What is an Arc Light in Film

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What is an Arc Light in Film?

The arc light was once a key element in the filmmaking industry used on sets to illuminate the scene. However this Hollywood trend has long since seen its use dwindled down to a point in which it is not readily even known what an arc light is in film these days. What are these once popular light sources and how were these used in Hollywood films?

What is an Arc Light in Film?

The arc light or carbon arc lamp was an incredibly bright light that utilized two carbon electrodes to produce electricity which would flow between the two creating illumination. Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century, arc lights were widely used as a means of producing light for movie projectors as well as in various other instances throughout the film industry. However they have largely been pushed out by other, more efficient, light sources in the 20th century – particularly, the incandescent bulb.

How was the Arc Light in Film Used?

Carbon arc lights or arc lamps were used in Hollywood filmmaking but not until they had been out for quite some time. They were initially to illuminate the streets, in the 1890s the carbon arc lamp produced illumination that would deliver a subtle glow along the street line similar to what you now see in films long past. Eventually, carbon arc lights would find their way into theaters where they would be used in movie projectors. 

The carbon arc light would continue to be used in this capacity for the next 20+ years. Until larger theater companies, including MJ Wohl and Kliegl Brothers of New York started to produce carbon arc lights in a tube-shape. These lights, introduced to the film industry in 1927k were known as Kliegl-lights or klieglights. 

The carbon arc light became the introductory neon light which would be introduced in blue in London in 1925 and later used in the film Don Juan in 1926. Going forward, carbon arc lights in film would continue to be stable lighting for several years.

These lights were used to produce illumination for colored films, particular the panchromatic films that were sensitive to all colors unlike the prior orthochromatic films that were previously used in Hollywood filmmaking. 

So what is the arc light in film and how is it used? The arc light represents a key from the Hollywood era. It was widely used for a variety of different situations. Including being redesigned for use in color photography and film well into the 1930s.

Lighting Setup

Arc Lights Evolve

As arc lights in Hollywood filmmaking would evolve, so too would their uses. The carbon lamp that was once used to illuminate a street would soon be used for everything from providing color to sets to offering a unique twist on the studio lighting that would evolve continuously into what we all know and love about studio lighting today.

Many don’t realize, but it was the arc light in film that originated this use of various lighting textures, colors, and source all those years ago. The arc light initially introduced to illuminate streets, would soon come in a variety of colors, and light intensities, with color temperatures that varied along the spectrum making it perfect for the Technicolor process of 1935. 

Unfortunately, arc lights in film would become too expense to maintain as cheaper, and more efficient, incandescent lamps soon took over in the industry. By 1950, the arc light in film was almost not used at all in the industry. It had been almost completely replaced by the more powerful, less dangerous, highly efficient incandescent lighting which provided up to 10K watts for both indoor, outdoor, and studio filmmaking.

Today, the arc light is a lesser known element in the film industry. These carbon arc lights are sometimes brought into a film specifically for their use in recreating certain scenarios that emulate films from times past but this is rare. Instead, arc lights are recreated, through the use of various more affordable, and less invasive forms of lighting which give off substantially less heat and are all around safer to use on Hollywood film sets.

SO, what is the arc light in film? It’s a type of lighting that was used in years past, particularly in the very early days of Hollywood filmmaking and which gave rise to the introduction of neon colored lights and a variety of other more powerful incandescent lighting of the future. Only those that know the history of filmmaking are familiar with the arc light and what it meant to the film industry.