Directed by Ridley Scott, Prometheus follows a space mission as they explore a far away moon in hopes understanding mankind’s origins. This was the first feature film collaboration between Scott and Dariusz Wolski, ASC. As of 2017, the pair has gone on to shoot a total of five features together. The film has a strong blue sci-fi look, utilizes practical lighting, a moving camera, and has many motifs, which help express the story.
Cinematographer - Dariusz Wolski, ASC
Camera & Lenses - Red Epic & Ultra Primes / Angenieux Optimos
Acquisition - Redcode RAW, spherical lenses
Aspect Ratio - 2.40:1
COLOR + LIGHT
The color palette of Prometheus begins with the production design of Arthur Max. This film is his 8th feature collaborating with Ridley Scott. A majority of the film takes place on the space ship, called the Prometheus, which Max designed with yellows, grays, blues, and cyans. The color is achieved with texture, paint, and lighting integrated into the set.
A majority of the practical lighting is yellow, which creates the feeling of comfort, emphasizing the warmth of human connections. A unity is created between the ship and space suits because they also have yellow LEDs. These LEDs serve as a practical lighting, but illuminate the characters.
In a few scenes, the interior lighting of the Prometheus changes as a character walks through corridors. Below can be seen images of the transition. The ship interior lighting was on a dimmer board, which makes lighting cue possible. This calls for a close collaboration between production designer and cinematographer.
In contrast to the yellow, a blue, cold light surrounds the alien creatures, called the Engineers. This gives them an eerie feel in opposition to the warmth. A muted blue is used on the Engineer Pyramid sets (caves) as an overall ambient, along with blue flashlights the characters hold. These are used as practical lighting elements, which they use to search the caves. The flashlights also enhance the lighting by backlighting the haze.
Blue lighting is also used in the screens and holograms onboard the Prometheus. This directly contrasts the warm lighting in the ship, which causes an eerie feeling as the story progresses. At the beginning of the film the ship was a safe place, but by the end the dangers from the surface of the moon have invaded, displacing comfort.
In this film, Wolski uses practical lighting as a basis, and then adds a little ambient light to gain exposure. Nothing feels like it has a key light, rather each shot looks natural and believable. This lighting style helps suspending their disbelief of the audience convince the audience that the world of the film is real, not sci-fi.
Skin tones are around 20-55 IRE, averaging out to 40 IRE. During night or dark scenes skin tones are about 2 stops under exposed. Whites are always clipped in the grade, tending to be around 80 IRE, never above 95 IRE. The blacks are inky black, as Wolski is not afraid of letting shadows fall off.
The power of filmmaking is that the camera influences how the audience sees the events of the story, thus impacting how they feel. This can be done with an unbiased hands-off approach of showing events unfold. However, Prometheus takes a different path by manipulating the audience into feeling a certain way. Camera movement plays a huge role in this. The film opens opens with epic landscape shots, the camera glides through the scenery. This sets up the film as an epic story. The gliding camera is opposite of a hands-off approach which would use static wide shots. In key moments throughout the film, the camera pushes in, emphasizing the visual as important. This tells the audience “this is important” and subconsciously makes it dramatic.
Prometheus is full of motifs, some direct, others subliminal. The imagery of a ribcage (or creative interpretation of one) shows up in the Engineer suits, the interior corridors of the Prometheus, the caverns of the Engineer Pyramid, the Engineer ship’s design, and in Shaw’s emergency surgery. This imagery reminds the viewer of humanity and their connection to the Engineers (much like Eve was created from the rib of Adam in the Biblical account).
Earth elements of water are used repeatedly. The film begins with a waterfall, and several characters wash their faces at various points in the film. It seems that in both cases the water represents a cleansing.
Faith is referenced in dialogue and visually with the symbol of the cross Shaw wears around her neck. The whole journey of the film is a trial of Shaw’s faith: does she hold on to her belief that humans came from the Engineers? This is the root of her character and she explores it throughout the whole film.
The musical score is full of motifs with various themes for characters or locations. These themes subconsciously bring elements together. The soundtrack adds suspense and enhances the epic feeling of the visuals. Again, this is the influential approach of telling the audience what to feel, rather than suggesting what to feel. This approach is not good for every film, but fits Prometheus.
The marketing campaign for this film was strong, which encouraged me to see it when it at the theater. After viewing the film, I was disappointed. I couldn’t put my finger on it and deemed it another failed Ridley Scott film (I love a handful of his films, but some of his work has been disappointing. I still have hope in him and continue watching each new film he directs).
Part of what drew me to the film from the beginning was its look. So I decided to revisit it, enjoying it more the second time. The story fits perfectly in a 3-act structure and follows classic rules of Aristotle. So why was I originally disappointed if it fit the tried and true formula? I think it has to do with the ending. Throughout the film we explore questions, beginning with ‘why do the Engineers beckon humans to find them?’ and ending with ‘why do the Engineers want to destroy humans?’ The film poses more questions than answers and doesn’t answer all the questions posed in the beginning. This leaves the audience confused and still wanting to know the answers to the original questions. Story is a process of revealing elements to an audience. This is a delicate process. If the filmmaker tells too much, it feels like preaching. If the filmmaker tells too little, the audience is confused or questions the filmmaker as being a bad storyteller. It’s a fine line of revealing too much or too little and I think Prometheus did not reveal enough to satisfy the audience.
What are your thoughts on this film? Was it disappointing upon your encounter, or were you sucked right into the story?