Decoding Cinema Light

Posted on 03th august, 2018

The responsibility of lighting of a film set usually rests on the shoulders of cinematographer, who decides on the lighting and color schemes that would go on to represent and set the tone of the film. He takes inputs from the director and interprets them as he thinks would best serve the movie and sometimes, experiments to see if he could innovate and produce a certain look to the scene.

The crime drama Drive(2011) is a great example of effective use of lighting as an extra layer, offering film enthusiasts an opportunity to analyze the characteristics of each actor. Apart from the color schemes used by Nicolas Winding Refn, the lighting he employed illustrates the characters' emotional state of being and hints us as to what they are experiencing.

I don't recall a better way of using lamps in the process of storytelling than in the Hong Kong film In the Mood for Love. The street lights, bed lamps, and office lights have functioned in a way to create a metaphor for love itself, which likens humans to moths, who seek love and move towards it, just like a moth draws towards light, ultimately to their doom.


In one of the iconic scenes of the movie, the lead actress Maggie Cheung, as is her norm, goes down the stairs to get noodles. The stairs have no lighting, and as a consequence, we don't have any idea as to what is going through her mind. But the street light at the top of the stairs sheds just enough light on her emotional condition, which she doesn't want everyone to be privy of. But from this, we also know that she needs some attention as well, which she is lacking, as we know from her relationship with her husband.

For the full corridor scene, click here.

One of my favorite films that use minimal or no artificial lighting is Children of Men, with the three time Academy Award winner Emmanuel Lubezki as the cinematographer. The world in Children of Men, set in the year 2027, is dystopian, where, for reasons not explained to the viewers, women have not been able to conceive for the last 18 years. The bleak and somewhat grey texture of the film is preferred by Lubezki as the film talks about some dark issues that are very much relevant today, as we are getting closer to the year this film is set in. The theme of the movie is hope and the nature providing the solutions and maybe that's the reason he refrained from using any artificial light. One of the remarkable scenes to be shot in this way includes the campfire scenes, where he uses a natural element, fire to illuminate the faces of the characters as they are in a serious predicament, and their only hope lies in the nature.

Explaining his preference of natural lighting, Lubezki said 'And while natural light is very complex because it’s constantly changing — which can be a problem for continuity — it’s beautiful'[1] and I completely agree with him.

As talented as the cinematographer may be, he still needs help from the technical crew that actually operate the lights. I am going to talk about what their job entails and how they will be helping the film production in the following lines.



A gaffer is the chief lighting technician of the film. He possesses great skills over the various lighting equipment and lighting techniques that may be used while filming. The gaffer works to deliver the best possible lighting that can enhance the director’s vision. He is in charge of a crew that keeps long work hours- sometimes close to 18 hours for months! This means that while tensions break out often, he must be on hand constantly to keep these at a minimum and ensure that friendly relations are maintained. Now, this is a skill that can be learnt only through experience.

Best Boy:

As the Gaffer’s right hand man, the Best boy liaises with the production department and the lighting company to relay information to him. He coordinates a team of lighting technicians and deals with the logistics and paperwork relating to his job. He is in charge of the upkeep and maintenance of the equipment as well.

- Open Face Team


* This disclaimer informs readers that the views, thoughts, and opinians expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarly to open face media organization, or any other group or individual.*




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