Classic Cinema

Since my list of favorite directors is pretty short, I thought I would start off all the way at the beginning with Curt Courant.

Curt was the cinematographer behind Fritz Lang’s Frau im Mond, which is on my favorites list of all time.

First, take a look at those amazing sets. True artists created those backdrops with depth, and the lighting rigged from the top gives it so much depth. Today flying rigs are so often used to make an image flat, instead of create depth with light. From the second photo, one can see the normal “skypan” or “Spacelight” style lamps rigged overhead. In addition, there are square lamps I can’t quite make out.  However, recent research has lead me to believe these are carbon arc lamps, which were used in the period as overhead lighting.

Moving forward there is a long hallway scene which is lit by what seems like a single source. This very noir style lighting is motivated by the depiction of the single gas lamp in the hallway, shown later in the scene. What I find interesting about Lang is that he generally shows the lamp source in the scene. Even if one can tell there are other lamps used.

One of my favorites is shown in the entrance to the Professors apartment. Slats in the false wall let light through, yet there is enough ambiance provided to see and expose well – I do not know how this was done, unless it was again hanging spacelights.


On the CML mailing list, there was conversation about being afraid of shadows. The next few images show that Courant and Lang were not afraid of shadows at all.


The only problem with this concept in this particular film (showing the practical source) is that when the Professor bends down to feed the mouse, there would not exactly be that exact shadow as the practical motivator is mounted on a beam facing away from his position. If anything the shadow is too hard in this scene.

In most of that opening dialogue with the Professor, there are two or three lights (likely 20 Amp Carbon Arcs) used as there are continuously three shadows on the floor. Because of the careful framing its sometimes hard to see them, but look closely and they appear.


After the rocket lands on the moon, generally only one shadow is seen. This is more or less scientifically correct, as the sun would be the only continuous source. It’s also interesting that THEY CHOSE to employ additional lighting from the side to make the shadow – recall the whole set is lit evenly from above.

Finally, the most famous 5 minutes in the film:

My favorite part is the crowd silhouette against the miniature. Something I wish someone would teach me how to do correctly – miniature photography WITHOUT green screens or matte paintings. This style of photography is likely going to go away for a few years as producers increasingly ask for the ‘Chivo no lights used at all – new money saving’ lighting package, or alternately want no shadows but still require high-key flat-white look such as Art showed us in his recent tv spots.

I would personally love to hear your thoughts about photography in the 30’s, as it’s some of my favorite looks. I was originally going to talk about the last black and white picture ever made, only to discover that black and white pictures have been made every year since 1970 – the year I call the “transition to colour” in Hollywood. I’d also like to know if you like this format of discussion.

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