Golden Idols: Raiders of the Lost Ark Cinematography

I recently had the good fortune to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark on the big screen. Not only that, in an IMAX!

As a child of the mid-80s, I never got the chance to see the original Indiana Jones in a cinema. And as a photographer and a lover of film, I know how different movies can be when you see them projected versus on the television. Although I’ve seen Raiders too many times to count, I smiled with delight watching it again. Seeing it in a cinema is like watching it for the first time. The details come out, the colours are beautiful and it is truly a radiant experience.

The Director of Photography was Douglas Slocombe, who did all three Indy flicks, plus other classics like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Italian Job (the original and best). According to IMDB he was famous for never using a light meter on Raiders! The production design team, Leslie Dilley, Michael Ford and Norman Reynolds all worked previously on Star Wars. Raiders was shot with Panavision on 35mm Eastman 100T 5247

Not surprisingly, Raiders of the Lost Ark was nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Cinematography, but it is loved and remembered for its roguish hero Indy and superlative action scenes. My highlights of the film’s photography are below.

1. The Eyes Have it


One thing you notice a lot more in watching it on a big screen are the focus on eyes. There’s the great zoom out in the marketplace when Indy is faced with hundreds of baskets, but the scene starts close in on his eyes. Or who could forget the cobra staring match?

There are dozens of scenes where Indy’s eyes emerge from the shadows, or behind screens. Perhaps this is an intentional reference to the ending where (do you need a spoiler alert on a classic film that if you haven’t watched you probably don’t have a television?) those that look upon God die? And who wouldn’t want to bat their eyes at Indy if he was your professor?


2. Golden idols


The richness of the film’s white balance is completely golden. The whole film is bathed in gold light, from the sunset silhouettes to the desert chase scenes. Harrison Ford’s skin becomes an almost bronze colour.

This nostalgic colour choice references the classic matinee adventure films, where in another era everything appeared golden, the hero always got the girl and the bad guys were vanquished. It adds to the history of the film; sometimes we forget Indy is a historical film also, set in the late thirties and forties. And from start to finish, the film is about pursuing golden idols, both literally and figuratively.

3. It’s in the details


Raiders won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction. While it’s not always apparent on television, the detail in the sets holds up more than thirty years later. There’s no moment where you look and see a cheap foam prop. My favourite piece of set design is where Indy and Sallah go to consult the Imam about the Staff of Ra. With the wind blowing through the curtains and middle eastern lights hanging from the ceiling, it’s reminiscent of Powell and Pressburger’s moody classic, Black Narcissus.

The reason the set is so important to the cinematography is because the film is so well integrated between departments; there are stunning shots that embrace this environment, not as a place to simply act but interact with. I think of the scenes where Indiana Jones looks through the North African screens, or on the ship when he’s whacked in the face with the mirror.

Not only are the sets detailed, but the cinematography focuses on those details in an impressive way, like Karen Allen’s freckles, the hieroglyphics on the walls or the mouldering bandages of a mummy!

4. Piercing light

well of souls

The joy of watching the first scenes is in the use of light shafts in both the jungle and the treasure cave, illustrating the traps (sorry Alfred Molina!). In essence this is a story about light and dark, stopping evil men from holding the light of God. There is the piercing light of the staff in the Well of Souls, or the light bursting from the Ark of the Covenant. Even in the darkest places, the light illuminates Indy’s eyes, and eyes have always been the windows to the soul!

It’s hard to focus only on the cinematography when Raiders is a complete film, where all the crew were contributing at the top of their game. Where would the shots be without editing, direction and design?

What do you like about the cinematography of Raiders of the Lost Ark? Have you had the chance to see it on the big screen? Share your feedback in the comments below.


3 responses to “Golden Idols: Raiders of the Lost Ark Cinematography”

  1. haviwahwahwah Avatar

    Well that’s it, as soon as the kids are in bed.. I’m cracking out Raiders!

  2. I’m teaching Raiders to my Film Studies class and their examination questions are specifically on cinematography. It’s been great to read your thoughts, many thanks

  3. That’s so cool! I wish I got to study Raiders at school. Good luck and hope the students enjoy it.

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