How we light reveals a whole lot about our unconscious biases.
Social attitudes, if they are pervasive enough, surface in every aspect of culture. Because film is inextricably linked with the zeitgeist, whatever attitudes are circulating within it tend to transfer to the silver screen in ways one might not immediately recognize.
Since the early days of film, directors and cinematographers have treated women differently from men in front of the camera. This video essay by Allison Kelly takes a hard look at the ways in which filming of women has changed—or not—over time.
In the early days of popular film—the 1910s and 1920s—cinematographers' approaches to filming women were heavily based on the methodology of portrait photography. At the center of the picture would be the "subject" lit by three lights: the key light, a side light offering most of the light we see; the fill light, which, placed at a 45-degree distance from the key light, dispels any shadows the more dominant key light might have cast on the subject's face; and the backlight, which comes from behind the subject and makes it stand out against the background.
Men received the same three-pronged lighting treatment, but the result was considerably less soft or gentle than the images of women. Contrasts were heightened, and very little about an actor's features might be blurred or made less distinct. Men, to be blunt, never received the same "hair halo" women received via clever lighting techniques. This continued for decades.
As time passed, the approach to filming female subjects became somewhat more subtle, dispensing with exaggerated, complex accents. Yet some of the old attitudes still applied. Kelly points out the example of Wuthering Heights (1939), in which Merle Oberon's Cathy received just a little bit of backlighting behind her bonnet as she lay in bed, or her tiara as she circulated in society, to set her apart from male characters.
In the present day, filmmakers do not necessarily stick to gendered guidelines as much as they might have in the past. Yet we can see traces, here and there, of the old approach. Kelly uses provocative examples to make her point. Look, for example, at the way Cate Blanchett's Jasmine is lit in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine: in scenes in which she is ostensibly more stable, the lighting is softer and more flattering, but in scenes which depict her less stable side, the lighting suddenly becomes much more severe, inviting an adverse response from the audience.
As you watch your favorite films, can you identify ways in which the technical side of the movie reflects prevailing social attitudes? Let us know in the comments.