Lighting in the Film Titanic Directed by Term Paper

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lighting in the film "Titanic," directed by James Cameron. Specifically, it will discuss the director of photography, Russell Carpenter, and analyze how his lighting helps represent and help the story and characters throughout the movie.


Russell Carpenter won an Academy Award for his work on "Titanic," as well as Best Cinematography awards from the American Society of Cinematographers and the Chicago Film Critics. He has also worked on the films "True Lies," "Terminator 2 3-D," "The Lawnmower Man," "Hard Target," "The Indian in the Cupboard," and "Money Talks," which he worked on with Robert Primes, ASC.

Carpenter studied English literature at San Diego State University, and first began making 16mm footage for the local San Diego PBS station. He had a love of photography since he was a young boy. He recounted, "I was always fascinated by the magic of film -- no matter whether the influences were high-brow or low" (Fisher). He began his career with low-budget horror films like "Critters 2: The Main Course," and "Pet Cemetery II." His first major film credit was "True Lies" in 1994. He has worked extensively with director James Cameron, and seems to know and understand his many lighting preferences.

Titanic" was a high-budget film that some critics panned for its sentimentality and love story, while others recognized the great feat in recreating the ocean liner via special effects and massive sets. The love story between Rose and Jack is paramount to the film, but the back-story, (the recovery of Titanic's artifacts) which takes place in modern times, is also necessary for the story development. Perhaps the most important character in the film is the Titanic herself, recreated in numerous life-size and scaled down models. She is the constant thread that binds the characters together throughout the movie, until she herself is torn in two. While the love story between Jack and Rose makes these characters sympathetic and tragic, the real tragedy is the Titanic herself, once a maiden, never a matron, who took so many lives with her when she sank. This is evident at the end of the film, when even rock-tough treasure hunter Brock Lovett says he has been working on the wreck for three years, and he never let it "get" him until Rose's story of the real sinking of the great liner.

As one critic said, "Cameron offers his audience something they cannot find beyond the confines of his celluloid dream: a romantic, even juvenile love story that buoys the human spirit in the face of an uncompromised tragedy" (Davis and Womack 44).


Some critics called "Titanic" sentimental, and Carpenter's lighting certainly added to the early sentimentality of the film. Carpenter recalled, "There are actually two very different photographic styles within the period section. In the first part, the camerawork is rather polite, graceful and even eloquent. I was trying to reinforce the opulence and beauty of the time with the lighting'" (Argy et. al.).

Carpenter noted he used several different mediums as inspiration for his lighting of the film, including American impressionist painter John Singer Sargent, and the films "Heaven's Gate," "Howard's End," and "The Natural" (Zack). These inspirations are clear in many scenes of the film, especially where the action features characters in the foreground. The background characters are out of focus, misty, and romantic, while the characters in the foreground are sharply in focus and brightly lit. The technique is reminiscent of an impressionist painting such as Monet, whose work always seems to look as if it is viewed under a fine mist, giving the impression of softness and romance.

While the lighting for "Titanic" was certainly a "Titanic" undertaking, there is a certain continuity and cohesiveness to the finished product. The outdoor shots are brightly lit with the "warmer" tones associated with sunlight and light reflecting off the water. The interior shots are also bright and warm, but often with a misty quality, almost as if the background characters were already under water. Carpenter gives much of the credit to his crew, and to his knowledge of director Cameron's highly specific demands. "If a crew works with a director of photography for any length of time, they're going to know what his favorite solutions are for any given problem,' Carpenter reasons. 'Also, most importantly, most of the people I brought to the shoot had worked with Jim before, so they knew the kinds of physical and spiritual demands that would be made on them. I wasn't going to bring any untested people into that situation'" (Argy et. al.).

A common thread in Cameron's work is the extreme blues of lighting at night. They serve a variety of purposes, but nowhere does the technique work better than in "Titanic," where the final climatic scenes all take place at night. Here the blue gives the impression of ice, cold, and water, the major elements in the final scenes. In death, the passengers floating in the water are blue from the ice-cold water. The ship as it sinks has a blue metallic cast, and the water flooding each level of the ship is a beautiful and deadly turquoise blue. ""Titanic" bears the stamp of Jim Cameron's very blue night lighting, but there's also a lot of amber in this picture, which is quite a departure. With the warmer tones, we sometimes added a bit of a sepia feeling to some of the light, without resorting to using antique suede, coral, or tobacco gels. Of course, you see more color in the scenes in the first-class section of the ship, if only in the costumes. That's a natural effect which is dictated by the story'" (Argy et. al.). One of the extremes in colors and lighting is also tremendously noticeable in the engine room scene, which are dark, cold, and powerful, all attributes of the engine room and the crew. This dark lighting, which also is reminiscent of a dungeon, gives the feeling of strength filling a great area, and of course of heat.

Another signature feature in Cameron films is the heavy use of side lighting on characters in close-ups, leaving one side of the face in shadow. Carpenter uses the technique many times in "Titanic." He says, "For me, a close-up is an opportunity to enter the soul of another human being" (Fisher). This side lighting helps highlight the character he is most concerned with, and makes them more mysterious. He uses the technique most often when two people are in conversation, especially with Rose and Cal, and with Rose's interaction with her mother in the film. This also helps establish how the two characters are at odds with each other, and shows the dark (or uncooperative) side of their personalities.

Another common lighting thread throughout the movie is Carpenter's use of overhead spotlights to pick out a character or give impact to a scene. In the dancing scene when Rose and Jack dance together to the Irish band in the steerage room, Carpenter used an overhead technique to give the idea of energy and life. He noted, "If we had just continued with the usual lighting approach in combination with the white walls, we would have had an almost hospital-like atmosphere" (Kodak). He goes on to say:

Once I had seen a rehearsal of what the dancers were going to do in that scene, and the kind of energy they were going to add with their performance, I knew I wanted the impact of the lighting to match what they were doing. So we cut holes in the ceiling and started aiming lights straight down to make these really hot white patches of light that the dancers would pass through. The pools were three to five stops brighter than the key light, so for brief moments in a shot we'd get these explosions of energy as they danced and whirled about" (Kodak).

This scene is an integral part of the movie, for it is the first time Rose really defies Cal, and discovers she is falling in love with Jack. The lighting helps highlight the emotion and energy of the moment, bringing the characters to life as they "come to life" themselves. Without the aggressive lighting, this scene would not have had the emotional or dramatic impact that it did.

Carpenter also used this overhead technique in the suicide scene where Rose and Jack first meet, and in the scenes when he focuses on the glass dome over the staircase entrance to the dining room. Many of these same techniques carry into his other films, such as "True Lies," where the overhead bright lights are used in the interrogation and dancing scenes with Jamie Lee Curtis.

Technically, Carpenter used two different films for inside and outside filming, and overexposed the nighttime shots. He said, "I used two stocks on Titanic: 5245 for the exteriors and 5279 for the interiors and night photography. I overexposed the 5279, two-thirds of a stop because I needed…

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