Scorsese practiced in the world of low-budget, independent cinema at the start of his career, which meant that he didn’t have access to Hollywood studio budgets and equipment while shooting his projects. That turned out to be a somewhat of a blessing, though, as it allowed him and his New Hollywood cohorts to experiment with untraditional filmmaking techniques.
In the winter 2007/2008 edition of DGA Quarterly magazine, he explained how lighting posed a challenge for him despite fixating on it while studying film:
It was something I had to really learn, and even now I still need people to help me with it, because I don’t quite know how to express emotion, to bring out the psychological aspects of a character, with lighting… Though when I became a film student in the early ’60s, we were all thinking about natural light, trying to emulate [cinematographers] Henri Decaë, Peter Suschitzky, John Alcott, the great Geoffrey Unsworth, with bounced light, indirect light—all that kind of stuff. Obviously, it was more practical for us to go that way, with quote-unquote indirect lighting, than studio lighting, because we had no studios. They tried to teach studio lighting at NYU, gave us John Alton’s “Painting with Light.” It’s a great book, but you kept thinking, this isn’t a movie studio, this is New York.
“Taxi Driver,” as an example, utilized streetlights to illuminate New York’s gritty streets, enhancing the film’s realistic feel in a manner that claims the documentary-like style of French New Wave director Jean-Luc Goddard as an influence. Because the crew had little time and money, Scorsese and director of photography Michael Chapman managed to turn the lack of resources into art. Of course, the director now has access to both complex studio rigs and digital programs to manipulate light in any way they choose, but his skill wouldn’t be as developed if it wasn’t for his DIY roots. Sometimes, limitations are the best teacher.