Released in 1976, and photographed by Ernest Laszlo, ASC, “Logan’s Run” isn’t a film that you might think to look at for its cinematography. In fact, after watching it several times in the course of writing this, I would argue that it isn’t a particularly strong piece of visual storytelling. Many of the moments that should have emotionally resonating visuals simply fall short of what they are meant to accomplish. However, the film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography in 1976 (as well as one other nomination for Art Direction and a win for Visual Effects). It has persisted in peoples minds since its inception, spawning a TV series, and a yet unmade sequel. It’s also available on Blu-Ray, which is something that is still only relegated to films that have at least some kind of following. So, it seems as if there is something worth digging into. My primary reasons for researching this film were twofold: first, to figure out why it was nominated for an Academy Award in 1976 for Best Cinematography, and second, to figure out what about this film works visually despite my previous claim that it’s not strong visual storytelling.
As it turns out, answering the first question was easy. Perusing the June 1976 issue of American Cinematographer, which is almost completely dedicated to Logan’s Run, reveals that the film was in fact a technical marvel of its time. Specifically, the holograms of Logan’s head which appear at the end of the film were done as completely practical elements, although many of the impressive effects shots were done optically, such as the shots of ruined Washington D.C, as well as the ‘Carrousel’ effect.
Answering the second question is much more difficult. However, I found several cinematography gems in this film which I will share below.
II. Story and Plot Structure
At its core, “Logan’s Run” is the story of a man struggling to experience a full spectrum of human emotion.
I did a separate post about the plot structure of Logan’s Run, which is much more interesting from a screenwriting perspective than from a cinematography perspective.
III. “Logan’s Run” cinematography gem #1: color palette as an effective storytelling device
This is probably the strongest aspect of visual storytelling in the film. It’s a combined effort of production design, wardrobe, and lighting that tells a very specific emotional story.
The city’s color palette is extremely limited: an array of very specific, homogenous, and unnatural (neon) looking greens and reds set against a setting of desaturated walls and architecture. This sets up a very strong contrast with the exteriors, which have a natural palette of greens, browns, and blues:
The color palette mirrors Logan’s story of emotional development and discovery. The city’s restrictive and unnatural color palette reflects the limited and shallow emotions of its inhabitants, which contrasts with the full range of natural colors in the exterior. Outside the constraints of the city, the full range of previously unseen natural colors depicts the potential for a wide array of undiscovered fundamental human emotions for Logan. By the conclusion of the second act, he is able to develop emotionally and discover love for the first time with Jessica.
There is an added level of impact to this which was probably not entirely an intentional act of the filmmakers: the contrast of heavily “lit” interiors to naturally lit exteriors. The interiors of the city were shot in a Dallas mall which was used essentially as a stage, and was lit very heavily with many sources of hard light, as was typical during this time period, as simply getting enough light to expose the slow (100 ASA) film on a large interior set was a challenge. So, by todays standards, the interiors look very theatrical and “lit”. This contrasts with the exteriors, which are lit by natural light, and adds an extra level of contrast between the synthetic interiors and organic exteriors.
This works to an extent, but fails in several key areas. Most notably, the shot of Logan and Jessica seeing the sun for the first time (which should arguably be one of the most natural feeling shots in the telling of the visual story of natural vs. unnatural) falls flat on its face… this is actually one of the most unnatural looking shots in the entire film, as it is an optical composite shot that has unrealistic color and value matching between the foreground and background elements:
Another (although less dramatic) failure of the psychological effect of unnatural stage lighting vs. natural exteriors is the interiors of the Congress building. Ideally these should contrast with the lighting of the city interiors, but the filmmakers are back shooting on a stage, and they don’t quite look natural enough to compliment their daytime exterior counterparts.
An additional level to the story told through color palette is texture: the contrast of the complexity of the natural texture of the vines and foliage of the exterior to the simplistic hard geometry of the city. The contrast of the old man’s wrinkled skin to the sheer beauty of the twentysomethings of the city.
In the final sequence of the film, Logan returns to the city to attempt to expose the inhabitants to the textured and liberating world he has found outside. This results in a literal clash of the two worlds: as the city implodes, the masses are forced out of the city to the outside where they encounter the scruffy old man. We understand implicitly that their society has now been propelled into this new frontier, just as Logan has.
(In the next Logan’s Run post, I will look at composition, camera movement, and lighting in the scene where Logan is given the order to find Sanctuary)