By: Matthew J.R. Kohler
After watching Batman v Superman and Netflix’s Daredevil, I realized that nobody cares about lighting anymore. What is lighting? Why use this ancient technique? Well, I’m here to tell you that lighting is one of the most important devices to use in storytelling, preferably in dialogue scenes. But, I will try to shed some light on how lighting can make a fight scene special.
Movies like BvS feel so emotionless mainly because the lighting is non-existent. Lighting is supposed to show how serious a situation is (like, ya know, fighting a godlike creature without killing numerous civilians in the process). Lighting also helps to show us who the characters are, so that when they are in a fight, we care about them. In fact, lighting can be part of a character signature look (picture how Don Corleone is lit as he sits behind his desk in The Godfather). If that same lighting was used for everyone else in that movie, it would, obviously, not be as definitive of Don Corleone.
But, when watching BvS, it’s very clear that there is no distinct lighting for anyone. This is a problem because not only does everyone look the same, but also it sets the tone for everyone to be the same. In Fist of Fury, the starkly different lighting of the protagonist and antagonist creates tension between them. The lighting on Bruce Lee makes him look heroic, and the villain’s lighting, of course, makes him look evil. How can you tell that, you ask? Villains usually have shadows underneath their eyes, while protagonists have a glow to their figure.
Logical lighting is part of what qualifies film as art. Now, you maybe thinking, “What a film snob! Good day!”. Well, don’t leave yet, because I’m not done.
My biggest complaint with Daredevil is that you cannot see any of the fights. I wasn’t a big fan of season one fight scenes, but at least I could see the characters’s actions. What is so cool about a scene that is too dark to see? This was a problem in all thirteen episodes. Inexcusable. In Empire Strikes Back, the Luke vs. Vader fight scene is dark, yes, but you can still clearly see everything that’s going on. With Daredevil, it’s almost like the crew knew what they were doing. I believe that the reason why people make their scenes so dark is that they know their fights are weak. That said, when you can see the fights, they are very lame.
As I mentioned, lighting can do some unique things, such as build tension. It can reveal sweat on the two fighters, or emphasize something you would normally not see in a fight. The scenes in Batman (1989) make good use of lighting. Not only do they make the action scenes feel like a fantasy, but also it creates a unique universe. With BvS, the lighting makes us feel…like we’re in the real world…I guess? Regardless of the filmmakers’ vision in terms of lighting, the movie looks just like the Daredevil show, which looks just like The Dark Knight. At least Batman ’89 looks different from Superman ’78, and even from the other Tim Burton movie—Batman Returns. And that is the beauty of lighting: you can use it build your characters and your universe, while making the audience feel real emotions.
There’s no easy way to say it: lighting is a dying art. More people need to realize why certain movies/ television shows don’t look great. The reason is that the lighting is not there. Lighting is one of the harder things to do and is a time-consuming job, which is why movies and TV shows do it less in our fast-paced production world. Maybe we can try to evolve lighting to enhance our fights and story instead of downgrading films and using “going for realism” as an excuse for laziness.