Thomas Jefferson Evokes Era of Enlightenment

Article excerpt

A trio of cinematographers help director Ken Burns create his latest historical documentary.

Thomas Jefferson, the latest film from documentarian Ken Burns (The Civil War, Baseball) evokes the life of the third American president (1743-1826) through an exploration of his spectacular Virginia estate, Monticello, an approach dictated by the dearth of existing photographic material. In reference to Jefferson's era, the edifice itself was shot with very little use of artificial illumination. The shooting schedule for the documentary (which will be broadcast nationally on PBS in 90-minute segments on February 18 and 19) encompassed all four seasons to capture the changes in sunlight.

"Accuracy, obviously, is a primary concern in a historical film; we are trying to place the viewer in the past," says director of photography Alien Moore (The Civil War, The Donner Party), who shared cinematographic chores on Thomas Jefferson with Buddy Squires (The Civil War, The Donner Party, The American West), Peter Hutton and Burns himself. "When Jefferson lived at Monticello, the lighting was from the windows or candles, but we were not allowed to light any candles there. Instead, we used the natural light from the windows. Rarely were any lights brought inside the house. Often the sunlight was aided by a 1,200-watt HMI Par or Fresnel, placed outside the windows and gelled with a quarter or half CTO to warm up the light. We would also use an HMI to produce a light shaft, or to just punch up the overall room level."

Squires, for his part, says that he found the small-scale lighting scheme to be quite liberating. "There's a great freedom in working with as much natural light as possible. We'd wait for the light to fall through a window and across a room a certain way. We waited a lot; we would do things like wait a week so the leaves would be falling, and wait most of a day for the light to be just right. You lose that freedom if you go in with a lot of lights and try to make it look just the way you want it to."

This minimalist lighting approach emerged from Burns' cinematic approach, which stresses mood and metaphor over strict meaning. Explains Moore, "When I shot interiors of sunlight coming in through the windows at Monticello, I exposed for the highlight and let the rest go black. I'd rather have the key light on a chess board or a T-square be the main focus - everything else that falls to darkness is the context of the central objects. The shadows, of course, hold the mystery, and lead to a much more interesting image than something that is evenly lit."

Squires concurs. "It's a very different way of working. We're not filming actors, so we can afford to lose our fear of the dark. With actors we would not be able to allow the large dark spaces we like to include in our shots. Cinematographers shooting actors have to worry more about detail in the shadows; we're okay as long as we have frames with some light throughout. The improvements in 16mm cinema technology have helped us; with the best lenses and stocks available today, and with great transfer facilities [see sidebar on the state-of-the-art film-to-video transfer of Thomas Jefferson], we're able to get more out of our shadows than we could have 10 years ago, with less grain."

Due to the minimal amount of available light, and the absence of actors, Moore and Squires did a fair amount of undercranking to gain another stop or two. "It's not unusual for us to shoot at 12 or 6 frames per second, allowing the slower shutter speed to put more light on the film," notes Moore. Kodak's 7248 was the primary stock on Thomas Jefferson, as it has been on most Burns' films. The director favors 7248 for its fine grain and because he finds that the 100 ASA tungsten stock has a warmer look than other stocks.

Lighting calculations within Monticello were complicated by the fact that the interiors are shielded from UV damage by gels that cover all of its windows. …