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Directing the Light

In the art of lighting, less is usually more. Of course, it always comes back to what the story needs and what you like. If there are scenes that inspire you, spend a few minutes on Google to learn the how about the lighting. When in doubt, or pressed for resources, light the background.


Less Is More

With apologies to vegetarians, lighting is kind of like a really good steak: it’s a lot worse to overdo it than it is to under-do it. So how can you avoid over-cooking the light in a scene? Well, both science and everyday experience tell us that light has to come from a source. Maybe it’s the sun, maybe it’s the cheapest lamp at Target or maybe it’s a handheld candle in a darkened cellar. Wherever the light is supposed to be coming from – well, that’s how it should look on screen. In fact, that’s what your lighting department will call motivated lighting. Maybe you’ve heard of it – but just in case:


Yup – makes sense.

Unmotivated lighting, on the other hand, simply needs to make the scene look normal. However, too much unmotivated lighting can lead to “phantom” light sources in the shot, which only work when the light is supposed to represent the eerie glow of an off-screen phantom. Another way to think about it is by asking yourself this: do you tend to notice light more when it’s too bright or too dim? Intense light will make you close your eyes, while faint light is at worst a nuisance if we even register it all. Again, your story will make some of these choices for you. More minimalist lighting tends to work better for dramatic works like “House of Cards” or pretty much any Ingmar Bergman film. If your story needs a lighter tone (pun intended), then increase the illumination in your shot – but only at the risk of turning it into a televangelist infomercial.

Light the Background & Motivate

Unless you’re a Kardashian, most of your life isn’t spent with a lighting crew on hand to make sure the camera picks up all your contours. In the old days, the thinking was that television shows light the foreground, while films light the background. Unless you really need to mimic the look of “Fuller House” to make an artistic statement (please don’t), you’re generally better off lighting the background. For starters, this will make the set appear more dynamic, rewarding all that hard work done by your production design team (or just you and a few extremely generous friends). When you set up your lights, flags will help you control the luminance values between the foreground and the background. Remember, like the Kardashians, you’re faking reality, even if your story is based on real events. The lighting needs to emphasize the dramatic effect of the scene, and separating the foreground from the background with light can effectively do this. Criminals don’t always lurk in the shadows, but it sure is suspenseful when they do on film.

Hard vs. Soft

In this age of digital video, all the cool kids like to soften the light. Old school masters like Vilmos Zsigmond kind of hated the over-use of soft lighting, but there’s definitely an aesthetic, almost dreamlike quality that’s achieved when done right.

Maybe it’s a bit of a generalization to say that hard lighting builds drama and suspense, while soft lighting relaxes and pleases, but that should give you the basic idea of how the two can affect the scene. Everything from the emotions to the colors in a scene can determine whether soft lighting or hard lighting works best. There’s also no rule against transitioning from one to the other within a scene. If you want a scene to begin on a tense note, and then end on a moment of comedy, going from hard to soft lighting could help express this. In fact, most of the time there will be a combination of hard lighting and soft lighting in the scene – after all, shadows are all around us, especially if you believe in shadow people and shadow governments. This is also a good place to try to experiment. While it’s good to study how others have used lighting in scenes, there’s a lot of conventional thinking that goes into most productions. Maybe this is one area where your own unique visual style can stand out from the rest.

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