Dramatic Lighting Livens up Videos

There was a time when dramatic lighting and video production were mortal enemies. Early video cameras needed so much light to create a clean picture that it was nearly impossible to create the dramatic lighting effects found in motion picture dramas. That time has passed into a distant memory. Today’s video cameras are so sensitive to light that it is sometimes hard to shoot on a sunny day without adding neutral density filters to your lens to cut down the intensity of the light. We live in an age where it’s easy to achieve dramatic lighting with just a little know-how and some ingenuity.

In this column we’ll look at some different styles of dramatic lighting and describe ways you can achieve the desired results. We’ll start by taking a look at some basic accessories you can use to turn any ordinary video production into a dramatic presentation.

The Shadow Knows

The key to dramatic lighting is creating and controlling shadow. There are a number of tools that professionals lighting designers use to block, cast and focus lights and shadows.

Three basic lighting tools used to create and control shadows are the flag, barndoors and snoot.

A flag is an opaque panel or card (usually black) that blocks light from a lighting instrument and casts a shadow on your subject or background.

Barndoors are adjustable metal flaps that attach to the front of a light. By opening or closing the flaps, you can control the shape and size of a light beam.

For a very narrow beam of light, you might use a snoot, a funnel shaped metal cone that fits over the front of a light.

Finally, the most important tool in the lighting designer’s bag is imagination. By visualizing the effect you want to create and by experimenting with the tools mentioned above, you can achieve a myriad of different lighting effects to match the mood you are trying to create.

Dramatic Lighting Primer

The key to deciding how to light a scene is determining the effect you want to have on the audience. You may want to draw your viewer’s attention to a particular part of the frame. You may want to duplicate the natural illumination that occurs in a scene. By keeping your intentions in mind, and using the tools described above, you can create a dramatic scene that will impact your audience.

  • Cameo Appearance

    Cameo lighting is usually used to light a single person without lighting his or her surroundings. To create cameo lighting, place a small, intense light about sixty degrees above and at about the one o’clock position in front of the subject. The light will fill the subject’s face and create hard shadows to one side of the nose and below the chin. Make sure you position the light low enough to catch a glint in the subject’s eye yet not so low as to spill onto the background. This is called cameo lighting because it duplicates the effect you find on a cameo stone, a light figure on a dark background.
  • Rembrandt Lighting

    Lighting designers use this technique to highlight specific features of their subject, the eyes for example, while keeping everything else in shadows.

    You can achieve this look by using flags, barn doors and some diffusion material. By carefully flagging and diffusing ordinary three-point lighting, you can reduce the amount of light that falls on the background. This will allow you to change the placement and quality of the light on your subject’s face or body and direct the viewer to focus his attention on whatever you wish him to.
  • Silhouette Lighting

    Silhouette lighting is also a highly dramatic way to light a scene. To create the silhouette effect, light your background with flat lighting and place a backlight on your subject. You will not be able to see any features of your subject, just a distinct outline. Video producers often use this type of lighting to keep the subject’s identity a secret or show clandestine meetings.

  • Motivated Lighting

    Motivated lighting simulates light that comes from sources established in a scene. Say you’re shooting a scene in a living room at night. Your subjects are sitting on a couch looking into each other’s eyes. At the camera-left end of the couch is an end table with a lit table lamp. A street light filters through the picture window behind the couple. To light this scene, you would need to duplicate the light coming from the table lamp and the streetlight coming through the picture window.

    You can duplicate the lamp by placing a soft light behind, slightly above and to the camera side of the lamp. Make sure that the shadow of the lamp itself is not cast on the actors. By putting a 15-watt bulb in the lamp, you’ll still get a glow from the lamp but the real light from the scene will be coming from the soft light. To keep the lampshade from showing light on its outside, carefully flag the light so that only the lampshade is in shadow. For closeups of each of the subject’s faces, use a bounce card to add a little reflected fill light from the lamp or streetlight.

    By placing an intense blue-gelled light outside the window and covering the window with sheer curtains, you can easily duplicate the effect of light coming from outdoors. By turning a red-gelled light focused on the window frame on and off, you can create a blinking neon sign effect. Adding partially opened blinds to the window will create a very dramatic effect if the outdoor light is focused to throw the striped shadows on the subjects’ faces as they turn toward the window. By altering the position of the outdoor light, you can achieve the desired slant of the shadows. If you keep the indoor, lamp light fairly low, the window effect will be very dramatic.
  • Nighttime Car Interior

    You can achieve dramatic and believable car interior lighting effect with a little gaffer’s tape, two small cool-blue fluorescent lights, two or three small flashlights and some diffusion material. By taping the two fluorescent tubes under both the driver’s and passenger’s sides of the dashboard and covering them with diffusion material, you can create a believable lit car interior. The more diffusion material you use, the less intense the light. By rhythmically shining a spot of light across the hood of the car, you can duplicate the passing of streetlights. Passing two evenly spaced flashlights across the back of the car and into the rear-view mirror will duplicate the passing of another car. Supplement all of these techniques with some realistic sound effects and you can easily create a night driving scene.
  • Colored Lights and Smoke

    Don’t be afraid of using color gels and smoke to add a touch of drama to your scene. You can find relatively inexpensive heat-resistant lighting gels in some video stores and in most theatrical supply houses. Deep reds, blues and greens are the most effective colors. The darker the subject or surface, the more intense the color will be. Keep in mind that when you use colored gels, be sure to white balance your camera with the white light on your set, not the colored light.

    Smoke created by smoke machines, incense or cigarettes can add a dramatic touch to your lighting. To see the smoke, light it from behind. To see a beam of light, pass it through smoke from slightly behind. If you choose to go more high tech, smoke machines have come a long way. You can now rent smoke machines for a small fee and the chemical smoke they create is non-toxic and doesn’t leave your cast and crew rushing for the door. For a more friendly work environment, cigarettes and incense are usually not suggested to create smoke unless needed as part of a scene.

    By combining the right lighting setup and a bit of colored light to a soft smoky atmosphere, you can increase the dramatic intensity of a scene tremendously.

    The secret to dramatic lighting is learning how to accentuate your subject with light and cloak the rest with shadow. It’s the contrast between the light and dark that makes for a dramatic set. By experimenting and practicing with different techniques you can dramatically increase the quality of your video productions.
The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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