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Lighting for Narrative Cinema

While it can be very similar to videography and even dramatic photography, narrative film work can also be extremely different. First of all, you are always in the service of the story. Every decision made by the cinematographer/director of photography and the gaffer (chief lighting technician) is to accentuate the story and the characters that comprise it. Each light source should be inspired by where the movie scene is based and used as a tool to advance the progression of the story itself. The stories, personalities and even the moods of the characters can be told with lighting alone. As an example to help guide you through my thought process, I’ll provide screenshots from one of my recent short films: “The Dotted Line.”

The opening shot of The Dotted Line was a long dolly to reveal the character within the country sports bar scene.

This location was key to the main lighting design for this production. I was originally looking for a house, but ended up landing on this country-style sports bar by chance (sometimes things work out for the best!). Now, the location is where the lighting design begins. First of all, we take a look at what the spot brings us in terms of existing lighting. In this particular space, we sit our character right next to a large open window. This means that our main source of light would be the sun. I wanted to go with a dreary bar-to-noon feel, so I used the power of the sun and blended it with the local beige tones. This gave me a lot of power to have a key source, but spread it enough to keep the grim look I was going for. However, working with the sun can be tricky. It is very powerful and provides clean, natural light, but you have to manage your timing as the position of the sun changes rapidly throughout the day. This particular session was done over a span of 2 days, with a call and finish from 7am to 5pm. m. to 5 p.m.

Here you can see the brighter side of the actress’ her face is being illuminated by the sun; as well as the soft fade on the background, which helps to illuminate the bar sufficiently. The shadows in the location provided just enough diffusion for the key light to be nice and soft.

Now the second source he had was the lighting within the bar itself. Like I said before I wanted a gloomy, dreary midday look, the lights inside the location itself were 6000 kelvin fluorescent. I knew I had to trade it in for a nicer light source, but still used motivation to determine where I would put my new source. I ended up installing a 200wt 3000 kelvin LED bulb wrapped in a paper lantern (for diffusion) just above the pool table, to the rear left of the actress. This bulb provided an overall ambience to the bar that was warm, contrasting with the daylight, but dim enough not to overpower the (G) key we had already set. Now that I had my sources set up, I could go in with other lights to help accentuate the look of my actors!

Getting 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 role of a helpless downtrodden young woman whose despair has driven her to sell her soul to a demon. For the lighting she wanted her to be the center of attention, she was the backbone of the story, she wanted to give her a kind of innocence, making her brighter than everything and everyone around her. On the opposite side of her is Damien, shown below.

Damien is a low level demon, bent on filling a quota of conned souls. He wanted him to be darker and more mysterious, wrapped in shadows. This led me to incorporate some extra diffusion on the key (Sun) side, as well as cutting off all the fill light and up-lighting the wall behind it to give a more cut-out look. This made him and his surroundings darker than Eris, creating an instant sense of difference and conflict between the two characters just by using the lighting.

This is just a simple version of lighting for each character specifically, but hopefully it will give you an idea of ​​some of the basics of cinematic lighting in narrative situations. Always remember, story comes first, if you service this, everything else will fall into line!

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