Lighting in film/TV

Downtown abbey
This is a tv show set in England in the years leading up to World War I. It centers on the Aristocratic Crawley family and their servants.
One of the most noticeable lighting effects used is the contrast in styles between the upstairs areas that the Crawley family inhabit and the lower level where the servants reside.

In the downstairs scenes centering on the servants, the lighting is always dreary and cold. It’s not that the downstairs rooms lack natural light, there is in fact an abundance of it and the scenes are not under-lit at all, just very desaturated. By contrast the upstairs areas and the Crawley family are almost always bathed in beautiful golden warm light and surrounded by saturated colours, especially reds and golds – colours associated with wealth. It is a deliberate device used to reinforce the nobility and grace of the Crawleys and the lowly status of the servants.

Here are some examples from the downstairs servants quarters:

and here are 3 examples from the upstairs Crawley areas:

Pretty easy to spot the difference!


The Tv show Dexter is the story of a police forensics expert who is also a serial killer. Dexter is haunted by flashbacks to a tragic event – the killing of his mother when he was a child. One of the devices to let the audience know that we are in ‘flashback mode’ is that the lighting becomes very high-key and we get a very shallow depth of field. Most of the highlights are blown out and we are left with a dreamlike and glowing image. Note the example here:

Dexter’s father often appears in these flashbacks and there is often an angelic halo around his head, as in this example:

Dexter owes to this man the code by which he lives his entire life, hence he is given an almost godlike lighting treatment.

Breaking Bad
Another of my favorite TV shows that has some unique use of lighting is Breaking Bad.

In episode 13 from series 2 the opening sequence focuses on the aftermath of a mid-air plane collision in which some debris has fallen into a pool. The scene opens with the camera underwater in the pool. We still don’t know what has happened, but the camera is filming upwards into the intense sunlight and a disorienting effect is being made by the refraction through the water. The colour has also been stripped back to black and white:

the light is then blocked by a figure that moves into frame:

The camera then moves out of the pool and we realize that the figure had stepped toward the water to fish out a kids teddy bear. The bear then appears to us in colour (bright pink) while the rest of the scene is still in black and white. This makes the viewer aware of the teddy bears importance to the story and the black and white somehow gives the scene a documentary like, yet surreal emotion.

Another of my favorite lighting examples from this show are some scenes involving some drug addicts and the house they live in. The windows of the house seem to have yellow coloured glass, so when the sun streams through, it leaves an intense yellow cast on the characters. It is not the nice sunlit kind of warm yellow that we would find inviting but a horrible greenish yellow that reinforces the sadness and desperate state of the people who live there. It also allows the room to have a very dark feel, but to still be able to see the characters faces.


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