by David Tamés, v.2, revised October 10, 2023


How do we talk about light?

In this presentation we’ll focus on Visual-Storytelling. What motivates the lighting? What mood does it set for the scene? How does it enhance the storytelling? We cover the more technical aspects of lighting in the Lighting Fundamentals and Color presentation.


Terms of Enlightenment: The role of sources in classic three-point lighting

Some common roles in “classic three-point lighting” (which may involve more than three sources, but the three refers to the primary roles of key, fill, and back) additional roles include: kicker, background light, existing light, and practicals. Light sources in each of these roles work together to create the overall look, feel, and mood of the scene. Let’s take a closer look at some examples.


Key light

The key light is the primary source of illumination; the position of the key has a significant impact on the mood and style of the scene; Example: Ghost in the Shell (Rupert Sanders, 2017), Cinematographer: Jess Hall.


Fill light

The fill light fills in the shadows caused by the key, reduces the contrast in the scene, plays a significant role in determining the contrast ratio of the scene. Example: The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993) Cinematographer: Stuart Dryburgh.


Existing light

Existing light refers to illumination not provided by the filmmakers, includes both natural and artificial-Sources, sometimes referred to as ambient illumination. SIDE NOTE-the diffusion effect on the fluorescent lighting in the scene is the result of using a diffusion filter on the lens, a 1/4 or 1/2 black pro mist is widely used to have highlights bloom without excessive softening of high detail areas and faces. This effect can also be added in post. Example: Fallen Angels (Kar-Wai Wong, 1995) Cinematographer: Christopher Doyle.



The backlight illuminates the subject from the back, often creates a glowing effect; provides separation from the background. You have to be careful as too much backlight gives the scene a theatrical look and can take the audience out of the scene if realism is the goal.



A kicker highlights the edges of a subject in the scene, also called an edge light or side light. Works best when it is motivated, otherwise the scene takes on an overly “theatrical” look.  Example: The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), Cinematographer: Gordon Willis.


Background light

The background light illuminates the background of the scene; can be provided by the key or fill or other source of illumination. Usually a stop or two under the primary object of attention in a scene. Example: The Betrayal (Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath, 2008), Cinematographer: Ellen Kuras.



Regular light sources like lamps, candles, televisions, etc. that appear in the scene are referred to as practicals. Most often we supplement the light they provide since they are often not bright enough to light the scene and the falloff (due the inverse-square law) is often problematic. Example: Another Year (Mike Leigh, 2010), Cinematographer: Dick Pope.



Direction: Where is the light coming from in relation to the lens/subject axis?  is it motivated? How does it enhance the storytelling? What does it express about the world and the character? //Examples: 1. frontal lighting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Philip Kaufman, 1988) Cinematographer: Sven Nykvist; 2. 45° lighting, Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942), Cinematographer: Arthur Edeson; 3. 90° lighting, Pandora’s Box (Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1929), Cinematographer: Günther Krampf ; 4.  backlighting, Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989), Cinematographer: Ernest Dickerson;  5. lighting from above, The Blackcoat’s Daughter (Oz Perkins, 2015), Cinematographer: Julie Kirkwood; 6. lighting from below, The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986), Cinematographer: Mark Irwin.


We use lighting to evoke mood, time of day, period, and more

We can use lighting to evoke mood, time of day, period, and more. Ultimately, cinematic lighting is focused on evoking emotion and helping to tell a story, however, it does not work alone, it is one component of a system that includes performances, wardrobe, production design, location, camera movement, visual effects, color grading, visual textures (e.g. film grain), and more. Let’s look at some examples.


Example: Tranquility

Soft lighting, earth tones, simplicty of the setting come together to evoke tranquilty. The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan, 1997), Cinematographer: Paul-Sarossy


Example: Loneliness

We can use lighting to evoke mood, for example, loneliness. Example: Chung King Express ( Kar-Wai Wong, 1994); Cinematographers: Christopher Doyle and Lau Wai-Keung.


Example: Danger and mystery

We can use lighting to evoke mood, for example, danger and mystery, Example: The Matrix (The Wachowskis, 1999), Cinematographer: Bill Pope.


Example: Ebullience

We can use lighting to evoke mood, for example, ebullience. Example: Amelie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001) Cinematographer: Bruno Delbonnel.


Example: Transcendence

We can use lighting to evoke mood, for example, transcendence, example: 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), Cinematographers: Geoffrey Unsworth and John Alcott.


Example: Time of day

We can use lighting to evoke time of day; example: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966) Cinematographer: Tonino Delli Colli; We can use lighting to evoke time of day; consider these scenes taking place at high noon, the after noon, night interior, night exterior. Consider the role that location and time of day play in setting the context and the mood of a scene.


Example: Historical period

We can use lighting to evoke the historical period, for example: the 1920s in The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion, 2021), Cinematographer:  Ari Wegner; the 1940s in The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1999), Cinematographer: John Toll; the 1960s in Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992), Cinematographer: Ernest Dickerson, or contemporary times, example: Barbie (Greta Gerwig, 2023), Cinematographer:  Rodrigo Prieto.


Example: Color temperature and mood

Contrasting images from Skyfall (Sam Mendez, 2012), Cnematographer: Roger Deakins; In cinematography, color temperature is chosen to create specific moods or aesthetics. For example, warmer light might be used to create a cozy, warm effect, while cooler light may be be used to create a cold and isolated environment.


Behind the scenes there is a lot going on

To create these looks, and evoke these moods, there is a lot going on behind the scenes; BTS image from Top Gun Maverick (Paramount Pictures); BTS image from Speed Racer (Warner Bros.); BTS image from Barbie (Warner Bros.); a scene lit with classic cove lighting by Roger Deakins, from the set of Revolutionary Road (DreamWorks); and BTS images from The Power of the Dog (Netflix).


Color associations

In her book, If It’s Purple, Someone's Gonna Die: The Power of Color in Visual-Storytelling, Patti Bellantoni examines how color influences an audience and furthers plot, character, and scene development. While color associations are not as cut and dry as Bellantoni presents, the book offers a reasonably good starting point on the topic. Image collages from The Psychology of Color in Film by Studio Binder.


Red is associated with love, passion, violence, danger, anger and power.



Pink is associated with innocence, sweetness, femininity, playfulness, empathy, and beauty.



Orange is associated with warmth, sociability, friendliness, happiness, the exotic, and youth.



Yellow is associated with madness, sickness, insecurity, obsessive behaviors, the idyllic, and naiveté.



Greens evoke nature, immaturity, corruption, a sense of the ominous, darkness, and danger. 



Blues evoke coldness, isolation, can give a scene a cerebral quality, as well as evoking melancholy and passivity, and even calm.



Violet is associated with fantasy, the ethereal, eroticism, illusion, mysticism, and can give a scene a ominous quality.

Copyright 2023 by David Tamés, some rights reserved. Licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4-0 License. Copyrighted materials incorporated herein are cited or acknowledged in each slide and are used under fair use guidelines for educational use of copyrighted material. All product and company names are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective holders. Use of them does not imply any affiliation with or endorsement by them.