Issue 5 - Balancing Light & Dark

The balance of light and shadow - adventures in black and white, and beyond!


“The delicate dance between light and shadow, between the light and the dark, is an artform in and of itself.” ~ dialed-in director (it’s me, Rob! I said that)

Light is one of the most important elements of any production. It’s why it was listed first in that famous cinematic mantra echoed through generations. “Lights, camera, action!”

Okay, so that last bit is totally made up, but that should not discount the simple fact that without light, there is no image read by the camera and lenses. It is a key element in the design of your visuals, and one of the hardest to nail.

Especially if, as many of us do when starting out, you come at this delicate art with the approach and finesse of a hammer-wielding Tasmanian devil.

still from our short film, The Magician (2015)

“Please Hammer don’t hurt ‘em!” Again, it is about balancing the light and the dark. About creating a tone and added impact for your visual dialog with the audience to reinforce or even contradict your narrative. All carved from shadows.

There are many great resources available for us to learn how to work with this essential element to wield it more effectively. They are a simple internet search away.

One easy rule of thumb I’ve heard from a couple of talented cinematographers of late that I respect and trust, is to, in most cases, basically backlight all the action and tweak from there to get the right shape you want from the lights.

Now that is extremely simplistic and somewhat poorly paraphrased, but the point remains. “Backlight is best” in most situations. Or at the very least, it’s a good place to start building your light setup.

This helps to separate your actor from the background, and give them their own “space,” if you will, within the frame. It makes them stand out, if you won’t.

BTS still from an upcoming horror short we have currently in production

See how the light source behind the actor (Nick Gatsby - Zapper, thorns, Diabetes) acts as a means to keep him from blending into the shadows of the background. It differentiates him from the shadows. Offers him shape.

But again, it takes time and intention to get the lighting right. And to find that balance between light and dark. To find the “right amount of darkness.”


Beyond the visual language assisted by the balance of light and dark, further balance need be paid attention to when going for tone and impact. And that is how your scales tip in regards to the light and the dark narrative elements too.

Storytelling can prove to be something of a balancing act as well. When building your story, you want to include some swings along the spectrum. Some emotional ebb and flow. But be cautious of how wide you end up swinging.

What I mean is, you want some back and forth, where the audience bounces between the moments of tension and release. And that swing can look very different between genres and tales.

You can shift from drama to comedy, or even horror to comedy for that impact and emotional narrative interplay with the audience. But often if those shifts or turns between tones are too great, you can lose your audience.

Taking them out of the experience rather than deeper into it. So proceed with caution and understanding of how those necessary shifts can hurt and help your film.

still from our short film, ART (2022)

I say necessary, because they are just that. The audience needs those breaks along the way. Otherwise the journey can be ruined without enough emotional pitstops.

It all ties back to the old adage, “you have to have the bad to understand the good.” Again, poorly paraphrased, but yeah. It’s there. Without the dark, we wouldn’t appreciate the light. 

And that translates to storytelling, because without those valleys, the peaks just don’t register as high with the viewers. If everything is at one level the whole time, then there’s no sense of scale or scope to where that level rests.

Bollywood filmmakers have seemingly mastered the art of such broad and diverse shifts in narrative tone without it feeling out of balance or too much for the audience to ride with.

still from the amazing film, 3 Idiots, (ifykyk)


By my estimation, navigating these types of narrative shifts comes down to two basic fundamentals: timing and truth. It needs to come at the “right time” which will be determined by your tale and its rhythms. And it needs to feel true to your film.

If you’ve created a fantastical universe where anything and everything is possible, then such dramatic tonal shifts do feel more at home. This is not to say they are any less impactful or jarring, but they do not have as great a risk of throwing the audience out of the story.

You want it to be accepted, not expected. Don’t telegraph your punches.


Recently, Travis Eckland (cinematographer, producer - Duck Rabbit, Matchbot, ART) and I were discussing the upcoming Stephen King adaptation, E is for Expiation, and how he wanted to approach the image.

Having worked with Travis on multiple projects now, I have nothing but trust and love for his aesthetic instincts and choices. Whenever I bring him on board a project, he probably gets annoyed with my lack of guidance or direction.

He will tell me about ways he wants to do things, and ask for my input, and I am always just like, “yeah, whatever you think is best, I’m on board with.” Because he has my absolute trust, and I know he knows the image better than I do.

And he certainly knows better than me how to get the image where it needs to be. So I just step back and let him rock his roll the way he wants to play it. And I have yet to be disappointed by giving him the reigns and watching him go.

So when he mentioned he was kicking around the idea of shooting the King film all in black and white, I was immediately like, “YES!!! Stop questioning or second guessing, this is gold and I am digging it!” Again, poorly paraphrased, but it was something like that.

Never mind that I am a huge fan and proponent of B&W, but I immediately loved the way it brings our main character’s POV directly to heart and mind for the audience. In a world of vibrancy, glitz, and glamour she sees it all devoid of color.

BOOM! It was the exact opposite of what I would think would be the natural instinct in a casino setting, which is to steer away from the vibrant colors, because that’s not how Darlene would view it.

I found it to be brave. I found it to be bold. And I was instantly sold and on board!


We had previously discussed the lighting ratios Travis wanted to use as a baseline, and revisited that as well when we broached the subject of black and white. As I had been thinking of ways to use the ratios narratively, so to speak.

Originally, I was like, “Yeah, whatever you think is best.” You know, my normal rap. And so I told him go forth with this plan in mind. Only to totally change my mind and direction weeks later. I don’t know why he still works with me.

But I had the idea of the contrast between the light and shadows to be to something that doesn’t stay static and set at a certain level, but that we increase and decrease at key times to accompany narrative shifts in the story as well.

With the decision to go B&W, I wanted to make sure that this new bulb burning overhead wasn’t going to disrupt his plans to shift to a world of grays. So be on the lookout for how Travis treats and plays with the light and shadows ahead!

Overall, I am already excited to see what kind of image he creates and captures for the King!

The crowdfunding campaign launches next week! Keep those peepers peeled!