Hollywood Lighting

The first motion picture studios were designed to use natural sunlight through an open roof. Edison's Black Maria stage of 1893 was mounted on a revolving platform to keep a constant directional sunlight. Glass stages similar to greenhouses were used for filming during bad weather. With the advent of sound and artificial lighting, open-air studios and glass stages became obsolete.

The first artificial lighting came from the simple box floodlights used in live theater, with candles or gas or burning lime sticks providing the "limelight" that illuminated the stage. The scoop light is a modern variation of the simple box light, using electricity and a 500-watt incandescent light bulb.

In 1879, Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb but it was not bright enough for motion pictures. Electric lights manufactured by Edison and Joseph Swan, however, were quickly adopted by theaters. Richard D'Oyley Carte "was the enterprising manager of the new Savoy Theatre in London. In 1881 he opened the theatre and advertised that the Savoy was the first public building lighted 'entirely' by electricity. In fact, there were a total of 1158 of the new Swan lamps, used to light the auditorium, the dressing rooms, the corridors and the stage. The electrical and dimmer system was by Siemens Brothers and Company, one of the early pioneers in stage lighting control systems. There were six (6) dimmers in all. An article published in 'Engineering, March 3, 1882' reported: "In an artistic and scenic point of view nothing could be more completely successful than the present lighting of the Savoy Theatre the illumination is brilliant without being dazzling, and while being slightly whiter than gas, the accusation of "ghastliness," so often urged against the light of the electric arc, can in no way be applied. In addition to this the light is absolutely steady, and thanks to the enterprise of Mr. D'Oyley Carte, it is now possible for the first time in history of the modern theatre to sit for a whole evening and enjoy a dramatic performance in a cool and pure atmosphere" (quote from Williams 1999)

1890 - The carbon arc lamp, or High Intensity Discharge (HID) lamp, is developed first to illuminate streets. "Over a hundred years ago, it was found that if you touched two carbon rods hooked to a powerful electrical source together, some of the carbon would vaporize. If you then moved the rods apart just a little, current would flow thru this carbon vapor as a spark "arced" thru a gap between the rods filled with that vapor. This is the "Carbon Arc" lamp. Though crude, open to air, and requiring constant attention to keep the gap between the rods proper as more and more carbon boils off the rods, the carbon arc lamp produces a very intense, and very pure white light. It's also more efficient in turning electricity into light than an incandescant. Carbon arc lamps were used for years in movie projectors. In certain senses, the carbon arc lamp is the grand-daddy of today's mercury vapor, sodium vapor, flourescent, and metal halide lamps." (quote from Goodman 1996)

In 1901, Peter Cooper Hewitt invented the mercury arc lamp that used mercury vapor inside a glass bulb with an arc lamp, providing one of the first adequate yet small artificial light sources. The 4-foot tubular Cooper-Hewitt mercury lamps with a distinctive blueish-green color were used by Biograph in 1905.

In 1911, William D. Coolidge of General Electric developed a durable tungsten filament, replacing earlier cotton and bamboo and cellulose filaments in the incandescent light bulb. In 1913, Irving Langmuir at GE developed the coiled filament gas-filled lamp that made possible 1000-watt bulbs in a small size

In 1912, Biograph replaced the low-pressure mercury lamps with brighter white flame carbon arc lamps. Theater companies such as M. J. Wohl and Kliegl Brothers of New York began to make tube-shaped carbon arc lights for movie studios. John H. Kliegl (1869-1959) and Anton Kliegl (1872-1927) founded their company in 1896 and in 1911 introduced their first motion picutre lights that came to be called "Kliegl-lights" or just "klieglights."

In 1925, the first blue neon light signs appeared in London, and by 1933 multicolored tubes began to decorate the outside of the movie palace.

In 1926, Don Juan was released by Warner Bros. as the first studio product of the sound motion revolution, followed the next year by Fox Movietone newsreels and the first talkie, The Jazz Singer. Studios turned from noisy carbon arcs to incandescent lighting better suited to the enclosed sound stage. Century Lighting opened for business in New York and introduced the ellipsoidal reflector spotlight, or "leko light."

In 1928, Eastman Kodak introduced Eastman Type 2 panchromatic black-and-white film that was sensitive to all colors in the spectrum, unlike earlier orthochromatic film. It was now possible to use tungsten lights that emphasized the red end of the spectrum to produce a softer effect on film. The Mole-Richardson Co. of Hollywood was founded in 1927 and began to manufacture a wide variety of studio lights, including specialized housing for incandescent lights from small round dish-type reflectors to large search-light type round housing for bulbs from 10,000 to 50,000 watts.

In 1930, Johannes Ostermeir patented the photographic flashbulb was patented in Germany, a safe replacement for earlier flash powder.

In 1931, Harold Eugene Edgerton at MIT developed the stroboscopic high speed gas discharge lamp that would be used for special effects with xenon and neon tubes starting in the 1950s.

In 1934, Mole-Richardson introduced the stepped-prism Fesnel-type lens for incandescent lights that allowed the light beam to be controlled from 8 to 48 degrees width, reducing the size from previous large-diameter, mirror-type reflectors.

In 1935, Becky Sharp was released by RKO as the first three-color Technicolor Hollywood feature film. The carbon arc lamp was redisgned for color photography and exposure meters were introduced to measure light intensity and color temperature critical to the Technicolor process.

In 1950, expensive carbon lamps were replaced by cheaper incandescent lamps used with new color films from Technicolor, Eastman, Ansco that were balanced from lower-temperature tungsten lights and had faster emulsions. The 10,000 watt incandescent stepped-prism lamp could be filtered for outdoor or indoor photography, and became the standard studio light.


revised 3/24/01 by Schoenherr | Filmnotes