I love the look of E.T. and am a big fan of Steven Spielberg. He is an amazing storyteller! This was the first feature film collaboration between Spielberg and cinematographer Allen Daviau, after which they did two more features together. This film utilizes darkness because it is about a mystery. Throughout the film, the audience, along with Elliott, explore the question of 'who is ET?' The character ET is a puppet, and the filmmakers kept him in shadow for most of the film to make the character believable. It's hard to sell a puppet as a compelling character if its brightly lit and the audience can see the flaws of rubber and paint. It's not till the last act of the film do we fully see ET. By that point we believe he's real and we sympathize for him along with Elliott.
Cinematographer – Allen Daviau, ASC
Camera & Lenses – Panavision cameras and lenses
Acquisition – 35mm Spherical: Eastman 100T 5247
Aspect Ratio – 1.85:1
After watching this film, I've come to the conclusion that blues represents the mystery of the unknown, while red represents safety. This is the story of family- Elliott growing close to his family and ET finding his family. We go from mystery and pain represented by a bluish look, to the safety of family showcased in reds (this is mostly a production design aspect, not so much red lighting).
Color and lighting are primarily stipulated by environments or locations. The night exterior scenes have a blue moonlight look with a touch of cyan (see the vectorscopes).
Red represents home, comfort, and safety. ET's heart goes red when his family calls to him. There's very warm, red light when they are getting to know ET in the closet. At the end of the movie Elliott wears a red hoodie, safe at last.
The ongoing question of the film is this: who is ET? The audience follows Elliott as he explores this mystery. The lighting reflects this mystery. Darkness is mysterious. When we can't see something, we become frightened or on edge, the opposite of safe.
Silhouettes are mysterious. We often forget the power of a silhouette. As cinematographers, our default tends to be lighting the subject. Daviau takes the opposite approach, because he's dealing with a mystery. How does one center in on a subject while keeping it unknown? Silhouette. If you watch the scene when Elliott walks up the drive way after getting the pizza (starting at 9 minutes, 8 seconds into the film) you can see him side lit at the bottom of the driveway. As he makes his way up, he walks out of the sidelight into no light. But light comes from the garage, which is directly behind him and creates a silhouette. Elliott pops because the background is lit, but the he remains in darkness. His usage of the silhouette is brilliant!
The dark scenes have an average IRE around 20-30. A key to selling darkness is having bright highlights in the frame along with the darkness to create contrast. That's what sells it as 'dark.' This is typically a practical or light of some sort. Another trick to darkness is using fog to lift the shadows. This helps immensely! It's way less space to light and it adds texture to the scene. All of the night exteriors in E.T. have atmospheric fog. Something to take note of in this film is that blacks are not fully crushed. There's a tiny bit of detail in the blacks.
So much of this film takes place in Elliott's house. One location for a majority of a film can get boring visually, but Daviau breaks it up. He holds to the mystery element, keeping it dark inside, but gradually brightens the look as as Elliott gets to know ET. When the government agents arrive, it's much brighter than the start of the film.
Even the day scenes in the house are dark. Hard light comes through the windows, cut up by blinds. Very little fill is used inside the house. This gives it the mysterious vibe. The audience, along with Elliott, is wanting to know who ET is. The film explores this mystery, thus the dark interior is perfect. It's quite a gutsy move, though, to shoot day interiors dark and contrasty.
The night interiors are dark as well, but tend to have practical lamps turned on. This sells the night aspect. I noticed how Daviau used soft PAR practicals in the shot to light interiors of the house. These are simple practical floodlights (the soft, floodlight kind, not the hard PAR type) in floodlights (outside) or scoop lights (inside). These are both set dressing and a lighting element.
Most of this film happens in darkness, so when people are properly exposed it's jolting. I noticed an interesting concept that bookends the story. In the beginning, at the dinner table, there is a bright, overhead light. To me this was too bright, but that's why it stuck out. I think it's a visual cue for the end of the film. The dinner table is in Elliott's home. He feels safe, but that safety is about to be exploited. At the end of the film, a bright overhead light pounds down from the space ship. It's very reminiscent of the table light. Here he is, at the end of this journey, surrounded by family and his new friend, safe again, but having experienced a transformation.
Spielberg is brilliant at holding shots. He can do whole scenes as one take, and it's not always a SteadiCam shot. He will pan, tilt, and dolly, but most importantly, move the characters to change the blocking or their proximity to the camera. He also loves to do a slow push in on a dolly when there's an emphasis on a character. This is usually the a character has a revelation. It works so well!
I really like the lighting in this shot (see photo to the right). Elliott isn't the brightest element in the scene, yet he pops out. Personally, I love the lighting ratios. The key is 1 stop under, the fill 2 stops under, while the edge light is around 4 stops over. It looks very natural, not lit, but still draws us to Elliott.
Below is an in depth dissection of one of the scenes at the dinner table. In the shooting script it's scene 66, and covers 3 pages, which turned into 2 minutes 45 seconds of screen time. There are 31 cuts, made up of 13 different camera angles. Below, the image to the left shows the scene as a storyboard, every shot, in order of the final edit, numbered according to the camera angles that I created. To the right is a camera angle breakdown to understand the camera placement and blocking of the scene (camera colors are as follows: grey cameras are wide shots, blue represents medium or two shots, and red are the close ups).
This shows Spielberg's style coverage and a great way to cover a scene. This is not just two people in a room- it's more complex. Toward the end of the scene he moves the characters as well. When we view it as a movie it seems very complex, but not until we break it down we can see he uses basic concepts, but on a deeper level. That's what makes Spielberg a compelling storyteller.
Having seen the film a handful of times, I was able to noticed a few little tricks as I watched it this time. That's the beauty of watching the work of great filmmakers: we can learn from masters.
- Light reflections in car windows? Open the window! The audience will rarely notice.
- Boring light hitting a wall in a house? Break it up with all sorts of stuff (like banisters).
- Is the top spill from a practical too much? Throw a hanky over it. This softens it as well.
- Do you want to change up the lighting in shot to change along with the emotion of the scene? Have the character adjust the blinds or turn on/off a practical lamp
- People don't need proper keys. If their eyes are important, light their eyes and chop all other light away with flags (see the image below).