Prague Lights Up My Life

Written by Talya Phelps, (Vassar College) Student Correspondent CET Film in Prague, Fall 2017

Before I left for Prague, my aunt gifted me a novel set in the city that would be my new home: The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera. The title refers to Nietzsche’s idea that, because we only live once, we lack the sense of weight that would come with a life that repeated endlessly. Living lightly means living without the responsibility and judgment of knowing whether or not each decision you make is the right one, because we can never compare the decisions we make to any alternatives. According to the book’s author, it is a state of being that can be either wonderful or unbearable.

Fortunately, the two months I have spent in Prague so far have been light in the best ways possible. Clichéd as it may be, I feel like my experience has been one long lucid dream, in which I’m floating through the city buoyed by my awe for all the magic this place has to offer. In fact, this past week was one of the most weightless yet—and the lightness was not only figurative but literal.

Penguins illuminating the Vltava River

Halfway through the week, my classmates and I started our lighting exercise at Barrandov Studios: the largest studio in the Czech Republic, and according to Roman Polanski, the best one in the world. After making the trek out to Prague 5 via a tram, a metro, and a bus, we were shepherded to one of Barrandov’s many studios, where the set of the interior of a house waited for us along with a myriad of lenses, tripods, filters, and of course lights of all shapes and sizes. We were itching to put into practice all of the principles of camera technology and lighting that we had been working with, but first we had to learn how to safely handle the equipment. Our instructor explained how to set up the camera, stressing that we should never, ever close the box of lenses without latching it, lest someone try to pick up the box, spilling the precious goods out onto the floor and getting us instantly kicked off set.

Soar at Signal Festival

The first time I played the role of Director of Photography (DP), I was petrified to use the light meter, a convenient little device that measures light intensity on the subject and indicates which aperture size to use in order to properly expose the image. By the end of the second day, however, my group and I had managed to successfully set up and shoot two scenes, honing the intensity and quality of our key and fill lights and using the meter to set the aperture, as well as to determine what ratio of light to dark was present on our subject’s face. (A 1:4 ratio is standard, while 1:8 creates a dramatic ambience.) On the third and final day, we shot a night scene that we plan to include in our short film, for which we are currently finalizing the script. Our vision for the scene was a bird’s-eye view of an unhappy couple lying in bed; she stares at the ceiling while he snores grotesquely. To get the proper angle, we hefted our camera on top of a table and raised the tripod, and I clambered onto a crate to focus the shot, roll the film, and call out “action.”

The Church of St. Ludmila during Signal Festival

The Church of St. Ludmila during Signal Festival

After we wrapped the lighting exercise on Friday, I headed back to my flat to another light in my life—my boyfriend, who was able to share my Prague experience with me during his fall break from Vassar. After taking him out for his first traditional Czech goulash, we set out for the Signal Festival, a four-day light show that places innovative works of art around the city and draws viewers to interact with public spaces in a new way. We started our walking tour of the installations at Náměstí Míru (Peace Square). The centerpiece of the square, the Church of St. Ludmila, was illuminated by projectors placed in a window across the street, and a countdown lit up in the center of the facade was ticking away. When the timer reached zero, dramatic music boomed and an incredible display began. The masterful lighting design made the church appear to collapse, expand, ripple, and rotate in turn. Mysterious human and animal figures came alive on its surface, and shapes and colors exploded across the windows and spires.

Seven minutes later, the facade went dark again, the countdown reappeared, and we made tracks for the next exhibit, with me gushing the entire way about what we had just experienced. As I write this, the church is lit up once more for the final night of the festival, and the crowd is surely watching in awe. When midnight comes, the lights will shut off and Náměstí Míru will be back to normal—and, when December 20 comes, I will fly back to upstate New York, leaving Prague and my removed-from-reality reality behind. But I know the lights and the magic of this city will continue to illuminate my life, perhaps in more ways than I can yet imagine.