Lighting in Filmmaking
THE LANGUAGE OF FILM
the on-line production resource at Pacific Cinémathèque
Lighting in Filmmaking
Film lighting styles and techniques tell audiences when a lm is set, where they should
focus their attention, and how they should respond throughout the movie. By using
spotlights focused on the face of an actress, the lmmaker can highlight her beauty.
By using minimal lighting, as in the thriller Seven (1995), the lmmaker can create
anxiety, mystery, suspense.
The Cinematographer
One a movie set, lighting is the responsibility of the cinematographer, also called the
Director of Photography (DoP, for short). The cinematographer is responsible for:
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lighting the set and actors
setting up and moving the camera
selecting appropriate lenses and lm stock for each shot
creating the “look” or visual style of a lm
What is a Lighting Key?
A lighting key is really another way of describing the kinds of choices cinematographers
have to light a lm. Different lighting keys are signs lmmakers use to suggest certain
meanings for audiences. In large part, the lighting key a cinematographer chooses to
use will be determined by a lm’s theme or mood.
So, for instance, comedies and musicals generally use high key lighting, which means
that most shots are brightly lit, with few shadows. High key lighting suggests a natural
or “real life” setting for a movie. It’s the kind of lighting we see in most Hollywood
movies and the important point to remember is that there is absolutely nothing natural
about this kind of look. In order to create high key lighting, extremely bright lights,
positioned very precisely for each shot, have to be used. Because this style is so
common in Hollywood lms, most audiences simply accept is as the “natural” look for
movies. It’s not. What it is, is the glossy style Hollywood lmmakers have made the
most predictable “look” in mainstream movies.
High contrast lighting is dominated by harsh lines of light combined with dramatic
streaks of blackness. This lighting style tends to use shadows and can look haunting
and eerie when it is used well. As a sign, high contrast lighting suggests a sense of
anxiety or confusion. It can also be used to suggest a corrupt world which haunts and
threatens the characters on screen.
www.inpoint.org
© Pacific Cinémathèque
THE LANGUAGE OF FILM
LIGHTING IN FILMMAKING
PAGE: 2
the on-line production resource at Pacific Cinémathèque
Low key lighting uses shadows and directed pools of light to create atmosphere
and suspense. It is often seen in crime or gangster movies. Low key lighting
suggests an air of mystery. Horror movies often use this style of lighting in
exaggerated form by over-lighting (placing a light above the face) or under-lighting
(placing a light under a face) actors to create a dramatic or distorted effect.
It should be noted that different styles of lighting can be used effectively in the
same movie to convey different moods and events. For example, the lmmaker
may introduce low key lighting to indicate that the hero is in danger.
Excerpted and adapted from Visual Storytelling and the Grammar of Filmmaking, Part II Study Guide
www.inpoint.org
© Pacific Cinémathèque
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