If you’re here to learn more about filmmaking, you’re in the right place! In this article, we will talk about what is cinematic lighting and how it is used in movies. If you want to read more articles about filmmaking, you can browse our blog. 

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Without further ado, let’s get into cinematic lighting!

What is Cinematic Lighting?

Cinematic lighting refers to the application of light used in any type of film, from live-action to 2D animation.

Often, beginning filmmakers tend to overlook the importance of lighting and tend to give the vast majority of the credit to other visual aspects, like post-production.

Lighting not only serves for the practical purpose of visibility. But there’s also a huge artistic purpose that serves to set down the tone and mood of a film.

As seen below, Rocky 4 handles light like a true champ. Not only can we see a very clean composition where the characters’ silhouettes stand out from the dark background. But the rim light hitting on their bodies also adds up to set a dramatic, intense tone in this face-off scene. 

Of course, it also helps those jacked guns pop off better.

Cinematic Lighting Rocky 4 picture

Cinematic Lighting in Film 

There are endless ways you can illuminate a scene to create whatever effect you desire. In fact, it wouldn’t be even possible to cover everything in a single blog post.

Thus, said, I’ll show you the typically used lights in production. This way, you can get a good grip on how these affect your subject.

Once you fully understand these, you’re free to play and experiment with light as much as you like.

Key Light: Key light is referred to as the main source of light (thus, the hardest light) in a scene,  It’s essentially your main source of light and the one which will illuminate your subject the most. Key light can be divided into two variations:

  1. Cinematic Lighting – This is referred to as the key light source illuminating the scene from outside the frame of the camera.
  2. Practical lighting – Defined as any light source which remains within the boundaries of the camera frame. It’s mostly used to add visual information and flavor to the scene. These can be anything from floor lamps, hanging lights, oil lamps to the shining golden idol from Indiana Jones.

Fill Light: Fill light is known for lighting up the overall shadow cast by the main key light. As you may already know, the harder the light, the darker the shadow.

So depending on your scene, you might want to add fill light to brighten up the shadows.

Rim Light: Also known as edge-lighting, helps illuminate the edges of your subject’s silhouette, just like the Rocky 4 scene above.

In said scene, the rim lights appear to be stronger than the rest. Adding a dramatic effect on the scene. Of course, these usually tend to be lowered down a little, just enough for the subject to pop from the background. 

But how do we set up all three lights?

Simple, in the following manner:

cinematic lighting setup

Cinematic Lighting for Animation

Before explaining the differences between live-action and animation, we need to understand the main aspects of both styles.

Animations typically tend to portray overly-exaggerated characters and themes better than live-action movies as a whole. This is due to the fact that everything from character design to voice acting is far more stretched out than its live-action counterpart.

Surprise surprise, color, and lighting are often exaggerated in animation as well. 

Given that the vast majority of animations tend to have a little bit less texture detail. The visual focus tends to be purposely drawn towards lit areas where the eye meets colorful, saturated tones. 

Less textured elements along with dramatic lighting and color help a scene become easily readable. And it’s impossible to forget about Sergio Pablos’ Klaus movie when stating the above. 

Cinematic Lighting Klaus picture

At first glance, we immediately get to distinguish the characters in the scene, casting the toy dancer’s silhouette aside. Naturally, our eyes follow the path towards the brightest point of light, and that’s where we set our eyes. Right on the toy carousel.

Just by taking a quick stare at the screenshot of the scene above, we can fully appreciate the intention behind the lighting and color. It’s a cozy, loving, and unique moment, and It’s easy to tell.

When we think about animation, we usually tend to associate it with cartoons. With a similar light setup as the one above.

However, knowledge in the field and the overall improvement of rendering tools have made the creation of realistic 3D animations more frequent. Thus, stories are being told through animation now more than ever.

Of course, the animation is still animation, and no matter how realistic it may be, it frequently helps deliver a stronger message, rather than being open to the viewer’s interpretation.

Let’s use Netflix’s ¨Love Death and Robots Bad Trip¨ episode as an example. Although the animation and light physics provide life-like visuals, the use of light and therefore shadows help deliver a dramatic tone to the episode.

In fact, if you’ve seen this masterpiece of an episode, you’ll know that the enigmatic light setup is an ill-omen of the tragedy that is to come.

Cinematic Lighting Bad Traveling picture

As I’ve said before, animation, no matter how cartoony or realistic, helps communicate a more exaggerated message. Or at least in the majority of the cases.

Of course, we do get to see this type of lighting in live-action films too. Art directors just have to be aware it does not affect the mood in an undesired way.

In fact, the vampire-hunter movie, Blade, is based on a comic, and even looks like one. The same dramatic, comic-like light effects are used to portray the dark mood of the film. 

Cinematic Lighting Blade picture

This lighting style is not exclusive to animation only.  However, we do tend to see it more in animated movies rather than live-action

Cinematic Lighting for Movies

Cinematic lighting in live-action films tends to be essentially quite the opposite of that of traditional 2D animation. The main reason is that real-life usually has more texture detail than animation. Thus enhancing an image’s light and the color tends to be too overwhelming for us to look at.

Whereas if we used diffused lighting and low color saturation (just like real life) but in traditional 2D animation, our brain would be demanding more visual information.  Live-action footage already provides enough visual information and texture without the need of adjusting the tones and hues of a scene. 

In fact, if this is disregarded, you will be left with overly dramatic scenes. Which can be desired for “comic-like” movies, such as Matt Reeves’ Batman (2022).

However, if you’re just trying to convey an average everyday life scene, this will obviously not work out for you.

Cinematic Lighting Batman picture

A more realistic, yet playful, overall tone can be seen in the film Amelie (2001). Where light and color are taken to an extreme, yet believable level to convey powerful emotions of warmth and happiness.

Cinematic Lighting Amelie picture

To understand that lighting and color are tied to our emotions is to understand that how you change these will affect your message. You can always play and have fun with these. But knowing when to stop is the difference between an amateur and a pro.

As I just mentioned, footage from real life has more than enough visual information for our eye, and stretching out color is just a way to help convey a message.

Thus said, there are many examples of lighting in films and series that portray a more uneventful state of the world. 

Let’s take for example the Friends scene below. It is the exact opposite of the Batman and Blade examples provided above. The best part is, it’s done in a very intentional way!

cinematic lighting friends

Batman remains tied with Superman as one of the most notorious superheroes of the era. So it’s frankly understandable why Matt Reeves went for a more dramatic lighting and color choice for the Batman film.

However, in the shot above, the producers were trying to deliver the complete opposite message by leaving the lighting as mundane as possible. Joey, Ross, Rachel and Monica, are just what the title suggests, Friends.

The viewer is more likely to feel like a part of the show if the lights are more life-like. Just like this scene. Feels just like you’ve known these guys since you were little, right?

Hues and post-production

Now that we’ve covered up the main cinematic lighting setups and differences between light in animation vs live-action, it’s time to end the show with some post-production.

At first glance, the Batman and Blade examples appear to be filmed with colored lights, but that’s not the case.

The vibrant red in Batman and the cool blue from Blade are simply filters which alter the image’s hue

So don’t worry if you don’t catch the colors you were expecting on the first shots. In fact, you shouldn’t worry at all until post-production.

As a matter of fact, you shouldn’t be worrying about color until post-production. Remember, color comes after.

Last but not least, here’s a tip for patiently reading through the post, once you have your footage filmed, you should play your footage in greyscale (black & white). By removing color information away from the scene, you can get to really focus on the most important aspect of your composition, which in case you haven’t noticed, is light!