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INTRODUCTION TO FILM AND MEDIA STUDIES
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
HIGH AND LOW KEY
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Sikov, Ed. Film Studies, An Introduction. Columbia University
Press. New York. 2010. Print