Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I SAW THE LIGHT!: Lighting American Graffiti.

Carlos, (Manuel Padilla,Jr.) looking lean & mean leaning on a lit up pinball machine.

I recently watched the new Blu-ray version of American Graffiti and was pleased with the sparkling digital transfer. The scenes are sharp, colorful, and present a beautiful level of detail that surpasses all previous home video releases that I've seen.  The sound is a DTS-HD Master Audio stereo mix which is awesome and has more punch than the compressed audio on previous versions.  The bonus features are average; mostly re-fried from previous editions but there are several incredibly amazing extended screen tests and a picture-in-picture commentary by George Lucas via a gimmick called U-CONTROL. There really is no point in watching Lucas watching and commenting on the movie, but the content of which he speaks is often enlightening especially his comments about the use of lighting in the film.  It is the director's remarks on the lighting that is the impetus and inspiration for this post.  Because great lighting is often taken for granted by the viewer, I thought it would be fun to focus on its importance by writing about various ways in which lighting was used and its overall effect on this cruising classic 

 Lighting is extremely important when it comes to film work.  It's one of the most crucial aspects of cinematography.  Nowhere is the importance of lighting more obvious than in American Graffiti where much of the story takes place at night.  Although much simpler today, lighting night scenes can be difficult.  When filming first began in late-June 1972, the two cinematographers Jan D'Alquen and Ron Eveslage were at constant battle with the dark and struggled to keep the action visible on film.  The lack of light often meant that if the actors moved more than an inch or two they would become out of focus.  Lucas was extremely frustrated with the results they were getting.  The dallies were horrible and unsatisfying.  After the first week of filming, Lucas pleaded with his friend, legendary cinematographer, Haskell Wexler to help him out.  Although already working full-time during the day, out of friendship, Wexler  agreed to join the production. His skill and expertise at lighting large night exteriors proved to be a an invaluable asset to the film .  
Filming downtown San Rafael, CA.
Because they didn't have the budget to bring in big arc lights they quickly had to invent a lighting method on the spot. With the assistance of Lighting Director, Bill Maley, Wexler was able to get battery operated lights, (sometimes called  recreational vehicle lights), and place several of them on the floorboard or roof so the actors were visible in their cars.  To light the night exteriors 1,000-2,000 watt nook lights were carefully placed overhead to resemble existing streetlights or increase the lighting that was already there.  The lighting from store windows was another source of illumination and was used if the owners kept their store lit after hours. With these light sources, Wexler was able to deliver incredible neon-lit color schemes and documentary-style elements to the appearance of the film and beautifully capture the town's nightlife.


George Lucas told Haskell Wexler that he wanted the film to look kind of like a film by low-budget maestro producer, Sam Katzman or one of those Beach Party movies put out by AIP in the early 1960s, with strong yellow, red, and orange colors.  Wexler's ability to get the look Lucas wanted is nowhere more apparent than in the night scenes at Mels drive-in where the burger joint lights up the dark night like a huge, beautiful, garish, Wurlitzer jukebox.  The cold neon blue lights of the eatery's sign and the warmer colors of the actual restaurant exterior combine for one breathtaking spectacle.  And, the buildings' round shape with glowing lights wrapped around the roof look otherworldly suggesting the appearance of a flying saucer from 1950's science-fiction films such as, "IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE."  What teenager wouldn't want to hang out here?
Owners pose in front of the Mels street sign  for the giveaway promotion of a new T-bird, 1962
Although Mels was an actual drive-in, it did not normally look as good as it does on film. Graffiti Co-Producer, Gary Kurtz recalls the drive-in being rundown when they first leased it. "It was in terrible shape," he said. "We had to repair the neon in the signs and repair the light bulbs and paint it. When  Haskell Wexler saw it for the first time, he decided, since they were going to do so much shooting there, he would replace all the light bulbs with photo floods.  In addition, the neon letters that spelled COCKTAILS on the street sign (under the arrow), were replaced with the words BURGER CITY to match the burger shack's name that was described in the original script.  You'll notice in the film that the actors never call the restaurant Mels, it is referred to as Burger City.


There is only one complaint this writer has with lighting in the film and that's the way it is used in the scenes that take place in the fields by the local canal.  Because there was no light at the canal, where Debbie and Toad first make out, they had to shoot the scenes using "day-for-night," (DFN), which is a process whereby night scenes are actually shot during the day using special blue filters and under-exposed film to create the illusion of darkness or moonlight.

Wexler and Lucas had a disagreement  about shooting DFN: "I didn't want it to look like day-for-night," Lucas  recalled, "I wanted it shot using low light level.  Usually DFN you shoot the scene and then you 'stop it down' so it looks dark (pull the aperture down on the lens).  It all came back the next day black. You couldn't see anything. So we lost one whole day shooting because I insisted on making the DFN look so black."   The eventual sequences used in the film are not visually weak, quite the contrary, the long shot of Toad & Debbie walking from the car, down to the orchard by the canal, is gorgeous, but it appears to break the continuity of the film because the the sky is not very dark and the scene was so obviously filmed during the day at a time when the sun was low in the sky.  It has the effect of disrupting or confusing the time frame for the audience because earlier Toad had been hustling booze in front of a liquor store probably around 10:00 PM and then once he & Debbie get to the canal to drink it, the time appears to be dusk.  One can't help but wonder how much more natural a scene such as this might have looked had Lucas used natural light sources such as car headlights or maybe flashlights to illuminate the actors. This inconsistency bothers this writer only because it seems like it could have been done better,  However, the average audience member in 1973 employed a certain amount of suspended disbelief when viewing nighttime scenes that were filmed in this manner.

To further the example of how jarring Day-for-Night (DFN) use can be in a great film one need look no further than director, Sergio Leone's classic, A FISTFULL OF DOLLARS (originally released in Italy in 1964 and the USA  in 1967).  In the now famous, Spaghetti-Western film, some key moments take place at night where scenes crosscut between a shootout with waring gangs at a cemetery and Clint Eastwood, miles away in a dark hacienda courtyard sneaking around looking for gold.  DFN works well at the courtyard where flames from torches are a light source.  However, when the film crosscuts to the cemetery scenes, the only light source is the sun (which casts shadows.)  It is supposed to be nighttime, (the gang members squint and struggle to see their targets,) but it is clearly not.  The shootout scenes look as though they are taking place in the middle of the day-not at night.  DFN works poorly in this instance.  Today, audiences are a bit more sophisticated and probably wouldn't accept this inconsistency in a new film.  DFN filming is both a sign of the times and a small filming budget.  Filming after sunset is much easier nowadays and had the technology been available they would have used it.


In some scenes. Lucas and company took advantage of the fact that the night is dark and people are not always visible from a distance. The lack of lighting is used to great effect when the two characters, John Milner (Paul LeMat) and Carol (McKenzie Phillips) are in the auto wrecking yard.  They walk through a valley of twisted, rusting piles of squashed and crashed cars where there is very little light.  There are spotlights on cars and random things but the two actors themselves are silhouetted most of the time.  By using lights to focus on the cars rather than the actors they were able to create an incredible moment that is subtle and more symbolic rather than literal.

The two actor's bright while wardrobe, worn for the entire film, was chosen expressly to make them visible during the dimly lit scene where they walk through the graveyard of cars.

Wexler adjusts a light at Mels
The wardrobe that Paul LeMat and McKenzie Phillips wear throughout the movie was dictated by the wrecking yard scene. George Lucas recalled, "They were both given white shirts because we knew they had to shoot that scene at one point."  The fact that one can occasionally see the two actors in the dimly lit wrecking yard is due to their bright white T-shirts.  It wasn't until the end of the film under the brightness of the morning sun that John Milner was able to get away with changing into a black T-shirt, more suitable to his rough character.  The lack of lighting also dictated other choices such as the actor's hair color and the color of the leading cars in the film.  Candy Clark (who played Debbie) was a brunette but she wore a blond wig for the film.  In a conversation I had with Candy in February 2011 she said that if she hadn't chosen to wear the bright wig when she was first picking out her wardrobe, she would have disappeared into the night. "Its like a flashlight, you really see my character because of that blond wig," she explained.   Similarly, one reason John Milner's '32 coupe stands out in the dark streets is because it is painted canary yellow like the highly visible warning traffic street signs.
"Its like a flashlight, you really see my character because of that blond wig,"


An extremely memorable moment in the film where lighting is crucial takes place when John Milner and Carol take revenge on a Cadillac full of girls by flattening their tires and covering the windows with shaving cream.  During the scene Johnny B. Goode blares as two giant searchlights
rotate around the kids. There are lots of shots and many closeups.  George Lucas has referred to the scene as a "Visual exercise."  The light coming and going on everything as they run around the car creates an extremely pleasurable visual texture. The style is reminiscent of Lucas' student films and first feature where lighting, texture, and movement are the focus.  Never mind, the logic or believability of two lit searchlights blazing in front of a bank in the middle of the night.  "Its a perfect example of cinema from my point of view," Lucas has said, "and doesn't necessarily use a montage the way most people in Hollywood would do a scene like this.  It's about one thing and its in real time."

Carol & John do a celebratory vengeance dance in front of a searchlight after defiling a Cadillac filled with girls.
- FINI -


  • American Graffiti, Special Edition. [Blu-ray] (1973, 2011).  Universal Studios.  
  • Clark, Candy, Feb 2011.  Personal conversation. 
  • Kline, Sally editor (1999).  George Lucas Interviews.  University Press of Mississippi/Jackson
  • Pollock, Dale. (1983,1999).  Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas.  Updated Edition. New York, DeCapo Press. 
  • Stock, Dennis. (1972) PHOTOGRAPHS. (July 2011) Hidden Treasure: Lost Photos from the Set of American Graffiti.  Wired Magazine Website  1. Manuel Padilla on pinball machine,  Retrieved 8/20/2011:

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