Lighting is a fundamental property of cinema. So called “writing in light”, photographed images, whether live-action or cell animation, need illumination. It is the most essential part of a cinematographer’s job to design and implement that illumination – in England and Australia the term “lighting cameraman” is equivalent to “director of photography”.
Films are light. – Federico Fellini
But if lighting is an eternal, omnipresent concern, then techniques, uses, and styles of lighting have varied enormously over time.
In cinema’s beginnings, lighting was almost entirely natural, filming largely executed in glass studios (one reason American companies moved to California was its brighter, year-round sunlight).
By the mid-1910s, however, lighting was mostly artificial, with cinematographers turning to mercury vapour tubes for overall, soft illumination, and carbon-arc spotlights for dramatic effects.
By the 1920s, most of the basic dramatic techniques and functions of lighting used today were acknowledged in craft discourses. In 1931, cinematographer James Wong Howe wrote:
With the early films, lighting merely meant getting enough light upon the actors to permit photography; today it means laying a visual, emotional foundation upon which the director and his players must build.
Figure lighting is used to highlight and model the principal actors in a scene. The most common approach to this is “three-point lighting” (above): a “key light” that provides the main illumination; a “fill light” that fills in shadows on the performer’s face and background; and a backlight to separate the performer from the backdrop (less critical in colour filming).
Three-point lighting is such a prevalent convention in narrative cinema that it is virtually a rule. This will often be supplemented with an eye-light to heighten actors’ expressions. Another aspect of this is “glamour lighting”, designed to enhance the attractiveness of the leading, especially female, performers, and heavily influenced by portrait and fashion photography.
The high point of this technique arguably continues to be the lighting used on Marlene Dietrich in Josef Von Sternberg’s films, images so stylised that the story seems to come to a halt to contemplate the actress purely as an icon.
Effects lighting indicates the use of lighting to create the illusion of light sources emanating from within the story-world. Chiefly, this involves “practical” lighting, made to seem as if emanating from a lamp or window visible in the shot.
Practical lighting is one way cinematographers can shape colour in a scene, using coloured gels over sources in the frame to bathe the entire scene in colour as in the use of the stained glass in All That Heaven Allows (1955), hyperbolising the angst of the mother-daughter dialogue, or to provide splashes of colour for atmosphere and visual density, as in the neon-soaked Blade Runner (1982).
If effects lighting is driven by verisimilitude, the use of practical sources is often motivated as much by dramatic concerns, and so may be more or less central depending on overall lighting aesthetics.
High-key and low-key lighting
Through the 1930s, comedies, musicals, and many dramas were dominated by high-key lighting – a high ratio of fill to key light. This was typically a form of low-contrast soft lighting (dominant in the 1920s and 30s), providing a diffuse, even brightness (below).
Horror films and particular scenes in crime films often made use of high-contrast low-key lighting, with a low ratio of fill to key. This was hard lighting (itself increasingly common from the 1940s), the frame dominated by deep, clearly defined shadows, suiting the dramatic moods of those films, and creating a sense of mystery and suspense through concealment (below).
By the late 1940s, low-key lighting was pursued much more widely, seen to be an aspect of realism (in life, no-one is always evenly illuminated). But the technique is still particularly associated with the film noir, wherein it suggests not just a sense of dread, but also the duality of the characters and the world they inhabit, a pervasive moral darkness eating them from within and without.
Superseding attempts at realism that drove many cinematographers in the 1970s to aim for an illusion of muted, natural light, low-key lighting has been increasingly central from the 1980s across a range of genres (below).
Indeed, a recent study from Cornell University has found that light levels in film have markedly declined from 1935. This can be attributed realism, storytelling, and mood, but it also speaks to an under-acknowledged fact of lighting, its impact on actors.
Arc lights in early filmmaking caused “Klieg eyes” from the intensity of their ultraviolet radiation. With the development of more sensitive film stock, incandescent, tungsten, and halogen lamps largely eliminated this.
In the decades since, as film stock has become more and more sensitive, light levels on set have declined consistently to ease the physical burden on actors and allow them to concentrate on performance; as with glamour lighting, this is a way cinematography serves their interests.
With the rise of digital cinematography today, lighting can be more minimal than ever, while allowing filmmakers to achieve effects, as in night shooting, that will provide grist for exciting innovations for years to come.
Correction: based on a study of film technology, this article initially stated that Klieg eyes were caused by carbon dust from arc lights. However, sources from the archives of the Journal of the American Medical Association clearly state that ultraviolet radiation was to blame.
A mere two years have passed since the first "Hunger Games" movie. It feels like 20. In those two years the world has been brought to the edge of extinction so many times, only to be saved by young people in Henley T-shirts, it's as if we're dealing with the apocalypse that cried wolf, over and over.
Thanks to the dystopian craze popularized by "The Hunger Games," the movies continually cough up another teenager or young adult protagonist facing some crazy physical challenge, leading a revolution, saving the planet from the ruinous impulses of the older generation. At times it's as if the entire film industry were wired directly into the neurons of the average 15-year-old, for whom everything is a world-ender and an apocalyptically scaled tragedy.
The latest cinematic young adult dystopia adaptation, "The Maze Runner," is already a success overseas, and in many gratifying ways it's a surprise. Director Wes Ball, who comes out of the digital effects realm, has made a debut feature swift and exciting enough to make up for the watery likes of "The Giver" and "Divergent," both released this year. "The Giver" was a flop, "Divergent" a moderate hit. That's a lot of post-apocalyptic dystopia right there.
The cliches built into this genre are easy to pick apart. There's always a representative of the state, often seen on a video monitor with sparks or flames in the background, played by a classy performer (Donald Sutherland, Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, Patricia Clarkson … where is Dennis Haysbert on this list?) with a smiling air of danger. There's always a sliver of hope. This is important, and the obvious key to the appeal of the dystopian literature genre nicknamed "dyslit." Things must be horrible and harsh and very nearly hopeless, but the protagonist will see us through to the light. And to the sequel, unless you're "The Giver."
We have, of course, been here before. Those of us a little south or north of 50 will recall many hours spent in the 1970s, when grim, granite-faced Charlton Heston was our dystopian lifeline in "The Omega Man" (1971) and "Soylent Green" (1973). Other science fiction adventures took audiences not decades but centuries into a bleak, blasted future, where — in the case of the 1976 "Logan's Run" — Michael York and Jenny Agutter guided humankind's redemption and figured out there was more to life than hanging out at the mall. Much of that picture was shot inside real malls, then a relatively new phenomenon, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Today the film looks like "Logan's Run: Mall Cop." At the time, though, to a 15-year-old, it all seemed very eerie.
In the '70s, mainstream movie dystopia was the domain of adults, either youngish and feathery-haired, like Michael York, or Rushmore-like, in the case of Charlton Heston. Nowadays we leave the world-saving to a younger demographic. Millions of younger readers seize upon the latest dystopian trilogy in print. If the film versions basically work, that's a huge automatic audience.
"The Maze Runner" stretches an hour's worth of narrative conflict across nearly two, but confidently and with thoughtful visual confidence. Just when I thought I'd truly had it with this stuff, director Ball made a movie that makes the tired old tropes fresh again.
But who can say when audiences will say, enough?
Back in the '70s, just as moviegoers were growing weary of dystopian scenarios, along came "Star Wars" to make older folks feel like Saturday-afternoon "Flash Gordon" serial addicts again, and younger folks feel like happy video-gamers in training. That one changed everything. I will always be of two minds regarding its influence, its crafty and irresistible infantilization of popular culture. Later that same year, 1977, Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" gave the world a wonderful piece of popular art, as opposed to "Star Wars," which was more of a stunning product launch.
In December of next year, director J.J. Abrams' reboot of the "Star Wars" franchise ("Episode VII") opens for business. It is to be followed by two films entrusted to writer-director Rian Johnson. Disney bought George Lucas' company for $4 billion. A lot rides on the success of those films.
Perhaps they'll spell the gradual or even sudden end of our current "Hunger Games"/"Divergent"/"Maze Runner" apocalypse-zapoppin' trend. After so many totalitarian bummer allegories of varying quality, audiences, I suspect, are good and hungry for something off-world and a little less dire, set in galaxies far, far away.
On the other hand: At least "The Maze Runner," like the two "Hunger Games" films to date, works as a movie. And the "Star Wars" reboots will have to prove themselves worthy and compelling to nostalgists and newbies alike, building on the inevitable thrill that will come from seeing the first light saber go zchwwwwooooooomm, which is a sound never heard in the vicinity of "The Maze Runner."