Movies are more than just the stories and the plots. Movies are pieces of art. Sometimes, if you pay close attention, you can see so many little details that add more depth to the story. The visuals are used to set the tone, but some visuals and motifs do more than that. They can foreshadow things to come. They can show you a whole different picture. They can show you what is hidden under the shadows (metaphorically and literally!)
The easiest and best example to understand lighting is the classic Christopher Nolan film, “The Dark Knight.” Go back to the scene where Gordon is interrogating the Joker. And let the movie play out for a bit. See how light is used to define these characters. We know well enough who the heroes and villains are by this point, but these visual elements are used to reinforce these ideas. The Joker’s face is shown in a dark background with his face lightly illuminated. Another character shown in this manner is Harvey Dent. You’ll be able to see how his face is only half lit on some occasions, quite literally showing us “two-face” Dent. Another movie where you can clearly observe this is in Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes.” Early on in the film, you see how a particular character is hidden in the dark, quite literally hidden in the shadows.
Colour is another visual mechanism that says a lot about the settings and stories in films. An excellent example to study this would be Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women.” She uses warm tones to show the past. The tinted colour in the flashback is used to reflect the innocence of childhood and to show the beauty of nostalgia. The scenes in the future are shown using a colder colour tone. This is one of the best examples to study the use of colour, because the plot would be incomprehensible without noticing it. While “Little Women” did it quite subtly, some movies like the recent Netflix original “Extraction” goes all out. The yellow-tinted colouring of Bangladesh in “Extraction” is very noticeable. And this is something that has garnered criticism, and rightly so. Movies made in the West have this tendency to colour the images from the “third-world” very differently from the ones from the “first-world.” This phenomena is not restricted however to the “third-world.” In movies like “The Hate U Give,” you can clearly see the shift in colour tones as we move back and forth from Garden Heights to Williamson.
Light and colour add to the cinematic experiences in ways that may not be very loud, and may sometimes not be very obvious. But the next time you watch a film, try to observe which character is illuminated, which character is hidden in the dark. Pause the film and observe the screen. What is more lit up, what is covered up. Some movies are bright and colourful, some movies are darkly lit with muted colours. Check out the colour tone of the film. Which colour filter makes you feel warm, or makes you feel cold and distant. If you read the previous essay from this series of Let’s talk about, then sit down with a Neo-noir film and see how important lighting is to the story-telling. Once you start observing and noticing these little things, I assure you, it will greatly enhance your viewing experience. It will allow you to find new meanings and enjoy movies a little better.