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What is Cinematic Lighting?

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

Often, beginning filmmakers tend to overlook the importance of composition and lighting and tend to give CGI credit for the visual aspects of the film.

But the importance of a good lighting setup resides not only in the technical facets of composition but it also sets down the tone and mood of the scene.

Fantastic use of lighting can be seen in the following Rocky 4 scene. 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 very dramatic and intense tone in this face-off scene. 

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

Types of 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, I’ll show you the most typically used lights in production so you can get a good grip on how these affect your subject.

Once you’ve got these etched in your brain, 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 and hanging lights to oil lamps and 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 some fill light to increase the overall value of 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, thus 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:

Lighting for Animation

To answer what the difference between light in animation and live-action is, we must first be aware of the visual aspects and characteristics of the animation.

Animations usually 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 not to think of Sergio Pablos’ Klaus movie when stating the above. 

At first glance, we immediately get to distinguish the characters in the scene from the dancer’s silhouette in the foreground. 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 big shapes and overall mood in a matter of very few seconds. As I said, it’s very easily readable.

When we think about animation we usually tend to associate it with cartoons that usually portray similar light setups 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, more stories are being told through animation now than ever.

Of course, the animation is still animation, and no matter how realistic it may be, it usually 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.

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

But this does not mean the same type of lighting cannot be applied to live-action movies, 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 the same dramatic comic-like light effects are used to portray the mood of the film. 

Although this lighting style is not exclusive to animation only, we do get to see more of it in animated movies rather than live-action films.

Lighting for Movies

Lighting in live-action films tends to be essential 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 any 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.

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

To understand that color and saturation are directly tied to our emotions is to understand that how you change these will affect the message you’re trying to send. You can always play and have fun with color, 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, Warner Bros’. “Friends” the scene below is quite the exact opposite of the Batman and Blade examples provided above and this is done in a very intentional way.

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.

Less dramatic, diffused lights, and lowly saturated color makes the viewer feel as if they were part of the show because it is actually more relatable. It 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 lighting setup and differences between light in animation vs live-action it’s time to end the show with some post-production.

By taking a look at the Batman, Blade, and even the Amelie examples above, one cannot even fathom how to obtain certain color hues, and no, the answer is not “colorful lights”.

In fact, the vibrant red in Batman, and the cool blue from Blade are at the end of the day filters which alter the overall hue of the shot.

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, during the film itself, you should be only worrying about light and shadow, 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, its light!