Sir Ridley Scott: Master Building Worlds With Light

I’ve been advised by those in the know to write more blogs. But in the everlasting content wars – what do you blog about? Perhaps it’s my inner Brit, but I loathe the idea of content as noise purely to please Google. It has to be purposeful and interesting for me to read. Passionate. So, with that in mind, I thought I’d blog about something I’m passionate about – in this topic, I’ve chosen Sir Ridley Scott and my obsession with the way he builds worlds with light…

Like many, Blade Runner was the film I saw which first pulled me into an obsession with Scott’s cinema. My older brother was studying it for his A Levels. I must have been under 10. I didn’t grasp the philosophical musings, the questions on origin or the adult themes which have kept film students’ busy writing essays for years. It was the simple wonder of world he’d built which pulled me in. The mine of different cultures on the street. The buildings piercing the sky. The flying cars. A world that was entirely constructed of sets, camera angles and extras. A cinematic world which looked lived in. Almost breathing.

Gladiator was my next big Scott experience. A critically acclaimed summer blockbuster. I’d been to Roman ruins with school. I’d read Horrible Histories. I’d seen bits of Sword and Sandal epics on Sunday afternoons. But I’d never seen Ancient Rome like this. It was utterly immersive. The imposing coliseum encapsulated in that amazing 360 degree Steadicam shot. The way the forum buildings were stacked atop one another. It was mesmerizing. Again, it pulled me in. A world entirely constructed of sets, camera angles and extras. A cinematic world which looked lived in. Almost breathing.

Since then, I’ve tirelessly trawled through his filmography. The hits, the flops, the polarizing films. Even hunting for poor quality uploaded VHS recordings of ‘70s and ‘80s commercials he directed. I’ve become obsessed. The simple reason – because he’s the absolute master of building cinematic worlds with light, and his influence on today’s modern masters of cinema is clear. To study Ridley Scott is to learn how to breath naturalism into your work. Let me explain:

The simplest way to present the method behind my madness is to compare stills from two regarded genre pieces of ’80s fantasy cinema. First, Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride – a masterful farce chocked full of endlessly quotable lines. The second, Scott’s polarizing yet undoubtedly influential dark fairy tale and cult classic, Legend.

The Princess Bride is a great film. Incredibly well written and well directed. It’s stood the test of time. It trends on Twitter every time it’s on TV. Above is a still from the infamous fight scene between Cary Elwes’ Westley and Mandy Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya. It’s a superb scene, but – let’s be honest – you can tell it’s clearly filmed on a studio set. The foam castle set. The sky canvas backdrop. The studio lighting. It’s fairly obviously not filmed on location. It has the feel of artifice. Which is fine. To most non-film geeks, it doesn’t jump out of the film. But to those in the know, it’s clearly on a sound stage.

In contrast, Scott’s Legend was not a successful film. It’s dark, claustrophic, Cocteau-esque and ultimately not in the same easy-to-watch-on-a-Sunday-afternoon slot that The Princess Bride falls into. But it’s an uncompromisingly beautiful film, worthy of study. Filmed mostly on sound stages (one of them infamously burned down), it presents a fantasy world which Scott had full control over. Compare this still above with the still from the Princess Bride. Mia Sara’s Princess Lili dancing through the woodland to Tangerine Dream (I prefer the original US version soz!). It feels lived in. The naturalism from the backlit set breaths through the lens. The light dancing off the grassland and wild flowers. Both were filmed on sound stages, but this, for me, feels like a real world.

And that, for me, is the defining quality of Scott’s cinema. Through his trademark use of backlighting and where he places objects in the mise-en-scene, he’s able to make his sets look lived-in. Natural. Again, as if they are breathing. And he does it effortlessly in every project he touches. He is a Master of building Worlds with light.

During the troubled production of Blade Runner, Special Effects Supervisor David Dryer joked “[…] the way Ridley worked: go into a large stage, you take the brightest light you’ve got. Shine it back at where the camera sits, and then start putting stuff in front of it!” As crass as this description is, for me it’s the essence of Scott’s cinematic technique – he’s never been afraid to mimic the way light behaves in nature. Even if the How To books tell you to place your light ‘here’ and have your people ‘there’. Reality – nature – doesn’t behave like a film set. Studying Scott’s techniques has taught me not to be afraid to experiment.

For me, he is the absolute master of building living world’s with light. Watch and study his films and you’ll agree.

Scroll to Top