Go To 'Skyfall' For The Bond, Stay For The Cinematography

Photo Credit: Francois Duhamel, Skyfall ©2011 Danjaq, LLC, United Artists Corporation, Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All rights reserved.

This is not a review of ‘Skyfall.’ I want to get that out of the way right up top, in case you think I’m going to say how it might be the best Bond film ever, or how you can now happily skip over ‘Quantum of Solace’ in your mind, as it’s the spiritual sequel, and a grand extension of what started in ‘Casino Royale.’

No, I’m going to talk about the lighting.

There’s a shot right at the start of ‘Skyfall’ – the first one, in fact - that pretty much lays out what Director Sam Mendes and Cinematographer Roger Deakins are going to do with the movie. There’s a long, dark hallway. A man stands in shadow, barely visible, and out of focus. Slowly, he walks down the hallway, until he’s right up against the camera, only his eyes visible, but fully lit. It’s Bond, James Bond, of course, but this shot not only stands as a moment that will define his character throughout the film, it’s a clear shot across the bow at other, bland looking Bond films.

Even ‘Casino Royale,’ expertly shot and directed, was a traditional looking film. The stunts were spectacular, and the script excellent, but there wasn’t nearly the visual innovation on display here in ‘Skyfall.’ From here on in, consider what I’m going to talk about as mild spoilers, as they reference scenes… Though I’ll keep things less that specific.

Let’s work backwards, actually. There’s a scene late in the film where several characters are running away from a burning building at night, on the moors. The burning building is there for blowing stuff up, actiony reasons of course, but Mendes and Deakins also use it as a major lighting source for the rest of the scenes. They film from a low angle, and towards the flames, so you never see the features of anyone running towards the camera. And for most of the shots, they also never show the building, instead using it as a lighting source. It lights up the whole sky orange, giving the appearance of sunset at night.

It’s eerie, and only emphasizes the alien, barren quality of the moors. And again without getting into specifics, it also isolates how on their own the characters are, both mentally and physically. It’s a bold choice that looks gorgeous, but comes out of character and scene.

Photo Credit: Francois Duhamel, Skyfall ©2011 Danjaq, LLC, United Artists Corporation, Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All rights reserved.

There’s three shots mid-way through the film set in Shanghai I want to talk about. The first – and I can’t remember the exact line – but someone says Bond will be out of his element, or something like that… And then smash-cut to the brightly lit, neon skyline of Shanghai. It doesn’t take a lot of effort on the production team’s part – it’s just a helicopter shot, really – but after so much of the film is set in relatively naturalistic looking locales, like Batman’s trip to China in The Dark Knight, here we get a cityscape the British Bond just isn’t used to.

A little later on, there’s a scene you can see in the trailer where Bond is sailing to an island casino. Around the island are paper lanterns, and fireworks exploding in the background. This, if anything, is the exact opposite of the previous two shots: as far as I can tell, it’s just eye candy… Though it also presents the entrance to the most Bond-ian section of the entire film, complete with quips, gadgets, and sexy ladies. So maybe that’s Mendes/Deakins’ way of saying, “Get ready for something chintzy!” It’s a beautiful shot that again hits the importance the team has put on light and shadow (the whole world is dark behind Bond, except the lanterns and the island)… But it doesn’t quite come out of character the way the other shots do.

The last one, and the sequence that will probably be the most memorable moment in a movie full of memorable moments: Bond and a villain fight in a glass skyscraper, at night, silhouetted against a blue, neon ad that only occasionally pulses light at them. Otherwise, the only times we see the two figures fighting are when they’re illuminated by gunfire.

I can’t really describe how gorgeous this sequence is without you having seen it, but it’s on the level of ballet… Or at least truly memorable action set pieces like the hallway fight in Old Boy. Visually though, it’s beyond that fight because of, again, the use of light and dark. It picks up on the skyline introduced in that Shanghai shot mentioned above, and uses the look and feel to make Bond and bad guy part of the scenery. For a brief moment, they become part of the skyline, and it’s stunning to watch.

When you do see the movie – and you should – most of the focus will probably be on certain plot points and reveals, particularly in the second half; as well as Mendes incredible focus on character. But don’t forget to watch for what the behind the scenes crew did on the film, too. Without the lighting – and the dark – ‘Skyfall’ wouldn’t be nearly as superb to watch as it is.

SkyFall hits theaters on November 9th, from MGM and Columbia Pictures.