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Lights, camera, atmosphere! How lighting conveys emotion in movies

Lights, camera, atmosphere! How lighting conveys emotion in movies

Thursday 06 May 2021

When we talk about our favourite movies with friends and family, we often we find ourselves praising the compelling storytelling, the inspired direction and the award-winning acting before we even begin to discuss the element of lighting, but it’s a significant component that deserves more than just a cursory glance and passing mention. It is the very thing that allows us to see what is happening on the screen in the first place.

Without a good lighting set-up and a skilled film crew, the best camera in the world can’t capture a perfect picture. Lighting is used to enhance images, create depth and support the story’s mood and atmosphere.

Light is an excellent communicator that enables filmmakers to speak to us, the audience, more effectively. Although lighting itself is, of course, neutral and indifferent, it plays a big part in conveying emotion on film in three key ways:

Quality and contrast
The essential concepts of emotional lighting include low key and high key lighting, as well as high and low contrast convey different emotional messages. For example, low key lighting with a lot of contrast is great for communicating fear, anxiety, distrust, and evilness, while high key lighting with little contrast is great for communicating happiness, peacefulness, joy, and contentment. Low key lighting uses a lot of darker tones, shadows and blacks, whereas high key lighting refers to scenes with lots of whites and light tones.

Colour and hue The colour of the light has a huge impact on the message filmmakers are sending to the audience about the emotion of a scene. This has a lot to do with the psychological interpretation of colours rather than light itself, but it's still important. Blues can make things look solemn and sad while using warmer colours can have the opposite effect.

Direction and angle
The direction of light plays a role in how audiences perceive the subject and environment in a scene. If we think about how we might place a torch under our chin to tell a scary story, we do this because the light distorts the facial features with long, hard shadows making us look scary. The same idea applies to other lighting positions. If the light is angled to create minimal shadows, the subject will appear inoffensive and nonthreatening, but the more it is adjusted to create shadows, the more the subject will appear untrustworthy or scary, among other things.

Lighting is fundamental to film because it creates a visual mood and sense of meaning for the audience. It tells us where to look, guiding the eye to a specific actor, prop or part of a scene; it reflects the psychology of a character through adjustments to the amount, size, colour and harshness of light surrounding them; and it defines and supports the genre of the film itself. Lighting conveys mood very clearly. For example, one of the film genres most known for its distinct lighting style is film noir, characterised by stark contrasts between light and dark, dramatically patterned shadows, and unique framing and composition choices.

Have you ever noticed the lighting in your favourite film?


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  • Ramsey Campbell
    10 May 2021

    Few films demonstrate the eloquence of colour more powerfully than Hitchcock's VERTIGO. Look how shades of green is constantly associated with the Kim Novak character, culminating in her spectral resurrection in Stewart's apartment (and starting before she appears in the narrative, a disconcerting premonition in Barbara Bel Geddes' apartment).

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