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July 23, 2016

Film’s Every Landscape Photographer Should Watch #1 : Days Of Heaven


Day’s of Heaven (1978) should rank high on every landscape photographer's watchlist purely as the film is shot almost exclusively in the golden & blue hours. Malick’s technical brilliance here is unsurpassed, his use of natural illumination throughout the film creates a stunning sequence of images of light, land and man’s place within it.

Capturing an image perfectly is equal part a moment’s work and a lengthy painstaking process of planning, patience and repetition. Equally true of the still and moving image, Days of Heaven is one of a few films I’ve watched where a photographic quality is so evidently clear.

Malick’s use of natural lighting in the film and his decision to shoot around sunrise and sunset, even into the blue hour, gives Day’s of Heaven this photographic, and often painterly magical quality.

Golden hour silhoettes against the landowner's house in Days of Heaven

Malick and his cinematographer, Nestor Almendros, routinely opted to change the script on fly, moving schedules and shot lists around to constantly allow themselves to best respond to light and weather; something most landscape photographers would be well accustomed to in the field.

Aside from his desire to persue the light, Malick doggedly pushed a naturalistic cinematic direction, eschewing lighting aids and pushing film stock further and further, removing more and more in an reductionist exercise to strip away everything but the bare natural light. The quality of light Malick captured will make any landscape photographer dribble slightly.

Days of Heaven is also beautiful study of the natural environment. Malick combines shots of the micro and the macro; comfortably contrasting minute natural details such as a leaf unfurling with epic panoramas of vast open tracts of wild landscape. He succeeds in depicting the minute world whilst telling us about world around it.

Details of dew on corn from Day's of Heaven

Themes equally at home in the work of Ansel Adams and Burtynsky have equal presence on the screen; for all the beauty in the landscape Malick captures, he reminds us that this is also a proto-industrial landscape. The machinery of man is dwarfed in the landscape, often we see man and his works isolated amongst enormous fields; man is clearly trying to master this natural space. Panoramic shots of harvesting machinery and the detailed depictions of man and machine laboring together to gather the natural bounty all work to reinforce this idea.

Farm machinery works across the landscape in Days Of Heaven

Train isolated against the Texan sky in Days Of Heaven

Malick is hugely inspirational in his use of the power of an image to tell a story. Day’s of Heaven’s dialogue was infamously stripped back to a bare minimum in editing, a process that took him 2 years to complete. Throughout the film he relies more on the power of the image to convey mood, themes and narrative, reflecting silently the character’s lives in their new pastoral world. What little dialogue he does allow is limited mainly to voiceover, much like his 1st film, Badlands (1973)

Bathe yourself (quite literally) in scene after scene of gorgeous light, evocative imagery, and witness a true master craftsmen of light; it's hard not to watch in awe at Malick’s eye and brilliance. It’s hard not to be inspired in some way by Day’s of Heaven, a work of one of the last true auteurs.

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