Intro to Cinematic Lighting: Creating a Mood

If you look back to the first days of television, you will find that it was an incredibly crude system that bears little resemblance to what we know today as video. I have seen images created with this early technology, and my initial response was, ¡°I can’t tell what I’m looking at.¡± This is because the original TV systems had very little image tonal range and resolution, so to make out an image it had to be extremely contrasty, resulting in heavy use of makeup on actors and using lighting sources that cast hard shadows to define a subject. large, heavy lighting units were the mainstay of lighting also because to record any image a lot of light was required.
Today, we have sensors with tremendous amounts of resolution, a wide tonal range, and ridiculously high sensitivity. This increase in resolution and tonal range, in my opinion, has contributed to the shift away from hard lighting, because as resolution and tonal range increase, you need less contrast to define your image.
Five-Point/Three-Point Lighting Setup
Overhead view of a ¡°classic¡± 5-point lighting setup
Way back in the early days of the Hollywood studio lots, the five-point lighting setup was pretty much the standard. I know that you can find many an example to contradict me, but just go with me on this. Light was well controlled; if you wanted to see something on the screen, you had to specifically light it, which led to the development of the five-point lighting setup. Much of this happened in the era of black-and-white filmmaking, when it was necessary to define your actors and separate them from the background, because everything appeared as shades of gray. With color images, you can get by with using different colors and hues to define your images, which, as with increased resolution, allows you to craft acceptable, if not emotionally impactful images using a more general lighting scheme. However, it is worth going over the basics here, as that helps define a common ¡°language¡± with which you can create your lighting schemes.
Point lighting setup lights all parts of the shot. As you look at the following images, note which is more interesting¡ªthe image that shows you more of what is in frame, or the images that only reveal part of the frame.
This is your main source of light, usually¡ªbut not always¡ªthe brightest light in the shot. When preparing a lighting plan, many people start with the key. One thing that I have found useful is to give your key light a source, even if that source is out of frame. This means committing to an overall lighting plan for the scene and not just relighting each shot as if it were a stand-alone image. This will lead to a more consistent look and help define the space for the audience as the scene is edited together. It will also allow your actors and camera to move around more freely.

This is a hard key light, which ?provides main illumination on subject, casting strong shadows.
This light is used to soften the shadows cast by the key. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, including using a less powerful light unit, dimming, adding scrims, or even just using the key light to bounce (reflect) light onto the shadow side of your subject. Adjusting your key-to-fill ratio can greatly affect the dramatic effect of the images.
Fill light will fill in the shadows cast by the key.
This light is traditionally behind your actors, up high, and striking them from behind. Its purpose is to provide separation from the background. What this means is that the backlight provides a small amount of light that helps define the shape of your subject, so if the background of your shot and your subject share the same tone, you can still see your subject well defined. Control over your backlight can very much aid your visual storytelling. Notice that I show a practical light on and off in the shot, and that is to provide motivation for the backlight. For those who don’t know, a practical light is a source light such as a lamp, candle, or window that is seen inside the shot, and it provides a believable motivation for your light, whether key, fill, or backlight.
These three lights¡ªkey, fill, and backlight¡ªmake up what is considered a three-point lighting setup, which leaves your actors kind of left floating in space, with no well-defined background visible. It can be a very effective lighting technique for interviews.

Motivated backlight on the left, unmotivated backlight on the right. You can get away without a motivation for the backlight, but having one adds to the realism of the shot.?
This is the light that illuminates the background. Sometimes you rely on the ambient light, or you have a light source in the background, or you have spill from your key or fill lights. If possible, having a separate light source for your set light provides more control over your lighting.
The set light here is used to light and reveal the background, eliminating any sense of mystery from the shot.
This light gets its name because it adds a ¡°kick¡± of light to something in the scene. You can use the kicker to provide highly controlled application of light just where you want it, to highlight something important in the frame¡ªin this case, a color chart.
The kicker light is often used to add a glint to an object, helping draw your audience¡¯s attention to that object. Here we are using the kicker to put glare on the color chart, making life miserable for the colorist.
Five-Point Setup
That’s it¡ªthat is the five-point lighting setup. It doesn’t mean that you can only use five light units and, in fact, there are many more different lights with different names, which we¡¯ll get to in the future.
Back to using every light, lots of info, easy to see, but not as interesting as when there is something not seen.
That’s it¡ªthat is the five-point lighting setup. It doesn’t mean that you can only use five light units and, in fact, there are many more different lights with different names, which we¡¯ll get to in the future.
As you go forward, you may hear the term ¡°flat,¡± which usually means that your subject is lit evenly from both sides with no shadow detail helping define his or her face. This is neither automatically good nor bad but, rather, is a matter of whether it is appropriate for the scene at that time. Although having some sort of shadow detail will go a long way in providing the illusion of depth to your images, sometimes the scene calls for flat lighting.
One way to communicate how you want a person lit is by using lighting-ratio terminology. A ¡°2:1 lighting ratio¡± means ¡°flat,¡± as in the key and fill light are equal. You may be wondering how 2:1 can be equal. Well, the answer is that The first number is the light falling on the subject from both key and fill, and the second is just what the fill contributes to that total.(K+F : F).
A lighting ratio of 2:1 is flat. 3:1 means your key light is twice as bright as your fill light, providing you with decent shadow detail. When I used to buy black-and-white reversal 16mm motion picture film from Kodak, there was always a note in the box that said something like ¡°do not exceed a 3:1 lighting ratio unless you are going for a special effect.¡± I remember my friends and I would chuckle as we went for 4:1 and 5:1 and even higher lighting ratios. What does Kodak know anyway, we thought? And three cheers to Gordon Willis, the cinematographer who shot The Godfather films with many famously high-contrast and deep-shadowed scenes, most notably the close-ups of Marlin Brando.
Next time¡ªsamples of genre lighting, and exploring black-and-white references in your shot. Until then, thanks for reading. Now go shoot some footage.