We rely on it to see things, but how important is it to film? Well, very.
And at the start of the shoot he said “Let there be light” and there was light, but it was the wrong kind of light, and it was bad, and the shoot was ruined. Whatever your thoughts on the Bible there can be no doubt that those guys knew the importance of light to a good story. In fact, here we are in 2017, with the world falling apart at the seams and the biggest news story? Light, or more precisely the lack of it. Yes, in case you’ve been living in a cave and missed it, the latest piece of showing off by Mother Nature saw the US drenched in the daytime darkness of a total solar eclipse and it captured the imagination of the entire planet and Casual alumni Dan Hollis who took this cracking photo.
What’s your point? You’re probably quite reasonably asking by this point, well the point is that the entire art of filmmaking is that of capturing light, and so to know and understand our art we must first understand light and lighting. It’s no exaggeration to call that a life’s work and any effort to explain it in a short blog would be as foolish as staring at an eclipse without eye protection.
So instead, courtesy of Casual Films creative and all round fan of light Kat Smith, here’s your easily digestible guide to film lighting.
‘Photography’ means ‘drawing with light’, and as is the case with drawing, the techniques in photography are too numerous and frequently too complex to do any justice here, so instead Kat has handily given us the lowdown on the four most commonly used group of techniques.
Low Key (or ‘chiaroscuro’ if you’re into your obscure Italian-Anglo terms) lighting techniques are used to create dramatic effects. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book, popularized by painters like Caravaggio and Rembrandt, and works by creating strong tonal contrasts between light and dark, this can be across a set or down to small individual elements of the shot. When you see a character whose face is half in light and half in shadow – that’s chiaroscuro! It’s used frequently in TV dramas and action thrillers to create a sense of suspense and intrigue and to illustrate the different sides of the human soul (think Hannibal Lecter). It’s not just for cinema though, it’s one of the most ubiquitous techniques right across filmmaking, and we’ve used it in plenty of films – like this Teach First film, look at it, isn’t it intriguing?!
Soft Lighting techniques in film are often used to create a rosy and romantic effect, much like they are at home. This style minimises shadows and diffuses the light to naturally soften facial features. That light you get when you’ve made your annual tea light purchase at Ikea and you’ve filled your bathroom with them? That’s the ambition here, however achieving that look consistently across a scene is more challenging than you might think. It’s commonly used in all film, but is especially associated with schmaltzy romances, dream sequences and representations of the afterlife. We recently used soft lighting to bring out the natural intimacy and bond between mothers and their babies.
Backlighting surely this technique does exactly what it says on the tin, lighting the scene from the back, no need to explain more right?
Well not quite, by using powerful lights to flooding the scene you can produce a variety of effects, turning the subject into a silhouette adds mystery while when the subject is shown stepping out of the light it becomes more ethereal. It’s one of the most commonly used techniques in film – think about every time you’ve seen a character emerge in foggy silhouette, lit only by the moon! The look can be achieved artificially or naturally, but you have to get lucky to capture those natural light floods. Photographer Lynsey Addario captured that kind of ‘lucky shot’ in a recent film we created for Adobe.
Colourful lighting effects, much like colourful language, must be used sparingly if they are to retain their impact. They’re heavily used in the horror and sci-fi genres (think about scenes drenched in red or blue light) and you can spot them in music videos and stylised fashion footage to recreate the nightclub atmosphere. These techniques vary in application but are typically achieved using lighting gels – transparent coloured material that is put in front of lights or windows to achieve the desired tone. They’re called gels as they were originally made from gelatine! Gels are one of the most important elements of a filmmakers’ toolkit as they can be used to set the entire tone of a scene or for more subtle changes that can make the scene feel warmer or cooler. We used blue gels in a recent film for Adobe about photographer Andy Lo Pò to model the interview sequence after his preferred style.
So there you have it, your blagger’s guide to the most common and essential lighting techniques in use today. You might not be able to make the next atmospheric film noir just yet, but should you ever be trapped in a lift with a cinematographer you’ve certainly got something to talk about.