The Language of Film:




Lighting can be hard, soft, or any gradation in between. Hard lighting creates strong shadows, while soft lighting is shadowless. The type of lighting depends on the type of story to be told. Lighting can be manipulated to achieve a desired dramatic effect… Depending on its context, lighting can signify truth and wisdom…Dark or harshly lit pictures can trigger feelings of fear, tension and a sense of impending evil in the audience.”[1]

“Lighting creates atmosphere. A mixture of dark shadows and pools of light may create a sense of unease, as in a thriller; if the lighting makes everything bright, the atmosphere may seem more relaxed. The filmmaker can use lighting to draw our attention to, or hide, a person or object.”




  • How does lighting add to our sense of tension and unease in this scene?


  • What conclusions can we draw about the mixture of dark shadows and pools of light? (Consider, for example, the dark lighting in this image which actually draws attention to the lamp—how does this image connect symbolically to Atticus Finch?)



Colors can convey a character’s state of mind. Color contrasts are often employed to emphasize a particular object or person (i.e., bright blue or red in contrast to muted, gray colors). Contrasts of color may indicate duplicity (i.e., the potential for good and evil). Color may be artificially bright, as in the images below from Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge and Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, or dull to emphasize a certain mood and point of view.


Clip from Moulin Rouge:

Satine with the English Duke.

What does the lighting suggest about this relationship?


Clips from Spike Lee’s 25th Hour:


Monty in the club for his last night out with friends.




Jacob and Mary in the bathroom.



Mary after taking Ecstasy.



Monty’s father constructs an alternate ending for Monty. Consider how the artificial yellow lighting illuminates the father’s mood and hopeful point of view.



Mirror montage scene: what effect does the contrast of light and dark have in this scene? 








[1] Excerpted from Baker: Approaches to Media Literacy: A Handbook, Chapter 5, Analysis of Production Elements, pp 226-227

[2] Excerpted from Baker’s website: Reading Films: Key Concepts for Analysing Film & Television (BFI) pg.12