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Introductory film studies is less concerned with the technical aspects of film lighting than the expressive results of creative lighting. Your goal at this point is to begin to appreciate the way in which the effect of lighting choices bears m



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Introductory film studies is less concerned with the technical aspects of film lighting than the expressive results of creative lighting. Your goal at this point is to begin to appreciate the way in which the effect of lighting choices bears meaning. When considering lighting, we need to identify HOW the director is creating the effect and then analyze that effect’s meaning. To do so, you need some BASIC background on the techniques of lighting.

1. THREE-POINT LIGHTING This is the most basic lighting setup. It consists of a KEY LIGHT, a FILL LIGHT, and a BACKLIGHT. The KEY LIGHT aims directly at the subject –most likely the main character or object in the shot – and is the brightest light source for the shot. The FILL LIGHT is a softer light, and is usually placed opposite the key light; the fill light cuts down on shadows created by the bright key light. The BACKLIGHT shines behind the subject or object, separating him, her, or it from the background –in other words, enhancing the sense of depth in the shot. BACKLIGHTING sometimes creates a halo effect around a character’s head, particularly at the edge of the hair.

2. FILL LIGHT In television, film, stage, or photographic lighting, a FILL LIGHT (often simply called a FILL) may be used to reduce the contrast of a scene to match the dynamic range of the recording media and record the same amount of detail typically seen by eye in average lighting and considered normal. From that baseline of normality using more or less FILL will make shadows seem lighter or darker than normal, which will cause the viewer to react differently, by inferring both environmental and mood clues from the tone of the shadows. Basically, a FILL is a light used to eliminate or soften shadows caused by the main source of illumination. The positioning of the FILL affects the overall appearance of the lighting pattern.

3. KEY LIGHT The term KEY LIGHT is the source of two commonly used adjectives: LOW KEY and HIGH KEY. To call something HIGH KEY is to say that it’s intense.

3A. HIGH-KEY LIGHTING When cinematographers, also known as directors of photography, use a high proportion of FILL LIGHT to KEY LIGHT it’s called HIGH-KEY LIGHTING; the effect is both brighter and more even than when they use a low proportion of FILL LIGHT to KEY LIGHT, which is called LOW-KEY LIGHTING. Bright HIGH-KEY LIGHTING is often used in comedies and musicals to enhance a sense of liveliness or in particularly dramatatic scenes in dramas to emphasize the intensity of the situation.

3B. LOW-KEY LIGHTING The lower the KEY LIGHT, the more shadowy the effect. The shadows created by LOW-KEY LIGHTING work well in mysteries and horror films; such lighting has become a convention of those genres.

3C. HIGH AND LOW KEY COMBINATION Many films use a combination of HIGH-KEY and LOW-KEY LIGHTING set-ups, depending on the nature of the scene. Imagine a western outlaw, for instance, walking from a brilliantly lit, HIGH-KEY exterior into a darker, more LOW-KEY saloon. The director might be contrasting the external world of bright nature with the confining, dark, interior world of civilization.

4. BACKLIGHTING BACKLIGHTING is the process of illuminating the subject from the back. It lights foreground elements from behind. In other words, the lighting instrument and the viewer face each other, with the subject in between. This creates a glowing effect on the edges of the subject, while other areas are darker. The BACKLIGHT can be a natural or artificial light.


5. BACKGROUND LIGHT The FOUR-POINT LIGHTING SETUP is the same as a THREE-POINT LIGHTING SETUP with the addition of a BACKGROUND LIGHT. The BACKGROUND LIGHT is used to illuminate the background area of a set. The background light will also add distance between the subject and the background. In a FOUR-POINT LIGHTING setup, the BACKGROUND LIGHT is usually placed last and is typically placed directly behind the subject and pointed at the background. By adding a background light to a set, filmmakers can add a sense of depth to shots.

6. TOP LIGHTING TOP LIGHTING is another common lighting technique. TOP LIGHTING is when the upper areas of a subject are lit (outlined) by a source generating from above it.

7. UNDER LIGHTING is the approach of lighting a subject from a point below the subjects in the scene. Every kid has practiced UNDER LIGHTING by placing a flashlight under his/her face to create a spooky effect.

8. DISCUSSING LIGHTING When talking about lighting, an easy focal point is on the softness and/or harshness of the image on the screen. For example, in the shot from Schindler’s List below, the cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, used a HOT BACKLIGHT, and SOFT FILL to create shadows and darkness around the subject. The effect is to portray the subject as a man in the midst of intense conflict, a man making a serious decision, a man in turmoil.




DISCUSSING LIGHTING.... When commenting on the lighting in a film, here are a few questions to consider: How sharp is the shadow? What is the angle of the light? What is the distance of the light? How does it add depth? How bright is the light? What color is the light? How many lights are there and how do they contrast? Is there soft or harsh lighting overall? How/Where does the lighting change?











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