How To Use Lighting To Your Advantage As A Film Director
As a film director, understanding and effectively utilising lighting is crucial to creating visually captivating and impactful scenes. Lighting has the power to enhance the mood, highlight important elements, and convey emotions to the audience. By mastering the art of lighting, you can elevate your storytelling and bring your vision to life on screen. This will allow you to transform ordinary scenes into extraordinary moments that captivate your audience’s attention. So let’s dive in and discover how you can master the art of lighting as a film director!
3 Point Lighting
A staple within the filmmaking world, this method utilises three main points of light to light up the scene. This technique is commonly used as it can be very versatile while remaining authentic.
For example, for a scene shot inside a kitchen, the main kitchen light above the actor can be used as a backlight, while sunlight may be used as a key light to highlight the character’s face. A second fill light, used to emulate the sunlight bouncing off of walls, can then be used to light up the rest of the face.
This is the primary light of the 3-point setup. Typically, the key light will be the brightest source of light in the scene and will be used to light up the subject’s face, this will highlight, emphasise and draw attention to the subject’s face, to display the subject’s emotions. This light will also often be placed off to the side of the subject, generally at a 45-degree angle. This will create contrast and depth on the subject as it casts hard shadows on the opposing, currently unlit side.
The hard light shadow produced by the key light is often far too sharp and will leave half of the subject fully lit, and the other half as a black shadow. To counteract this, a fill light is used for the opposite side of the subject. The fill light will tend to be dimmer but will throw enough light onto the subject to create an authentic lighting effect, where the fill light appears to emulate the colours of the environment bouncing back onto the subject, to evenly spread and light up the rest of the front of the subject.
The third source of light in the scene will be placed behind the subject, generally opposite the key light, to light up the back of the subject. Lighting up the rear of the subject will create a rim of light around them, which will increase the separation of the subject from its background, creating some depth.
Motivated And Practical lighting
When lighting a scene, it is important that the audience, and therefore the director, understands where the light is coming from. If you show a wide scene of the set, for example, a candle-lit, moody restaurant at night, and then zoom in to focus on the character, audiences will be easily able to identify that the bright white light covering half of the character’s face, does not come from the character’s environment, as they have been previously shown that the character is sat within a dimly lit restaurant, not an operating table.
Therefore, to create an authentic scene, while still retaining high-quality lighting, and keeping audiences invested and immersed in the story, directors will find practical light sources. Practical lights are lights that would already pre-exist in the scene, such as lamps, candles or even the sun. Besides justifying the existence of lights, practical lights can also be used to create lots of spacial depth within a scene and make the set feel more ‘alive’ to the audience.
Motivated lighting is where natural/practical light sources are imitated. With this method, brighter synthetic lights can be used instead of natural lighting, but because these synthetic lights are based on reality, it gives the impression of natural lighting to audiences. For example, a character may be sitting next to a window, but this scene is being shot within a studio, so a synthetic “motivated” light has to be used to imitate the light coming through the window.
Colour of lighting
Something that may slip a beginning director’s mind is how the colour of light can be used to influence the audience or assist in telling the story.
For example, a director may be trying to film a war movie, and in this movie, the protagonist starts as a young man in basic training. For this part of the movie, the movie could start with vibrant saturated colours, such as bright reds and yellows. This would show the audience how lively and hopeful the character is, seeing the beautiful colours in the world.
Later on in the movie, however, the protagonist is in a major battle and is under a lot of stress. For this section, colours can be very desaturated and dull, with greys, browns and washed-out greens. This would emphasise the atmosphere that the character is experiencing, and that he is under lots of stress, has no escape, and sees little hope for the future; he is surviving, not living. Upon the protagonist’s return back home the scenes could be an in-between of the two previous colour schemes, showing how the protagonist is home and safe, but cannot forget the horrors of war. This use of colour influences the audience to see the world as the protagonist sees it, and is used to show the emotions of the protagonist.
An alternative use of colour is to use it to assist in telling the story. An example of this is in the first John Wick film. John Wick tracks down the man who killed his dog at a club, so he infiltrates it in an attempt to kill the man. At the start of this sequence, John Wick is covered in blue light, and has full control of the situation, sneaking around and gradually taking out guards. However, after Wick spots the man, a guard walks through the door behind him. Wick charges the man and is then covered in red light as the two begin fighting. After missing a swing at the guard, the guard grabs Wick, picks him up and then slams him into a towel rack, knocking it over, and alerting nearby bystanders and guards to Wick’s presence, which eventually leads to the man that Wick is hunting to escape.
Throughout the club sequence, however, the colours blue and red are very prominent and signify who has the advantage in the fight. Whenever Wick is in blue, he is winning, and whenever Wick is in red, he is losing. This colour theme is continued throughout the film and always gives the audience information on what is about to happen, foreshadowing elements of the story.
Written By Mark Murphy Director