How Kubrick Achieved the Beautiful Cinematography of Barry Lyndon

How Kubrick Achieved the Beautiful Cinematography of Barry Lyndon

This shot that opens Stanley Kubrick’s Barry
Lyndon might very well be a perfect representation
of the entire film—a story of fate versus
coincidence symbolized by a duel in which
the victor is near random.
The narration introduces us to the humor in
the absurd perception of civility in
high society and it is all amidst a picturesque
backdrop reminiscent of 18th Century paintings.
Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon is often
lauded as one of the greatest achievements
in the history of cinematography.
And in a decade or even a year with some of
the toughest competition you can think of,
Barry Lyndon always seems to stick out just
a little bit more.
But what sets the cinematography of Barry
Lyndon apart from other movies?
And how was it done?
I’m Tyler and you’re watching Making Film,
a series devoted to understanding film history
and how great movies are made.
Barry Lyndon was shot entirely on location
in England and Ireland requiring the cast
and crew of about 170 people to travel from
location to location for
eight and a half months (Time).
Shooting exteriors in these locations tended
to be a bit difficult because of the abrupt
changes in weather.
Kubrick mentioned in an interview that the
atmosphere of these locations limited his
ability to make [quote] “subtle aesthetic
decisions” (Time).
Kubrick insisted on using only natural light
during these shots, so, aside from basic framing,
the production was pretty much at the mercy
of how much light the clouds happened to let
through at any given moment.
However, it seems Kubrick didn’t allow this
to affect shot duration—there are several
scenes where we can see the lighting change
John Alcott: “We would go out in the morning
and it probably raining and overcast and then,
all of a sudden, Ireland is a place where
the weather changes very rapidly because you’re
in the Gulf Stream and you’ve got two layers.
You’ve got a high wind and a very low wind
and they’re all probably on different directions
to one another and they would separate the
clouds within minutes.”
This seems contrary to Kubrick’s usual quest
to have as much control as possible during
his productions, I mean, this is the guy that
replicated a full city block of New York City
in England for Eyes Wide Shut, so that he
could shoot there for two years.
Some of these establishing shots feel almost
like Kubrick was hunting for the perfect image
rather than deliberately composing a perfect
These shots add another layer to the film’s
theme of fate versus coincidence.
At any moment, the atmosphere could change
and you’d be left with something very different.
And whereas, Kubrick could tell an actor or
crewmember what he liked, he couldn’t tell
the clouds what to do.
For the full scenes that took place outside,
cinematographer John Alcott had to compensate
for the lighting changes on the fly so the
shots would match.
He used an Arriflex 35BL for the outdoor scenes.
Kubrick would continue shooting whether or
not “the sun is going in or out.”
This camera featured an aperture control that
was much larger than usual and allowed you
to make changes to the aperture of a lens
from a gearing mechanism on the outside of
the camera.
This way, you could make very minor adjustments
in how much light the camera is letting in
even in the middle of a take (American Cinematographer).
Alcott mentioned that the use of the aperture
control was especially prevalent during the
sequence in which Barry is buying the horse
for his son.
The sun was going in and out throughout the
entire sequence (American Cinematographer).
Sometimes by the end of a sequence, the lens
was completely open and letting in as much
light as possible.
For the scene where Barry is robbed, Alcott
said, “We started off with a good day and
there was plenty of light in the beginning,
but the last part of that sequence was shot
with the T/1.2 lens wide open.
In order to match the brilliance of the normal
daylight one had to be very fully exposed” (American Cinematographer).
Barry’s first battle sequence opens with
a tracking shot that was filmed by one of
three cameras running simultaneously along
an 800-foot track (American Cinematographer).
This shot was particularly difficult because
it starts at the end of 250mm zoom lens.
As you probably know, the more you’ve zoomed
in, the more exaggerated each little bump
in the camera movement registers.
All of the close-ups in this sequence were
from the end of that 250mm zoom lens (American Cinematographer).
Here’s another view of
the track.
That’s Kubrick’s daughter Vivian who makes
a cameo at the dinner scene sitting next to
her sister Katharina.
This scene is yet another visual example of
the theme of fate versus coincidence.
The English army marches toward the firing
guns of the French.
The English continue to march as their comrades
are struck and fall at random.
How easily Barry’s life, and consequently
the story, could end at any moment.
It’s a common misconception that all of
the shots in Barry Lyndon were lit
exclusively by natural light.
Quite often for interior scenes, they would
see how the natural daylight would illuminate
a room and then recreate the look using lights
called Mini-Brutes placed outside and then
they would diffuse the light by taping tracing
paper or a similar
plastic material to the windows.
Kubrick said that, when he shot toward the
window, the tracing paper caused a “very
beautiful and realistic flare effect” (Ciment
A fair amount of inspiration for the lighting
came from looking at how interiors were lit
in 18th century paintings, but more on this
later (American Cinematographer).
By lighting from outside the windows, they
could maintain a somewhat controlled environment
that would keep a similar look throughout
a day of shooting (American Cinematographer).
They were also able to better control where
the light fell in the room and they were able
to make the room bright enough to get a proper
In fact, this scene used “virtually no natural
light at all” (Archives).
Alcott said, “That particular room had five
windows, with a very large window in the center
that was much greater in height than the others.
I found that it suited the sequence better
to have the light coming from one source only,
rather than from all around.
So we controlled the light in such a way that
it fell upon the center of the table at which
they were having their meal, with the rest
of the room falling off into nice subdued,
subtle color” (American Cinematographer).
That said, there wasn’t an ideal amount
of control in some of these locations because
they were historical sites open to the public
during filming.
Sometimes they were even restricted to shoot
only between tour groups (American Cinematographer).
In fact, one of these locations was actually
used for the most difficult shot in the film—the
one where Barry is given the brush off at
the restaurant.
Alcott explains: “That involved a 180-degree
pan and what made it difficult was the fluctuations
in the weather outside.
There were many windows and I had lights hidden
behind the brickwork
and beaming through the windows.
The outside light was going up and down so
much that we had to keep changing things to
make sure the windows wouldn’t blow out excessively.
This was most difficult to do, because any
time I changed the gels on the windows,
I also had to change the lights outside in order
to avoid getting too much light inside and
not enough outside” (American Cinematographer).
I watched this shot over and over and on close
inspection, you can actually just barely see
one of the lights from outside the window
accidentally made it into the film.
To maintain a consistent look throughout the
film, Alcott pushed development of all of
the film one stop—the exteriors, interiors,
and candlelight shots—
whether they needed it or not.
Although he often did need it and shot many
scenes with a wide-open T/1.2 lens.
Visual consistency was same reason that Alcott
never used an 85 filter for exterior shots.
An 85 filter is often used in films to create
a warm look where there is less blue and more
orange in the shot (American Cinematographer).
He felt that if he had used an 85 filter,
he would need to use it for every shot.
Nevertheless, Alcott did use colored gels
on the lights for different effects.
Alcott said, “An example that comes to mind
is the scene in Barry’s room after he has
had his leg amputated.
I used a light coming through the window with
an extra 1/2 sepia over it in order to give
a warm effect to the backlight and sidelight.
In other words, a 50% overcorrection.
A similar effect was used on Barry in the
sequence when his boy is dying.
In some instances I let the natural blue daylight
come through in the background
without correcting it.
The result looked pleasing and it created
a more “daylight” sort of effect” (American Cinematographer).
As far back as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick
and Alcott had been talking about the idea
of shooting night interiors exclusively by
Kubrick had wanted to shoot by candlelight
for a film on Napoleon he was researching.
At the time, there wasn’t a lens fast enough
to get a decent exposure
in such low lighting conditions.
The lens they ended up finding for Barry Lyndon
was a Zeiss f0.7 50mm lens that was developed
for NASA to take pictures of the dark side
of the moon (American Cinematographer).
I spoke about this lens in another video that
I have linked to in the description.
A 50mm lens is considered very close to how
our eyes see and that’s how they shot all
of the medium shots and close-ups in the candlelight
scenes, but in order to get a wider angle
for the longer shots, they used a “projection
lens of the reduction type” fitted over
a 50mm lens to make it effectively a 36.5mm
lens (American Cinematographer).
The Zeiss lens was a still camera lens, so
in order to mount the lens on Kubrick’s
Mitchell BNC camera, the camera and lens were
sent to Ed DiGuilio of Cinema Products Corporation
who had to [quote] “mill out the existing
lens mounts, because the rear element of [the]
f/0.7 lens was virtually something like 4mm
from the film plane” (American Cinematographer).
Many many tests were done in order to achieve
what we see in the film.
One of the problems that arose during the
tests was that, while the Zeiss 0.7 lens appeared
to have a large range of focus through the
viewfinder, the actual tests showed that the
lens had [quote] “no depth of field at all,”
so the focus had to be exactly precise to
keep the subjects from going out of focus.
In order to deal with this, they tested the
focus and marked every distance down to inches
up to about 10 feet from the camera.
Alcott says, “My focus operator, Doug Milsome,
used a closed-circuit video camera as the
only way to keep track of the distances with
any degree of accuracy.
The video camera was placed at a 90-degree
angle to the film camera position and was
monitored by means of a TV screen mounted
above the camera lens scale.
A grid was placed over the TV screen and by
taping the various artists’ positions, the
distances could be transferred to the TV grid
to allow the artists a certain flexibility
of movement, while keeping them in focus”
(American Cinematographer).
Even with such a fast lens and the fact that
they were pushing the film a full stop, they
had to use candles with “two or three wicks”
and each chandelier had 70 candles (Exhibition Book).
They also used many cheap candelabras from
Italy placed around to ensure the faces of
the actors were properly lit (Exhibition Book).
Production designer Ken Adam purposefully
bought drip-proof candles, but they dripped
all over the place anyway.
And in scenes such as the one where Lord Ludd
loses a lot of money gambling, Alcott mounted
metal reflectors above the two chandeliers
to not only reflect the light and help illuminate
the room, but it also acted as a heat shield
to prevent the candle flames from burning
the ceilings and paintings of these real historical
sites (American Cinematographer).
When asked if he plans camera movements beforehand,
Kubrick said, “Very rarely.
I think there is virtually no point putting
camera instructions into a screenplay, and
only if some really important camera idea
occurs to me, do I write it down.
When you rehearse a scene, it is usually best
not to think about the camera at all.
If you do, I have found that it invariably
interferes with the fullest exploration of
the ideas of the scene.
When, at last, something happens which you
know is worth filming, that is the time to
decide how to shoot it” (Ciment Interview).
I feel like I haven’t heard of it done quite
this way before, but it makes sense.
This way, the camerawork is really serving
the performance instead of the other way around,
which would likely arise from extensive storyboarding.
Of course, there aren’t many complex sequences
in Barry Lyndon, but if you disregard the
camera during rehearsals, you see the scene
as something unfolding rather than something
to be filmed.
Then you can come up with shots based on how
you experienced the scene.
Perhaps you noticed a look or even a detail
such as Reverend Runt flipping pages without
reading from them, after which you can make
a conscious decision
to incorporate these ideas.
Kubrick also wouldn’t plan his shots until
everything was lit
and they were ready to shoot.
This goes for the actors as well.
Ryan O’Neal: “We had to be dressed and
ready in our costumes and everything at dawn because
he said, ‘Oh, I can’t design the shot
unless you’re exactly fit and ready and in costume.”
He also didn’t use stand-ins to light the
All of the actors had to be there in full
costume and makeup, so that he could light
to how it will actually look in the film.
Leon Vitali: “He’d walk around with a
viewfinder and just keep putting different
lenses on and you’d run through it once,
you’d run through it twice, you’d run
through it a hundred times, if necessary,
until he found his first shot.”
Ryan O’Neal said, “The toughest part of
Stanley’s day was finding the right first shot.
Once he did that, other shots fell into place.
But he agonized over that first one” (Time).
O’Neal mentioned a particular occasion where
Kubrick was having such trouble coming up
with the right shot that he searched through
a book of 18th century art reproductions and
posed the actors in the same position as the
subjects of one of the paintings (Time).
As you can obviously tell, 18th century paintings
were a great source of inspiration for the
cinematography in Barry Lyndon.
Alcott said that they “studied the lighting
effects achieved in the paintings of the Dutch
masters,” but the effect “seemed a bit
flat—so [they] decided to light more from
the side” (American Cinematographer).
Many of the compositions in camera setups
actual paintings of that time period (American Cinematographer).
One particular motif you’ll notice is the
slow zoom-out.
They achieved these shots with an Angeniux
10-to-1 zoom lens on an Arriflex 35BL.
DiGuilio made a motorized zoom control called
a “Joy Stick” that allowed them to zoom out
as precisely and slowly as they wanted
without coming to a sudden stop (American Cinematographer).
It has been said that zooming out motif could
be meant to purposefully distance the viewer
in order to see how trivial all the fighting
and scheming is (Archives).
However, it is perhaps also for a practical
By starting close and zooming out we can have
our attention directed to something specific
while still being ultimately presented with
a large scenic “painting,” so to speak.
Want more Barry Lyndon?
“I have not received satisfaction.”
Let me know in the comments!
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100 thoughts on “How Kubrick Achieved the Beautiful Cinematography of Barry Lyndon”

  1. I am fascinated by this movie for some reason. It all started with a fascination for the f/.7 lenses used for the candlelight scenes.

  2. Beautiful cinematography, bad story, horrible acting by Ryan O'Neil. I love Kubrick, but what was he thinking? If ever you get a chance to see this film on the big screen, do so.

  3. Am I gonna be the only one commenting on how astonishingly beautiful was Marisa Berenson as Lady Lyndon?
    Cause she's the first thing that comes to mind when I hear the words Barry Lyndon…

  4. Martin Scorsese commented about this masterpiece: "Barry Lyndon is the most beautifully filmed movie ever made in History".
    All said.

  5. The outside window lighting through 'tracing paper'. I worked on a Roger Corman film where the director said, "I want the lighting just the way it is now." Meaning open diffused sky light through windows. it took three hours to put the diffusion over the windows and light it. I think this was done to gain another stop or two of light level, and make sure the lighting in the scene would be consistent for the two hours or so it took for the scene, master, individual close-ups etc.. I wasn't in lighting or camera, but I just wondered, why don't they just shoot it the way it is, be quick about it…. Well, that's why (film) documentaries look very different from movies.
    The reason there's flare on diffused windows versus windows lit by diffused natural light is not the amount of light, it's the direction and source of the light: on stands close to the ground, rather than high up (the sky). As Kubrick is quoted, he liked the flare. Richard Feynman wrote a paper called Quantum Electrodynamics. It's very interesting, over my head, but the one thing I clearly understood was what he said about the direction electromagnetic radiation travels: in a straight line. Which is of course ridiculously obvious, except when you think about diffusion…. no matter how diffuse your diffusion is… the direction of the light will still be mostly as it comes from the source.
    The '85' filter is orange, to balance Daylight 5500 degrees Kelvin to match the color balance of the film negative Tungsten 3200 deg. K. The film is a negative so there's a lot of latitude printing the film, a lot of the excess blue of the unfiltered daylight could be taken out, but I don't think all of it. There's a lot more to this, but I can remember at the moment. It is an interesting decision for a cinematographer.
    The candlelit scene is interesting. In one of the Les Liason Dangeruse movies there's a similarly lit scene (faster film) where the women are wearing faceted gemstones. They sparkle wonderfully revealing how candlelight is probably responsible for faceted gems to be so coveted. In the jewelry store Fortunoffs in NYC, and probably every jewelry store now, the place was lit with hundreds of small pinpoint spots. Every diamond in the place looks amazing. Everywhere else…. there are fewer light sources, so less sparkle.

  6. I thought I was watching a homemade Youtube video made by a user who wanted to make known his opinion about a particular Stanley Kubrick film. Turns out instead I was watching an incredibly poor, cheaply produced "show" called "Making Film" hosted by someone named Tyler. Whew! Good thing this Tyler person informed me of this fact fifty seconds into the "episode."

  7. Proves that to be a cinematic master on the level of Kubrick takes more than great talent, but also the will to unrelentingly give it all you've got to get that perfect shot. This obsession with perfection is unfortunately not a common trait, but one that will forever haunt us (perhaps shame us) when we watch a Kubrick film.

  8. I just saw it for the first time. Brilliant film. Ive never seen a film that made me root for and against the main character.

  9. I love everything about this movie . But Ryan O’Neil just didn’t have it. He was a light weight compared to the rest of the cast.

  10. That was really enjoyable. Thanks so much. Apparently we had real 2001 helmet badges as kids so Kubrick was in our lives early on.

  11. I love this movie. Why is it not better known. This and Patton are probably my favourite epic movies

  12. Cannot get tired of your video the same way I could watch Barry Lyndon everyday of my life. Kubrick, Vivaldi, Schubert, Bach, Handel, Mozart and Irish songs, love, hate, trust, désillusion and war stupidity. And yeah almost 20 years now he left us, like Yehudi Menuhin by the way. I hated 1999 so much and not only because of my dreadful Navy experiment – yeah guys I served my country but not against French bullets!- . Marisa Berenson is such a treasure by the way.

  13. It seems that the greatest filmmakers are photographers. Writers probably make most of the films.. which is why most films are talking heads in a room blah blah blah. Writers love dialogue.. because it's easy and cheap. To me the greatest filmmakers of recent times are Kubrick, Ridley Scott, and Bill Friedkin. Wo, not everybody's automatic choices by any means. Anyhow, photographers not writers. Or, I guess you could say, photographers that write screen treatments and make brilliant films out of them, films with more visual and less cheap but pointless dialogue. Just my opinion of course. I don't expect anyone to agree but I don't care either if you don't. 🙂

  14. Amazing movie!Two years later (1977) a director of TV ads was so desperate to break into film that he offered to waive his feeand direct his first ever feature film for free. That was The Duellists, directed by Ridley Scott. Possibly the most overlooked and underappreciated movie ever made by Scott, but it must have impressed someone because his next directors chair was given him to make 1979's ALIEN. The film which started him reaching the stratospheric levels of success. Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese, Cameron, De Palma, Lucas… Ridley Scott, a lad from South Shields, was now amongst the celluloid Gods.

  15. Dude, you are fantastic. Amazing quality of both content and presentation. I learn so much, it's fascinating. Cheers.

  16. Kubrick's films are in my opinion shit stolen from the past and just not good at all very poor made movies boring attempted to stir something within people but non of it matters to normal people who aren't Arty farty fagots.

  17. I am glad that you have discussed Kubrick without finding any 'mystical' meanings as others try to find.It exposes his limitations as a filmmaker at the same time tells about his quest for cinematographic perfection.Trying to get a beautiful,perfect,etc., shot is not such a brilliant thing to achieve as a filmmaker.Of course one can get his quest for perfection and not many try for that.His filmmaking is all about cinematographic perfection if at all it is about anything.

  18. frogs shot too fast and accurate… the muskets were slow to load and not accurate pass 50 yards, if that much….

  19. ED Di Giulio  …………… Came up with the name "Steadicam" for Garrett Brown's camera stabilizer system. Brown originally wanted to call it "the Brown Stabilizer".

  20. Well done. I've added this to my playlist on filmmaking. Kubrick was a cut above most. I saw BL when it was released back in the 70s. Kubrick was one of my faves.Kubrick always took big risks and that's what makes his films stand out over so much of the dreck coming out today. Today we live in sequel hell. Everything is formulaic and calculated by bean counters and their computer models (accounting models that is).

  21. I must admit I'm not a Kubrick fan; thought I'd die of boredom during "2001" and couldn't get into "Dr. Strangelove" (I need to give those movies another chance after 45 years), nor have I ever cared for Ryan O'Neal, BUT "Barry Lyndon" is one of my all-time favorite movies. I saw it when I was a senior in HS in 1976 and was blown away. Everything about it was perfect: the narration–which was originally going to be by O'Neal–the story, cinematography, costumes, acting, scenery, it all works. Sheer perfection. Each scene is almost like a painting. And I thought Marissa Berenson was so beautiful, she was on the cover of TIME right before the movie was released because critics felt Kubrick was taking a big chance w/a top model in a starring role, but she did a wonderful job. A very underrated movie!

  22. The images are as artistic as those in every scene of The Girl with The Pearl Earring. I’ve just watched BL twice through. April 2019. You need to have developed a mature patience to stick with it. But then you’ll appreciate the subtleties of the (never ending) British class war, and start to drink in the beauty of each scene.

  23. I love hearing about how a master like Kubrick, hardly had any camera cues worked out ahead of time. He just waited until he was presented with something worthy to roll on, and then built on it. Truly creating in the moment.

  24. Amazing knowledge here – i could watch this video all day! i love kubricks lifelong struggle w/ light. I watch eyes wide shut often still spooks me every time, perfect movie – unfortunately his last. PS have you seen FAVOURITE… i love the natural light there too

  25. I love your Kubrick videos! Please never stop making them! Even when you run out of things to cover. Just remake the videos and I'll watch again!

  26. Kubrick also had special candles made. They had three wicks, and used a very high volatility wax that burned very rapidly. This is why the flames are so high on the table candles, and why the candles are so short in many scenes.

  27. Beyond me how they did it. I've tried to just take stills in such conditions and they never turn out right.

  28. Great stuff, well-told and thoroughly researched by someone who truly loves good film-making. Ready to re-watch Barry Lyndon (saw it in the theater) after all these years; will see it through new eyes, thanks to Tyler.

  29. This movie just wasn't that good. A disappointment by Kubrick's own standards. Cinematography alone was not enough.

  30. John Alcott's name really should be in the title fo the video. 
    Cant believe youtubers who do film breakdowns keep overlooking the importance of giving credit for the images they're talking about.

  31. Kubrick was definitely a genius and master artist. He made so many great films in more distinct genres than any other director that I know. Barry Lyndon, The Killing, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, Lolita, Clockwork Orange, Spartacus, and Paths of Glory are all some of my most favorite movies of all time.

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