Barry Lyndon: How to Shoot Like Stanley Kubrick for Under $6,000
In 1975, Stanley Kubrick again pushed the limits of filmmaking with “Barry Lyndon,” an 18th-century period film that was shot using almost-exclusively natural light. It's hands-down one of the most beautiful films ever made. Shooting interior scenes entirely by candlelight gave the film a realistic, 18th-century feel that mimicked many of the great paintings from that time. Each frame is its own rich painting, and candlelit interior scenes caused the actors’ breath and movements to alter the flames and create visible flickers on screen. To that point, no film had been made like it, and very little has come close to it even today. That doesn’t mean, however that we can’t try.
To shoot “Barry Lyndon,” Kubrick had to recruit NASA, hire experts in optic technology, bring in one of the best cinematographers in the world, and exhaustively modify one of the greatest film cameras ever made. Luckily, thanks to current technology, you don’t have spend as much money or go to nearly as much trouble to achieve the same thing today. In fact, with under $6,000 in camera gear and a good eye, you can shoot an indoor scene entirely by candlelight just like they did on “Barry Lyndon.”
Important Note: This technique does not include a massive Warner Bros. budget, Oscar-level costume design, Ryan O’Neal in his prime, or Stanley Kubrick’s genius eye for composition and storytelling. I’m sorry.
The Breakdown: How Kubrick Did It
To get the necessary light in-camera, Kubrick had to use special lenses, a special camera, and special candles. Since the lenses had to be wide open at all times, the depth-of-field was so shallow that the actors had to remain statue still while shooting. This gave “Barry Lyndon” the aesthetic of an 18th-century painting, which only reinforced Kubrick’s vision.
Special Lenses: Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7
Carl Zeiss developed these lenses for NASA to be used for satellite photography and the Apollo moon landings. Only six of them were made, and Kubrick was able to get three of them for “Barry Lyndon.” No film had ever been shot at f/0.7, or close to it, before this. The breakdown of how these lenses work is worth a read but, for the sake of brevity, let’s just say that they’re impressive even by today’s standards. Kubrick found the 50mm focal length limiting, so he and Alcott hired Dr. Richard Vetter, an optical master, to help fix the problem. Vetter brought in a projection lens adapter used to modify the focal length of 70mm projection lenses in theatres so that the image could match the screen. With some tinkering, he got the adapter to widen the Zeiss lens to 36.5mm, giving Kubrick two focal lengths to work with.
Special Camera: Mitchell BNC
Kubrick and Alcott used this camera on “A Clockwork Orange” and was familiar with its use on rear-projection projects. The Mitchell BNC wasn’t a new camera, especially in 1974, but it was very malleable for Kubrick's uses. It still wasn’t nearly capable of handling the huge Zeiss Planar lenses Kubrick needed it for, so the front of the camera had to essentially be recreated to be workable with these lenses. No easy feat. Even then, Kubrick’s 100 ASA film stock had to be pushed up a stop after shooting was completed to bring out enough light.
Special Candles: 3-wick
Normal candles weren’t bright enough to light the huge interiors required. Three-wick candles, which shine three times as bright, were brought in to accommodate.
So here’s what we need to cover in order to shoot like “Barry Lyndon.”
- Exposure equivalent of f/0.7 + 200 ASA film stock (100 ASA pushed up in post).
- Extra compensation for the special candles.
- 50mm and 35mm focal lengths.
How to Do It
Determine Exposure Value
The very first thing we have to do is determine the exposure value that Kubrick was working in for his interior shots. Exposure value involves using the f-stop, shutter speed, and ISO to get a number that represents your overall exposure. This way, we don’t have to break the bank on f/0.7 lenses and can instead let our ISO do some more of the work. I hate doing math, so I use an exposure value calculator. There are some great ones available online. Since we know that Kubrick was forced to shoot wide open, we can determine that he was shooting at an exposure value of 4, so that’s our goal.
Get a Camera: The Sony A7Sii
Yeah yeah yeah, it’s the obvious choice, but in this case it’s also the right one. If you play around with the exposure calculator, you’ll find that it only takes 800 ISO and an f/1.4 lens (with 1/50 shutter speed) to get an exposure value of 4. Most cameras today can do this. However, let’s assume that you want to shoot with regular candles, you aren’t a lighting wizard, you don’t want to be limited by shallow depth of field from keeping your lenses wide open, and/or you don’t want to be forced with f/1.4 lenses only. You’re gonna need better low-light performance, and there isn’t a better camera around for this than the A7Sii, which is arguably still usable at an ISO of 102,400. Even if you don’t push it that far, you’ll be granted more than enough room to make up for some of the shortcomings you might encounter because you aren’t on a Stanley Kubrick production.
Get Lenses: Go Zeiss
There are so many options to choose from here; the A7Sii gives you a ton of leeway. I'm choosing to pay tribute to the company that made “Barry Lyndon” possible while also getting top-of-the-line lens performance. The Zeiss Loxia 50mm f/2 Planar T and the Zeiss Loxia 35mm F/2 Biogon T are two of the most beautiful lenses you can mount on the A7Sii. They might not be the fastest or cheapest available, but they will help you get the most out of your camera sensor while also paying tribute to the company that created the original, legendary, lenses Kubrick, Alcott, and company used on “Barry Lyndon.”
At the end of the day, you can rent the A7Sii and both lenses for around $165/day or you could buy them all new for around $5,200. Thanks to modern technology, you won’t have to ask NASA’s help and hire optical masterminds to shoot like Stanley Kubrick did on Barry Lyndon.
If you’d like to read more about how they shot "Barry Lyndon," I recommend this excellent interview with John Alcott from American Cinematographer.