5 Award-Winning Movies Filmed Almost Entirely with Available Natural Light

Photo:  Jakob Owens

At the beginning of Mother! natural light floods through the old, antique home as Jennifer Lawrence passionately moves from room to room, refurbishing the massive house. The light allows the director to portray a touch of hope and comfort, while teeing up an ominous foreboding as the light begins to shift throughout the day.  

Living in Los Angeles, movie watchers are misled into thinking that all movie and television sets entail massive productions, packed with cumbersome lighting that can be meticulously manipulated by filming at night. Production crews blast light across the set to create daytime scenes and dim light accordingly.

While this is often what a movie set entails, intense control over the lighting on set, some of the most powerful movies have been filmed relying on natural light almost exclusively. Natural light has a way of conveying moods and emotions that are difficult to reproduce with contrived lighting on set. But these five award-winning movies are an example of the moods cinematographers can elicit using natural light alone.

1. The Revenant:

The Revenant was shot almost entirely with natural light. The violent movie was inspired by the intense life of an explorer and filmed in extreme Canadian conditions using sunlight, moonlight and fire. cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki said the intention was to make the audience feel like they were actually there and that the events were taking place in the moment. “We wanted to make a movie that was immersive and visceral,” Lubezki told Variety.

2. Barry Lyndon:

When avid film buffs talk about movies made in natural light, Barry Lyndon is one of the first that comes to mind. The film follows the life and adventures of a fictional Irish explorer in the eighteenth century.

Cinematographer Stanley Kubrick borrowed some of the fastest 50mm lenses from NASA, previously used to capture the Apollo moon landings. These lenses allowed Kubrick to light intensely intimate scenes in which people huddled around as little as three candles. The technique allowed Kubrick to nearly perfectly mimic an era before electricity.

Photo:  Jamie Fenn

Photo: Jamie Fenn

3. Bloody Sunday:

Bloody Sunday is a gritty, gripping political drama directed by Paul Greengrass who went on to direct The Bourne Supremacy. Throughout the film there is the typical drama you’d expect in a political drama: spying, eavesdropping, protesting, shootings and suspicion. By filming in natural light, amongst the crowds of people, in both flattering and unflattering light, the cinematographer makes movie viewers feel like they are part of the scene. Like they are amongst the chaos, thus increasing the suspension and the constant need to check over your shoulder.

4. Wild:

Wild, an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir from her time spent hiking the Pacific Crest Trail was filmed almost entirely in natural light. Light in this move was used specifically to portray the intensity and difficulty of hiking the trail that varies starkly in weather conditions along its 2,659 miles. Using the natural light available in intense sunlight in some scenes and then reflecting off snow and rain in others, the director was able to convey how difficult it would be to navigate not only inclement weather, but inclement weather that was constantly changing.

Photo:  Oscar Nord

Photo: Oscar Nord

5. The Blair Witch Project:

The Blair Witch Project was a faux horror documentary meant to make viewers question whether or not it was a real documentary. By using natural lighting in the woods, fire light, flashlight spot lighting and the standard night vision that comes with generic handheld cameras, the tone is set that these are amateur filmmakers creating a real documentary. This realism furthers the idea that the film might be real while injecting and amplifying the fear factor.