No One Lights A Scene Like Mother Nature
From Terrence Malick to Spring Breakers, the golden hour in cinema
“Still there. Still there. Still there. Still there. Gone.” - Before Midnight
How do you film nostalgia? There’s no single agreed-upon technique for conveying the beauty and sadness of a profound memory, but a lot of filmmakers have approached it in a similar fashion. Scenes intended to romantically evoke the past are often shot in close-up. They also tend to take place in natural surroundings, a stand-in for the unsullied and innocent past.
I’m also going to step out on a limb here and suggest that a light breeze and some swaying leaves never hurt anyone. Because let’s face it: no matter how attractive an actor is, they’ll look even better with an errant wisp of hair blown across their perfect features. But even if none of the above criteria are met, it seems like the one hard and fast rule of a nostalgic cinematic memory is this: it must take place at golden hour.
If you’re not familiar with the golden hour (also known as “magic hour”), it refers to a brief window of time each morning and night when the quality of sunlight changes, casting a soft and gentle glow instead of harsh, direct sunlight. It’s a highly prized moment for filming and photography because it produces effects that simply can’t be achieved with man-made lighting. And even for a low-budget movie where daylight exteriors are necessitated by your financing, it’s the pivotal moment that makes everything look better.
For a stunning look at golden hour cinematography, featuring clips from Her, Meek’s Cutoff, The Master, Spring Breakers, Morvern Callar, Wild, Into the Wild, and yes, Top Gun, watch this video compilation by Jacob T. Swinney, naturally soundtracked by Arcade Fire.
There is all sorts of science that explains why the light does what it does (seriously, here’s a crazy chart!), but for the audience, the effect is a visual shorthand that says: “this is a heightened moment that takes place outside of time.” Even if the scene is set in the present, shooting at golden hour means things are essentially preserved in amber for the audience. The great filmmaker Terrence Malick - whose newest work, Voyage Of Time, premieres at TIFF ‘16 - shoots so many of his scenes at golden hour that if you were parodying his work, you’d have to either get up very early or wait for the sun to start setting in order to make fun of him. (Just in case you’re reaching for your camera, Terrence Malick parody videos are already a thing. Thanks again, internet!)
His 1978 film Days of Heaven is a prime example of Malick’s use of the technique, long before there was an app for that. His frequent cinematographer Néstor Almendros shot the film in Whiskey Gap, Alberta and Heritage Park Historical Village in Calgary, with both Canadian locations standing in for Texas. The majority of the film was shot at dawn and dusk. Almendros ended up infuriating a lot of the crew by regularly asking them to turn off their prepared lighting so he could use the sun instead.
“The light is very soft, and there is something magic about it,” Almendros said. “It limited us to around 20 minutes a day, but it did pay off on the screen. It gave some kind of magic look, a beauty and romanticism."
Malick’s fascination with shooting at golden hour has continued throughout his career. Some beautiful examples occur in the 2011 masterpiece Tree of Life, which I strongly recommend watching even if you hate golden hour and this entire article, because it is amazing. The luminous glow cast around his actors Rachel McAdams and Ben Affleck in his 2013 follow-up To The Wonder also speaks for itself. The man has never met a setting sun he couldn’t photograph.
While it’s hard to always employ the golden hour principle when you’ve taken your audience to the far edges of the universe, there’s a reason Malick is so identified with this technique. I think it extends to the idea that many of his films (Badlands, The Thin Red Line and The New World amongst them) are nostalgia made manifest, evoking a dreamlike past and an imagined future that feels exactly like the sun rising and setting. God only knows what his TIFF ‘16 documentary Voyage Of Time, described as an “examination of the birth and death of the known universe,” will bring us. This much is certain: there will be sun flares.
Instead of a blanket aesthetic, other filmmakers use the golden hour with a specific narrative goal in mind. In Nathan Morlando’s latest feature Mean Dreams, playing at TIFF ‘16, his teen protagonists meet each other for the first time while bathed in early morning light. As the film unfolds, his overall palette gets darker, and so does their tragic romance. Morlando’s use of golden hour signals a moment that will soon come to seem like an idealistic dream that’s over before it’s even begun.
Also playing at TIFF ‘16, there’s Canadian filmmaker Emily Kai Bock’s first short film, A Funeral For Lightning. A music video director who has directed for Arcade Fire and Grimes, her dreamy cinematography (courtesy of her collaborator Evan Prosofsky) goes back to her love of classic cinema. The short was shot on 35MM and 65MM film and was double processed, mixing formats together. This technique, also employed in The Master and Interstellar, as well as several Terrence Malick films, allows her dreamy silhouettes against striking sunsets to look like a living fever dream.
My favourite instances of golden hour photography occur in a series of films whose titles suggest even an A.D.’s shooting schedule: Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. Given the fact that each title references a time of day (Sunrise, Sunset and Midnight), it doesn’t seem a stretch to read the films’ story of a relationship as it evolves over the decades through the motif of natural light.
In 1995’s Before Sunrise, when Jesse (played by Ethan Hawke) makes his clumsy first move on Celine (a wonderful Julie Delpy) while they stand in the ferris wheel, he calls attention to the setting sun. It’s part of his argument for why she should go ahead and kiss him. (She relents, although as she reveals later, his kissing is about as good as his rationale). The following morning, it’s golden hour again as the pair rest against a statue, with Jesse quoting Auden by way of Dylan Thomas. The two of them have a discussion that may end up informing the rest of their lives together. But it’s not until the film’s final moments that magic hour photography is used to its fullest, most devastating effect.
After the pair says goodbye at the train station, Linklater cuts to a series of shots of all the locations where the film has taken place. They are now bathed in morning light, but each is missing one obvious element: the lovers themselves. This has always been one of the most eloquent and painful sequences in cinema for me. Every time I watch it, I feel that these simple static shots of streets, parks and boats ultimately convey the idea that we cannot hold on to anything in life. Even if Jesse and Celine were to return, the power that these particular places had on two strangers who met on a train and spent one long night walking around Vienna together is gone forever.
The next film in the series, Before Sunset, starts in the late afternoon, and gradually, in real time, enters the golden hour. The onset of magic light (here, filmed in Paris) mirrors the slow realization, for both characters, that they may in fact be made for each other. Even the cinematography acts as if it’s aware of the cliched, postcard quality of a Parisian sunset. As the characters board a tourist boat on the Seine, Celine is embarrassed to be participating in something so decisively un-French. In the end, despite Celine’s various attempts to deny the power of the moment, the characters end up caught up in the nostalgic, rich light filtering through her apartment windows. “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane,” she says. “I know,” he replies.
The golden hour is featured prominently once again in Before Midnight, but here - befitting a story about the strains on any long-term relationship - it’s become far more complicated than a simple marker of nostalgia. There’s a scene in which Jesse and Celine, now in their 40s, sit and watch the day’s sun disappear. Here’s a couple who have spent many years together, enjoying a beautiful moment on vacation, away from their kids and their troubles. But the moment that the light dies - marked by Celine’s “gone” - a look passes between the characters that conveys volumes about the state of things between them. In order to move forward and survive, these characters will have to meet in the dark.
As a technique and motif, the golden hour continues to be a vital part of many filmmakers’ toolkits. Whether it’s conveying nostalgia, romance, loss, or, as in the case of Top Gun, the awesomeness of aircraft carriers and Tom Cruise on a motorcycle, I find that when it’s used correctly, golden hour footage can get at what is so profound about cinema itself. It’s a moment in time, captured and then realized. It’s the fact that light can transform our feelings and our understanding of the world, whether it’s coming from the late day sun or from a film projector in a dark room.