Lighting is a fundamental property of cinema. So called “writing in light”, photographed images, whether live-action or cell animation, need illumination. It is the most essential part of a cinematographer’s job to design and implement that illumination – in England and Australia the term “lighting cameraman” is equivalent to “director of photography”.
Films are light. – Federico Fellini
But if lighting is an eternal, omnipresent concern, then techniques, uses, and styles of lighting have varied enormously over time.
In cinema’s beginnings, lighting was almost entirely natural, filming largely executed in glass studios (one reason American companies moved to California was its brighter, year-round sunlight).
By the mid-1910s, however, lighting was mostly artificial, with cinematographers turning to mercury vapour tubes for overall, soft illumination, and carbon-arc spotlights for dramatic effects.
By the 1920s, most of the basic dramatic techniques and functions of lighting used today were acknowledged in craft discourses. In 1931, cinematographer James Wong Howe wrote:
With the early films, lighting merely meant getting enough light upon the actors to permit photography; today it means laying a visual, emotional foundation upon which the director and his players must build.
Figure lighting is used to highlight and model the principal actors in a scene. The most common approach to this is “three-point lighting” (above): a “key light” that provides the main illumination; a “fill light” that fills in shadows on the performer’s face and background; and a backlight to separate the performer from the backdrop (less critical in colour filming).
Three-point lighting is such a prevalent convention in narrative cinema that it is virtually a rule. This will often be supplemented with an eye-light to heighten actors’ expressions. Another aspect of this is “glamour lighting”, designed to enhance the attractiveness of the leading, especially female, performers, and heavily influenced by portrait and fashion photography.
The high point of this technique arguably continues to be the lighting used on Marlene Dietrich in Josef Von Sternberg’s films, images so stylised that the story seems to come to a halt to contemplate the actress purely as an icon.
Effects lighting indicates the use of lighting to create the illusion of light sources emanating from within the story-world. Chiefly, this involves “practical” lighting, made to seem as if emanating from a lamp or window visible in the shot.
Practical lighting is one way cinematographers can shape colour in a scene, using coloured gels over sources in the frame to bathe the entire scene in colour as in the use of the stained glass in All That Heaven Allows (1955), hyperbolising the angst of the mother-daughter dialogue, or to provide splashes of colour for atmosphere and visual density, as in the neon-soaked Blade Runner (1982).
If effects lighting is driven by verisimilitude, the use of practical sources is often motivated as much by dramatic concerns, and so may be more or less central depending on overall lighting aesthetics.
High-key and low-key lighting
Through the 1930s, comedies, musicals, and many dramas were dominated by high-key lighting – a high ratio of fill to key light. This was typically a form of low-contrast soft lighting (dominant in the 1920s and 30s), providing a diffuse, even brightness (below).
Horror films and particular scenes in crime films often made use of high-contrast low-key lighting, with a low ratio of fill to key. This was hard lighting (itself increasingly common from the 1940s), the frame dominated by deep, clearly defined shadows, suiting the dramatic moods of those films, and creating a sense of mystery and suspense through concealment (below).
By the late 1940s, low-key lighting was pursued much more widely, seen to be an aspect of realism (in life, no-one is always evenly illuminated). But the technique is still particularly associated with the film noir, wherein it suggests not just a sense of dread, but also the duality of the characters and the world they inhabit, a pervasive moral darkness eating them from within and without.
Superseding attempts at realism that drove many cinematographers in the 1970s to aim for an illusion of muted, natural light, low-key lighting has been increasingly central from the 1980s across a range of genres (below).
Indeed, a recent study from Cornell University has found that light levels in film have markedly declined from 1935. This can be attributed realism, storytelling, and mood, but it also speaks to an under-acknowledged fact of lighting, its impact on actors.
Arc lights in early filmmaking caused “Klieg eyes” from the intensity of their ultraviolet radiation. With the development of more sensitive film stock, incandescent, tungsten, and halogen lamps largely eliminated this.
In the decades since, as film stock has become more and more sensitive, light levels on set have declined consistently to ease the physical burden on actors and allow them to concentrate on performance; as with glamour lighting, this is a way cinematography serves their interests.
With the rise of digital cinematography today, lighting can be more minimal than ever, while allowing filmmakers to achieve effects, as in night shooting, that will provide grist for exciting innovations for years to come.
Correction: based on a study of film technology, this article initially stated that Klieg eyes were caused by carbon dust from arc lights. However, sources from the archives of the Journal of the American Medical Association clearly state that ultraviolet radiation was to blame.
Films take us on journeys; we become immersed in worlds beyond our own. The best films lead us to ask questions about our world as well as ourselves. However sometimes it can be difficult to translate our reactions to film into meaningful English analysis. The table below provides some of the key film techniques for writing about cinematic texts.
Important Cinematic Techniques
sound effects, dialogue, music, silences and voice-overs. Like music, sound can be divided into diegetic (occurring in the world of the film) and extra-diegetic (occurring outside the world of the film).
|Camera angles refer to the tilt of the camera in relation to the scene and characters. Unusual camera angles can emphasise an action sequence, disorientate the audience, and suggest the relationship between characters.|
The main angles are: Low, Eye-Level, High, Worm’s Eye, Canted, Bird’s Eye.
|Colour, especially the choice of colour palette or scheme, can reflect the mood of the piece. Colour in a scene can also be enhanced through lighting.|
For example, in The Great Gatsby (2013), the use of a vibrant colour scheme reflects the opulent lifestyle of New York elites in the 1920s.
You can learn more about colour symbolism at Studio Binder.
Colour Palette Analysis by Movies in Color of Baz Lurman’s The Great Gatsby (Warner Bros. 2013), Cinematographer: Simon Duggan
|Cucoloris is a lighting technique where an object is placed between the light source and the subject in order to create a patterned shadow. A staple of film noir.|
Filter used for Cucloris. Image and device by Henry Nelson.
|Conversation between two characters is called dialogue. Written by scriptwriters to convey the film’s plot, dialogue is also useful in conveying character.|
|The order of each shot and how they have been put together to create a scene. This is usually based upon the storyboard used by the director.|
However, some directors such as Werner Herzog refused to use storyboards, and shoot many scenes which they edit together by trial and error.
|Images that refer to previous events in the characters` lives. Flashbacks can be used to foreshadow future events.|
|Text which is printed on a background and placed between filmed scenes through editing. In silent films, intertitles can convey dialogue and exposition.|
Intertitle from Metropolis Dir. Fritz Lang (1927)
|Lighting contributes to the mood of a film and suggests interpretations of character. Low key lighting emphasises the shadows in a shot, while lighting from above or below can suggest that a character possesses sinister qualities.|
An example of a sinister cat, lit from below.
An example of shadows from Low Key Lighting.
Mise en scène
|Mise en scène translates as ‘what is put into a scene’. This French expression refers to the composition of a scene, including placement of characters, costume, make–up and setting.|
|A montage is a type of editing sequence where a series of shots play rapidly to create a narrative. Often a montage will be accompanied by a unifying piece of music to convey the dominant mood connected with the sequence.|
A GIF of a montage from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927)
|Mood refers to the feelings suggested by the combination of all the elements on the screen and the accompanying sound. Another way to refer to the mood is to discuss atmosphere.|
|Music can convey the theme, mood and atmosphere. There are different types of music in films. The score is extra-diegetic music composed for the film, designed to evoke the film’s desired mood for the audience. Music heard by the characters in the film is called diegetic music.|
|The place where the action of the film occurs.|
|Shot types indicate how close or far the camera is from the characters. Shot types range from Extreme Long Shot (XLS), where the characters may be very small and embedded in a landscape, to Extreme Close Up (XCU), where part of the character’s face makes up the whole shot.|
The shots are: Extreme Long Shot (XLS), Long Shot (LS), Medium Long Shot (MLS), Medium Shot (MS), Medium Close Up (MCU), Close Up (CU), Super Close Up (SCU), Extreme Close Up (XCU).
|An object used to suggest ideas in addition to, or beyond, their literal sense. For example the glass slipper in Cinderella symbolises the opportunity that Cinderella has to live a different life. Watch films carefully to spot symbols and their potential meaning to the plot. If a symbol recurs throughout the film it is a motif.|
The GIF above is from Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999).
The dancing plastic bag symbolises how beauty is found in things that are often discarded. The bag is rubbish to many, but its dance in the wind is beautiful.
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