The Renaissance & Television Lighting

Saturday September 19, 2015

What do Renaissance paintings and  television have in common?  As it turns out, quite a bit!  Both the television screen and the canvas are flat surfaces, and yet when it’s done well, the images have depth, take on a reality, and have emotional weight.  Both painting and television lighting use highlight and shadow to make a two-dimensional surface (the canvas and the TV screen) look fleshed-out and three-dimensional.  The common element in both cases is how your brain perceives the world.

Working with the input from our eyes, our brain interprets visual cues to “see” an image.  Beyond just having enough light to see something, the quality of the light and the way that the light falls on a subject helps define our perception, understanding and feeling about what we’re looking at.  For those who appreciate music, it’s the difference between noise and a tune.  Both may stimulate the hearing, but only music can convey meaning and emotion.  That’s the difference between just being undifferentiated flat light and being carefully lit.

The art term for using shadow and highlight to represent shape is Chiaroscuro.  Leonardo da Vinci noted “shadows are of supreme importance in perspective, seeing that without them, opaque objects and solid bodies will be indistinct.”  What the artist does with paint, the Lighting Director does with light.  Both use “brush strokes” of paint or light to help create depth and form by using highlight and shadow. 

The main “brush strokes” we use in lighting are often divided into the fundamental elements of Three Point Lighting.  These three elements are Key, Back and Fill.  Although they may not literally be from three distinct fixtures for every shot, these basic points are the building blocks for more complex lighting. 

  • The Key Light (also known as a “modeling light”) is typically a harder, more cohesive light source.  It provides the main source of illumination, creating highlights and shadows to define the subject.  In art, Chiaroscuro is the main tool for the treatment of light and shade in drawing and painting.  In lighting, it’s the Key Light.  This is the light that puts the sparkle in the eyes and gives shape to the face.
  • The Back Light (also known as a “hair light”) works to separate the different planes of the picture, defining an object with a highlight from behind the subject to build more depth into the picture.  This light helps create layers of dark and light, and makes the subject stand out.  This is the light that creates highlights in the hair.
  • The Fill Light is the ambient source which suffuses the space with soft illumination.  It moderates the appearance of the modeling shadows created by the Key Light by filling them in.  The quality of this light is typically “soft”, with large light-emitting aperture and a diffuse quality that makes it seem to emanate from the environment.  This light should always play a supporting role, and not cast its own shadows on the subject’s face.

Working in unison, the Keys, Backs, and Fill Lights help create compelling images that draw the viewer’s eyes to your anchors and desired points of interest on the set.  Your anchors look natural and attractive, the focal point of a scenic visual composition designed to support the telling of stories. 

Bruce Aleksander

September 19, 2015