Directing Story with Light

When it comes to directing, isn’t the shaping of the light just…sort of shading pictures? Or just setting a kind of cool mood that helps the audience get to the real stuff: the performance of the story?

Well, I found out the answer is no. All stories, or almost all, take place in a human world, and our world is defined by light (at least for the majority of us who are fortunate enough to possess the power of vision…and therefore movie-watchers). Day, night, light, dark – light is the ultimate arbiter of information. How light plays over someone’s face, over a room, over an event, fundamentally defines not only our perception of it all, but the behavior of people WITHIN the story.

I ask myself: what do people do in dark places vs. light places?

Why are nightclubs lit low and gymnasiums lit brightly?

Why do shadows frighten us sometimes?

What happens before we recognize someone vs. after? When they step from dark into light?

All of these, and more, define behaviors, which create moments, which are the bricks of story.

When Kubrick was directing Lolita, the scene where Quigley pretends to be the German doctor is lit by a single lightbulb – which really annoyed the cinematographer. But Kubrick insisted. It wasn’t just to create a mood…but because it had to be believable that Humbert did not recognize Quigley. It was a matter of believability: how would Humbert behave in this light?

Light isn’t just about mood – it’s about story.