Posted on March 22, 2021

By Matthew Skala

The Cinematographers Dark Canvas

I’m often thinking about films I want to study, and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints has been on my mind for a long time–the dark painterly aesthetic has been a consistent draw. It’s an aesthetic that I’ve always thought of as “my thing,” but it only works for certain films. I think the appeal comes from an intense degree of creative control over what we reveal and don’t reveal on the screen. In a new addition to the newsletter dubbed “Ponderings,” I pontificate on what darkness means to a Cinematographer–or at least to me. After that, we look at Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, dark cinematography in a Carhart ad, Caravaggio, and a word from the “Prince of Darkness” Gordon Willis.


Darkness is the Cinematographers canvas. It is not to be confused with thematic darkness unless that theme inspires a beginning, a void, or a nothingness upon which creation is imminent. 

When I was learning about lighting and its relationship to cinema, I was constantly drawn to a dark aesthetic. Films I was looking at included The City of Lost ChildrenIvan’s ChildhoodTouch of Evil, and Blade Runner. But there was a pang of strange guilt associated with this attraction because I equated darkness with sadness, depression, fear, and all those traditional themes. And I had yet to grasp the concept of darkness as a canvas, upon which an artist that uses lighting instruments can express themselves. An expression that can dictate themes in degrees of light, shadow, darkness, and color with limitless potential–exploring every nuance between a black screen and a white screen.

There is also a stimulating parallel with yin and yang–part of the philosophy being that a balance of opposite or contrasting states is necessary for a harmonious experience, happy disposition or productive outcome–childbirth, for example, requires a man and woman. In Cinematography, the closer we get to having a perfect balance of lightness and darkness on the screen, the better, more comfortable, more at ease, or just neutral the audience will feel. And this neutral place is a standard upon which capture and display devices are calibrated for the industry to exist in a harmonious state of capture and display.

This neutral standard feels like a starting point because we–as an audience–don’t think about how the sensor or film is initially blank. And without first having this blankness–or blackness when displayed or printed–no image would ever exist. And without having light to imprint the dark, there would be no image. Thus, to have an image at all–we must have a certain degree of balance between light and dark.

We even have a unit and method of measurement for this balance in the craft of Cinematography–lighting ratios and foot-candles. A lighting ratio represents the degree of contrast between light and dark. And foot-candles measure the intensity of light falling on a subject. Ratios help to establish and maintain a consistent look for a film, monitored by measuring the foot-candle value in light and shadow. The balance of light and shadow can be manipulated to enhance the emotional response to a scene. Some films maintain the same ratio from beginning to end, while others use varying ratios to complement a narrative and character journey. Figuring this out for each film, planning for it, and letting it materialize on set is a big part of a Cinematographer’s job.

The whole visual style was set out before we shot one foot of film. We talked about the contrast between good and evil, light and dark. How we’d really use darkness, how we’d start out with a black sheet of paper and paint in the light.? Francis Ford Coppola on The Godfather, cited by The Guardian in “Gordon Willis Obituary”


Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), directed by David Lowery and shot by Bradford Young, won the Cinematography award at Sundance in 2013 for the U.S. Dramatic Category and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. In the same year, it littered top ten lists from critics worldwide–many praising it for its fresh look at the Bonnie and Clyde paradigm.

It gives us a contemporary look at a dark aesthetic–an aesthetic that Bradford Young has built a career on. The photography swims with the narrative in a game of hide, seek and reveal. As insights into the plot and characters are held back by quiet reflection and solitude, the photography is dominated by shadows–made authentic by using location and time of day. Now and then, as the characters hit milestones along their journey, the screen may get a little brighter, but it’s all very subtle because the protagonist has to stay physically hidden to get what he wants. His wife has to hide too, but she has to do it in plain sight. Her cloak is in deception–her surroundings only bright enough to project a facade and dark enough to evoke her secrets. And until she reunites with the protagonist, she is stuck in this duality.

The feel of the movie is intimate and handmade, as if Lowery were renewing, lovingly and poignantly, the landscape’s ruined landmarks and infusing them with his own memories and dreams.-The New Yorker

Downloadable Resources

Frame Grabs

Credits and Specs

Directed and Written by David Lowery 
Produced by Cassian ElwesToby HalbrooksJames M. JohnstonAmy Kaufmanmore
Starring  Rooney MaraCasey AffleckBen Foster
Music By Daniel Hart
Cinematography by Bradford Young
Edited by Craig McKayJane Rizzo
Production Design by Jade Healy
Production Company: Sailor Bear
Release Date: Aug 16, 2013 
Running Time: 96min
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Camera and Lenses: Arricam LT, Cooke S4, Zeiss Master Prime and Angenieux Optimo Lenses, Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2, Panavision Primo Lenses, Panavision Panaflex Platinum, Panavision Primo Lenses
Negative Format: 35mm (Kodak Vision3 250D 5207, Vision3 500T 5219)
Printed Film Format: 35 mm (anamorphic), D-Cinema
Cinematographic Process: Digital Intermediate (2K) (master format), Super 35 (3-perf) (source format)
Country: USA
Language: English


Caravaggio, (1571-1610) is known for bringing a new level of emotional painting to the arts scene in Italy and his paintings in the Contarelli Chapel made him the most famous painter in Rome. His style of heightened chiaroscuro, detailed realism and dramatic lighting greatly influenced forthcoming Baroque artists such as Rembrandt and Bernini. And he could be the most referenced painter in the Cinematography universe. Vittorio Storaro uses him as a constant source of inspiration–he has written books and given lectures about him. And shot the 2007 film, CaravaggioHere is a Storaro commentary about the painting, The Calling of St. Matthew, one of the Contarelli Chapel paintings.

This is one of the only paintings that I know that has such a specific delineation between light and darkness, between the divine and the human being. The symbology that was used in The Conformist was light as a consciousness and darkness as the unknown–as unconscious. This was exactly the structure of the character–he had to hide something in himself, in the darkness. And then there was something that he presented to you as a reality which was the conscious side. So this specific relation in painting was for me the same symbology I was trying to portray with lighting. Specifically, not only the character, but the entire principle of The Conformist.


Carhart, directed by Douglas Avery and shot by Max Goldman, is a great example of how a dark aesthetic doesn’t have to invoke dark, depressing themes. Instead, it is used to show how Carhart’s clothing can stand up to the toughest jobs in the toughest conditions. A concept that the brand is certainly proud of and built on.


I am not a great believer that you have to see an actor all the time on the screen. I believe that the scene has to be played properly, but sometimes it’s better not to see what is going on until a given point in the scene. Then you see something. – Gordon Willis, AKA The Prince of Darkness


Bruce Lee’s philisophical movies and more
Pondering my photographic roots in San Francisco’s Mission District
Action of stillness, non-visual film and purist photography

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