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Importance of Lighting in Film

A film set with camera and lights ready.
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The beauty of making films lies in the ability of an artist to tell stories through a visual medium. Film lighting plays a key role in the storytelling process.

The Facts

A movie camera is set up on a tripod in an outdoor setting.
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Filmmakers utilize natural and artificial light to produce dramatic effects. Different lighting approaches help achieve predetermined goals. In the book "The 5 C's of Cinematography," filmmaker Joseph V. Mascelli points out that film cannot exist without light.


An actor stands in front of the camera.
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Much of the impression movies leave on viewers stems from how lighting affects perception. It sets a particular mood. Bright, colorful lighting often brings with it cheerfulness in films. Actors seem happier. Dark colors suggest sinister characteristics in actors and set the mood for dark plots.


A beam from a spotlight shines down into the darkness.
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Early filmmakers used mirrors and other reflective devices to focus and redirect sunlight or to block it. With technology came new sources of lighting. Theater spotlights, streetlights and searchlights found their way into the movie industry. In the early 1920s, certain wavelengths of light were impossible to portray on the film used at that time. In 1927, a new type of film allowed directors to capture more wavelengths.


Two actors perform a scene.
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Certain types of film lighting represent entire genres of film. In the 1940s, filmmakers used lighting to introduce film noir. The style featured dark shadows and low light and became synonymous with dark tales and sinister characters. Horror movies also have darker lighting characteristics.


A film crew captures the action.
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Lighting provides a way for directors to focus attention on characters. Lighting also sets location, indicating that a scene takes place in a room with no windows or in a well-lit auditorium. Colored lighting might be an indication that a police car's emergency lights are on in the distance. The angle of light, the mixture of light sources and contrasting lights between two parts of a scene also produce dramatic effects.


The exterior of a studio in sunny California.
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With sources of light limited in early cinematography, direct sunlight had great value. In the late 1800s, Thomas Edison designed the Black Maria studio with a rotating structure that could be turned to follow direct sunlight and eliminate shadows. Of course, clouds often interfered with film productions. Given the concern, the movie industry packed up its New York studios and headed for California, where abundant sunshine provided plenty of natural light for films.

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