CINEMATOGRAPHER'S GUIDE: Light to create mood and engage your audience
Smart cinematographers know that excellent filmmaking consists of more than just strong images, stabilization, dialogue etc. Lighting correctly and creatively can give the audience a much more submerged experience.
Have you ever went to the movies and in a certain scene the visuals just grab you into the film, and you actually feel as if you were there? You are in that scene, at the location, over the shoulder of the character, peeping into their conversation. That feeling that you get, is done purposely by genius cinematographers, and is created most importantly by light and sound. Your most significant senses: your ears and eyes.
Let's focus on light in this article, as we will have another completely focusing on sound. They are too big of topics to wrap them together in the same article. There is just too much information for each of them to really help you. In fact, there are books written on each topic, so this will be more of a short summary. So back to how you can use light to affect mood, character personality, or audience perception.
1. Light Vs. Dark: Lighting can show an underlying nature of a character trait. In the "Skyfall" reference above, the main character is concealed almost completely by dark, to show the dark nature that he is feeling during this portion of the film. There is a fine line between good and evil that he is walking. The amount of killing he is doing, the loss of the people he loves and the nature of his job is making him feel more evil than good. The filmmakers do this intentionally because they want you to second guess his values, to keep you on the edge of your seat, as to what he will do and how the movie will end.
2. Warm Vs. Cool: Lighting aesthetic can have an overall tone to the mood- either majority of warm aka tungsten lighting, or cool aka daylight lighting. Or, on the contrary, you may choose to balance both to have an even composition, as shown in the "Game of Thrones" reference above.
Warm lighting (oranges) can give the feeling of just that, being warm/hot. This is used best for scenes in the desert, or hot summer day, a vintage southern feel, or a stuffy boiler room. It can be used on the protagonist to create the feeling of hope and light, to show the audience that this character will fight on and persevere. Below, Daenerys is the beacon of hope in the South-East (a hot desert area). She is the Mother of Dragons and she is a fierce and overcoming queen.
Cool lighting (blues) can create the feeling of cold, isolation, sadness, instability and fear. This can be used in icy sceneries, like the North of "Game of Thrones" series. It can be used in water locations, desolate or abandoned locations. See the example below of John Snow, who is struggling to lead a group of men who do not trust him in a freezing climate. He most certainly faces hardships, and even death.
4:Colored Lighting and Gels: Color stimulates any scene. It can be to add fun and lightness to a certain situation, like in a carnival or a school dance. Or it can create action and adventure, like in the "Stranger Things" reference above. Eleven has discovered an opening to the upside down, (an alternate universe parallel to ours) and the red lighting on her face gives a beautiful aesthetic look for such an amazing discovery.
If the lighting coming out of this universe were just white light, would it give the same effect? Certainly not. It would be a mediocre lighting effect, and alternate universes are not mediocre. Color gives our eyes excitement. As you can see here color is tied directly to the moods of the scene. The red coming through makes us feel uneasy, and unsure, cautious and scared.
Of course we are able to saturate colors and blend hues to enhance things in post, but its is important to ensure that you utilize color while filming, as post editing can only do so much for a film.
Color is so important, that there are entire classes on Color Theory in film. The more artistic the project (like music videos or fashion videos) the more you can experiment with color creatively, but even period pieces and documentaries use color strategically. It is important to do your research and understand the color wheel, if you do not already have at least a minimal background in art.
5. Lighting Movement: Movement in lighting can create confusion or can create a frightening feeling, like pulses or strobes. This is an easy way to disturb your audience and make them feel the nervousness of the character. In the clip above for instance a strobe was used to create a chaotic look, and meant to scare the audience.
Movement can also create a feeling of time passing. In the example of motion blur, this shows how fast time is moving during the film. Time can speed up incredibly fast, or on the contrary, time can move slow by slowing the motion blur down to slow motion. Either way, this gives an unnatural time effect, that translates into a fast or slow feeling to the audience.