Photographing "Days of Heaven"

By Almendros, Nestor | American Cinematographer, June 1979 | Go to article overview

Photographing "Days of Heaven"


Almendros, Nestor, American Cinematographer


The winner of this year's Academy Award for "Best Achievement in Cinematography" discusses the techniques he employed that resulted in all those stunning images on the screen

As a cameraman, I am drawn naturally to the works of visual directors. In particular, there are three American directors I consider masters of visual presentation: King Vidor, Josef Von Sternberg, and John Ford. Their interest in set design, camera angles, composition, and lighting combined to produce films of timetested originality and expression.

These men were, above all, visual directors, and in spite of their reputations for complex and detailed aesthetics, they maintained a simplicity of the essential in their lighting preferences.

In their films, the light is united to the mise-en-scene to the extent that it actually becomes a part of the mise-enscene. Their total integration of light and visuals has always been a guide for me, and it was this artistic preference which drew me to Terrence Malick and his project, DAYS OF HEAVEN.

When producers Harold and Bert Schneider first contacted me regarding DAYS OF HEAVEN, I asked to see Malick's previous film, BADLANDS. On the basis of this screening, I immediately realized that Malick was a director with whom I could establish a unique and productive collaboration. Later, I learned that Terry greatly admired my work in L'ENFANT SAUVAGE (THE WILD CHILD), which, although black and white, was also a period movie with similarities to DAYS OF HEAVEN. As a matter of fact, it was because of this film, directed by Francois Truffaut, that Malick asked me to photograph DAYS OF HEAVEN.

In the filmmaking process, the communication between a director and a cameraman is often ambiguous and confused because the majority of directors don't understand the technical details required in cinematography. With Terry, there was never any miscommunication. He always understood exactly my cinematographic preferences and explanations. And not only did he allow me to do what I had always wanted to dowhich was to use less artificial light in a period movie than is conventionally used (many times I used none at all)-but he actually pushed me in that direction. Such creative support was personally exciting and directly enhanced the work I was doing.

Our creative work consisted basically in simplifying photography: cleansing it of the artificial glossy look of the films of the recent past. Our models were the films of the silent era, (Griffith, Chaplin, etc.), when cinematographers made unique and fundamental use of natural light.

Using natural light as often as possible meant using only natural window light for day interiors, like the great Dutch painter Johann Vermeer. For night interiors it meant using very little light, from a single justifiable source, such as a lantern, candle, or electric light bulb.

In this sense DAYS OF HEAVEN is a homage to those creators of images in the years before sound whose works I admire for their raw quality and for their lack of artificial refinement and gloss.

Cinema-the visual presentation of film-became very sophisticated in the thirties, forties, and fifties. As a filmgoer, I like the photography of these films, particularly the early sound pictures, but it is not the style I look for in my own work.

As in all my films, I was inspired by works of great painters. For this particular project, I was influenced primarily by American painters such as Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper.

Besides being a very educated and knowledgeable man of the arts, Terry Malick is also a collector of classic still photographs. His collection of turn-ofthe-century reproduction books became a guide for designing clothes and sensing the mood of the people of the era.

Eventually we felt these stills to be such an influence that they were the first images chosen for the audience to see during the title sequence, thereby setting the mood and sense of period for the picture. …

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