Chiaroscuro in Film

Chiaroscuro is a smarty-pants word you learned in high school, that describes a lighting arrangement that filmmakers use to highlight a light subject in a dark background to increase the dramatic tension in a scene. Films with dark scenes such as "Sin City," "There Will Be Blood," and "The Dark Knight" frequently employ this concept to trick your brain into feeling more emotion (and you do). A big word for a simple concept; an Italian word that literally translates into 'light-dark,' it's a technique painters first used in the 15th century to make an object pop-up from a flat painting, by imagining a light source from a side of the painting. The gradual darkening of a shoulder, for example, would suggest that the person is three-dimensional in a two-dimensional canvas. Below is a 3 minute primer on the technique:


Once painters in the Renaissance perfected their 3D, they started using contrast lighting to create dramatic effect. For example in The Night Watch by Rembrandt, you can see that the lighting is used unsparingly to bring attention to the characters that he wants you to look at:

The Dutch masters of the 17th century perfected this mood. If you look at scenes in the home office in "The Godfather," you will see the same lighting as the one used in those paintings. Coppola and his cinematographer Gordon Willis used the same dramatic palette on purpose.
This translation from painting to film started in black and white films with 1920s German expressionist films such as "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," and later used in American Film Noir detective films, reaching a new peak with "Citizen Kane". Later, as movies gained color, they had to go back to basics to recreate the technique. Jack Cardiff, the master Technicolor cinematographer, in an interview for his biographical documentary "Cameraman," mentioned he would study European art to train himself to create the haunting atmospheres in his award winning films such as "The Red Shoes" and "Black Narcissus."

Which brings us to the most amazing use of chiaroscuro in pretty much the history of the world. For his 1975 film "Barry Lyndon," Stanley Kubrick had to go to knocking on NASA's door to find a lens wide enough to shoot scenes lit only with candlelight; this is such a dimly lit shot that it had never been accomplished before. He retrofitted a Mitchell BNC camera with a special Zeiss lens developed for space photography to shoot these now legendary scenes. The lens has an aperture of f/.7, still better than most lenses used in film today. See these incredible scenes here:

Chiaroscuro is probably one of the most translated techniques across different forms of art. Not only is it used metaphorically in literature and music; Tim Burton's upcoming "Frankenweenie" will see its latest transmutation to stop-motion animated films. The processing power of video game consoles in rendering light has also allowed best-selling games such as "Bioshock" and "Mass Effect 2" to become more serious, by heavily relying on chiaroscuro to promote the deep emotional involvement of the player in the story. We don't know what new, holographic-laser-beam forms of art will come up in the future, but I can bet that the one thing connecting all these artists through the centuries will be the desire to express emotion through the simple contrast between darkness and light.

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