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Zorba the Greek: The finale


Zorba the Greek: Managing the lighting
Walter Lassally Film-maker
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Zorba contains what is probably the most difficult scene I've ever had to tackle, which is the love scene between Irene Papas and Alan Bates, which was shot in a very rickety old house. We were on the first floor, and you couldn't take the Elemack, the dolly, up there, the floor wouldn't support the weight. So all we could take is an ordinary camera on an ordinary tripod, myself, Cacoyannis, the two actors and, perhaps, one other person, then the floor started to, sort of, become a bit shaky. So we said, that's it, absolutely nobody else up here. And then it was a classic situation, which happens quite often in movies, where you can't properly follow the idea of source light. In most movies, I think most cameramen will say that source light is the guiding principle and where, in a situation like this, where would the light be coming from? Would it be coming from the windows, would it be coming from the practicals, would it be coming from the moon, the sun, whatever. And in that particular scene, it starts with one candle alight, and then half-way though the scene, she blows the candle out, and the curtains are closed, because it's a bit secret, the whole thing, she doesn't want all the village to know what's going on. So where's your light source in a room at night with the curtains closed, and in black and white. Because then you're faced with a tremendous problem. The solution was to create a sort of a glow, an overall light with no particular source, strong enough to see what's going on, but not so strong that it seems to be coming from somewhere. So... that's fine in colour, but in black and white you come up against the same problem I've already mentioned several times, the contrast problem that, if you're not extremely careful, the contrast will drop below the acceptable level. So that was very hard for me. And when I look at that scene, which is a nice scene, it's beautifully played, I'm still rather proud of the fact that I managed it, because it's right on the edge, all the time. Certainly from the moment where the candle is blown out, it's, it's on the edge, but it's beautiful. And the, the bulk... as I already said, the bulk of the scenes are exterior and the only interiors are Madame Hortense's bedroom, her house and her bedroom, mainly, which was in a real house which still exists, called Kokkino Metochi. And the, the interior of the hut was a set and that provided the problem that there had to be strict continuity matches. When people go out the door and in the door, that there is an angle which is shot on location here in Stavros, just 300 yards from where I'm sitting now, where you, you're inside the real house and you're looking out, so you have the door frame and the little bit of wall right and left, and then beyond that you have the sea and the beach and the rocks and the mountain. Then you cut inside and very often it's a direct cut, somebody comes in and somebody goes out, so you cut to the set. So not only do you have to be very careful that the continuity matches, the continuity of clothes and movement and speed and all that, but also, of course, the lighting continuity has to match. And the studio, so called, was pretty primitive. There wasn't a lot of space around the set. So I put some very nondescript backings outside of the windows and I avoided shooting directly into the windows, which were dirtied down to be sort of pretty milky. And also, never directly towards the door because there wasn't anything out there. So the door is always filmed so that people go diagonally across camera and out to the door, and then you can cut to the other angle, and there is the real exterior. That of course happened in the day, at dusk, at night, so there are lots of lighting matches that have to work and, I'm glad to say, it works very well. But that takes a bit of experience. That takes a bit of doing. I've had to do that two or three times in my career and it's always a bit tricky, particularly if there's a big interval between the two shoots. You have to remember how it was lit or whether you had on... the exterior cloud conditions, and so on, so that the exterior matches the interior. But that worked, that worked pretty well between those two... in those two conditions. The other interiors, particularly, Madame Hortense's bedroom, again, was a bit of a challenge. In black and white it had to look really elegant and... well no... yes, I suppose you could say elegant. It had a certain atmosphere, an atmosphere of its own, which the lighting, of course, helps to produce. And there again, I'm very happy with the result because it looked beautiful. I'm sure it wouldn't have looked any better in colour. So we managed that quite nicely.

Born in Germany, cinematographer Walter Lassally (1926-2017) was best known for his Oscar-winning work on 'Zorba the Greek'. He was greatly respected in the film industry for his ability to take the best of his work in one area and apply it to another, from mainstream to international art films to documentary. He was associated with the Free Cinema movement in the 1950s, and the British New Wave in the early 1960s. In 1987 he published his autobiography called 'Itinerant Cameraman'.

Listeners: Peter Bowen

Peter Bowen is a Canadian who came to Europe to study and never got round to heading back home. He did his undergraduate work at Carleton University (in Biology) in Ottawa, and then did graduate work at the University of Western Ontario (in Zoology). After completing his doctorate at Oxford (in the Department of Zoology), followed with a year of postdoc at the University of London, he moved to the University's newly-established Audio-Visual Centre (under the direction of Michael Clarke) where he spent four years in production (of primarily science programs) and began to teach film. In 1974 Bowden became Director of the new Audio-Visual Centre at the University of Warwick, which was then in the process of introducing film studies into the curriculum and where his interest in the academic study of film was promoted and encouraged by scholars such as Victor Perkins, Robin Wood, and Richard Dyer. In 1983, his partner and he moved to Greece, and the following year he began to teach for the University of Maryland (European Division), for which he has taught (and continues to teach) biology and film courses in Crete, Bosnia, and the Middle East.

Tags: source light, camera, light, candle, black-and-white, contrast, scene, set, continuity, studio

Duration: 4 minutes, 59 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2004

Date story went live: 24 January 2008