June 24, 2017

A Guide on How to Use Light to Communicate Emotion for Film

Light is an excellent communicator. Here's how to use it to speak to your audience more effectively.

How can light convey emotion? After all, it's just a bunch of particles and waves that don't seem to carry any emotional information whatsoever. However, humans have managed to infuse some of their goopy, drippy, delicious feelings into an otherwise neutral and indifferent phenomenon, giving meaning to different kinds of lighting that we can use in our filmmaking. In this video, Jay P. Morgan of The Slanted Lens explains how you can use light to communicate different emotions to your audience. Check it out below:

It's always a good idea to be constantly adding new words to your cinematic lexicon, especially when it comes to lighting, because, you know, it's like one of the most important pillars of our medium.

Light quality and contrast

Morgan touches on the essential concepts of emotional lighting, including how low key and high key lighting, as well as high and low contrast convey different emotional messages. For example, low key lighting with a lot of contrast is great for communicating fear, anxiety, distrust, and evilness, while high key lighting with little contrast is great for communicating happiness, peacefulness, joy, and contentment. 

Color

Furthermore, the color of your light has a huge impact on the message you're sending your audience about the emotion of the scene. (This has more to do with the psychological interpretations of color rather than light, but it's still important.) Putting some blue gels on your light can make things look solemn, sad, and depressing, while using warmer gels can have the opposite effect.

Direction

The direction of your light plays a role in how audiences will perceive the subject and environment in a scene as well. Consider this: we've all put a flashlight under our chin to tell a scary story, right? That's because the light distorts the features on our faces with long, hard shadows making us look scary. The same idea applies to other light positions in relation to a subject. If you direct your light to create less shadows, your subject will appear neutral and nonthreatening, but the more you adjust it to create shadows, the more your subject will appear dubious, untrustworthy, scary, and a whole range of other things.

Though there is so much more to learn about how to use lighting to convey emotions, Morgan's lesson is a great place to start. In case you want a little more information on the subject, you can head over to his blog post to learn more.     

Your Comment

5 Comments

But, for example, how would you make someone "look evil" in a hot sunny exterior location ? If the light is bent too much to suit the mood, surely there is a risk of losing the believable setting ?

June 25, 2017 at 6:59PM

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Saied M.
1221

I would say you pretty much have 2 options: 1: use acting and color. or 2: do what the movies do and use the location and time of day as a storytelling device. How often do you find out a character is evil on a hot sunny day when watching a movie? Rewrite the scene to make sure the tone and emotion come off properly. Maybe if it HAS to be on a hot sunny day the scene takes place in an alley? Or the character has some sort of physical indicator. The location and set design play a lot into the lighting of a film, so when considering emotion of a scene the two should go hand in hand.

The genre of film will also help dictate how much room to play with light there is before it becomes "unbelievable".

June 25, 2017 at 7:25PM

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Jeremiah Kuehne
Filmmaker
812

I think it'd be original to use a sunny day to present the bad guy. Maybe I'd make a closer framing, or just show him/her looking at the hero half a second longer than it should. There's also the expression, I can't remember the name of a study that was about smiling, how it can radically change the perception of someone.

June 26, 2017 at 9:09AM

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Abi Stricker
Student
396

To add to this thought, camera angle/ movement can also be used to accentuate your reveal.

June 26, 2017 at 1:06PM, Edited June 26, 1:05PM

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Yes, of course you can use different things to cue your audience in that a person is evil, but if your goal is to use lighting it usually involves choosing a proper location to set the scene in to create the mood.

June 26, 2017 at 6:06PM

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Jeremiah Kuehne
Filmmaker
812