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Page history last edited by Air Dupaix 10 years, 10 months ago

Lighting, one of the main subjects of mise en scene, is the control (or sometimes lack of control) of light that bounces off objects within mise en scene and reflects back into the lenses of the camera recording the shot. Lighting can be implemented in many different ways to create different film affects. Lighting has a large effect on the overall "feeling" of the film. Lighting can be used in dramatic ways as well as to make visual puns or anything in-between.



Important aspects of film lighting




Fall off is the main difference between diffused light and undiffused light. The concept is much easier to show than it is to explain. Fast falloff creates harsh shadows, which are high contrast and go from light to dark quickly with very little grey shades in-between. This is in contrast to slow falloff that has shades of grey between the primarily illuminated area and the dark areas of the subject.(1)



The above pictures are great examples of fast vs slow falloff. The stairs on the right have fast fall off with harsh lighting, depicting little intervention between light and darkness. On the other hand the hello kitty clock has a range of shades of shadows, fading from light to dark.


Three Point Lighting System


This lighting system is the standard that has developed over time in film history. It consists of three lights: a key light, a fill light and a backlight. The key light usually has a fast falloff that lights most of the subject. The fill light is used from a contrasting angle to help fill in the gaps where the key light does not hit. The backlight helps place the subject in space, making the subject appear more three dimensional. The position of the key light can create different effects, especially in terms of height. Low key lighting is normally used to create dramatic effects while high key lighting is usually connected to lighter moods. (3)



This is the overhead view of a standard three point lighting system. The exact angles of this system of lighting can be used creatively to create the desired effect of the lighting director. 



Above is an example of the three lighting system at work. The top three images show the individual lights being used and the bottom image is the outcome when all three lights are implemented.(4) Each lighting device does not contribute much by itself, but when used together the subject looks more natural. The best lighting is unnoticeable according to some film philosophers.

High and Low Key Lighting


High key lighting is a form of lighting that found its place in cinema due to its suitability for the three point lighting system (5). High key lighting uses light in a way that creates a low amount of contrast between the brighter and darker areas of a particular shot (5). This type of lighting can be used in many different types of shots and for various purposes. There are usually very few shadows in a scene shot implementing high key lighting, especially on the principle characters or focus of the scene (1). Low key lighting is normally used to create dramatic effects while high key lighting is usually connected to lighter moods. (3) For these reasons high key lighting is usually associated with scenes in musicals, comedies, or generally "happier" scenes in films (1). Low key lighting is associated with horror films or film noir (crime drama) (6). Low key lighting is associated with heavy shadows and lighting only in specific areas, highlighted for specific effect. Low key lighting is a good system used to create suspense, eeriness, and even seclusion.




Above is a great example of the same character in the same film shot in both high and low key lighting for different scenes. These examples are from Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954). The high key lighting helps focus on the character in question. The bright picture in the high key lighting shot gives a sense of normalcy, happiness, or everyday life. From the lighting in this shot you would not suspect that there is anything wrong and that the focus of the shot is to be on the character lit with the high key lighting scheme. The low key lighting shot of the same character in much the same location gives an entirely different story to the viewer. From the lighting alone it can be inferred that the scene gives off a "bad" feeling- such as spying, murder, crime, etc. The shadows on the character give an ominous and eerie feel to the shot and the character. This analysis comes from two still images of a film- this helps shows us that lighting affects the way we view film, even if in subtle and subconscious ways. The film does not necessarily have to be playing in order to notice the effects lighting is playing.



This example of low key lighting allows us to truly see the great effect lighting, or lack of, can have on the feel of a scene. Belle is unconscious and the beast is carrying her through the castle. The lighting is very low key so there are many shadows and dark areas of the scene. The lighting coupled with the set design and sound helps us as viewers feel mystery as well as a slight fear of the situation. Where is the beast taking Belle? What will he do to her? Will this be good or bad? These are all questions the viewer may ask themselves based on the scene's appearance, lighting being a key element.



To learn more about lighting, a good place to start is by watching films and actively looking at how each shot is lit. Look at these links to movies and check out the clips on them.

Mise en Scene

A Trip to the Moon

Lumière brothers Film examples 

The Birth of a Nation 








(5) Bordwell, David; Kirsten Thompson. Film Art: An Introduction. New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 2008.


     by way of "High-key lighting." Wikipedia. September 22, 2009. Web. October 1, 2009.

(6) "Low-key lighting." Wikipedia. n.d. Web. October 1, 2009.

Comments (2)

Sean Desilets said

at 3:41 pm on Oct 3, 2009

Fantastic edit, Nykki.

Sean Desilets said

at 10:35 am on Sep 24, 2009

• High and Loe key does not actually refer to the height of the key light
• Actually ships the real work off to the reader
• Height of lights is actually an issue in film lighting, though.

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