Chiaroscuro Lighting in Film: What to Know

Light and shadow are two of a filmmaker’s most powerful tools. The interplay of light and dark has fascinated human beings since the dawn of time. We’ve been developing techniques for dramatic lighting schemes for centuries, and many of those classic techniques translate beautifully to modern filmmaking. Chiaroscuro lighting is one of the best examples of this. Here’s everything you need to know about this classic Italian lighting scheme and how to use it in your next film project.  

What is Chiaroscuro lighting? Where did the term come from? 

“Chiaroscuro” as a concept is far older than modern film. In fact, the term dates back to the days of the Italian Renaissance, where it was developed by master painters. The term comes from the combination of two Italian words: “chiaro” meaning bright, and “scuro” — to obscure.

In painting, Chiaroscuro lighting emphasizes bold sections of light and shadow. The light source is harsh with clearly delineated shadows, which creates an abundance of contrast. Often, only half of a character’s face receives lighting, making it perfect for compositions that are moody or mysterious.

vermeer painting framed in gallery
Source: Pixabay

Artists like DaVinci, Vermeer, and Caravaggio used chiaroscuro lighting to give their paintings drama and depth. Have a look at Girl with a Pearl Earring by Vermeer. The contrast of the solid black background and deep shadows contrast beautifully with the brighter tones of the girl’s face. This creates a moody and dramatic feeling, despite being a simple ¾ portrait. It’s a captivating painting that’s enamored viewers for centuries. And it’s made possible through the beauty of chiaroscuro! 

Chiaroscuro is used for far more than just portraits. It lends drama to scenes of intense battles and action. Through the intensity of the light and shadow, you can feel the conflict between the two characters in the scene. Chiaroscuro lighting can bring near-effortless drama to any painting, and you can bring those same techniques to your films with a little ingenuity. 

Chiaroscuro lighting for filmmakers

Just like the renaissance painters of old, modern filmmakers must also learn how to sculpt with light and shadow to tell stories. Chiaroscuro lighting has been around since the very beginning of cinema. Directors of the very earliest films didn’t have color as a tool, so they had to rely solely on light and shadow to set the mood and tone. You can see examples of it in early silent films like Nosferatu

man in forest with harsh lighting
Source: Pixabay

Chiaroscuro was a favorite technique among German impressionists like Robert Wiene, director of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The dramatic chiaroscuro lends itself beautifully to the film’s dark and twisted story. Streaks of broad light and shadow were even painted directly onto the sets to add to the effect.

The end result is a truly terrifying horror film that still holds up today—there’s even a twist ending that gives M. Night Shymalan a run for his money. That lasting success was made possible thanks to Wiene’s masterful use of chiaroscuro.

Film noir 

The moody and dramatic lighting of chiaroscuro has become synonymous with film noirs. Check out the moody lighting in John Huston’s masterpiece debut, The Maltese Falcon. The dramatic lighting helps highlight the mystery of the film and the complexity of the characters.

Just like Sam Spade, the audience doesn’t know who’s trustworthy and who’s not—the duality is literally written on every character’s face with the lighting. Audiences love watching the play of light and shadow on your characters’ faces, just like they love watching the play of good and evil in your story. 

Contemporary films

For a more modern example of chiaroscuro, have a look at Rian Johnson’s 2005 directorial debut Brick. This neo-noir detective film draws heavily from the classic black and white detective thrillers from the 40s, 50s, and 60s. But unlike his predecessors, Johnson had a full spectrum of colors at his disposal.

Brick combines moody chiaroscuro lighting with a muted color scheme, accented with bold pops of color to add interest to the gripping mystery. It’s a prime example of how classic chiaroscuro techniques can translate to modern films—and a fun watch if you’re craving a good thriller. 

underwater photograph of people
Source: Pixabay

Of course, no one says chiaroscuro is only for detective movies or horror flicks. Chiaroscuro can add a punch of drama to scenes of any film genre. Guillermo del Toro’s Best Picture winner The Shape of Water uses chiaroscuro lighting to establish atmosphere and showcase the ambiguity of his characters.

The moody lighting creates a sultry atmosphere for this romantic sci-fi, as Sally and the Amphibian Man fall for each other. The lighting is soft and romantic when it needs to be, and bold when the story calls for that extra touch of intrigue. GDT is considered a modern master for a reason! 

How to light a scene with chiaroscuro

After you’ve studied the old masters, it’s time to put your film knowledge to the test in the studio. The classic chiaroscuro lighting method uses a single hard light source, allowing half of your character’s face to fade into shadow. This is particularly effective for scenes with dark backdrops, where your characters can emerge from the background like shadowy wraiths. It’s excellent for selling mysterious or moody vibes, or for showcasing characters with ambiguous intent. 

Of course, no one says you have to stick to a single light source. You can also create chiaroscuro with multiple studio lights, so long as your main light appears to come from a single point of origin. Old masters like Rembrandt often used candles to add interest to the negative spaces in their chiaroscuro paintings. You can create the same effect in your chiaroscuro scenes too with bounce, fill, and rim lights. 

rembrandt paintings in a museum
Source: Pixabay

Play with different lighting schemes and setups until you find the one that’s ideal for your scene. Remember, a good director always has a reason behind their choices. Think long and hard about the kind of vibe you want to capture in your film. Why is chiaroscuro the best choice for your scene? What will this lighting choice tell the audience about your characters, or about the story as a whole?

Chiaroscuro lighting can capture a full range of emotions in a full range of genres. It’s up to you to decide how to use it!

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