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Arts & Entertainment

How to Use Chiaroscuro to Add Dimension to Your Film

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: May 18, 2020 • 2 min read

Chiaroscuro is a film lighting style that emphasizes shadow and light. Chiaroscuro first emerged during the Renaissance as a painting technique used to create tension between the light and dark elements in portraits and other still life. Chiaroscuro continued to be used in the Baroque period by artists like Johannes Vermeer and Peter Paul Rubens. Chiaroscuro is now commonly used in film to create a shadowy mood and to build suspense.

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What Is Chiaroscuro?

The Italian word “chiaroscuro” translates to “clear” (chiaro) and “obscure” (scuro), referring to the use of light and dark elements in artwork like paintings, portrait photography, and filmmaking. Chiaroscuro refers to the way light and shadow are used to create realistic three-dimensional images on flat two-dimensional surfaces. Chiaroscuro uses the contrast between light and dark to spotlight images for dramatic effect.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s use of chiaroscuro in his paintings was brought to the mainstream during the fifteenth century, influencing other Renaissance artists like Caravaggio and Baroque artists like Johannes Vermeer and Peter Paul Rubens.

What Does Chiaroscuro Mean in Film?

In filmmaking, chiaroscuro is a high-contrast lighting technique. Chiaroscuro uses a low key lighting setup, where a key light is used as the sole light source to achieve dark backgrounds with starkly lit subjects.

The chiaroscuro technique creates an opposing balance of light and dark to give the characters, objects, and settings on screen a sense of volume or mystery, depending on the genre. The film technique grew in popularity during the early twentieth century, where chiaroscuro lighting effects were heavily utilized in film noirs and German Expressionism films.

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How Does Chiaroscuro Affect a Film’s Look?

The chiaroscuro technique makes films look more dramatic, adding more dimension to what you see on-screen. Chiaroscuro balances high-contrast light and shade to give the appearance of depth, creating an enhanced or more dramatic effect.

Chiaroscuro creates three-dimensionality on a two-dimensional plane, darkening the background and highlighting the subject in the foreground, drawing the viewer’s focus and attention. This style is often seen in thrillers and horror genres, as the manipulation of darkness helps create suspense.

4 Examples of Chiaroscuro in Film

There are many classic examples of chiaroscuro lighting throughout film history:

  1. Citizen Kane (1941). Orson Welles’ classic black-and-white film depicts a controversial politician on his rise to power. The use of dramatic chiaroscuro is likened more to tenebrism, taking chiaroscuro a step further to emphasize the contrast between areas of light and shadow. Chiaroscuro is used to reflect the stark contrast between Kane’s personal and political persona, highlighting his complexity and mysterious qualities.
  2. The Godfather (1972). Francis Ford Coppola’s iconic film The Godfather uses chiaroscuro for drama and suspense, sometimes only lighting half of the subject’s face. This is used as a metaphorical representation of the film protagonist’s inner conflict, Michael Corleone’s own struggle between light and dark—good and bad.
  3. Brick (2005). Rian Johnson’s directorial debut is a film noir set in a modern-day high school that follows an amateur teen detective as he investigates the death of a fellow classmate that he once dated. Johnson uses a low chiaroscuro setup in the teen detective’s room where he works on solving the crime. A desk lamp is the room’s sole light source, casting off silhouettes and shadows that add to the mysterious atmosphere of the film.
  4. Sin City (2005). This neo-noir crime anthology is a modern film shot in the contrasted noir-style, enhancing contours and highlighting features. The darkness is used for emotional intensity, increasing the tension and the unknown throughout the movie.

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