Moving Image Theory: Ecological Considerations

By Joseph D. Anderson; Barbara Fisher Anderson | Go to book overview

9

Film Lighting and Mood

Torben Grodal

LIGHTING IS ONE of the most powerful means of creating effect in films. The research on lighting as a means of creating effect has mainly been pragmatic and based on single- case observations. Different cinematographers have commented on their experiments with different types of lighting (cf. e.g., Mankiewitz 1986; Schaefer & Salvato, 1984), just as handbooks in film interpretation and film production (cf. Bordwell & Thompson, 1990; Monaco, 1977) have asserted some rules of thumb induced from typical practices and by means of introspection. There may be good reasons for the fact that, compared with narration, for instance, there exists no such thing as a theory of film lighting: The experience of light is a basic one, linked to numerous different situations, and the experience might not be derived from a small set of principles with unambiguous effects. And although the perception of light, including film light, is based on some innate capabilities, many versions of film lighting deviate from those natural conditions for which our visual capacities have been developed. More research has been done on lighting within art (cf. e.g., Arnheim 1974). The following does not pretend to be able to put forward a general theory of film lighting but will provide an account of some of the dominant metaphoric descriptions of the effects of film lighting and provide some reasons for these effects.

Describing the physical or technical layout of a given type of lighting is fairly easy; it is often possible to get descriptions from some of the people arranging the lighting. The problem of the intended effects is a much thornier one. To describe the cognitive effects of lighting—for instance, the way in which a given light enhances or impedes object recognition and object salience—in itself poses a series of problems for description. Mostly, however, the description of the effects of lighting is aimed at a larger endeavor, namely, to describe the way in which lighting aspectualizes the emotional experience of a given scene, resulting in sad, scary, or euphoric experiences. Although such moods may be analyzed in connection with an overall analysis of a given scene, it still raises the problem of how lighting contributes to mood. When cinematographers want to describe the effects of different types of lighting, they mostly use metaphors. Some of those are tactile (soft versus hard light, warm versus cold colors), others are muscular-kinetic: a given type of light provides a punch or a kick to the image. Such descriptions may not be just metaphoric in a vague sense but indications of ways that the viewer relates to given visual phenomena. To say that the light is soft, and thus also the objects illuminated with the soft light, may simply indicate the experience that the possible contact with the objects is evaluated as soft. To say that an image has got a punch may mean that the viewer has some low-level experiences of some qualities in the image that are dynamic and possibly suggest a “hard” interaction. A stone in a film is neither more

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