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How to Talk About Film Without Sounding Like an Ignorant Moose (part four)

Let’s talk lighting. Lighting is one of the most important part of a film, but it often fades into the background of our awareness in any movie. And that’s a good thing. Very rarely do we want to be highly aware of the lighting. It should seem like part of the atmosphere of the shot.

The first thing to understand is that films use natural lighting unadulterated next to never. Even if filming out in bright sunlight filmmakers typically use something called a bounce card to make the lighting more palatable to the camera. Bounce cards are sheets of white or sliver fabric or board that reflect the sunlight back up onto the actors to make the light look less harsh and soften shadows, particularly on actor’s faces where they would look harribly unflattering and off putting to the darling divas.

Also there is what is known as the golden hour or the magic hour for filming outside. It’s the last hour of sunlight and durring that hour the light is more diffuse and lights more evenly. Outdoor shots are often filmed at this time if possible, but obviously  it isn’t always possible to only film for one hour a day (and that’s where the bounce cards come in).

When it comes to studio lighting there is one gold standard for how to light a subject and that is the three point lighting. This is  a tried and true method of getting your subject lit and differentiated from the background. It gets its name from the fact that three lights are used. The key light, the fill light, and the bounce light.

The Key is the big light that does the bulk of the illuminating. It goes in front of and slightly to one side of the subject. The fill goes in front of the subject to the far side of the key. It is a much weaker light than the key and is there to keep the key light from creating intense shadows (bounce cards can also be used). The bounce light is behind the subject. It is the weakest of the three and it creates a bit of halo that separates the subject from the background.

3 point lighting diagram as described in previous text
They call the bounce light the back light here, but you get the idea

Now from the key light we get two of the most common lighting descriptors out there, high and low key. These two refer to, obviously enough, to where the key light is located. High key the key is up above eye level. This creates a brighter, evener light and is popular for comedies. Low key creates a lot of deep shadows and patches of brighter light. It’s most famously used in film noir. For what it’s worth low key works much, much better in black and white than in color. Low key in color tends to get very muddy looking because the colors seem less saturated in the low light. Take for comparison these two shots from The Maltese Falcon and Blade Runner.

Normally, I would say that lighting is at it’s best when you don’t notice it at all, but occasionally there is some really good gimmick lighting that draws attention to itself in a positive way. The most obvious example I can think of this is Sin City. It uses a more extreme form of low key lighting to mimic the style of the black and white comic that the movie was based on. Which really just goes to show that there are no rules that cannot be broken if you are clever enough.

By Opifex

Opifex is a former art student, unrepentant nerd, and occasional annoying liker of things before they were cool. She keeps two sets of polyhedral dice in her purse, in case the first set stops being lucky. That's kind of how she rolls.

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