Lighting is an important component of the aforementioned mise-en-scène. Film lighting creates both illumination and shadow. The interplay between light and shadow expresses the mood of a scene, defines a character, and shapes the cinematic space on screen.

     The very same architectural space could be presented as inviting or foreboding depending on the quality, ratio, and direction of cinematic lighting.

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     Textures of characters’ costumes and their surroundings can be concealed or highlighted by lighting, and expressive lighting strategies manipulate audience perception of a scene. Even when lighting appears “natural,” it has been carefully planned and executed.

    Here are some basic techniques.

    Hard, or direct, light gives a crisp definition of the subjects with dark shadows behind them. Hard light is often used in horrific or threatening situations, making a character seem overbearing.

    Soft, or diffused and less defined, light, is often more flattering, because—by virtue of its low contrast—it blurs the boundary between illumination and shadow. Soft light is created by passing the source of light through a semi-translucent screen or by bouncing light off a surface. Soft light is often used in romantic scenes.

     Three-point lighting combines bright, key light in the front for definition, fill light to soften the shadows, and backlight behind the subject for balance. Here is an illustration showing a typical setup for three-point lighting.    

A camera in front of the actor with key light to the right and fill light to the left. There is a backlight behind the actor. This illustrates the concept of three-point lighting.

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     The ratio of light and shadow matters, and here are two key concepts related to ratio.

     Some scenes call for harsh, gloomy low-key lighting. There is no fill light as noted above. There is a high contrast between areas that are brightly lit and areas that are in the dark. This technique is used in film noirs, horror films, and mysterious crime scenes.

     Other scenes, often those in comedies, require high-key lighting with little contrast between bright and shadowy parts of someone’s face or an object. The entire scene is evenly illuminated. Lighting does not call attention to itself or any particular character or object.

     The direction of light in relation to the camera and the subject can change the mood. A subject who is backlit will appear in silhouette. The character can be frightening or heroic.

     When a subject is lit from above in top lighting, they can appear more glamorous. If the light is too strong, however, the subject can appear more threatening because their eyes would be in the shadow.

     The following short video demonstrates five key lighting strategies at work, including the aforementioned three-point lighting, high versus low key lighting (ratios), soft versus hard lighting (quality of light), varying color temperature, and naturalistic versus expressionist lighting.   


     Three-point lighting represents foundational elements of film lighting. Here is a scene with three-point lighting in Amelie, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (2001). In the close-up shot of Amelie, her face is lit by key light from the front to the right and by fill light from the front to the left. Further, her shoulder and head are lit from the back by backlight. 

     Lighting is also important for the set. Many films are shot in the same location. By comparing their quality and strategies of lighting, we can gain insight into how light and shadow change the mood and setting.

    The Bradbury Building, an architectural landmark in downtown Los Angeles, for example, has been featured in many films and television shows. Built in 1893, the five-story building features an atrium with ornate ironwork.

     Here are two contrasting films that use Bradbury Building in different ways, turning the same corner into a foreboding and an inviting spaces, respectively.

     In this scene in Ripley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), the low-key lighting makes the space look mysterious and foreboding.

     By contrast, the same space looks inviting in Five Hundred Days of Summer, directed by Marc Webb (2009).


     Your Turn: Compare and contrast the meanings of these two scenes in Julie Taymor’s The Tempest (2010).

     The first scene depicts the “monstrous” character Caliban being confronted by the colonizing magician Prospera and her daughter Miranda.

     The second scene depicts the same character (Caliban) meeting Stephano and Trinculo, a drunken butler and a jester, who arrived on Caliban’s island after a shipwreck.

     These shots literally put Caliban in different light. They shed a new light on the character who has been derided as being savage by the colonizers.