American Cinematographer Magazine

A Master of Mood

Director Sam Mendes finds the paintings of Edward Hopper to be a great source of inspiration. Like Hopper, Mendes strives to create a tableau in which the space surrounding a character is a visual key to the emotional meaning of a scene.

With lighting, what is hidden in shadow may be even more meaningful than what is visible to the eye. Light and shadow do more than just create a mood; they harbor or reveal the thoughts and emotions of the characters depicted. "You look at an Edward Hopper painting and you can study where the light sources are," says Mendes. "Often, the key to his paintings is where he places the light sources."

Mendes is haunted in particular by Hopper's 1939 painting New York Movie, an evocation of actions and emotions that are never revealed. The interior of a movie theater, rendered half in darkness, seems to house the isolated introspection of the human soul. Mendes offers, "In New York Movie, which shows an usherette standing at the side of a cinema, the lighting of the scene is absolutely the source of its poetry. The fact that her face is partially obscured creates a sense of loneliness and desolation. You begin to invent your own story from the imagination [depicted] in the world of the painting."

Viewers of the painting are inspired to imagine what the usherette is thinking or feeling. The barely visible audience in the theater is also experiencing a film that is merely suggested by an abstract, black-and-white image. "Compositionally, Hopper constantly ensures that your imaginary eye is guided off the frame of the picture," Mendes says. "You begin to imagine what's on either side of the frame. In other words, what's important is what is off camera."

In a way, Hopper's modernist instincts led him to visually convey the theatrical device of silence and the unspoken. "This is something that I feel Conrad Hall does brilliantly," Mendes adds. "Any great painter who uses light in a particular way is working off instinct, and Conrad is instinctive. If you show him a scene, he'll feel the atmosphere in a corridor and he'll light what he feels to be the atmosphere as opposed to how he thinks it ought to be lit logically or rationally."

The modernist tenet that "less is more" applies equally to cinema and painting. Withholding information is often a very effective strategy for generating emotional impact. "Sometimes you know more about emotional states of characters if you can't see their eyes," Mendes submits. "That's quite a dangerous thing to say when you're dealing with actors who are speaking all the time, but people can underestimate the emotional articulation of a shot that isn't a close-up."

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© 2002 American Society of Cinematographers.