Some Intriguing Trivia Tidbits on Shooting ‘The Shining’

Danny Steadicam Low Shot

There is little doubt that auteur Stanley Kubrick looms large as a director able to distinctively bring his films to life through his vision. He has left his mark across the motion picture landscape.

He also happens to be responsible for some very interesting technical results in the realm of photography as well (including owning 3 of the 10 Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7 ever made).

Any words I write here about him will pale in comparison to the reams of scholarly works already published. And so, instead, I give you a couple of fascinating pieces of Shining/Kubrick trivia that you can whip out the next time there’s a lull in conversation.

One interesting addition Kubrick made to the world of film came in a modification of Garrett Brown‘s steadicam. Prior to Kubrick’s request, the steadicam could only film from as low as the operators waist. In order to capture an extremely low angle while shooting The Shining, Kubrick requested that the rig be modified in order to accommodate shooting from almost floor level (this modification would go on to be considered by many as the most important in the history of the steadicam).

This was an important aspect of the film. As the main protagonist would be a small boy, Kubrick wanted the viewpoint to reflect Danny’s view of the world. In the video sequence above, Garrett Brown followed Danny through the hotel, with the steadicam in low mode, while sitting in a wheelchair.

While interesting from an equipment aspect, there is one other scene that may be overlooked by many viewers of the film as being rather ordinary but in reality is quite unique.

This shot from the balcony looking down into the main lounge where Jack Torrance had set up his typewriter, with a nice full fire in the fireplace going, is the only in-camera special effect in the entire film.

Overlook Hotel Hall Shot

Director of Photography John Alcott discusses this scene in the August, 1980 issue of American Cinematographer:

There is a sequence looking down from the balcony with Jack at the typewriter and the fireplace in the shot. I wanted to get a full fire effect, a nice big glowing fire in the fireplace, but I didn’t want to reduce the general lighting in any way because I needed the depth of field. So I shot the scene all the way through without the fire burning, then rewound the film, killed every light on the set, lit the fire, opened the lens up to T/1.4 and shot the fire by itself — which gave me a nice glowing fire. It was something I thought would be different to do and it was worth a try anyway. But I think that’s really the only kind of ‘special effect’ we did in the camera.

The only in-camera special effect in the movie was for this one scene that had to be shot as a double exposure to have the fireplace lit properly. This is a brilliant example of overcoming issues to arrive at a creative vision, and a neat piece of film history trivia as well.

Another piece of trivia for this scene is that none of the lighting in it is natural. The image above is on a soundstage, and the natural looking light coming from the left were 80’×30′ diffusers lit by 860 1000-watt Medium Flood PAR 64 lamps!

“That was a lot of lamps and a lot of light — and a lot of heat!” notes Alcott in the same article. “I mean, you just couldn’t walk from one end to the other between the lights and the backing. You just couldn’t make it.”

Image credits: Animated gif courtesy of The Overlook Hotel

  • Justin Sheely

    Amazing technical work there, much of which is under appreciated today with computer animation taking over the special effects department.

  • Ryan Balton

    You say about low mode on the Steadicam:
    “this modification would go on to be considered by many as the most important in the history of the steadicam”

    What is your source for that? Who considers it to be the single most important modification in the equipment’s history?

    Also, Steadicam should be capitalized. It is a trademark and proper noun, as it only refers to one specific camera stabilization system.

  • ThomasBisset

    This is Petapixel; Wikipedia is that way, buddy… :P

  • behindthecamera

    You don’t get out much, do you?

  • Mako

    And … Kubrick specified the heights and angle of the lights in diagrams before the shoot. Today we do low angle Steadicam shots by just flipping the rig and then inverting the image in Post. Much faster to just re-rig the monitor rather then putting the entire rig into Low mode. Interesting that he shot the fire at 1.4 (100 ISO film). In order to get rich flames in your El Pollo Loco commercials we shoot at T11 (800 ISO), that would be T4 with his 100 ISO film.

  • Harry Cunningham

    Don’t you think he has a point? They make a claim and don’t substantiate it.

  • Jay Armbrust

    …but are your flames shot at the same distance? That could certainly make up for the additional stops. I don’t know much about cinema cameras, but couldn’t shutter speed also be a factor to aid in such a difference?

  • Mako

    Motion picture default frame rate is 24 fps with a 180 degree shutter = 1/50th second. Because of the amount of light required, movie flames are often overexposed

  • Stan B.

    If memory serves, isn’t there a composite scene at the end of the movie where the outdoor maze morphs into an indoor model? Not sure… been a while. But I remember it’s an amazing sequence…

  • harumph

    Sorry, but the bit about the fireplace double exposure being the only in-camera special effect isn’t correct. There’s a matte shot in the sequence where Jack watches his wife and son walking through the hedge maze:

  • David Vaughn

    Petapixel is also big on editorialized journalism (which is an oxymoron but…yeah), so it’s not anything new.

  • Ryan Balton

    Huh? Because I’m curious about a statement made about my craft? What are you getting at?

  • Daniel Kotchkin

    Hello! Can anybody help me find the original article from AC?