Lighting can be a subtle way of changing the mood in a film or television show. Lower lighting can indicate a number of darker moods, from horror to sadness. Brighter lighting can show happiness, and soft lighting signifies romance. Different light colors, created by filters, can also create certain moods. Lighter colored filters express a more sanguine mood, whereas darker colored filters hint at gloom.
Since the beginning of cinema’s development, cinematographers and gaffers have been using lighting effects. However, these lighting effects were not necessarily used to create a certain kind of mood. During the first decades of the 20th century, filmmakers focused on illuminating actors in the most flattering ways possible. World War II marked a return to the use of natural light, which gave films a grittier, more realistic tone. The advent of television introduced bright, even lighting for sets, giving programs an upbeat look.
A lighting key describes the choices cinematographers have at their disposal for illuminating a film set. There are two kinds of lighting keys: high key and low key. High key, as the name implies, uses bright illumination to give the film a more natural and realistic look. This tone can lead the audience to better identify with the characters. Low key lighting makes use of shadows and pools of light to introduce feelings of suspense, horror or mystery.
High Contrast Lighting
High contrast lighting uses harsh streaks of light in combination with bold, black streaks to create an atmosphere of tension and anxiety. This technique also creates many shadows, which provides an eerie and haunting look. Utilizing high contrast lighting will heighten the film’s sense of drama, leaving viewers on the edge of their seats.
Colored gels, when placed over lights, can also change the mood of a film. Blue gels will give the shot a cooler look, which could hint at sadness or depression. They could also foreshadow a chilling event. In contrast, red or orange gels make a shot appear warm. Warmth can connote romance or happiness.
Combining Lighting Techniques
Many movies combine lighting techniques to create a variety of moods. For example, a lighting director could choose to light a romantic scene with red gels over the bulbs, although the next scene could call for low key lighting to show that the characters are in danger. The lighting director does not decide on his own what moods to create. He uses the script as a guide to illuminate the set.
Rachel Levy Sarfin has been writing professionally since 1998. She has written for the "Yardley News" and the Healthwise Lifewise blog, and served as the Jerusalem correspondent for the Omanoot website. Sarfin completed her Master of Arts in Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.