It is one of those late September evenings, the air crisp, the threat of snow lingering on every breeze. The fog creeps in on silent feet, filling the valley with its eerie wisps.
The man who appears from the alley is a big man, the kind of big that says “Tread lightly around me.” The kind of big that says, “I do what I want.” The man looks out over the fog-covered river, his cigarette forgotten, its ash softly glowing with each breezy wisp.
Thus begins another entry into the world of a hard-bitten detective seeking his prey. How do you light it? How do you keep the mystery? Do you use standard three-point lighting, or is this one of those times you can break the rules? In this column, we will look at specialty lighting used to emphasize dramatic moments. We will look at lighting that does not follow the basic three-point lighting scheme, yet is very effective and often used.
High Key Versus Low Key
When deciding how to light your scene, you have to decide if you want it to be bright and cheery with few shadows or dramatic and full of emotion with plenty of shadows. What you are really deciding is whether to light the scene using high-key or low-key lighting.
The names “high key” and “low key” are a bit confusing, because you do absolutely nothing to the key when creating the type of light you desire. The key light is always set up so that the tonal value of the talent’s face is correct, meaning it is neither so bright that it glows nor so dark that it turns an ugly gray color. Using the light meter in your camera or an external meter, set your lights and camera so that the key gives you the best possible exposure for your talent’s face. Then adjust the fill light to create the high- or low-key look.
High-key lighting, sometimes called “game show” or “sitcom” lighting, is lighting that has very little shading. The key, fill and background lighting is very even and shows little variation and virtually no shadows. This type of lighting gives the scene a very bright and cheery look – just the type of effect you are looking for when shooting a comedy or game show.
Low-key lighting has a great deal of shadow, depending on the intensity of the scene. The fill light, which usually fills in the shadows, is greatly reduced. The less fill, the more drama. Keep in mind that the fill light also tells the viewer the time of day, the location and the type of ambient light available, as well as the mood. Because of this, you have to be very careful when creating low-key lighting, so that it looks natural and fits the scene. You don’t want to create low-key lighting just because you think it looks cool or you want to show off your lighting prowess! Let’s take a closer look at this type of lighting.
You can use number of low-key lighting techniques to make your scene look more dramatic. One technique is chiaroscuro lighting. Cinematographers use this type of lighting to create a very dramatic look in a scene. To create this lighting scheme, you will use very little, if any, fill light. The object is to create a very dramatic difference between the light and dark areas of the scene. One of the most dramatic ways to create this type of lighting is to place a hard light directly to the side of your talent at the height of the bridge of the nose. Move the light towards the 8:00 position on the lighting clock, so that it catches the eye on the unlit side of the face. By catching both eyes with the light, you keep your talent from looking like a one-eyed monster. You can then throw a splash of light on a back wall or background object to provide some sense of depth in the shot. You now have a very dramatic lighting scheme with two lights.
Rembrandt lighting is a type of chiaroscuro lighting named after the master Dutch painter. Rembrandt used to light his subjects by placing them near a large north-facing window. The windows were about 45 degrees above the subject, and the northerly direction provided an even light without the problem of trying to diffuse bright, harsh, direct sunlight. The angle of the windows helped to emphasize the shape of his subject’s face, producing a very 3D look to his paintings.
You can easily duplicate the Rembrandt look by placing a light 45 degrees above your talent and at the 7:30/8:00 position on the lighting clock. When the light is correctly placed, the side of your talent’s face that is slightly turned away from the camera will be fully lit, and the side towards the camera will have a very distinct triangle of light that falls below the eye and travels down to the corner of the mouth. If you want a little more drama, make the triangle smaller by moving the light more to the side of your subject.
To create more depth in the picture, flag your light so the background is dark, and set up another light to throw a splash of light or color on the background or an object or person in the background.
A variation of Rembrandt lighting adds a touch of backlight set up behind the talent on the opposite side of the key. This is a little less dramatic, but it does provide a little more depth to your talent. Make sure that there is a sense of where the light is coming from in the scene and that the talent doesn’t seem to be backlit just for effect.
Still another variation of the Rembrandt technique uses very controlled lighting to light only those parts of the picture you wish to see. If your talent is reading a book, carefully use your backlight to light your talent’s face, by reflecting the light off the pages of the book. You do not even use a key light in this case, and the dramatic effect is quite amazing. Add a splash of light on the background to create depth, and you have a very good duplication of the master’s paintings.
Have you ever seen a cameo pin or necklace? The figure in the piece is usually white or cream-colored against a very dark background. You can duplicate this look very easily by using cameo lighting.
Cameo lighting uses two lights. Set up one at about a 60-degree angle above your talent at the 6:30/7:00 position on the lighting clock, and set up another directly opposite the first – 60 degrees above and behind the talent. The front light or key light will provide a wash across the talent’s face, but, because there is no fill light, there will be dark shadows on the side of the talent’s face opposite the key. The backlight will provide a rim light that will give the talent a three-dimensional look. Make sure you flag the key light from the background, so that there is no light in the background and it is totally black. This is a very dramatic look and, with careful placement of flags and lights, you can accomplish this type of lighting even in a small white-walled room.
Now, how should you light the detective? He needs to have a sitting-in-the-shadows look, but enough highlight so his image isn’t muddy. For this type of lighting, you need to light only the background. You want to make sure that no light falls on the front of your talent. If you want to make the talent look very dramatic and a little more three-dimensional, you can add a backlight exactly opposite the camera, making sure you can’t see the light or its stand in the shot and that you flag the light off your camera lens. If you are going to add fog to the scene, light it from behind.
Whether you are shooting a detective story or a dramatic love scene, you can enhance the scene by using these special lighting techniques. Always remember to control all lighting with flags, and be very aware of the placement of your shadows. Every time you light a scene, you want to create a realistic yet dramatic look that will pull your audience members into the scene and make them a part of your film world. Help them feel the crisp air, the cool breeze. Take them along as the detective searches for his next clue hidden in the shadows you create.
Contributing editor Dr. Robert G. Nulph teaches video and film production at the college level and is an independent video/film director.