Thursday, April 7, 2011

"Why We Need Light' Article Series: Unabridged

Download the full article PDF. <-click here.

Why We Need Light: Introduction
Written By: Ryan Patrick O'Hara

Since the dawn of cinema, light has been needed to bring motion pictures to life. Light not only allows the image to be initially captured, but is needed once more to bring the images back to life upon the big-screen. Light, at its most basic function, must properly illuminate the subject of photography at the requirements determined by the medium used. Although light is the fundamental element needed to make motion picture films, the use of light reaches far past the realm of necessity.

There are three things lighting has to do. It has to provide for sufficient illumination to record the image on film. It has to make up for the difference in contrast between our eye and the film. It has to enhance the illusion of third dimension in a two dimensional medium... Ok. Well that is what it has to do. What it can do…
-Bill Dill, ASC (From Cinematographer's Style)

What can light do?

Illumination for the sake of proper exposure is simply a technicality.

The way the older cameramen worked was first they’d get a long shot of the set, showing a character entering and walking over to a desk, say. Then they’d move in to a closer shot. To avoid the lighting being too symmetrical they might use a couple of arcs on one side, and three on the other. That was all. Otherwise the image was absolutely flat, just a flood of light. There was no attempt at artistry. There were some cameramen who used to keep a book, and they’d note down the lighting they’d used – how many arcs, how many feet away from the actors- so when they got to the next set they could refer to the book and do the same. You couldn’t really call it lighting, it was just illumination.
- Freddie Young, BSC. From “Seventy Light Years; A Life in the Movies”

Beyond basic illumination, simply possessing a comprehensive knowledge of lighting technique does not constitute an individual as a true cinematographer. Knowing basic lighting techniques such as a back cross-key or three-point interview lighting still falls within the realm of a technician. To become a true cinematographer, an artist and technician, one must look beyond how to light and think about why.

If someone says to me, 'I loved that shot, how did you light it?', I'll think they've lost the point. My explanation doesn't mean a thing because there are 20 ways to light a shot and get the same result. Why you do something is far more important than how."
- Freddie Francis, BSC. From American Cinematographer, “Cinematic Glory” by David E. Williams (March 1998)

Among the many responsibilities of a cinematographer, lighting is a primary method in which one can establish visual subtext within the story. Light can heighten or diminish shape and depth, direct or misdirect attention, balance or unbalance composition, establish atmosphere, evoke emotion, reveal state of mind, and more. The aesthetic uses of light are endless and overlapping.

Lighting decisions must always be made with the utmost consideration for the story. The lighting and visual philosophy of every image must support and further the story providing appropriate mood and emotion. Creating exquisitely beautiful or ethereal imagery throughout a picture is a common temptation for any cinematographer. When hired and asked to perform his/her duties, some can lose sight of story and simply wish to impress with their skill and ability to light a beautiful scene. But often times a story will call for the opposite… a futile mood, dull moment, or bleak existence. In which case the story may benefit from bland, unappealing or ugly photography. A film simply cannot be comprised of only sunsets and silhouettes. A professional and passionate cinematographer will find the beauty in ugly, the emotion in bland, and the strength in the stark. A cinematographer realizes the absence of beauty may be wielded with the same success as images with and then must decide, with utmost understanding, which suites the scene best.

There are no rules and there is no formula to filling the frame to please everybody. I've got this corny saying though: 'There are three types of photography: good photography, bad photography, and the right photography. The right photography is what tells the story best.
-Freddie Francis, BSC

Lighting is Contrast.

Contrast is a visual property in which juxtaposed qualities can be distinguishable from one another. In the film world, contrast is mainly referred to as the difference between light and shadow. The cinematographer uses light to create contrast; contrasts that may heighten or diminish shape, depth, direct attention, establish mood and more. In film, not only can light and shadow be used to create contrasts, but the color of light may create their own contrasts as well. For the Why We Need Light article series, the term contrast will be used to reference the difference between light and shadow.

The methods and techniques described hereafter in the Why We Need Light series may be used in the opposite effect or in absence of, in order to achieve the reverse visual outcome. The cinematographer is always at the story’s service and mercy. If a picture is worth a thousand words, imagine the vast lexicon the cinematographer wields in the visual language.

Why We Need Light: Mood
Written By: Ryan Patrick O'Hara

The cinematographer’s most fundamental and primary objective when lighting is to create an atmosphere that supports the overall mood of the scene. Although a film’s mood is the summary of many wide-ranging efforts from all departments, lighting is arguably the most influential visual element.

Absolutely all approaches and techniques of lighting discussed in the ‘Why We Need Light’ article series (with the exception of rudimentary illumination) must work in concert with, conform to, or be rationalized by the mood. Mood is the driving visual device of any story.

Achieving appropriate mood is a difficult task. Every scene is unique and requires an adaptive approach with scores of possibilities. A lighting approach that may make one scene foreboding can turn another cheery; it’s a careful balance of taste within context. A cinematographer’s ability to recognize the appropriate mood and successfully execute those feelings and emotions with lighting is where the artist meets technician. It is almost impossible to teach mood. Sure, there exist some very basic conventions such as dark is heavy or dramatic while bright is cheerful or light. But exceptions take you at every opportunity and conventions are usually the most safe and less expressive road to travel. To truly understand mood and its' always uniquely demanding constructs, a cinematographer depends on his artistic instinct, life experience and personal taste.

Successfully lighting for the appropriate mood is a very intuitive process. When reading the Why We Need Light series, keep mood in mind. Try to imagine how each technique and approaches to lighting can change mood in different circumstances.

Why We Need Light: Shape & Depth
Written By: Ryan Patrick O'Hara

At their basic function, motion pictures are two-dimensional images projected upon a two-dimensional screen. Thankfully enough, illusions within the human mind allow the audience to perceive visual depth within the two-dimensional medium. Using light, the cinematographer may manipulate an audience's ability to perceive depth, by enhancing or diminishing the illusion.

When light is used to manipulate the illusion of the third dimension on a subject by defining form, volume, and mass it is defined as altering shape. However, when light is used to manipulate the illusion of the third dimension by defining scale, proportions, or spatial relationships of an environment and its subjects it is defined as altering depth.

The Illusion of Shape

A cinematographer can heighten or diminish the illusion of shape by positioning the lighting unit(s) at advantageous angles as to heighten or diminish the contrasts that appear upon the subject as a result of how light plays across the surface and reveals form. Lighting for shape allows the subject’s form to be defined by light and shadow, producing giving the object form and hence adding to the overall illusion of depth on screen.

The Italian word chiaroscuro (chiaro [light] + oscuro [dark]) describes the artistic means of using light and shadow to reproduce the illusion of shape; emulating and exaggerating (for various dramatic effect) natural occurring contrasts of light falling upon a three dimensional subject. Just as classical artists use light and shadow to bring shape and depth to their creations, the trained cinematographer must consider using light to define shape in his/her images.

Caravaggio “St. Jerome (San Girolamo)” 1607.

Gerrit van Honthorst “De koppelaarster” 1625.

De Koppelaarster
, below, is another painting by Honthorst completed within the same time period. Notice the variations in lighting direction and resulting contrasts. Observe how the changes influence the painting. Compare the shape, weight and mass of the subjects from each painting.

Gerrit van Honthorst “The Steadfast Philosopher” 1620-1629.

Shape is manipulated by the careful placement of lighting in relation to the subject and camera (viewer). The placement will determine whether the light will heighten or compress the illusion of form and mass. Light falling upon a subject from the direction of the camera will generally render as 'flat' lighting. As the light source moves away from the camera’s angle of view, the contrasts between highlight and shadow should increase until the subject becomes side-lit, top-lit or eventually back-lit.

In an excerpt from “Television: Companion to the PBS Television Series” (1988), director of photography Gerald Finnerman, ASC discusses the popularity of color television in the 1960's:

At that particular point, everybody said, 'Well, you have to take a light over the lens and 'flat light' color. Light everything.' Even the networks wanted you to light everything. Color would take care of itself-the shades of reds, greens, and blues would all take care of themselves and blend, and you'll have a nice-looking picture.

But the old times, like Harry Stradling, James Wong Howe, Ernie Laszlo, Charlie Lang, would always go back and say, 'In the forties, when I was shooting black-and-white, you could only get dimension one way.' And that was by crosslighting and halftones. They stuck to the ways of the thirties and forties and still continued to light color as they would black-and-white, which wasn't as safe, but it certainly was pretty. They were the ones who were getting the dimensions when everything else was being flat lit. So I pretty well stuck to the theory of crosslighting, trying to get dimension. ...That's the way I was taught.
-Gerald Finnerman, ASC.

In addition, the American Cinematography article “Photographing Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon” (March 1976), features director of photography John Alcott, BSC discussing his need for additional shape/depth within the film:

"...Actually, we had talked about shooting solely by candlelight as far back as '2001', when Stanley was planning to film "NAPOLEON" but the requisite fast lenses were not available at the time. In preparation for "BARRY LYNDON" we studied the lighting effects achieved in the paintings of the Dutch masters, but they seemed a bit flat - so we decided to light more from the side."
- John Alcott, BSC

A rudimentary 3-D image (below) replicates the human face in a three-dimensional space. The subject is illuminated with a key light positioned on the camera axis. This direction of illumination causes the shadows (thus the lighting contrast) to mainly fall behind the subject, invisible to the camera. The result is a relatively even-lit subject... otherwise known as 'flat' lighting:

In the following set of images, the key light has been moved away from the camera axis and around to the subjects 'away from camera' side of face. With lighting contrast more apparent, information relative to the shape of the subject is revealed; hence a two-dimensional surface gains visual properties of a three-dimensional form. Shape is perceived. Coincidentally, the lighting is more motivated and the mood more unified with the scene. Two additional, yet smaller, ‘kickers’ have been added to the scene; the first to illuminate some detail around the shadow side edge and the second to add a red glow which is motivated by the night scene lighting.

Both methods of lighting are acceptable, depending on the aesthetic feeling and desired look of the story. Generally speaking, the off axis lighting (second series of images) creates a contrast of lighting which suggests greater shape/depth within the picture. In this case the lighting direction and contrast of the second set of images is the right one for the scene and is more aesthetically pleasing.

It is important to reiterate the uses of light are plentiful and overlapping. Many techniques for lighting used to accomplish one purpose may be used again or in a similar way, to also achieve another photographic purpose. For that reason, a portion of discussed lighting techniques may be covered in multiple articles within the series or may simply reference them. Lighting is an artistic endeavor with undefined walls surrounding a vast area of gray. It is an area where good and bad do not exist; there is only right and wrong.

The Illusion of Depth

Successfully creating depth within a two-dimensional medium means the image must strongly suggest or define the space within the scene by creating illusions of distance between foreground and background elements. Although camera placement, composition, lens selection, camera movement, and blocking are all elements within a cinematographer’s domain that may influence the illusion of depth, lighting is paramount.

Lighting in Layers: Among all the different lighting techniques, lighting in layers is possibly the most successful and commonly used to increase the illusion of depth within a scene. Lighting in layers is the alternating of lit and shadow areas receding or advancing through the depth (z-axis) of a scene. The contrasts of light and shadow create pockets of light that may define areas of a scene. By establishing visual reference points within a scene, such as ‘it’s light here, but dark over there’, the cinematographer can enhance the illusion of depth as the light is now defining distance, relative positions, and dimensions of the physical space. These aides help the human brain create an idea of the space in three-dimensional terms, although only seeing a two-dimensional image.

Within the ‘lighting in layers’ approach, it is often practice to darken the foreground and background elements in comparison to the lit subject, which usually falls somewhere between the two. This lighting technique not only establishes the light as being ‘here and not there’, but creates subject-background separation as well. The visual contrast between lit subject and darker background results in the illusion where the subject will appear to ‘pop’ away from the background. These alternating contrasts can continue at any amount, distance, or spacing.

In the following images, imagine if the subjects or backgrounds were lit to the same luminance levels as their respective foreground and/or background elements. Would the images still possess the same amount of depth or would they blend in, lacking separation and creating a flat two-dimensional image?

Pulp Fiction (1994)

The Virgin Suicides (1999)

Titanic (1997)

Atonement (2007)

Although not as common, lighting in layers with the alternating layers of shadow and light falling in the opposite pattern may be desirable for a scene. This leaves the subject or area of interest less lit or within shadow.

The Departed (2006)

Unbreakable (2000)

Sweeney Todd (2007)

Munich (2005)

Autumn Leaves (1956)

Of course, lighting in layers does not require the ‘layers’ to be uniform or consistent in luminance across the x-axis. Because the illusion of depth is solely related to the visual z-axis, lighting in layers is only important and defined by contrast alternations that fall forward and/or behind. So long as the lighting establishes a ‘here’ and ‘there’ within the scene, the illusion of depth is heightened to some degree. One can light in layers and within those layers, alternate contrasts. This trick was often used in the days of black & white cinema when tonal separation was more crucial due to the lack of color contrast. Cinematographers would incorporate the shadow side of a face juxtaposed against a lit background, while the lit side of the face would be juxtaposed against a darker background. This approach is a good example on how lighting in layers does not have to necessarily remain uniform in luminance within each layer so long as the advancing/receding layers in the z-axis are contrasting.

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

Atonement (2007)

There Will Be Blood (2007)

Fat City (1972)

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Pools of Light: Another technique referred to as ’pools of light’, is another similar variation of the lighting in layers method. Pools of light are visual devices that help heighten the illusion of depth and may even lead the viewers’ eye along a compositional arrangement. Pools of light are like lighting in layers, but tend to be in smaller portions and more selective in nature.

Pools of light are an excellent example of light defining space. Pools of light selectively highlight certain areas of a space, defining a ‘here’ and ‘there’ and helping create a spatial relationship between them and thus of the scene. Imagine the following environments had the lighting not been broken up into receding or advancing pools of light and shadow. The feeling of depth receding or advancing within the scene would be greatly diminished!

Almost Famous (2000)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

The Conformist (1970)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Apocalypto (2006)

Techniques such as lighting in layers and pools of light also may be used to emphasize movement within/through the scene. When a character moves in and out of the light, letting the contrasts change, the movement is emphasized and re-enforced. It is visual confirmation the character is physically moving through and interacting with the environment.

Consider the chase scene from The Dark Knight. The intense and quick zipping through the pools of light created by the street lamps offer a more exciting, dramatic and emphasized movement through the space. This is discussed further in the Why We Need Light series within the Lighting in Motion article.

The Dark Knight (2008)

Located at the very distant end of the ‘lighting in layers’ spectrum lurks the silhouette. Although more useful as technique aimed to direct attention, the silhouette does establish a strong foreground/background relationship therefore the illusion of depth is heightened to an extent. As a generality, a silhouette is likely to be a foreground element/layer that does not receive much (if any) light. The background, in turn, will be illuminated to a greater degree.

The Assassination of Jesse James (2007)

Blade Runner (1982)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Road to Perdition (2002)

Manhattan (1979)

LA Confidential (1997)
(flashbulb temporarily creates a reverse silhouette!)

Atmospheric Haze: An often-overlooked technique linked to the illusion of depth is one that is related to but not directly lighting. The natural occurrence and/or intentional creation of atmospheric haze can increase the illusion of depth in a compounding 'layered fashion.' Although not a typical lighting technique, haze is a unique type of gobo that can be used with great success in concert with lighting.

The term ‘haze’ simply describes the optical effect of light passing through particulate matter floating in the air or water diminishing visibility. Atmospheric haze can be created by means of fog, smoke, snow, dust, rain, ash, moisture, steam and/or similar elements. Reflected light, (light seen by the human eye or camera), must travel through these elements and upon doing so, become scattered in the atmosphere. The scattered wavelengths of light reduce apparent contrast and saturation to the distant observer. Deep blacks become milky and color dulls.

Subjects succumb to the effects of haze at a compounding rate as distance increases from camera. When distance increases, the reflected light must travel through more particulate matter and will further scatter through the atmosphere increasing the optical effects of contrast and saturation loss. Because the effects of haze increase with distance, haze can be a dramatic visual gauge of depth. Not only can haze be used to determine spatial relationships and distance, but foreground elements appear to ‘pop’ when juxtaposed to the reduced contrast backgrounds.

Black Hawk Down (2001)

The Departed (2006)

Blade Runner (1982)

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Apocalypto (2007)

Children of Men (2006)

Manhattan (1979)

The Lodger (1927)

All of the previous lighting techniques are methods a cinematographer may use to increase the illusion of a three-dimensional world within a two-dimensional image on a two dimensional surface. Anytime lighting defines a ‘here’ and ‘there’, depth is perceived.

The following image was explicitly designed to lack lighting contrast between foreground and background elements. The use of soft frontal lighting leaves spatial relationships relatively ambiguous and undefined. It lacks shape and depth.

Garden State (2004)

A simple darkening of the background, by a moderate amount, demonstrates how lighting contrasts can heighten the illusion of depth. Notice the subject seems to ‘pop’ from the wall. The subject appears as being closer to the camera than the wall. A small but significant lighting change added quite a bit of apparent depth to an otherwise depth-less image. The previous lighting techniques discussed to heighten or diminish the illusions of shape and depth are just a few ways a cinematographer can use lighting to his/her advantage when creating visual subtext to story.

Separation without illumination: When a dark subject is juxtaposed upon a dark background, the edges of the subject will bleed into the background due to a lack of lighting contrast to define them. If such an effect is desired, allowing the subject become ‘lost’ in the background, this is perfectly acceptable.

Apocalypse Now (1979)

However, in most photographic situations, the cinematographer will likely desire some type of lighting contrast to define shape/form and separate the subject from its’ background. The techniques discussed thus far have proven effective in doing this, but if the cinematographer working within the shadow end of the illumination spectrum desires the subject and background to remain similarly illuminated, he/she should not utilize those techniques.

In this situation a rim, kicker and/or backlight are approaches that may define a subject’s shape/form, yet not further illuminate the subject from the desired levels. These lighting units are positioned from an opposing angle from that of the camera. The resulting effect is a thin highlight, edge-light, or halo, which offer definition without significant subject illumination.

The following images contain subjects and backgrounds with similar illumination levels. In order to define shape and remove the subject from the background, the addition of rim, kicker, or backlights have been introduced to define edge, form, shape and separation.

Munich (2005)

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Aliens (1986)

The Aviator (2004)

LA Confidential (1997)

Without rim, kicker, and/or back lighting, the shape and form of these subjects would be unclear and lost within the background. Thus now, the overall illumination of the subjects remains virtually the same yet the audience can better understand their shape, form, and spatial relationships.

Light: Direct Attention
Written By: Ryan Patrick O'Hara

Just as a magician must direct and misdirect attention during an illusion, the set magician, the cinematographer, must also carefully utilize his craft to guide the viewers eye to manipulate and engage the audience's attention to specific and desired parts of the image, whether it is direct, reveal, hide, misdirect or distract for the purpose of storytelling.

In the documentary, Cinematographer's Style by Jon Fauer, ASC, cinematographer Richard H. Kline, ASC discusses directing attention within the frame:

"...When you look at the screen, you have your imagery. It's not just to look at the screen. You gotta make the audience look at some part of that screen that's important... where the dialogue is going on... in a sense it is precision lighting."
-Richard H. Kline, ASC

In an excerpt from the American Cinematography article Leader of the Pack (Sept. '98), Interviewer Caleb Deschanel, ASC discusses lighting with Conrad Hall, ASC:

Deschanel: Your lighting always feels real, but in many shots, there's often light in a particular place that draws the eye to the key element in the story. It's as if you're using light to make the audience understand where to look in the frame.

Hall: Again, it's like working on a canvas. I look through the ground glass and when I'm putting things together, I'm filling in the important aspects of the story which have to be told in that shot. Whether that means keeping the characters dark and lighting the background, or whatever else, the story is telling me to hide or illuminate something.... I just try to feel it and illuminate this and hide that- to add a gasp here and a surprise there. It's a visual language that allows the audience to feel and understand the story.
Manipulating an audience’s attention may be accomplished in many ways including composition, selective focus, lens selection, art direction, blocking, and so forth. However, of all the ways to direct attention, lighting is a very effective method. Lighting to direct attention is almost entirely contributed to contrast: Light and Shadow.

When the human eye scans an image, there are many specific visual properties that instinctively attract attention. These parameters include but are not limited to, contrast, color, size/scale proportions, leading lines, and movement. How these elements are manipulated will heighten or diminish their effectiveness to draw the eye. The effectiveness is highest when contrasting relationships are established within the frame. Although the term 'contrast' can be applied to any visual property in which a juxtaposed difference is discernible, the term within this article will mainly reference the value between light and shadow.

Within the human eye, the retina is made of rods and cones. There are around 120 million rods within the retina. The rods are much more numerous and sensitive compared to the cones, however they cannot see color. Rods are mainly responsible for seeing contrast, low light, and peripheral vision. The cones are primarily packed within and around the center of the retina in an area called the fovea centralis. They are primarily for seeing color and high amounts of detail. Overall, a large percent of human vision is dedicated to the ability to observe contrast and values of luminance. Perhaps this may be the reason some camera models and professional video compressions allow each pixel its’ own luminance value, but tend to compress color space. Only starting now is 4:2:2, 4:2:0, or 4:1:1 finally being replaced with 4:4:4.

Understanding how the eye works, it begins to become clear why contrast instinctively catches the eye so efficiently when scanning an image. In fact, the eye can be attracted or drawn at various speeds and effectiveness depending on the criteria of the contrast. There are three main attributes of contrast a cinematographer can manipulate that determines how effectively the eye is drawn to a portion of the image:

Amount of contrast
: As values of highlight and shadow increasingly move opposite from each other towards pure white or pitch black, the contrast increases between them. Greater amounts of contrast will attract the eye with greater success and speed than lesser contrast. This does not mean elements within images with less contrast do not attract the eye, but simply if greater and weaker contrast changes lie within the same frame, the area with a greater contrast area shall predominately attract the eye.

Transition of contrast
: Although both a hard and gradient transition between contrasting values may be used, a hard or sudden transition has proven to be more effective in initially attracting the eye. Gradual gradients tend to smooth the transition into a more fluid, less jarring visual. Gradual transitions can attract a viewer’s attention, but not as quickly.

Proportions of the contrast
: Relative proportions of the contrasting values often aide the eye into believing what is the subject of interest and what is the negative space within the frame. A black dot on a white background is just that... a black dot. Since the dot is an easily recognizable geometric shape and is proportionality dominated by the white, we assume it is the subject of the frame. Proving the theory, the same applies when the two values are reversed.

The following image is an example of contrast proportions within the frame. This recognizable illusion has two of the three optimal qualities that are most effective at immediately attracting attention. It has the greatest amount of contrasting values and a hard transition, however it is well known that this illusion fails to consistently draw the viewer’s eye to the same element. Quickly upon first glance, the mind will determine which value is the positive area and which is the negative space. Because the proportions of the two values are quite similar, the mind has greater difficulty determining on which to focus and look at. This is why some viewers will see a vase at first glance, while others see two faces.

(Note this image may be bias depending on the display background. A white or black background will greatly influence the results)

The following series of images demonstrate the importance of lighting contrasts and it’s power to draw the eye. At a glance, one can find just how quick and instinctive the mind calculates its’ attention.

The area that desired to draw the viewers’ eye has been further illuminated as to create a contrast to the others. The contrast
amount, transition, and proportion within the frame help lead
the eye to the designated shape during the initial scan.

Utilizing the three properties of contrast (outlined above) the cinematographer may use those properties in varying amounts and approaches to create powerful images within the frame. The following are cinematic examples of using all three properties to great success... almost maximizing the three properties of contrast. These images hold very powerful and memorable places in the mind.

The Big Combo (1955)

E.T: The Extra Terrestrial (1982)

Days of Heaven (1978)

Road to Perdition (2002)

The modern cinematographer has countless techniques and approaches to manipulate contrasts of light and shadow in order to draw the viewer’s attention to a desired portion of the frame.

Lighting in Layers
: As thoroughly discussed in the Shape & Depth article, lighting in layers is one of the most commonly used and successful ways of manipulating an audience’s sense of the third dimension by creating the illusion of spatial relationships with lighting. By doing so, contrasts are created, resulting in separation of subject-background, subject-foreground, and/or both. Additionally, this created contrast is almost equally powerful in guiding/directing the viewer’s attention. Thus, the cinematographer may use lighting in layers to not only add or reduce depth within a scene, but additionally draw the viewers’ eye to or away from certain areas of the frame. The following images are cinematic examples of such lighting. Notice how contrast changes in lighting throughout draw the eye with greater ease and speed compared to if the subject, foreground and background were of equal reflective light values:


Across the Universe (2007)

Almost Famous (2000)

Pride & Prejudice (2005)

The Departed (2006)

Just as silhouettes are described as the extreme form of lighting in layers, silhouettes are similarly at the extreme end of effectively attracting the eye. Silhouettes exemplify two and sometimes all three of the ideal properties of effective qualities of contrast to attract the eye. The greater the silhouette contrast, sharper the transition, and dis-proportioned within the frame, the more successful the effect.

Jarhead (2005)

LA Confidential (1997)

Atonement (2007)

Across the Universe (2007)

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Atmospheric haze
: Although atmospheric haze is an element strongly tied to the illusion of depth, the natural occurrence or intentional creation of atmospheric haze is also an element that can be used to direct the viewer’s attention. Because lighting contrasts are reduced as the level of haze or subject distance increases, elements placed closer to the camera will have greater amounts of contrast and thus attract the eye.

Black Hawk Down (2001)

The Thin Red Line (1998)

Gangs of New York (2002)

The Prestige (2006)

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Shadow or Subject?
Just as silhouettes are effective, the contrasts of cast shadow falling upon surfaces creates dramatic imagery which can be manipulated to draw the viewers attention to a specific area of the frame, reveal story information, or portray actions without necessarily showing them. It is a use of lighting to lead the viewer, but many times the shadow becomes the subject!

Unlike silhouettes, cast shadows are not the extreme of lighting in layers. The shadow and background surface fall exactly on the same plane. The following are examples of contrasting values because of deliberate shadows:

Nosterafu (1922)

Elephant Man (1980)
(The shadow is used to hide/prolong the reveal of the grotesque Elephant Man’s while still 'showing' him. The shadow suggests a figure to horrific to yet reveal and allows the audience to let their imaginations take over.)

Bugsy (1991)
(The projected silhouette is symbolic because their (an actor and actress) love is portrayed through a projection screen; perhaps a foreshadowing that their real life love will become as great (and eventually as tragic) as in cinema.)

The Set-Up (1949)
(Time and time again, the use of shadows (projected contrasts) can take shape in ways which show action without directly showing action. In this case, a beating can look all the worse when the audience is left to imagine the worst.)

Pools of Light
: If it was not already clear, many of the lighting techniques that heighten the illusion of shape and depth do so by creating contrast. Contrast being a key element in attracting the eye / viewers attention, it is no surprise these techniques overlap. Thus, pools of light are great visual devices to draw the viewer’s attention using contrasts in lighting. By creating proportionally small, high contrast areas within the frame, pools of light can be used with great success to direct attention to either a selection of the frame or lead the eye across the frame.

From the text, Good Looking: Film Studies, Short Films and Filmmaking, edited by David A. Sohn, (1976):

Lighting creates atmosphere. A mixture of dark shadows and pools of light may create a sense of unease, as in a thriller; if the lighting makes everything bright, the atmosphere may seem more relaxed. The filmmaker can use lighting to draw our attention to, or hide, a person or object.

The following images are moderate examples using pools of light, used to draw attention by means of contrast:

Manhattan (1979)

Almost Famous (2000)

Millions (2004)

Since You Went Away (1944)
(Long shadows also create leading lines)

Aid in Composition:
Lighting can create contrasts that may contribute to the compositional elements of an image. Light and shadow can balance or unbalance a frame, create leading lines, or accentuate the established framing/composition. All of which are techniques a cinematographer may utilize when leading the viewers’ eye or directing their attention to parts of a frame.

Unbalance/Partition a frame
: One can use lighting contrasts to either partially eliminate or divide a frame.

Casino (1995)

Schindler’s List (1994)

Leading Lines:
Sharp contrasts of light and shadow can slash across a wall, pierce through atmospheric haze, or fall sharply across a floor. If effectively placed, these lines of contrast may form leading lines, a compositional element used to ease the eye along a path to where the viewer is meant to look. The following are a variety of leading lines formed by contrasts of light:

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

Blade Runner (1982)

Out of the Past (1947)

American Beauty (1999)

Since You Went Away (1944)

The Edge of Love (2008)

Assist compositional elements
: A cinematographer can use lighting contrasts to support and aid compositional elements such as architecture or frames-within-a-frame to help ease the eye to the desired area.

The Conformist (1970)

Pride & Prejudice (2005)

Seven Years In Tibet (1997)

The Searchers (1956)

Apocalypse Now (1979)

La Confidential (1997)

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Phantom of the Opera (2004)

Not only film
: Manipulating and using contrasts of light and shadow to attract the eye and direct attention is used in all mediums and many real life applications. These include but are not limited to: theater, photography, the fine arts, architecture, retail stores, video games, concerts, restaurants, and so forth. From an excerpt cited from the text Understanding Architecture, written by Leland M. Roth, the topic of using light to direct attention or reduce distraction, within architectural context is discussed:

...Perhaps the most powerful element in our perception of architecture is light. Louis I. Kahn insisted that there was no true architecture without natural light. Our principal receptors for sensing the environment are our eyes, and the light illuminating that environment is critical for the information we receive. The perception of textures is dependent upon the quality of light falling on the building. Moreover, light creates psychological responses and has a strong physiological effect.

In doing close, exacting work, such as sewing or reading- the eyes become strained if there is too much contrast between high light levels in the immediate work area and darkness in the surrounding area. Consequently, for normal office work, a relatively high level of evenly diffused light, with a minimum of harsh shadows, is standard. This can be achieved by banks of fluorescent tubes with diffusing grates below them, by careful handling of reflected sunlight, or by the combination of the two. The goal is to avoid strong pools of light that will direct and focus attention.

For other activities, the opposite effect is desired, since a strongly focused pool of light against a background of general darkness is a highly effective device of focusing attention. Baroque architects were especially sensitive to this phenomenon, and in their churches they created hidden sources of light, focusing the light on specific areas to direct attention. Painters of the Baroque period, such as Rubens and Rembrandt, did much the same, similarly creating areas of strong illumination to direct our attention. Film directors also use strongly focused light to direct the attention of their audiences, a technique they borrowed, in turn, from the theater.

As always, remember that for every technique to achieve a certain aspect of cinematography, the opposite or absence of that technique can be used to achieve another. An image that forces an audience to examine the entire frame or scan with uncertainty can be a powerful one, if appropriate to the scene.

Why We Need Light: Establish Character
Written By: Ryan Patrick O'Hara

Within modern society exist ideas and conventions about lighting, which taken in context, can present subconscious or overt commentary regarding the subject’s true nature, current state of mind, and relationship dynamics. These ideas and visual conventions vary from culture to culture, and sometimes greatly. However, the historical domination and influence of Western culture has resulted in the modern visual film vernacular taking that of mainly the European and American view. Although different cultures and peoples can hold many different ideological and cosmological ideas tied to visual properties, this article will discuss and provide examples that originate from an American viewpoint.

It is human nature in many cultures to associate a halo of back-light as being angelic while a figure lurking in shadow is menacing or evil. Logically, there is nothing inherently good about back-lighting nor evil about shadows. However, these qualities do exist in the audiences’ mind as a result of a collective association of cultural ideas tied to quality, angle, and variables of lighting.

Modern cinematographers craftily take advantage of these conventions in subtle ways. If done right, the lighting upon an actor or subject can supply the audience visual subtext as to the character’s true nature, intentions, emotional state, and more. As always, one may use these subtle approaches in the reverse or opposite approach, which will typically render the opposite effect. Lighting a sadistic character or situation in pleasingly beautiful light can further cause a sense of unease or morbid irony; similar to the feeling one gets when horrific visuals are played along with a cheerful/happy song.

Angels in America (2003)

Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Typical and obvious examples of 'character lighting' include the lighting treatment of old studio picture actors during the golden era of Hollywood. Leading ladies would generally receive the ideally beautiful frontal-soft lighting with a nice back-light, while the grotesque villain would receive hard, off-angled lighting. Today’s cinematographers will occasionally perform similar practices, as these conventions still hold weight, but more often one will find it to be more subtle and layered.

Lighting for character has three main functions, to give insight of a character’s true nature, current state of mind, or relationship with another character. It should be noted that lighting for character does not necessarily mean lighting that falls directly upon an actor or subject, but possibly the light that falls around an actor or upon the scene. Because the latter is more about the mood reflecting character, this article will mainly discuss light falling upon the character/subject. However, there are ways to light environment for visual cues about character.

Good guys wear white, bad guys wear black:
Character’s True Nature.

Visual cues that reveal and provide insight into a character’s true nature are as old as storytelling. Despite modern cinema shedding the obvious approaches of yesteryear, lighting to reveal/support character has not. These approaches have become increasingly subtler and refined. Additionally, this trend compliments the ever increasing ambiguous roles of ‘hero and villain’ in today’s cinema. Perhaps now, more than ever, a cinematographer must use skill and precision to bring elements of character alive. Through the use of light, a character can give the aura of being mysterious, mischievous, heroic, or otherworldly among countless other and far more complex possibilities.

From an article titled, Steven Spielberg and E.T. by George E. Turner in American Cinematographer January 1983, Steven Spielberg discusses the lighting and work of Allen Daviau, ASC to portray character and emotion.

“…We would see him in silhouette, we would always view him in backlight, but you would never get a good look at his face until much later in the movie. It took many, many small, small units of light and many pieces of aluminum foil to use as bounce cards. We were really able to mold light with E.T., but you couldn’t do it in the master shots or the lights would show. And E.T. was really limited in movement when Allen had to make him more mysterious, It took a lot more time to light E.T. than it did to light any of the human beings in the movie, and I think Allen spent his best days and his most talented hours in giving E.T. more expressions than perhaps Carlo Rambaldi and I had envisioned, because he found by moving a light, by moving the source of the key from half-light to top-light, E.T.’s 40 expressions were suddenly 80. E.T. could not only look sad but he could look curiously sad. Not by the way we controlled E.T. mechanically but the way Allen shifted light.”
-Steven Spielberg

It is extremely important to examine one’s lighting design within the context of the given scene. Nothing in cinematography is cookie-cutter applicable; it cannot be used interchangeably within another scene to achieve the exact same result.

Silence of the Lambs (1991)
(Face in shadow with bounce from below: ill intentioned)

The Godfather (1972)
(Darkened eye sockets: mysterious thoughts)

Character’s State of Mind.

Quite similar to true nature, lighting can give visual cues to what is going on within the character’s head during a given moment or scene. Doing so further supports the current or changing emotional state with visuals.

Apocalypse Now (1979)
(Drifting in and out of light: wavering sanity)

Kill Bill (2003)
(Despite the inability to see any expression through the helmet, Bob Richardson, ASC achieves conveying the Bride’s (Uma Thurman) feelings of intense blood lust by using deep red lighting, motivated from a traffic signal)

Take the following example:
A character in contemplation is lit with a side-key as so one half of the face is in lit while the other is in shadow. This lighting, in some context variations, could represent being emotionally torn with a moral struggle or an important decision. Taken a step further, should the person come upon an answer and turn their head toward the light, illuminating the entire face, it could by a visual cue that they have made the moral choice or the right decision. After contemplation, turning the head in the other direction as so the entire face recedes to shadow could give the visual cue of quite the opposite. The following images could have the visual subtext of:

American Beauty (1999)(conflict of morality)

Gangs of New York (2002)(conflict of agenda)

Casablanca (1942)(conflict of romantic interest)

This is one example of lighting that only carries the described meaning when under unique context of the story. There are almost countless ways to light and when coupled with the ever-different contexts upon which they play, the possibilities are infinite.

A very unique example can be found in the 1961 film In Cold Blood. Shot by legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall, ASC. Robert Blake’s character is about to meet his end. While standing at a window, he wallows in a long speech about hopeless dreams. As the light happens to come through the window, shadows of raindrops rolling down the window are projected upon his face. Running down his cheek, the drops look like tears rolling from his eyes. The emotion is visually felt.

In Cold Blood (1961)

Character Relationships & Dynamics

Lighting can also give insight, support, or present visual commentary regarding relationships of two or more characters within a scene. By means of comparison, the audience may be able to pick up visual cues regarding the changing or static dynamics within the characters’ relationship.

A scene featuring two characters in an argument is an excellent example. Both characters stand under a spotty top-light source. When one character wins the upper hand in the argument or becomes more aggressive, the other character could step back and recede slightly into the shadow. Symbolically the aggressor is in harsh forceful light, while the passive individual is in shadow. Take a beat, throw in a scene reversal and turn the tables. Now the previous aggressor could step back as the other regains a position in the light.

LA Confidential (1997)

Building upon a previous example, the following image is from a bit later in Casablanca. Ingrid Bergman’s character joins Bogart. However, she is not haunted or conflicted about the past. While Bogart’s character is torn with old feelings of sadness and betrayal, she is more level headed and approaches with a calm demeanor. Her lighting is even, direct, and frontal. The drama and conflict lies within Humphrey Bogart’s character.

Casablanca (1942)

Another interesting example of using light to supply visual subtext on the dynamics of character relationships can be found in the film Schindler’s List. From an observation made by J.R. Hudson on his cinema blog Cineobscure, the lighting within the following scene symbolically mirrors the true relationship between the characters, despite how they act towards each other.

Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) despite his immense dislike for SS Captain Amon Goth (Ralph Fiennes), must stay in the captain’s good graces. Despite their dislike/distrust of each other, they each stand to benefit from working together. Both men put up an act, to some extent, to get along. The following image is during a scene where this tension is growing. The lighting is interesting because Janusz Kaminski has thrown a very thick and heavy shadow across the wall. The shadow is a powerful divide between the men and symbolic of their deep impasse.

Schindler’s List (1994)

One of the most unique uses and perhaps literal of using light and shadow to establish a character’s state of mind/emotional state is from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The subject matter of Dracula allows for certain creative liberties to be taken, which may not be afforded on other productions. One of which is Dracula’s (Gary Oldman) shadow, which is free to act separately from his physical body. In doing so, we catch a personified glimpse of the inner desires of Dracula through his shadow. In the image below, Dracula’s shadow reaches out and attempts to choke Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves), who does not notice.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

The possibilities of using light to define/reveal true character, current emotional state or relationship dynamics are endless. Remember, as always, these lighting techniques can be also used to great effect in the opposite capacity to perhaps mislead the audience or create an eerie irony on screen.

coming soon

Beyond Contrast

coming soon

1 comment: