Shadow Play: The Art and History of Cinematic Chiaroscuro

There's a reason chiaroscuro lighting has been around for hundreds of years. It's effective and dynamic, and it tells a story.

True Grit Chiaroscuro film lighting
Paramount Pictures

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay about how the chiaroscuro lighting effect manifests in film.


Don’t reach for the silk doublet or the overabundant bowl of grapes just yet. Chiaroscuro isn’t that fancy. At its most basic, the term describes the use of high contrast lighting to simulate depth on a 2D surface. The word even contains its own definition: “chiaro” means light, and “oscuro” means dark. Easy peasy.

As an art history term, the use of chiaroscuro tends to be relegated to the time period in which it was coined. Namely: the Renaissance. The dimensionality afforded by high-contrast lighting is one of the period’s hallmarks and a direct stylistic shift from the flat compositions of the Middle Ages. And if Renaissance chiaroscuro had one true championit was Caravaggio, who pioneered an exaggerated form of chiaroscuro known as tenebrism. Engulfing the entirety of the composition, tenebrism, with its pronounced highlights and pointedly theatrical gait, feels especially, and indeed strikingly, cinematic.

Ultimately, beyond its formal objective of simulating depth, chiaroscuro is a dramatic tool. When deployed with purpose, chiaroscuro conveys a heightened atmosphere and a pointedly stylish command of mood. No surprise then, that the technique found a cinematic home in the emotional extremities of German Expressionism. And later, in the black-and-white shadowplay of film noir. And later still: in just about every film shot by Roger Deakins. Chiaroscuro, as the video essay below explains, is centuries-old for a reason. It’s elemental, light and dark, good and evil, and all the ambiguous human drama in-between.

Watch “Chiaroscuro Lighting in Film — Balancing Cinematic Light & Darkness“:

Who made this?

StudioBinder is a production management software creator who also happens to produce wildly informative video essays. They tend to focus on the mechanics of filmmaking itself, from staging to pitches and directorial techniques. You can check out their YouTube account here.

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(Senior contributor)

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