Why use light? It seems simple enough, using lights to illuminate objects in a shot but how do you manipulate light to drive the story?

Bad lighting could make a scene appear jarring, even downright unrealistic. That’s why it’s so important to study lighting to fine-tune your skills as a light artist.

By studying how natural light behaves in the real world, the 3D visuals will look as convincing and life-like as possible. Knowing how natural light works can be math-heavy; the calculations must be right to achieve realism. This is basically the reason why big studios hire mathematicians and physicists when making certain movies.

For indie lighting artists, however, learning how natural light interacts with real-life objects in different situations (and enrolling to our online course!) will help you become a better light artist! In this guide, we are outlining the 7 different ways of using light as a storytelling tool:

Establishing a Setting

Lighting can be used to clue viewers in on the time and location of a specific scene. By brightening or dimming the lights, light could drive the story of a scene through the environment.

Some of the epic battles from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, used lighting to establish different settings. Game of Thrones received a lot of flak over the Battle of Winterfell sequence for being “poorly-lit.” While that’s up for debate, it goes to show how lighting affects the flow of the story.

Setting the Mood and Convey a Feeling/Message

Lighting is often used to set the mood to drive the story. How you light certain environments, objects, or even the subject themselves, express certain emotion or messages.

You can also use light to convey a point of view. For instance, applying horror lighting techniques to make the scary guy stand out whenever a group of kids passes by. You can strike a certain emotion with lights. Using soft lights in tender or romantic moments or stark lighting when a character stumbles upon a major revelation enhances the emotional impact of a scene.

In the movie Maleficient, lights were dimmed every time Maleficent appears. This lighting gives a sense of foreboding while adding mystery to the scene. The movie used low-key lights to cast stark shadows and the effect is dark and ominous.

Bright light is also used to highlight Maleficent from below to make the subject appear larger than life. In the Harry Potter franchise, warm colors and lighting were applied on the protagonists while scenes with the antagonists are mostly dark with cool colors and low contrast.

Photo Credit: her.ie

Highlighting Specific Elements in a Scene

Lighting can be used to highlight certain elements in a composition. Making an object or subject shine brighter in a frame, for example, is a great way to draw the eye of the audience to that specific part of the scene.

Using bright lights such as a spotlight to isolate the subject, for instance, is an age-old cinematic trick that never fails to make the subject stand out from the crowd.   

Giving the Illusion of Dimension

Lighting can be used to give the illusion of dimension to flat, 2D subjects. It can be used to add depth, volume, and other aspects that give the illusion of dimension. Depending on the light source, a 3-dimensional object has bright and shadowy areas, which adds to the realism of the scene.

When used in combination with other effects, lighting could also reveal the surfaces of the objects as well as the substance and qualities of materials.

Maintaining Cohesiveness

Continuity is critical in ensuring that all the digital elements of a film feel like they belong together. If a certain element looks off, it could ruin the entire sequence. In the movie industry, light is often used to integrate the digital elements of a shot to maintain cohesiveness and continuity.

If for example a scene was shot in midday in natural light, the lighting should mimic the midday lighting for the rest of that sequence. Proper lighting works to blend all the shots and elements seamlessly so no element looks out of place. If the lighting looks wrong in a shot, it will show because that specific scene will stick out like a sore thumb!

Creating Visual Interest

What do movies like 300, Sin City, Tron Legacy have in common? All these films were created using unique lighting. While most films feature traditional lighting styles, some films utilize innovative lighting to create visual interest.

The Tron reboot, for example, depends on cool light effects to glue all the scenes together! Light wraps around objects in the movie, it was used to draw the eyes to the futuristic elements of the film. It also played a central role in those cool light suits! The movie used electroluminescence to make those light suits. Flat lights were woven into the foam latex suits to give them space-age illumination.

Photo Credit: etonline.com

Create a Distinct Visual Style

You know how you can tell who directed the movie five minutes into it? Some artists use lighting to leave an imprint into their work. It’s not uncommon for some cinematographers, directors and/or director of photography to favor a specific visual style to define their bodies of work, like cool lighting.

Legendary filmmaker Terrence Malick, for example, was notorious for shooting during the “magic hour,” or the hour before sunset and the hour after sunset, to achieve a certain type of tinted natural light that made his masterpieces unique. In the movie “All that Heaven Allows,” Ed Lachman created the distinct lighting by using an overhead grid light schemes in combination with jaw-dropping color palettes to give the exteriors of the scene a “backlot” feel.

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