What is Chiaroscuro in Film - Chiaroscuro Definition - Header

For decades, filmmakers have been evolving and becoming more creative when considering lighting and other cinematic techniques. But even still, the methods of the past hold up. Lighting techniques such as chiaroscuro are one of the few. And for good reason. Though the style was popularized nearly a century ago, modern cinema still seems to recognize its value. So what is chiaroscuro in film? And how can we use it today? Let’s find out.

Chiaroscuro Lighting

What is Chiaroscuro in film?

Chiaroscuro lighting is a fancy term but you’ve probably seen it a hundred times. Let’s define it generally, discuss how it’s used in cinema, and then briefly get into its history.

CHIAROSCURO DEFINITION

What is Chiaroscuro?

Chiaroscuro is an Italian term used to describe the technique of using light and dark in an artwork, particularly paintings. It originally comes from the days of the Renaissance, and combines the Italian words: “chiaro” meaning “clear” or “bright,” and “oscuro” meaning “obscure” or “dark.”  It refers to the dramatic effect experienced when using contrasting areas of light and dark in a piece.

In cinematography, the term refers to the extremes of low and high-contrast lighting to create areas of light and darkness in films. This applies especially to black and white films. Often the light would only illuminate half of the subject’s face, while obscuring the other side, giving them a three dimensional shape and volume. Hollywood Film Noir made this their standard, though it came well before the 40s and 50s. And German Expressionism is also associated with this technique.

WHAT ARE SOME CHIAROSCURO EXAMPLES IN CINEMA?

  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
  • Nosferatu (1922)
  • T-Men  (1947)

Because this technique obscures part of the subject in question, it’s often used to create suspense, and is common in thriller or horror films.

What is Chiaroscuro in Film - Psycho

Psycho 1960

In 1915, Cecil B De Mille is supposedly the first filmmaker credited with the term while filming The Warrens of Virginia. The actors’ faces were half lit and half in shadow, and Mille had to defend the lighting style to studio executives. Over two decades later, film noir nearly embraced it as their own. 

In 1481, Leonardo Da Vinci was most likely the first artist to use the technique, with the painting Adoration of the Magi. But of course, it’s hard to know for sure.

Chiaroscuro in film

Chiaroscuro examples in film

Below are some examples of the lighting technique in cinema. 

Francis Coppola's, The Godfather, is a film that is known for its dark lighting, often only lighting half of a character's face, a critical component in chiaroscuro. The film effectively re-introduced such high contrast lighting back into American mainstream cinema. Watch the video below to see how the filmmakers lit the infamous franchise. 

Lighting Techniques of The Godfather

Before we get to the earliest examples of the technique in film, let's jump to a more modern use. 

The opening of scene of Martin Campbell's, Casino Royale, from 2006, is also lit this way. Watch it below. 

Chiaroscuro lighting in modern cinema

We mentioned above some of the first films that employed the technique.

Director, Anthony Mann, uses it in the 1947 film, T-Men.

T-Men, 1947

The next is from German filmmaker, Robert Wiene, in the 1920 film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Chiaroscuro Example

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How to use chiaroscuro

If you're interested in how to light your own projects this way, take a look at the how-to video below. 

Chiaroscuro Lighting Tutorial

To learn more lighting techniques, take a look at our next article.

Up Next

Learn Cinematic Lighting Techniques

Maybe black and white isn’t your thing. No worries. Up next is an ultimate guide to make your films look more cinematic in many other ways. Check it out below. 

Up Next: Learn More Lighting Techniques →
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