Camelot in Shadows

By Fisher, Bob | American Cinematographer, July 1995 | Go to article overview

Camelot in Shadows


Fisher, Bob, American Cinematographer


First Knight reveals a disparate world of light and shadow in the romantic age of chivalry.

Faced with the daunting task of photographing the medieval world of First Knight largely on location in the United Kingdom, Adam Greenberg, ASC, admits that there were times when he was frustrated, his mood darker than the blackest night in Wales. He was, after all, working 6,000 miles away from Los Angeles, where specialized lighting tools are just a phone call away.

For weeks on end, the director of photography was shooting huge night and day exterior scenes in open fields, with hundreds of extras and horses simulating desperate battles. He was working with a new crew, including his gaffer, operator and assistant. The setting was the 12th Century, allowing for limited source motivation for ambient light. Night scenes could portray only fire and moonlight, and many other key scenes were filmed in dense forests where sunshine barely penetrated.

"It was important for the audience to feel the darkness," says Greenberg. "We made it our ally. We wanted them to feel what it was like living in the 12th Century in England. By day, Camelot looked like a place where you would want to vacation. At night, it was dark and shadowy. There were fireplaces and torches, but the light doesn't really fill those big rooms. Life was very different for people who lived in those times."

The era was also difficult for the team trying to re-create it; the temperature was often biting cold, rain was always a possibility, and the production schedule was unrelenting. If you're imagining the Technicolor world of Camelot (1967), forget it - although First Knight is based on the same legendary tale, in which King Arthur (Sean Connery) and the first knight of his roundtable, Sir Lancelot (Richard Gere) pursue the affections of Lady Guinevere (Julia Ormond). There are magnificent medieval castles, armies in shiny armor, powerful horses, and the clanging of metal swords during robust action scenes - perhaps owing more to Excalibur (1981) than to any Lerner and Loewe libretto. No, the audience isn't humming along with the music in First Knight, but vicariously experiencing life 700 years prior to 20th-century amenities.

First Knight was produced by Columbia Pictures at Pinewood Studios in London, on the plains at Stratford, and at locations in Wales. It was directed by Jerry Zucker, who also co-produced the movie with Hunt Lowry. It's a timeless bedtime story that everyone hears in their childhood, but Greenberg admits that he wasn't initially eager to shoot the film. "Four months is a long time to be that far away from home," he confesses. "You only have so many years to work, and there are only so many films you can make in that time. You have to be selective."

Gre'enberg's big break in Hollywood came in 1983, when James Cameron asked him to photograph The Terminator. From there, he went on to shoot several mainstream Hollywood films, including La Bamba, Turner and Hooch, Alien Nation and Near Dark. The cinematographer soon demonstrated that he had a golden touch at the box-office with such films as Three Men and a Baby, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Sister Act and Dave. He has also suffered a few disappointments, with Toys at the top of that list, though he still considers that film among his personal favorites.

First Night is his second film with Zucker; the first was Ghost, which remains one of the top box-office draws in history. Zucker wanted Greenberg to shoot First Knight in part because they had enjoyed an easy working relationship and because he knew that Greenberg wouldn't be overwhelmed by the production's daunting logistical and technical challenges - after all, Greenberg had lit a five-mile stretch of freeway for Terminator 2 's climactic nighttime chase sequence. However, for that scene, he had used every available lamp in Los Angeles, and those types of resources simply weren't available in the United Kingdom.

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