin tones, and after exhaustive testing, I learned to use very little make-up and to drain some of the color in the labs. (I used a similar technique on The Sacrifice for Tarkovsky, where we took out the red and the blue, giving us a look that was neither black-and-white nor color – it was ‘monocolor’.) Cries and Whispers marked another important step in my appreciation of how to use colored light for dramatic effect. We developed a color scheme for the interiors based on the color red – every room was a different shade of red. Audiences watching the film might not realize this consciously – but they feel it. My experience has taught me that people are held spellbound by the mood created through proper utilization and integration of light and design.
I’m not really a very technical person. I don’t measure the highlight and shadows, for example; I decide such things by eye. I like to draw from experience and from my feelings when I shoot. Sometimes I feel ashamed at my lack of interest in all the new techniques of modern film-making, but I prefer to work with as little equipment as possible. If I have a agood lens and a steady camera, that’s all I need. Fanny and Alexander was shot with the same zoom lens throughout the entire six hours of its running time – except for a handful of shots where we didn’t have enough light. With a zoom, you have all the possibilities at your fingertips (and the image quality is now so good.) I use very little filtration on the lens. I have spent my whole working life learning to trust simplicity. I’ve seen what happens on big pictures: people start filling the screen with a lot of perfectly placed and calculated light. There is nothing that can ruin an atmosphere so easily as too much light. Sometimes, I think having less money can lead to more artistry. Above all else, the cinematographer must be an absolute slave to the screenplay; this means being ale to change one’s style for every picture. Each time I start working on a film, I ask myself how I can help the audience to look at the right thing. Is it the actors? Or is it the mood? Or is it the dialogue? I have to confess that dialogue rich films are not my favorites, and this is why I have a little difficulty with American scripts. They don’t mention mood or atmosphere or how it looks. You just read dialogue. With Ingmar, how the scene should look and feel, even the weather, was written into the script. An overemphasis on dialogue can limit the cinematographer’s potential to be creative – it becomes like photographing words. The films of Eisenstein and the great Swedish silent directors, Sjöström and Stiller, aer so much more visual than anything we see today.
A handful of principles have defined my life as a cinematographer. Be true to the script. Be loyal to the director. Be able to adapt and change one’s style. Learn simplicity. I would also say that a cinematographer should direct at least one film. As a cameraman, it is very easy to become a technical freak. The experience of writing and editing a film enables one to understand the whole creative process of film-making.
“For The Unbearable Lightness of Being (88), we had to match grainy, scratched 8mm archive footage we had from the Prague uprising. We shot footage of Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche in Lyon on 35,,, making sure to keep the background blurry. We then transferred the footage to 8mm, mishandled it so it got scratched, and blew it back up to 35mm with visible edges. The authentic 8mm material was also blown up to 35mm. The result was quite convincing. The sequence is six minutes long and feels improvised but it was the most planned sequence in the film (it took a month to shoot.) A story-board artist made drawings to indicate exactly how the new images had to be shot to match the archive footage.”
“It’s very important for me to change my style for every picture. I start by asking myself how I can help the audience to look at the right thing: is it the actors, or the dialogue, or the mood, and so on.”
“Working with Polanski gave me the chance to try a new type of photography, different from the style of Bergman’s pictures, where you’re usually very close to the faces, and the background is out of focus. On The Tenant (76) it was important to keep all the visual detail of the background active as part of the atmosphere. I took a lot of risks in my lighting, and took the actor’s into darkness – whereas with Ingmar I had always lit the actors fairly brightly.”
“A great deal of my inspiration comes from painting and stills photography. For example, in preparing for Pretty Baby (78) Louis Malle and I spent a lot of time studying Vermeer’s paintings, specifically the way he uses light.”