A Brief History of Film Lighting

If you are watching a movie and feeling completely immersed in a scene or moment, there are a lot of different departments working on the elements that came together to create that final product. However, one of the most important aspects that you probably didn’t notice, but which certainly had an effect on you, was the lighting. Film lighting is a craft that is equal parts artistic expression, technical prowess, and subtle psychology.

Film Lighting - A Brief History of Film Lighting

Many times, even though it is illuminating everything in the frame, film lighting’s purpose is to not be noticed. And if it ever does want to be noticed, it must be done in such a way to highlight a moment of extreme purpose. However, the lighting that we see in movies today is much different than it used to be, despite retaining many of the same principles. Truthfully, you could fill a dozen college courses with the different movements and techniques of lighting for motion pictures, but in the spirit of a sample-sized reading, here is a brief history of film lighting…

Daylight and soft light in the silent era
The earliest films, which were silent and short, were usually illuminated by the largest light source in a cinematographer’s (or gaffer’s) pocket: the sun. These early vignettes often had very simple productions, and would only film for the amount of time that the sun was in the sky. However, as motion pictures began to grow in popularity, so too did the aspirations of filmmakers. This meant that indoor sets became more elaborate, and even outdoor productions would need to shoot into the night (or recreate the night). Because of this, artificial lighting began. For most of the silent era, the most popular form of lighting was using large tube lights called Cooper-Hewitts, which were a soft light that would illuminate entire rooms.

In America, soft lighting was used for most of the silent era. However, over in Europe, and particularly Germany, a different philosophy emerged as the direction for film lighting: expressionism. In this style of lighting, cinematographers would use harsher lighting to create geometric shapes in the frame, and to demonstrate how a character was feeling, in relation to their environment. This style became so popular and pushed in Germany, that filmmakers even had the directional lighting painted onto the set, as can be seen in the famous silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The usage of expressionistic lighting soon began to spread to narrative filmmaking communities around the world. In America, this would especially resonate with the emergence of film noir, in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s.

Hollywood and Classicism
After the emergence of synchronized sound in movies, a lot of old film lights were made obsolete, due to the amount of noise they generated when running. This included the popular Cooper-Hewitts. However, film lighting had already begun to adapt towards more ambitious styles. It was in this period where we began to see complex mixtures of hard light and soft light in the same scenes, and usually to highlight very specific emotions. A sinister scene would utilize hard light that emphasized fierce facial features, while a romantic scene would be lit with softer lights to give the actors a kind of “glow.” This notable style of filming became known as Classicism, which was immensely popular in Hollywood.

French and American New Wave
As the studio system fell apart in France, the French film industry was saved by the emergence of French New Wave, which was led by filmmakers like Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard. Classicism and Romanticism were thrown to wind by the French New Wave, which prided itself in experimentation, and often utilized a grittiness to the look of their films that were highlighted by expansive soft lights that allowed actors to move wherever they wanted in a scene. When American New Wave rolled around, filmmakers of the 1960’s and 70’s were influenced by the French New Wave, and utilized grittier looks that were meant to portray naturalism, while still using shadows as a primary lighting tool.

Digital cameras changed lighting
After American New Wave, the next major lighting revolution in cinema that we feel is worth mentioning wouldn’t happen until the rise in popularity of digital cameras. Cameras that used actual celluloid required plenty of light to operate, which affected how films were lit. However, digital cameras are able to attain a light sensitivity that celluloid could not. This has revolutionized lighting in independent film, as filmmakers can now achieve gorgeous lighting setups without the expensive fixtures that were needed before.

Today, lighting equipment opens up even more possibilities
The craft of lighting is constantly changing, and there are so many tools that open up the range of what cinematographers and gaffers can do in today’s landscape. Filmmakers in the silent era were able to create beautiful images with single gas-powered fixtures (like the Cooper-Hewitts). Imagine what professionals and artists today can accomplish with so many different types of lighting to work with.

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