Forced development refers to the photographic technique of rating a film’s sensitivity to light higher than it actually is, and then processing the film for a longer period of time in order to compensate for the underexposure that results.
The process is often used by desperate cinematographers when daylight is failing, and is considered therefore an emergency technique. Modern film emulsions, which have more latitude towards over- or under-exposure, allow for much experimentation in forced development, frequently with startling and unexpected results.
A relatively recent and definitely superior example of the process was in Stanley Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut, shot over a two year period beginning in 1996 and released in 1999 (in the same week, ironically, as The Blair Witch Project).
After extensive camera tests with his cinematographer, Larry Smith (who also worked with Kubrick on The Shining and Barry Lyndon as chief electrician and gaffer), Kubrick decided to force develop the entire film.
The film stock, manufactured by Eastman Kodak and known in the trade as EXT 5298, had been used for years in low-light situations, but it had been discontinued, supplanted by new emulsions that were even "faster," i.e. more sensitive to light. Kubrick--being Kubrick after all—eschewed what one might call the "modern" look that newer emulsions would provide. As usual he was going for something completely unique, and no other film in motion picture history looks like Eyes Wide Shut.
The film stock was intentionally underexposed two full stops, which meant that instead of being rated at 500 ASA (a common film speed, analogous to the film one buys in the drugstore in order to shoot "indoors or fast action without additional light"), Kubrick and Smith rated it at 2000 ASA, and then force developed (or pushed) the negative in the laboratory to compensate.
The results were spectacular. Forced development exaggerates highlights-—the brightest parts in a scene—-so, for example, when Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman go to the Christmas party early in the film, the entire set appears magical, as in a fairy tale, primarily because the wall of tiny Christmas tree lights in the background was the room’s only illumination.
Kubrick and Smith had used low-key practical lighting throughout Barry Lyndon as well, most famously in the scenes that were lit solely by candlelight. But never before had an entire motion picture been force-developed.
In a film absolutely drenched in color, from the saturated midnight blues of sublime serenity to the hellishly fiery reds of dangerous obsession, in a film that promises to take us "to the end of the rainbow," leave it to Kubrick to subvert science in the name of art.
Ironically and paradoxically, the acknowledged master of modern cinema had employed a technique that lesser artists use only in desperation.
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