Telling the story with light.

Juan Ferrari

Juan Ferrari, Senior Associate

Exploring narrative lighting.

Humans have been using light to tell stories for a very long time.

Before the cinema, the theatre, Edison or the magic lantern, our ancestors were using light to craft their stories. Historians theorise that as early as 20,000 years ago, Palaeolithic man’s cave paintings used the contours of rocks not only to create depth and perception, but to enhance the flicker of fire-light cast upon them, bringing the vivid images to life.

Lascaux cave painting

Lascaux caves, France: home to some of the most well-preserved and expressive cave paintings in the world.

Despite having emerged from our caves to dwell in (slightly!) more constructed spaces, the value of light’s ability to express and enhance meaning should be ignored at our peril. What can we learn from our long history of lighting narrative to ensure our current designs continue to tell meaningful stories?

A story of light.

If narrative and light share one thing most in common, it is how they help us, both conceptually and literally, to understand the world around us.

On an anthropological level, narrative guides us on our proper behaviour, informs us of our cultural history, and allows us to form communal identity and values. In short, narrative helps us to make sense of our reality.

Light, similarly, unlocks our perceptions of reality – only when light is hitting an object does it become visible to the human eye. As obvious as this may seem, light isn’t just a conduit for sight, but also memory, experience, and emotion. Light is powerfully capable of drastically changing our perceptions.

Theatre lighting.

Lighting has played an important role in the art of the theatre, from open-air theatres lit by the setting sun, to the most up-to-date artificial spotlighting.

Nowadays lighting narrative, especially in conventional western theatre, runs in parallel to the story. However, it is important to know the difference between lighting narrative and narrative lighting:

  1. A ‘lighting narrative’ is a story that the light helps to tell.
  2. ‘Narrative lighting’ is an approach to design in which lighting tells the story.

Therefore, lighting can accentuate or contradict the theatrical action, contributing to the overall narrative that the audience experiences. Importantly, this experience can be unconscious – speaking to an audience member after a performance, it’s unlikely they will be able to tell you whether a scene changed from blue light to red light… but they will know what happened in terms of the story and their response to it i.e. “it was so sad when the King was killed.”

Cinema lighting.

Cinema, likewise, shares a rich history with light. Not only is set lighting an important part of a film’s aesthetic, but, like the flicker of flames on cave walls, the technology of cinema projection relies on light’s ability to trick our brain into seeing movement.

It takes a special kind of technology and story to convince people to sit in the dark and stare at light for two hours!

In no place is the balance of narrative lighting more clearly executed than in early Hollywood cinema. Black and white film was so dependent on expert lighting set-up that early cinematography is often described as “painting with light”.

Take this famous scene from 1943’s Casablanca. The scene is lit in such a way as to both flatter its subject and further the narrative – striking a delicate balance in this regard. In the first image Rick is lit sparsely, a shadow cast across his face to compliment his emotional state. Conversely, in the second image Ilsa is lit to flatter: as the object of Rick’s affection, she is lit to advance the narrative and inform the audience. Whilst the light that inhibits a film’s world rarely reflects how light works, in reality, it nevertheless achieves a balance between narrative and art.

So, what can we learn from these disciplines to inform our architectural lighting designs?