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Cinematic Lighting: From Past to Present

Grace Kelly and James Stewart in Rear Window

Grace Kelly and James Stewart in Rear Window

Have you ever wondered why actors have a stunning appearance in movies? Yes, they get airbrush make-up and the concept of photoshop does exist in the world, but the reality is; it is all about the lighting! Since the earliest movies, lighting has always been an essential part in film making with advances in lighting technology making all the difference.

In the Beginning: They Stayed Outside

In the late 1800s, film makers had not acknowledged the use of artificial lighting in film. The standard was to shoot during the day in a set that had either, an open roof or a glass ceiling. While natural light is the best light source, this methodology put a hindrance on filming anything at night or indoors; therefore, by the early 1900s, artificial light sources came into play.

In the 20th Century: Grace Kelly was Glowing

The main source of artificial lighting in film at that time was arc bulbs, the predecessor to HID bulbs. Used with a reflector, the bulbs created a bright light and allowed for directional lighting, enhancing parts of the set that needed to be highlighted. These lights also made for good spotlights, casting a brighter light on one side of the actor’s face (key light), and a softer light on the opposite side (fill light), to eliminate unflattering shadows. A third back light would be used to create the effect of a halo around the actor’s head. In the 1920s, incandescent bulbs started to become a growing sensation in studio lighting, as they produced a better color temperature, required less electrical and man power, and did not emit the humming sound the HID bulbs did.

In the Present Day: Lighting Comes in Various Forms

Today, there are so many new lighting technologies, all of which get used on film sets today. We’ve already covered HID and incandescent, but many of the other forms include halogen and xenon lamps, fluorescents, LEDs, and HMI bulbs, a technology coined by OSRAM SYLVANIA. Generally used with ballasts, the film-specific HMI bulbs are very popular bulbs used in the film industry, winning OSRAM an Oscar in 1987 and a Primetime Emmy Engineering Award in 2007.

Fun Fact: On movie sets, mashed potatoes replaced ice cream in sundaes as the ice cream would melt quickly, due to the lighting.

DIY Lighting Kit for Home Movies

Make your own film light kit! You need these items:

  • Broom Stick or Mic Stand (the mic stand does have support at the bottom)
  • Reflector
  • LED or Incandescent Bulb
  • Wax Paper (optional)
  • White or Light Poster Board (optional)

Insert the bulb into the reflector and attach the reflector to your stand of choice. It’s that simple! Use the wax paper to diffuse (soften) the light if needed. For added reflection, place the poster board where it is needed.

Be sure to check out the lighting techniques the next time you are at the movies! If you have any questions or comments, be sure to write us on Facebook, Twitter, or Google Plus!

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Caitlin Victor

Caitlin is a copywriter at 1000Bulbs.com. Check back often for new entries in her "Enlightenment" series of new product announcements.

  • Bekah

    HOW COOL!!! I always wondered why the classics looked so different! Now I know! Great information and a great read!

    • Caitlin Victor

      Thank you! Be sure to check back soon for more articles on interesting lighting topics!