Movie Lighting Design: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Nathan Hurwitz

Dr. Nathan Hurwitz is a tenured Associate Professor in Theatre and has three books in print, two textbooks and a coffee table book.

Lighting on movie and television sets is rarely permanent and almost always will change with each position of the camera. This lesson gives information on the people behind the lights, defining who is responsible for creating and implementing the lighting as well as identifying distinctive lighting techniques used on film sets.

Who Is in Charge of Movie Lighting?

The director perches on the canvas chair emblazoned with his name. ''Quiet on the set,'' he says, and an assistant hollers an echo of ''QUIET ON THE SET!'' Then those three magic words: ''Lights, Camera, Action!''

This may be a Hollywood cliché, but there is truth in the idea that lights are a principal part of setting a scene. Though the director may have the vision for how the scene will look in the film's final cut, he is not usually the one responsible for designing the lighting. That job almost always falls to the cinematographer or director of photography (DP), who decides what cameras to use, with which lenses, and how to best light the scene.

In pre-production, the cinematographer and director discuss the meaning of each scene and how it helps to tell the story. The cinematographer then confers these issues with the gaffer, the head electrician, who translates the cinematographer's vision into a plan for the best lights to use and the best places to position those lights. This rigging plan is then executed by the gaffer, the best boy (chief assistant), and any number of electricians and 'grips.'

Lighting Set-ups

Three-point lighting setup (plus background light)
picture of three-point lighting setup (plus background light)

The most standard lighting setup used in film production is the three-point set-up. This simply means that you light your subject from three different sources so that you can control the shadows and maintain control over the contrast. The three light sources used in a basic three-point set-up are the key light, the fill light, and the back light.

The key light is the primary light source, which will shine directly on your subject. It usually illuminates the subject from the front-left or front-right and will control the look and overall mood of the shot. As its name suggests, the fill light fills in the shadows on a subject's face. It is a secondary front light and is usually positioned in front and on the opposite side than the key light. The back light (also sometimes referred to as rim light) illuminates the subject from behind, helping to separate her or him from the background.

An example of side lighting: Malcolm McDowell in
Photograph of Malcolm McDowell in ~

There are other lights that can be added to a set-up, as well, changing the overall tone and look of the scene. For instance:

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