Chiaroscuro, Italian for light-dark, is a lighting technique created by stark contrasts between light and shadow. It is used in almost all forms of art and was popularised by Renaissance painters to give depth to three-dimensional objects in their work. Caravaggio was one of the biggest proponents of the technique, as shown in an example of his work below, Judith Beheading Holofernes.
Fast-forward a bit from the Renaissance era and chiaroscuro is used to great effect in films, too. Nosferatu, the 1922 vampire flick, uses shadow very effectively, whilst it has become an integral part of some directors’ work, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock to name but two. See below for a couple of examples…
Chiaroscuro is perhaps most prevalent in the film noir genre, with most films with that label exhibiting the technique at some point during the film. It is often used to give the impression of natural lighting, often from one particular source, thus casting more shadow compared to light sources coming from various angles. Consequently, this helps to play a large part in the film’s tone, allowing it to convey a sense of mystery and suspense. However, there is another reason for the use of chiaroscuro, particularly in film noir. Many film noirs, those in the 1940s and ’50s in particular, were created on a tight budget, and by only lighting a small amount of the set, this would not only save money on more elaborate lighting, but would also let filmmakers get away with using shabbier sets without having to dress them up to the same extent.
Chiaroscuro is most prevalent in black and white films, simply because this is where it is most effective; it’s just easier to show the distinction between light and dark in monochrome. However, it has still been used to great effect in colour films, one in particular being Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Kubrick wanted to shoot the whole film using natural light but for some scenes that would mean using nothing but candlelight. At the time (1975), cameras did not have an aperture large enough to cope with this and so Kubrick managed to get his hands on cameras designed for NASA that would allow shooting in much lower light. The results were as follows…
The results may not be quite as striking as those found in black and white films, but the use of natural light from a single, or very few, light sources, gives a beautiful blend of light and shadow to create an incredibly rich mise-en- scène. More recently, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln has also used the chiaroscuro technique to great effect and has created scene that are not far removed from its black and white counterparts created decades previously.
Chiaroscuro is an incredibly effective lighting technique that can be used to convey a range of meanings from the inner turmoil of a character to a sense of foreboding and apprehension. It comes under the general ‘lighting’ umbrella and some may argue that it’s just a fancy term to describe the use of light and shadow (essentially it is), but it’s a technique that can still be effective if used appropriately and can add a great deal to a film’s cinematography.
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