Light Source: In the Mood? Creating Mood with Light

The next time you go to a movie or rent a video, pay close attention to the way the director uses lighting to help create the mood in a scene. Good lighting designers work very closely with directors to build a lighting scheme that adds to the drama of a scene and intensifies the emotions we often just attribute to the actors or the action. Lighting can make a scene feel happy, sad, mysterious or even dangerous.

Throughout this column we will talk about the various ways you can set up lighting to achieve different emotional feels for the same scene. We will discuss light placement, color, strength and variations on the basic key, fill and back light setup that is used in three-point lighting.

Light Quality

To master the art of altering mood with lighting you have to remember a few basic principles. The hardness or softness of light effects mood dramatically. The more diffused the light is, the softer and smoother it will look. To remember this more easily, look at a shadow cast by the sun. On a bright sunny day, the shadow is dark and the edges are very sharp because the sun is a strong, intense light. We call this hard lighting. On an overcast day, the shadows have very little definition and are soft at the edges. This is because a huge diffusion layer of clouds covers the sun. We call this soft lighting.

Play around with your lights and see for yourself how to control the hardness or softness of the light. Keep in mind also, that light intensity is dependent upon its distance from the subject. If you double the distance of a light from the talent, you are decreasing its intensity by one fourth. If you halve the distance between the light and the talent, you quadruple the intensity of light. With these concepts under your belt, let’s go to the studio.

Controlling Mood

The quality of the overall lighting scheme and its effect on mood is often dependent on the relationship between the key and fill lights. If they are about the same intensity, the scene will be perceived as bright and happy. As the fill becomes less and less intense, the scene becomes more dramatic. The back light also plays a role. The more intense the back light, the more dramatic the effect.

In a studio situation, or your living room, whichever is more convenient, set up a seat with space for two people to talk to each other. You can either have them sit in separate chairs or on a couch or bench. Throughout the exercise, they are to talk normally and say the same things without adding emotional inflections to their words or body language. Let the lighting create the mood.


  • SETUP ONE
    Emotionally Neutral Lighting
    The first setup will be a basic emotionally neutral setup. This is what we call a high key setup. This type of lighting is commonly used in news, game shows and sitcoms. The lighting casts very few shadows and makes everything seem bright and happy.
    Place your lights in standard three-point lighting positions for one camera with the key and fill spread enough to cover both participants. Set key lights approximately 45 degrees above the subjects. The key light for the person on the left, will be the fill light for the person on the right and vise versa. Add an extra back light so that they each have their own back light. Make sure all of the lights are the same intensity and fairly soft. You can use tough spun diffusion material in front of the instruments to soften them a bit. Now let’s change the lighting set up to create another mood.

  • SETUP TWO
    Dramatic/Serious Lighting


    For Setup 2 you will need to add some flags. A flag is a movable flap placed in front of a light source for casting shadows and preventing light from spilling onto areas where you don’t want it. For this setup, each of the talent will be lit by a key light, but the fill light will be somewhat reduced. Flag the key and fill lights so that the spill doesn’t fall on the other person. Also, flag the back lights to make sure their spill does not hit the other person. The effect you should get from this setup is one with a little more emotional tension. There will be shadows on the fill sides of the talent and the lighting will appear a bit more dramatic. This type of lighting implies that the actors are discussing a serious situation. Let’s add more drama.

  • SETUP THREE
    Strong/Emotional Lighting
    For Setup 3, take the diffusion material off the front of the lights to increase their hardness. Also move the key and fill further apart so there is more separation of their beams. These simple changes will achieve a dramatic effect. The light falling on the talent will create a hard shadow line and, if properly flagged, should create a feeling of dark, strong emotions. You should, however, still be able to see the background. This gives the audience a feeling of normalcy because they have reference objects they can hang onto. Let’s change that.
  • SETUP FOUR
    High Intensity Lighting
    Setup 4 introduces a style called cameo lighting. Raise your key lights so they are sixty degrees above each of the talent. Flag the lights so that there is absolutely no spill reaching the walls. You should focus and flag the back lights so that they’re only hitting your subjects. You will also want to move the back lights further away or diffuse them so they’re less intense. The result should be a dramatically lit scene where you see your talent suspended in a space with no walls. This should create a feeling of high drama, an intensity of mood, of either deep love or deep terror. Without the reference point of the walls, the audience is drawn closer to the talent creating a strong emotional bond. Directors often use this type of lighting to intensify scenes and create a feeling of impending doom or dramatically increased emotion.


  • SETUP FIVE
    Intrigue Lighting
    By placing a single back light high above and between the two talents, you create yet another mood. Again the mood of loneliness or danger can be portrayed or perhaps forbidden love. The single light acts like a street light in some lonely corner of the world. If you add some fog to the mix, you will have a decidedly powerful lighting setup.
  • SETUP SIX
    Silhouette Lighting
    Taking the theme we have created one step further, think silhouette. This adds a sense of danger, forbidden romance or maintaining a secret identity. For this setup to be effective, you have to make sure that no spill light is reflected onto the talent. Point a single light at the set behind your talent, lighting the background while leaving them in shadow.
  • Light it Right
    Whether you’re shooting for the happy, high-key lighting like you find on game shows, or the dark and mysterious lighting of a murder mystery, you can use the principles we describe here. Work with them to create your own special lighting signature. The most important thing to remember is that lighting is more of an art than a science. It’s a powerful tool that can communicate different moods of the same scene. So next time you light your set, increase its emotional intensity with a dramatic lighting set up.

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