How Kubrick Achieved the Beautiful Cinematography of Barry Lyndon

This shot that opens Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon might very well be a perfect representation of the entire film—a story of fate versus coincidence symbolized by a duel in which the victor is near random. The narration introduces us to the humor in the absurd perception of civility in high society and it is all amidst a picturesque backdrop reminiscent of 18th Century paintings.

Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon is often lauded as one of the greatest achievements in the history of cinematography. And in a decade or even a year with some of the toughest competition you can think of, Barry Lyndon always seems to stick out just a little bit more. But what sets the cinematography of Barry Lyndon apart from other movies? And how was it done?

I’m Tyler and you’re watching Making Film, a series devoted to understanding film history and how great movies are made.

Barry Lyndon was shot entirely on location in England and Ireland requiring the cast and crew of about 170 people to travel from location to location for eight and a half months (Time). Shooting exteriors in these locations tended to be a bit difficult because of the abrupt changes in weather. Kubrick mentioned in an interview that the atmosphere of these locations limited his ability to make [quote] “subtle aesthetic decisions” (Time). Kubrick insisted on using only natural light during these shots, so, aside from basic framing, the production was pretty much at the mercy of how much light the clouds happened to let through at any given moment. However, it seems Kubrick didn’t allow this to affect shot duration—there are several scenes where we can see the lighting change mid-shot.

John Alcott: “We would go out in the morning and it probably raining and overcast and then, all of a sudden, Ireland is a place where the weather changes very rapidly because you’re in the Gulf Stream and you’ve got two layers. You’ve got a high wind and a very low wind and they’re all probably on different directions to one another and they would separate the clouds within minutes.”

This seems contrary to Kubrick’s usual quest to have as much control as possible during his productions, I mean, this is the guy that replicated a full city block of New York City in England for Eyes Wide Shut, so that he could shoot there for two years. Some of these establishing shots feel almost like Kubrick was hunting for the perfect image rather than deliberately composing a perfect image. These shots add another layer to the film’s theme of fate versus coincidence. At any moment, the atmosphere could change and you’d be left with something very different. And whereas, Kubrick could tell an actor or crewmember what he liked, he couldn’t tell the clouds what to do.

For the full scenes that took place outside, cinematographer John Alcott had to compensate for the lighting changes on the fly so the shots would match. He used an Arriflex 35BL for the outdoor scenes. Kubrick would continue shooting whether or not “the sun is going in or out.” This camera featured an aperture control that was much larger than usual and allowed you to make changes to the aperture of a lens from a gearing mechanism on the outside of the camera. This way, you could make very minor adjustments in how much light the camera is letting in even in the middle of a take (American Cinematographer).

Alcott mentioned that the use of the aperture control was especially prevalent during the sequence in which Barry is buying the horse for his son. The sun was going in and out throughout the entire sequence (American Cinematographer).

Sometimes by the end of a sequence, the lens was completely open and letting in as much light as possible. For the scene where Barry is robbed, Alcott said, “We started off with a good day and there was plenty of light in the beginning, but the last part of that sequence was shot with the T/1.2 lens wide open. In order to match the brilliance of the normal daylight one had to be very fully exposed” (American Cinematographer).

Barry’s first battle sequence opens with a tracking shot that was filmed by one of three cameras running simultaneously along an 800-foot track (American Cinematographer). This shot was particularly difficult because it starts at the end of 250mm zoom lens. As you probably know, the more you’ve zoomed in, the more exaggerated each little bump in the camera movement registers. All of the close-ups in this sequence were from the end of that 250mm zoom lens (American Cinematographer) Here’s another view of the track. That’s Kubrick’s daughter Vivian who makes a cameo at the dinner scene sitting next to her sister Katharina. This scene is yet another visual example of the theme of fate versus coincidence. The English army marches toward the firing guns of the French. The English continue to march as their comrades are struck and fall at random. How easily Barry’s life, and consequently the story, could end at any moment.

It’s a common misconception that all of the shots in Barry Lyndon were lit exclusively by natural light. Quite often for interior scenes, they would see how the natural daylight would illuminate a room and then recreate the look using lights called Mini-Brutes placed outside and then they would diffuse the light by taping tracing paper or a similar plastic material to the windows. Kubrick said that, when he shot toward the window, the tracing paper caused a “very beautiful and realistic flare effect” (Ciment Interview). A fair amount of inspiration for the lighting came from looking at how interiors were lit in 18th century paintings, but more on this later (American Cinematographer). By lighting from outside the windows, they could maintain a somewhat controlled environment that would keep a similar look throughout a day of shooting (American Cinematographer). They were also able to better control where the light fell in the room and they were able to make the room bright enough to get a proper exposure. In fact, this scene used “virtually no natural light at all” (Archives). Alcott said, “That particular room had five windows, with a very large window in the center that was much greater in height than the others. I found that it suited the sequence better to have the light coming from one source only, rather than from all around. So we controlled the light in such a way that it fell upon the center of the table at which they were having their meal, with the rest of the room falling off into nice subdued, subtle color” (American Cinematographer).

That said, there wasn’t an ideal amount of control in some of these locations because they were historical sites open to the public during filming. Sometimes they were even restricted to shoot only between tour groups (American Cinematographer). In fact, one of these locations was actually used for the most difficult shot in the film—the one where Barry is given the brush off at the restaurant. Alcott explains: “That involved a 180-degree pan and what made it difficult was the fluctuations in the weather outside. There were many windows and I had lights hidden behind the brickwork and beaming through the windows. The outside light was going up and down so much that we had to keep changing things to make sure the windows wouldn’t blow out excessively. This was most difficult to do, because any time I changed the gels on the windows, I also had to change the lights outside in order to avoid getting too much light inside and not enough outside” (American Cinematographer). I watched this shot over and over and on close inspection, you can actually just barely see one of the lights from outside the window accidentally made it into the film.

To maintain a consistent look throughout the film, Alcott pushed development of all of the film one stop—the exteriors, interiors, and candlelight shots—whether they needed it or not. Although he often did need it and shot many scenes with a wide-open T/1.2 lens.

Visual consistency was same reason that Alcott never used an 85 filter for exterior shots. An 85 filter is often used in films to create a warm look where there is less blue and more orange in the shot (American Cinematographer). He felt that if he had used an 85 filter, he would need to use it for every shot.

Nevertheless, Alcott did use colored gels on the lights for different effects. Alcott said, “An example that comes to mind is the scene in Barry’s room after he has had his leg amputated. I used a light coming through the window with an extra 1/2 sepia over it in order to give a warm effect to the backlight and sidelight. In other words, a 50% overcorrection. A similar effect was used on Barry in the sequence when his boy is dying. In some instances I let the natural blue daylight come through in the background without correcting it. The result looked pleasing and it created a more “daylight” sort of effect” (American Cinematographer).

As far back as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick and Alcott had been talking about the idea of shooting night interiors exclusively by candlelight. Kubrick had wanted to shoot by candlelight for a film on Napoleon he was researching. At the time, there wasn’t a lens fast enough to get a decent exposure in such low lighting conditions. The lens they ended up finding for Barry Lyndon was a Zeiss f0.7 50mm lens that was developed for NASA to take pictures of the dark side of the moon (American Cinematographer). I spoke about this lens in another video that I have linked to in the description.

A 50mm lens is considered very close to how our eyes see and that’s how they shot all of the medium shots and close-ups in the candlelight scenes, but in order to get a wider angle for the longer shots, they used a “projection lens of the reduction type” fitted over a 50mm lens to make it effectively a 36.5mm lens (American Cinematographer).

The Zeiss lens was a still camera lens, so in order to mount the lens on Kubrick’s Mitchell BNC camera, the camera and lens were sent to Ed DiGuilio of Cinema Products Corporation who had to [quote] “mill out the existing lens mounts, because the rear element of [the] f/0.7 lens was virtually something like 4mm from the film plane” (American Cinematographer).

Many many tests were done in order to achieve what we see in the film. One of the problems that arose during the tests was that, while the Zeiss 0.7 lens appeared to have a large range of focus through the viewfinder, the actual tests showed that the lens had [quote] “no depth of field at all,” so the focus had to be exactly precise to keep the subjects from going out of focus. In order to deal with this, they tested the focus and marked every distance down to inches up to about 10 feet from the camera. Alcott says, “My focus operator, Doug Milsome, used a closed-circuit video camera as the only way to keep track of the distances with any degree of accuracy. The video camera was placed at a 90-degree angle to the film camera position and was monitored by means of a TV screen mounted above the camera lens scale. A grid was placed over the TV screen and by taping the various artists’ positions, the distances could be transferred to the TV grid to allow the artists a certain flexibility of movement, while keeping them in focus” (American Cinematographer).

Even with such a fast lens and the fact that they were pushing the film a full stop, they had to use candles with “two or three wicks” and each chandelier had 70 candles (Exhibition Book). They also used many cheap candelabras from Italy placed around to ensure the faces of the actors were properly lit (Exhibition Book). Production designer Ken Adam purposefully bought drip-proof candles, but they dripped all over the place anyway. And in scenes such as the one where Lord Ludd loses a lot of money gambling, Alcott mounted metal reflectors above the two chandeliers to not only reflect the light and help illuminate the room, but it also acted as a heat shield to prevent the candle flames from burning the ceilings and paintings of these real historical sites (American Cinematographer).

When asked if he plans camera movements beforehand, Kubrick said, “Very rarely. I think there is virtually no point putting camera instructions into a screenplay, and only if some really important camera idea occurs to me, do I write it down. When you rehearse a scene, it is usually best not to think about the camera at all. If you do, I have found that it invariably interferes with the fullest exploration of the ideas of the scene. When, at last, something happens which you know is worth filming, that is the time to decide how to shoot it” (Ciment Interview).

I feel like I haven’t heard of it done quite this way before, but it makes sense. This way, the camerawork is really serving the performance instead of the other way around, which would likely arise from extensive storyboarding. Of course, there aren’t many complex sequences in Barry Lyndon, but if you disregard the camera during rehearsals, you see the scene as something unfolding rather than something to be filmed. Then you can come up with shots based on how you experienced the scene. Perhaps you noticed a look or even a detail such as Reverend Runt flipping pages without reading from them, after which you can make a conscious decision to incorporate these ideas.

Kubrick also wouldn’t plan his shots until everything was lit and they were ready to shoot. This goes for the actors as well.

Ryan O’Neal: “We had to be dressed and ready in our costumes and everything because he said, ‘Oh, I can’t design the shot unless you’re exactly fit and ready and in costume.”

He also didn’t use stand-ins to light the scenes. All of the actors had to be there in full costume and makeup, so that he could light to how it will actually look in the film.

Leon Vitali: “He’d walk around with a viewfinder and just keep putting different lenses on and you’d run through it once, you’d run through it twice, you’d run through it a hundred times, if necessary, until he found his first shot.”

Ryan O’Neal said, “The toughest part of Stanley’s day was finding the right first shot. Once he did that, other shots fell into place. But he agonized over that first one” (Time). O’Neal mentioned a particular occasion where Kubrick was having such trouble coming up with the right shot that he searched through a book of 18th century art reproductions and posed the actors in the same position as the subjects of one of the paintings (Time). As you can obviously tell, 18th century paintings were a great source of inspiration for the cinematography in Barry Lyndon. Alcott said that they “studied the lighting effects achieved in the paintings of the Dutch masters,” but the effect “seemed a bit flat—so [they] decided to light more from the side” (American Cinematographer). Many of the compositions in camera setups referenced actual paintings of that time period (American Cinematographer).

One particular motif you’ll notice is the slow zoom-out. They achieved these shots with an Angeniux 10-to-1 zoom lens on an Arriflex 35BL. DiGuilio made a motorized zoom control called a “Joy Stick” that allowed them to zoom out as precisely and slowly as they wanted without coming to a sudden stop (American Cinematographer). It has been said that zooming out motif could be meant to purposefully distance the viewer in order to see how trivial all the fighting and scheming is (Archives). However, it is perhaps also for a practical reason. By starting close and zooming out we can have our attention directed to something specific while still being ultimately presented with a large scenic “painting,” so to speak.

Kubrick told Gene D. Phillips, “When I’m editing, my identity changes from that of a writer or a director to that of an editor. I am not longer concerned with how much time or money it costs to shoot a given scene. I cut everything to the bone and get rid of anything that doesn’t contribute to the total effect of the film.”

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Understanding filmmaking through watching, researching, and analyzing film.