Film Lighting and Emotions

A research project regarding the influence of film lighting on human perceptions of characters, whether they be a villain or a hero.
Carrie Ma
Grade 7



How does lighting in filmmaking trick a viewer’s brain to feel a certain emotion towards a hero or villain character?


If the character is portrayed to be the villain antagonist, then low key lighting would be used, and more desaturated and darker colours would be displayed, because low key lighting creates harsh shadows to reflect a dark and ominous mood, and cool colours make the atmosphere more pensive and tense. As the brain is more accustomed to bright, warmer colours in light nature outside, being in darker places with desaturated, cool colours is unnatural to the brain, and it feels more grim and unsettling. 


My project is a research project and does not require a specific method, though it contains the Background Research, Question, Hypothesis, Data (extensive research), Analysis, and Conclusion. 



Lighting from a psychological view

- Lighting can affect our emotions, and also our perceptions.

- Our perceptions are supported by the emotions we feel during the film.

- When manipulating lighting, you are the one that is trying to affect the viewer’s emotions.

- Whatever is shown on the screen will be the perception of reality to the viewer.

Ex. studies suggest that if the lighting is more intense, then you will feel warmer in the room, even if the temperature hasn’t been raised.

Ex. Warmer tones can suggest a relaxation mood, whereas cooler tones encourage focus and alertness. 

Low Key Lighting

A film lighting technique used to emphasize dark tones and hard shadows.

- Creates a very ominous, dangerous, dark, mysterious, and suspenseful tone using high levels of contrast and darkness.

- Can also be used to communicate dark warnings.

Low Key Lighting Examples:

High Key Lighting

A film lighting technique used to reduce shadows and contrast on the subject.

- Many white tones and bright lights are used.

- Creates a very optimistic, happy, joyful or upbeat mood to a shot. 

High Key LIghting Examples:


Film Colour Theory: a theory stating that colours in film can trigger certain emotions from viewers. 

- Colour wheels can explain the different emotions that are triggered when specific colours are shown

       ⇒ Red: anger, energy, fire, and passion

       ⇒ Orange: creativity, happiness, optimism, and warmth

       ⇒ Yellow: relaxation, joy, imagination, and sunshine

       ⇒ Green: harmony, pride, jealousy, spring, and good luck

       ⇒ Blue: calmness, peace, kindness, truth, and loyalty

       ⇒ Purple: royal, noble, artistic, and power

       ⇒ Pink: Romance, charm, playfulness, and delicacy. 

Colour Wheel:

Colour In Lighting Examples:



Poland J.L’s Study on Film Lighting’s Emotional Impact on Viewers

This study researches the different effects of film lighting and how it impacts audience emotions through an experiment.

- 3 lighting styles, Low Key Lighting, High Key Lighting, and Available lighting (light that is gifted naturally in the given environment) were tested.

- Participants in the study would watch a film in one of the lighting styles, and then later report what they felt during the experience. 

Their hypothesis:

- Participants who view the film in High Key Lighting would see the scene as flatly lit without shadows, low contrast, bright setups, and a shiny look.

   ⇒ This would provoke positive and optimistic emotions.

   ⇒ Characters in this lighting are interpreted as good hearted, funny, lovable, and heroic. 

- Participants who view the film in Low Key Lighting would see deep shadows, darkness, and high levels of contrast.

   ⇒ This would provoke dangerous and mysterious emotions.

   ⇒ Characters in this lighting are interpreted as having evil intentions, being manipulative, and untrustworthy.

The results of the experiment:


Davis R’s Article on Lighting Psychology

This article is about architectural lighting, but architectural lighting is still connected with film lighting (explained in analysis/conclusion).

- Stimlus: something that provokes a reaction or response of an action.

   ⇒ Ex. pulling your finger away from a hot pan. 

- Lighting in an architectural space can create many perceptions

   ⇒ Excitement, calmness, peacefulness, mystery, etc.

- Lighting can entirely transform a room

Article Thread 1:

- Research from John Flynn

- He wanted to discover how human responses to lighting were connected with architecture settings

   ⇒ How perceptions would be impacted by changes in lighting

- Findings: Impressions like space, clarity, comfort, complexity, etc. can be affected by lighting

- Identified 4 factors nicknamed "lighting modes"

   ⇒ Each mode has a continuum of changes of lighting between 2 opposite things

        → Brightness/Dimness - how bright a light is

        → Uniform/Non-uniform - how equally/unequally spaced and lit an environment is

        → Central/Perimeter - location of light

        → Warm/Cool - tone/colour of light

   ⇒ When these factors are adjusted, changes would be made in the human response

   ⇒ Designer of room could focus on these points of a lighting mode to create perceptions

        → ex. designer can emphasize relaxation with non-uniform lighting on the perimeter of the room, with a warm tone. Uniform lighting on the perimeter of the room would emphasize the perception of spaciousness.

Article Thread 2:

- Research from Kaplan and Kaplan

- When entering a new environment that feel similar to other environments, we feel happy/comfrotable

   ⇒ We understand the setting more

- When entering a completely unfamiliar envrionment, we feel unsettled

   ⇒ We find it difficult to understand the envrionment

- Being in a new environment can be good

   ⇒ Uniqueness/Unnfamiliarity is very exciting

        → Keeps us engaged/interested in the environment

        → High level of complexity (to keep us interested in the room)

        → Lower level of coherence (ability to understand environment)

- More familiar environment has lower level of complexity, higher level of coherence

- Our brain wants a balance of coherence and complexity

Article Thread 3:

- Research by James Russell

   ⇒ developed understanding of emotional responses and lighting

- Primary emotional responses: comfort, awakeness, power/control

   ⇒ Comfort: how much comfrot someone finds in the environment

   ⇒ Awakeness: how much awakeness they feel

   ⇒ Power/Control: how much power/control they have over the lighting

- Comfort and Awakeness act as one, because they can move as a single integrated response than 2 separate responses

   ⇒ Ex. if your environment should be tense, it should be awakening but unpleasant

        → The 2 factors support each other to create a perception for an environment

   ⇒ A relaxing environment could have low awakening but high comfort

Experts Contacted

David Bordwell - suggested a book called FILM ART: AN INTRODUCTION

   ⇒ Also directed me to Patrick Keating

Torben Grodal - no response

Greg Smith - no response

Michelle Park - no response

Carl Plantinga - answered

   ⇒ Villains are lit from below, especially when shown as monstrous/unnatural

   ⇒ Halloween lighting - lighting from below

        → Unnatural to us, so its good for villains

   ⇒ Hero lighting depends on era/gender

        → In the past, women were lit with soft light, men with hard light

        → Plays with attractiveness of face with chiaroscuro

        → Not much of a specific light for heroes

   ⇒ Suggested a book, Cinematography

   ⇒ We normallyassociate darkness -> mystery/danger, light -> happiness/knowledge

        → Comedies shot in high key

        → Mysteries shot in low key

Robert G. Nulph  - answered

   ⇒ Goal for heroes is to make them look powerful/bold

        → Also visually pleasing

        → Large soft light to reduce shadows 

        → Heroes emerge from light

        → Emphasize character strength to appear likeable

   ⇒ Villains shot with a scarier look

        → Hard lights above/below to create a spooky effect

        → Dark background and minimal light

   ⇒ Low key lighting is important for dramatic scenes

        → Provides more mystery than danger since the viewer can't see much through the darkness

Patrick Keating

   ⇒ Heroes should be lit attractively

        → Depends a lot, because it constantly changes over time

        → Old technique: soft frontal lighting and strong backlight

   ⇒ Villians should be lit unatttractively

        → Lighting from below (like horror films)

   ⇒ Low key lighting for villains can change over time

        → Ex. films have gotten progressively darker over the years

        → Film in 2020 with an optimistic scene might have darker lighting than a negative scene from 1935



- Jennifer Lee Poland's experiment on Film lighting

   ⇒ Hypothesis was similar 

        → High Key Lighting - light hearted and positive emotions (joy, peace, happiness, honesty, peace), associated with heroes

        → Quote: “Cinematographers lighting a comedy use bright lighting set ups, less contrast, and a slick, shiny look to trigger emotional responses of joy, enlightenment, honesty, and happiness. In this lighting style, characters are interpreted as good hearted, funny, lovable, and heroic."

        → Low Key Lighting - danger, suspense, mystery, evil, associated with villains

        → Quote: "Cinematic theory suggests that audience members experiencing a film lit in the noir style will interpret the highly shadowed, dark, and contrasting images with feelings of danger, suspense, depression, mystery, and evil. Characters in this mode should be interpreted as having evil intentions, being manipulative and untrustworthy."

Robert Davis's article about Lighting Psychology in architectural environments

   ⇒ Studies show that if lighting in architecutre can influence audience emotions, film lighting can do the same

   ⇒ 1st thread:

        → How lighting modes affect lighting stimulus

        → Brightness/Dimness - High Key/Low Key lighting

                 - Brighter lighting - happiness - hero

                 - Dimmer lighting - suspense - villain

        → Warm/Cool - warm colours = relaxation, cool colours = tense and alert. Can be applied to understanding of heroes/villains

                 - Warm colours stimulate comfort - hero

                 - Cool colours stimulate alertness - villain

   ⇒ 2nd thread:

        → Coherence: helps person understand environment

        → Complexity: keeps person interested in environment

        → Can be applied to film lighting - Lighting of character with dark and heavy shadows

                 - Gives a sense of mystery - spikes complexity in villain character

                 - Keeps viewer engaged in film

   ⇒ 3rd thread:

        → Understanding emotional responses that lead to perceptions

        → Comfort, Awakening, Power/Control

                 - Power/Control can't be used, because only filmmakers control the lighting

                 - However, combining Comfort + Awakening creates one single response

        → Ex. if you wanted audience to feel tense/scared of the villain character

                 - High sense of awakening - keeps audience tense/ on edge. can be done by using low key lighting

                 - Low sense of comfort - audience is scared/uneasy of villain character. can be done by using low key lighting


- My hypothesis was correct

   ⇒ Research showed high key lighting gives feelings of joy

        → These emotions lead to perceptions of heroes

   ⇒ Low key lighting give feelings of danger and mystery

        → These emotions lead to perceptions of villains

   ⇒ Cooler colours

        → provides alertness and tension

        → associated with villains

   ⇒ Warmer colours

        → prvides comfort and joy

        → associated with heroes

- Could be useful/benefit real world

   ⇒ lighting is in many places in our daily lives, not just films (architecture, commercials, photos, buildings, gallers, etc.)

   ⇒ can apply understanding of film lighting psychology to other lighting environments

        → ex. an advertisement that needs to communicate a positive mode can use high key lighting

        → ex. a house designed for more comfort might have warmer coloured lighting designed  like high key lighting (white lights, soft, low contrast)

- Something that could've been worked on

   ⇒ Exploring more about the psychological impact on audience emotions

   ⇒ More extensive research on the colour part

- Next steps

   ⇒ Include the things that could've been worked on

   ⇒ Extend research into architectural lighting


Poland J.L., 2015, Lights, Camera, Emotion!: an Examination on Film Lighting and Its Impact on Audiences' Emotional Response

Davis R., 2019, Lighting Psychology: Cognitive and Emotional Responses to Lighting

Quartier K., Van Cleempoel K., 2008, The influence of lighting in the build environment: a study to analyse human behaviour and perception as measured by mood and observation

Nulph R.G., 2021

Keating P., 2021

Plantinga C., 2021

Bordwell D., 2021

DiLouie Craig, 2014, Psychology of Light

TCP, 2017, The Psychological Impact of Light and Color,

Grodal T., 2005, Moving Image Theory: Ecological Considerations, Chapter Nine: Film Lighting and Mood

Plantinga C.R., Smith, Greg M., 1999, Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion, Introduction

Hellerman J., 2019, 13 Film Techniques Every Filmmaker Should Know,

Hellerman J., 2019, How A Film Colour Palette Can Make You A Better Filmmaker


Four experts greatly helped me in my research throughout my project, and provided me with essential primary sources to support my hypothesis. They are Robert G. Nulph, Patrick Keating, Carl R. Plantinga, and David Bordwell. 

I'd also like to acknowledge my mentors and teachers Iain Hotzel, and Karen Davis. They helped me immensely during my project.