Lighting the essence

A favourite activity of mine during late February is watching a marathon of all the Oscar-nominated movies, and then in March, I religiously watch the ceremony itself. My highest score this year, in one day, was four movies back-to-back – there wasn’t much movement from the couch on that Saturday!

I know from before I became a lighting designer that the Oscars were (and still are) mostly valued by all the moviegoers for categories such as best actor, best actress, directing and, of course, best picture. No one can deny that they’re important, however it’s not just the A-list actors or even the amazing directors who create a fantastic movie. It’s also down to the cinematography, lighting etc – yes, lighting!

Many people don’t really stop to think about how important “lighting” is in a movie. But because I’m a lighting designer it’s natural that I pay more attention to this area. And I’m known to have had my obsessions in the past with movies that have blown me away – I even wrote a blog post about one of them…La La Land.

In every film, the layers of light, the use of contrast, the tones, hues, the use of saturated colours, daylight, coloured lighting…all of these elements make such a vast difference to the atmosphere and the mood, and they have a huge impact on the emotion each scene aims to convey.

Normally a blog post is about the words, but I believe in the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words”. So below I’ve gathered what I see as some of the most visually stunning movies. Will you agree?

If you can’t tell already, I’m an avid fan of the big screen. I’ve watched hundreds of films and believe for some it’s definitely worth paying that bit extra for a ticket, just to live the full experience. Blade Runner 2049 was one of these instances – the IMAX was the only place to see it. Oh, the wonders of lighting in that film: atmospheric, mysterious and eerie! Roger Deakins won the Oscar for Best Achievement in Cinematography and he absolutely deserved it.

Blade Runner Film Powerful Lighting Effects Cinematography

Blade Runner Light Effects Cinematography

If you haven’t watched it because you think it’s not your cup of tea, but on the other hand you’re a “light” enthusiast, then make the effort – you’ll be rewarded, I promise.

At this year’s Oscars, Blade Runner 2049 was competing against the visually stunning Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan, cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema, which had many breathtaking scenes.

Dunkirk Feature Film Lighting Effects

Another memorable and visually impeccable film is The Fountain by Darren Aronofsky, with cinematographer Matthew Libatique. From the beginning to the end, it was a visual poem and one of the few movies I’ve watched plenty of times.

The Fountain Film Lighting

The Oscar winner of 2013, Life of Pi, was a majestic and inspirational movie to say the least. It was impossible not to be moved by its positivity. I think it’s one of those films that can be characterised as dreamy!

Life of Pi Movie Dramatic Lighting Impactful

In an admittedly not so buoyant mood, there’s the classic A Clockwork Orange, by the master Stanley Kubrick, with cinematography by John Alcott. It’s not for everyone, due to the violence and the profound cynicism, but cinematographically it’s well worth watching.

A Clockwork Orange Movie Light Shadows

Lastly, from a country far, far away, with amazing lighting and atmosphere, is In The Mood for Love, by cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping-Bing.

In The Mood for Love Movie Cinematography Lighting

I can only make reference to so many before this blog post goes on and on, but there are some others that should be mentioned: Citizen Kane, Drive, Ex Machina, Tree of Life, Only God Forgives, Hugo, 300, and, of course, The Lord of the Rings.

It’s a fact that films are a medium and have the power to move, influence and inspire people. Add to the mix a brilliant cinematographer and the result can be deeply immense. Composing the perfect frame, it can almost be like a painting – a true work of art.

If you’re interested to learn how different lighting techniques are applied when making a film, have a look at this article, and explore how many various types of light exist. You’ll be surprised.