Cinematography is such a powerful tool that it can turn a hero into a villain with a simple tilt of a light.
Villains...you know 'em when you see 'em. At least that's the case in film.
In real life, "bad guys" look like everyday people—your next-door neighbor, your co-worker, even the person sleeping right next to you—which is terrifying in its own right. But in movies, filmmakers will often use cinematic tools to alert audiences to their character's hidden nefariousness, especially when it comes to lighting.
In this video, PremiumBeat's Rubidium Wu breaks down several lighting techniques you can use to give your characters that iconic villainous look. Check it out below.
Most people, even non-filmmakers, know a few of the lighting tricks at play here. Even as kids, we knew shining a flashlight under our chin would make us look scary as hell as we told ghost stories—we just didn't know we were using the uplighting technique.
So, let's go over a few techniques and talk about some of the concepts that filmmakers use to make characters look like villains.
Dehumanization, Death, and Distortion
Why do villains from 1980s slashers wear so many masks? Why are clowns so scary? Why do pale faces terrify us? Well, because they remind us of things that aren't human or aren't alive.
Being able to see someone's face, especially their eyes, allows us to assess their threat level—do they look threatening, do they look friendly. So, when those things are hidden or hard to see, we're unable to determine whether or not they pose a danger, which produces anxiety and fear.
Aside from using masks and makeup, filmmakers use lighting techniques to obscure and distort faces, like uplighting (lighting from the bottom of the face), skull lighting (lighting from the top to create a "skull" effect on the face), and silhouette (lighting behind your subject to put them in complete shadow).
Does anybody remember the terrifying white face of the demon in The Exorcist? I bet you do...even though it only flashed on the screen for a fraction of a second. But why? Why is it so memorable and how were we able to figure out that it was villainous?
Well, it has a lot to do with the fact that the face makeup was pale white (a signifier of death), but lighting also played a huge role, too, namely the "lightning effect".
When we are only allowed to see flashes of an image, the lack of visual information confuses us and causes us to try to "fill in the blanks" to understand what we've seen. Now, when those flashes are consistent and long or rapid enough for us to see images clearly (this phenomenon, called persistence of vision, essentially allows us to watch movies!), there's no problem. It's only when the intervals and frequency of light are short and irregular that we begin to get uneasy about the character we're seeing.
The Color of Death
What colors remind you of death, fear, and danger? Even if you've never studied color theory you probably have some in mind right now, most likely red and green.
Though red is often associated with love and passion, it's also the color of blood, warning signs, fire, and hell. This is why you'll often see villains appear in red lighting, to signify their bloodlust, the danger they put others in, and their fiery depths to which their souls will eventually descend.
Green, on the other hand, is often associated with youth, growth, and nature, but it can also signify jealousy, illness, and greed. So, you can easily use a green color gel in tandem with one of the lighting techniques mentioned earlier to give your villain a sickly or dangerously ambitious look.
Not all villains belong in horror films, but if you're really trying to make your homicidal maniac or ax-wielding psychopath look as scary as possible, there are many other great lighting techniques you can use.