With Halloween fast-approaching, let’s take a look at how you can create an ominous atmosphere for your short film—using just one light.
When we think about the core elements of horror lighting, there’s a lot of color to it. A bloody red for villainous moments, a sickly green for monstrous scares, a cold blue for the dark forest filled with frights.
However, while color often conveys certain aspects of horror, that form of lighting is only used when the characters are caught within the web of the film’s scariest moment. Throughout the other parts of a film, the lighting is going to look relatively normal.
Or is it?
You see, mixed in with the horror, there will be relatively normal moments of any scary film. This is where the audience will bond with the protagonist and learn of the antagonist’s evil doings. The filmmakers will set the location’s geography, establish the lore, and highlight any important details relevant to the story.
However, during these moments, it’d be impractical to illuminate everything with a horrifying color pallet. Yet, conversely, it’d also be improper to illuminate these normal scenes the same way you would if you were to light a romance or drama.
This is because, throughout a horror film, the film’s tone still needs establishing. The audience needs to be visually told that the world the characters reside in is not safe, and they’re in danger. This can be expressed through several mediums, such as music, camera angles, and—as the title suggests—lighting.
In the video tutorial above, we find out how to do just that with minimal equipment.
Setting the Tone
The video below is a snippet from Opale’s music video Sparkles and Wine, which Nacho Guzmán directed. When the video was published, the snippet went viral with both filmmakers and casual internet users alike.
While it’s mesmerizing to watch, it’s also a perfect example of how the positioning of light can drastically alter not only how an actor’s face is perceived, but the tone of the visuals being presented—from light-hearted and welcoming, to downright terrifying.
Using this premise, we’re going to turn a normalized nighttime scene into something that sets the tone for tension. In low-budget fashion, we’re only going to use one main light, with two practical lights.
This is our shot with just using household lighting. It’s flat, boring, and downright uninspiring.
Shot with household lighting.
If this were to be a standard shot at night, I might look to illuminate the scene like this.
Lighting a scene at night.
But, it’s not. We need to make it menacing. Equally, it should be noted, in typical low-budget fashion, we don’t have a lot of space between the couch and the camera.
The singular light I’ll be using is the small, airy Aputure 120d. And, initially, I’m going to place my key light 45 degrees to the subject.
The issue is, using the Aputure 120d in its default state produces an extremely hard light, and this is at 10% power. Even if we increase the aperture to decrease the exposure, the light direction is also slightly abnormal for an interior.
Light position slightly abnormal.
Because the space is small and the framing is on a 25mm lens, it’s not going to be practical to set up a diffusion sheet. Therefore, you may initially gravitate towards a softbox. But, there are two issues in doing so. The first is that softboxes are large, and it’s not ideal for this tight framing.
Of course, using a C-stand, I can raise the light and angle it downward. While this is infinitely better than the light in its default hard state, it still doesn’t give off horror vibes. Because the softbox has a large diffusion area, it’s illuminating the area in a manner that doesn’t seem right.
No horror vibes yet!
Therefore, let’s look at a different diffusion tool. Instead of the overly-large softbox, I’m going to look at using the Aputure lantern. This is an omnidirectional diffusion tool, and infinitely smaller than the softbox.
Now, initially, the lantern isn’t doing much better than the softbox. We’re still getting way too much light onto the walls and background. But, as noted, this is an omnidirectional tool. Meaning, light is bounced outward at all angles, and as such, it’s primarily used with the light facing directly downward.
Incorporating an Aputure lantern.
So, let’s attach a boom arm so the light can do just that.
Now, when illuminating from directly above the actor, it does several things like accentuate facial features and wrinkles. But, primarily, it creates shadows under the eyes because the brow ridge blocks the light.
Illuminating the actor from above.
When we can’t see the subject’s eyes or a person, in general, it makes us feel uneasy. As noted by the famous saying, eyes are the window into the soul. When that window is closed off, it creates a level of uncertainty, even if the eyes we’re looking into are that of our protagonist.
Shadows form around the eyes, creating an ominous effect.
Placing the 120d and the lantern directly above the actor, it’s now given us this moody feel. Which is much better than where we were with the default 120d or the softbox.
However, we have an inherent problem. Due to the ambient falloff of using this particular tool, too much of the apartment is illuminated. And, darkness is a core staple of horror.
Thankfully, the lantern comes with a four-section fully-adjustable light control skirt that allows you to shield the light in a multitude of directions. In doing so, we now have a more focused overhead light. Just as if the character were set within their dimly-lit household environment in their way-too-empty apartment.
Shielding the light source.
Looking better, but we need the tone to be more menacing.
Better, but not quite there yet.
To do this, we’re going to reduce the amount of light hitting the side of the actor’s face. When the key lighting is hitting the side of the actor’s face away from the camera, it’s referred to as a far-side key.
Implementing a far-side key.
Again, in doing this, for this particular scene, it adds to the ominous tone. Unfortunately, due to the proximity of the light, in bringing one of the control skirts up to shield that area, we can see there’s still too much spill onto the actor.
Therefore, I’m going to use a flag to gently block the light. Because the light itself is diffused, and the flag is close to the light, the shadows will be soft, feathered, and look natural.
Remember, the further away your flag is from the light, the harder its shadow will be.
Using a flag to gently block the light source.
Overall, we can see that the face is still illuminated, but the side closest to us has less value than the other side. Let’s look at it with and without. We can see the difference is minimal, but enough to be noticeable and effective.
While this looks good, we need some background separation.
So, first, we’re just going to turn on the computer screen—as the character did that within the scene—and the LED screen will softly illuminate this area.
Then, in the background, we’re going to turn on this practical. Because we’re lighting our talent with a cold light, I’ve inserted a 2700K bulb into the practical so it’s a lot warmer.
While this will add dimension to the scene, the difference in the color temperature will add compositional separation between the foreground and background.
What we’ve created, by using just one film light and a small selection of tools, is a moody, sinister-looking image. If I were this character, I wouldn’t feel safe heading into that kitchen.
It’s that time of year. Horror films are on our list. So, here’s some tips and advice just for you:
Learn How to Light Exterior Night Shots with One LightEditing Horror Films: 7 Pacing Tips for Your Next ProjectVideo Tutorial: How to Get Cinematic Lighting in Small SpacesClassic Horror Film TechniquesNine Inch Nail’s Charlie Clouser’s Stock Logic Plugins for Horror Films
Cover image by Kseniya Ivashkevich.
Read more: shutterstock.com