7 Techniques That Can Help You Tell Better Stories With Light
Light can be a powerful storyteller if you know how to use it.
Filmmaking is an intricate art form in that everything that makes up the frame, including the size and shape of the frame itself, can be used to communicate different things to your audience. This visual language is not only necessary for keeping your storytelling economic and efficient but it also encourages viewers to get involved and participate in the storytelling process, meaning that they are less likely to passively observe your film and more likely to be actively engaged with it instead.
One cinematic element that filmmakers have used to "speak" to audiences is lighting. Ever since the dawn of cinema, filmmakers and cinematographers have added to the cinematic lexicon of light to help viewers understand and enjoy films on a deeper, sometimes subconscious, level.
A character silhouetted in an alley: bad guy. A softly lit woman with a glowing edge light: love interest. The list of examples goes on and on, but if you want to gain a deeper understanding of how to use lighting to add dimension and narrative complexity to your films, check out this video from Aputure's Ted Sim. In it, you'll learn seven ways lighting can be used to elicit different emotions from your audience.
Even if you've never made a film before you probably know that the way someone is lit will change your impression of them. I mean, we've all put a flashlight under our chins to scare our siblings, right? Lighting can change context, so it's important to know how to light scenes depending on not only the mood or atmosphere you're trying to create but on how much visual information you want to provide your audience as well.
Here's a basic overview of the techniques Sim talks about in the video.
- Make important people/objects/etc. shine brighter in the frame to draw your audience's attention.
- Use light to communicate a point-of-view, like using horror lighting techniques on the scary next door neighbor when a group of kids passes by.
- Lighting can be used to separate individuals into groups (i.e. the darkly light characters and the brightly lit characters).
- Tailor your lighting to the emotional impact of a scene. For example, soft lighting easily translates to "soft" emotional moments, like a character feeling joyful, in love, or content.
- Color is a great tool for eliciting emotion because, in most cultures, colors carry with them an emotional connotation, like red representing love or anger, blue representing sadness or courage, and so on.
- Movement is an easy way to ramp up the emotional energy of a scene. Filmmakers do this by moving their cameras as well as their actors, but you can also do this with lights. (Sidenote: This is referred to as "kinetic energy" in aesthetic theory.)
- Another POV tip, light only what your character can see. This will not only help create suspense but it will also guide your viewers' eye and limit the amount of visual information you want to give them.
The techniques Sim mentions in the video are great, but this is just the beginning. There are so many more ways you can manipulate the mood of a scene with lighting, so feel free to share your favorite techniques down in the comments.