P.W. Creighton

It's The Unanswered Questions That Haunt Us...

Lighting the Narrative

In any composition, details can control the tone and atmosphere of the piece more than any overt elements. The strongest of these elements is also most often overlooked due to it's rather commonplace nature, lighting.


While settings and even weather can influence the atmosphere and tone of a piece, these are direct elements that an audience can perceive as cliche and can become a detriment to the overall composition. Using the lighting of each scene, each setting can be a subtle means of controlling the audience's preconceptions and perceptions of the composition.

As with photography and cinematography, controlling the lighting of the scene allows the creator to bring their vision of the piece to life. Through controlling the direction, quality and quantity of light in a scene it's possible to control perceptions of a scene.

Through the subtle manipulations of directional lighting it is possible to convey specific emotions and manipulate audience perceptions of the scene.

Ex: She paced along the ocean walkway under the warm glow of the park's lights. She needed answers and he was going to be the first step. Her pacing quickened until another gust rushed her and the rolling waves sprayed higher than the railing.

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The streetlight provides the directional lighting and offers a sense of security, safety, that the audience can perceive. This light source conveys the emotional tone of the scene, it's night, there's an anxiety about the scene and most details are washed out highlighting the primary subject in even greater detail.

Controlling the quantity of light in a scene is another means of controlling tone although it is far less subtle than simply adjusting the quality of the light and the direction of it.

Ex: The sun was warm as she drew a breath of determination and pulled open the heavy fire-door. Inside was a long dirty hallway lined with neglected and abused doors. Light was a precious commodity with a number of the ceiling lights broken. The fire door closed and left her in the pathetic lighting.

The transition from sunlight to a poorly lit interior reflects the oppressive emotions of the scene. The sunlight offers warmth, safety and comfort while the interior lighting reflects something darker, harsher than the outside world. This also demonstrates the differences in the quality of the lighting. The sunlight carries natural preconceptions and emotions while interior lights reflect a different set of emotions. Even if the lights were simple florescent lights there would still be a shift in the perceptions associated with the lighting.

Ex: I stepped out into the pure white florescent light. White eggshell walls reflected the light off the white tile floor in an empty wide hallway lined with cream colored doors and wire mesh windows down it's length. I stopped at the first large glass window to look at the sun-lit parking lot.

The distinction of the florescent lights emphasizes the sterile nature of the environment and carries a sense of cold detachment while the sunlight carries the warmth. The contrast between these two different qualities of light distinguishes two different sets of preconceptions and perceptions of the settings.

Through the subtle manipulations of lighting it is possible to reflect the desired narrative tone of the scene. Adjusting the depth of field, the focal points and emphasized details of a composition allows for a more dynamic composition that carries more emotional weight for the audience.

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