Ever heard of the chiaroscuro lighting technique? No? Well, believe it or not, even if you’ve never heard of it, you’ve certainly seen it being used in your favorite movies and TV shows. Chiaroscuro lighting is one of the most popular lighting techniques in filmmaking and if you want to be a great cinematographer, you need to understand and master it. Read on to find out what it is, where it came from, and why it’s so vital in cinema today.
What is chiaroscuro lighting?
Firstly, a chiaroscuro definition. The key to understanding this technique is in its translation. In Italian, “chiaro” means clear or light and “oscuro” means obscure or dark. So, in very simple terms, chiaroscuro is the Italian term for describing a technique where light and dark are used together in a visual medium – the juxtaposition of light and dark. In other words, contrast!
A brief history of chiaroscuro lighting
Long before cinema, the idea of chiaroscuro lighting originated in paintings. During the Renaissance, famous painters such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, and Michelangelo Merisi Da Caravaggio (try repeating those fast) employed the technique dramatically. The Renaissance period was a time when creatives were pushing boundaries like never before, experimenting with all kinds of different styles in painting, including the idea of light and shadow.
The Taking of Christ by Michelangelo Merisi Da Caravaggio (1602). Source: Wikimedia
Caravaggio was a particular master of the craft, effortlessly mixing light and shadow to create great contrast, depth, and dimension. This was the spectacular illusion of three-dimensional depth on a two-dimensional canvas – something that wowed purveyors of the time and continues to do so to this day.
A history of chiaroscuro in film
It’s fascinating to think that a centuries-old painting technique founded during the Renaissance is responsible for how much of our cinema and TV looks today. But that’s exactly what’s happened. As you may have already guessed, in cinematography, chiaroscuro lighting refers to low and high-contrast lighting. It’s the very foundation of lighting in filmmaking.
It’s thought that Chiaroscuro lighting in cinema first appeared in the German Expressionist Movement. This artistic style first appeared in German poetry and theater around 1910 before becoming increasingly popular in German films in the decade after WWI. The country’s collective anxiety of this period was visualized in distorted, nightmarish imagery, and German filmmakers realized they could best showcase this by playing with light and shadow. One of the first films to use it is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) – one of the first true horror films ever made with great dramatic music!
Other films, such as Nosferatu (1922) and Metropolis (1927), followed suit. It was clear to see that the black-and-white era lent itself particularly well to chiaroscuro lighting.
From here, German directors carried their new-found love of the chiaroscuro technique to Hollywood, where it became entwined with the classic film noir movies of the 40s and 50s. Film noir is a highly stylized filmmaking genre defined by its pessimism, fatalism, and cynicism. Naturally, chiaroscuro lighting worked wonderfully for this type of film, with the contrast of light and dark central to the storytelling. The Third Man (1949) is a beautiful example of chiaroscuro being used to full effect in film noir movies and the iconic, ever-celebrated Citizen Kane (1941).
During the ’60s, there was perhaps a moment when the use of chiaroscuro faded due to industry wants and needs. With the drive-in cinema so popular in the US, most films became a bit too bright – perhaps even overlit – with the idea that they’d be visible in drive-in screenings. Planet of The Apes (1968) and The Sound of Music (1965) are prime examples of this.
However, chiaroscuro came back into fashion during the New Hollywood movement (1967 – 1976). Legends, as we know them today, such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola, began to make their mark, and they were all for the play of light and shadow. Coppola’s iconic The Godfather (1972) is the perfect example.
Why use the Chiaroscuro technique in cinema?
There are a number of reasons why the chiaroscuro technique is used in cinema today. Part of the reason The Godfather is so acclaimed is because of the cinematography and moody lighting of the show. The choices cinematographer Gordon Willis made with his lighting tell a story between good (light) and evil (dark). We often see how characters appear on screen with only half their face lit, the other half shrouded in shadow, signifying this ongoing battle.
He would take a very low-key lighting setup with a key light as his sole source, which achieved a very dark background and starkly lit subjects. Straight out of the film noir playbook, these dark shadows represented the mafia’s dark, dangerous world, enveloping characters and their surrounding environment. Unsurprisingly, Gordon Willis earned the title “Prince of Darkness” thanks to his work on The Godfather.
Chiaroscuro is not only a storytelling technique but a handy way of creating real depth and intrigue in our frames. Just like the Renaissance painters who pioneered the technique, filmmakers are working with a two-dimensional canvas. Chiaroscuro lighting is a great way to create a three-dimensional effect in our films. There’s a lot more drama as the opposing balance of light and dark ensures characters, objects, and locations don’t appear flat.
For the same reasons as cinema, chiaroscuro photography is also very popular.
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Examples of chiaroscuro lighting
Chiaroscuro lighting is everywhere. Here are a few great examples, as we bet you can think of plenty more!
Blade Runner (1982)
There’s plenty of chiaroscuro lighting on display in the original Blade Runner.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Blade Runner was so iconic, and cinematographer Roger Deakins did a wonderful job of carrying that stark contrast between light and dark through to the brilliant sequel.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Another Coppola – Marlon Brando classic, the lighting in this scene from Apocalypse Now really adds to the horror of the story.
Roger Deakins is one of the best cinematographers out there, and his work in the nighttime scenes of 1917 made great use of the chiaroscuro technique.
Roger Deakins does it again. Clearly, he’s a big fan of chiaroscuro.
Tips for chiaroscuro lighting
So, how do you master chiaroscuro lighting? There’s no fixed answer here. Effectively, what you’re aiming to do is juxtapose light and dark in order to create a sense of depth and volume in your frame while conveying certain messages and stories.
To do this, you’ll want to understand film lighting inside out, from backlighting and key light to filler, side, and bounce lighting. You’ll need the correct gear to achieve the look you’re going for, and, as with any other part of filmmaking, the key is going to be practice, practice, practice. If you get stuck or unsure about what you’re doing, refer back to the greats and see how they achieved their iconic cinematography.