While it can be very similar to videography and even dramatic photography, narrative cinematic work can also be extremely different. First and foremost you are always servicing the story. Each decision made by the DoP (Director of Photography / Cinematographer) and gaffer (chief lighting technician) is to accent the story and the characters within. Each light source must be inspired by where the film’s scene is based, and be used as a tool to further the progression of the story itself. Character’s stories, personalities, and even moods can be told through the lighting alone. As an example to help guide you along my thought process, I will provide screenshots from one of my recent short films: “The Dotted Line.”
This location was key to the main lighting design for this production. I was originally searching for a home but ended up falling into this country-style sports bar on chance (sometimes things work out for the better!) Now, the location is where the lighting design begins. First, we take a look at what the spot gives us in terms of existing lighting. In this particular space, we sat our character just next to a large open window. This means our main light source would be the sun. I wanted to go with a dingy, midday bar feel, so I used the power of the sun and diffused it with the location’s beige shades. This gave me plenty of power to have a key source but diffused it enough to keep that gloomy look I was after. However, working with the sun can be tricky. It is very powerful and provides clean, natural light, but you have to manage time as the position of the sun shifts quickly throughout the day. This shoot in particular was done over a 2-day span, with a 7am to 5pm call and wrap, allowing for plenty of time with semi-consistent sun power.
Here you can see the brighter side of the actress’ face is being lit by the sun; as well as, the soft cast over the background, helping illuminate the bar just enough. The location’s shades provided enough diffusion to make the key light soft and pleasant.
Now, the second source I had was the lighting within the bar itself. Like I said before, I wanted a gloomy, dingy, midday look, the lights within the location itself were 6000-kelvin fluorescent. I knew I had to change it to a more pleasing light source, but I still used the motivation to determine where I would place my new source. I ended up rigging a 200wt 3,000-kelvin LED bulb wrapped in a paper lantern (for diffusion) just above the pool table to the back left of the actress. This bulb provided a general ambiance to the bar that was warm, contrasting the daylight, but still dim enough not to overpower the key (Sun) we had already established. Now that I had my established sources, I could come in with other lights to help accentuate the look on my actors!
Going back to lighting and story/characters, let’s talk about how to light specific characters. Above is the character of Eris, she is essentially a con artist playing the part of a helpless downtrodden young woman whose desperation has led her to sell her soul to a demon. For her lighting I wanted to make her the center of attention, she was the backbone of the story, I wanted to give her a sort of innocence, making her brighter than everything and everyone around her. On her opposite is Damien, featured below.
Damien is a low-level demon, bent on filling a quota of souls swindled. I wanted him to be darker and more mysterious, shrouded in shadow. This led me to bring in extra diffusion in the key (Sun) side, as well as cutting all fill light and uplighting the wall behind him to give more of a silhouetted look. This made him and his surroundings darker than Eris, creating an instant feeling of difference and conflict between the two characters just by using lighting.
This is just a simple version of lighting to each character specifically, but hopefully, it gives you an idea of some of the basics of cinematic lighting in narrative situations. Always remember, first comes the story, if you service this everything else will fall in line!