Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Motivated Light

Lighting designers say a light is motivated if the source is understood by the viewer. In a film, comic book, or illustrated book, this can be important in setting a mood and making the lighting look convincing.

In the boiler room scene from Hiyao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (sorry, the clip was no longer available) the girl enters a corridor where she sees multiple cast shadows projected on a wall. The shadows flicker on and off for no apparent reason. Up until this point the light is unmotivated.

With the lighting now fully motivated, the lighting designer has some freedom for the remainder of the scene. The remaining shots don’t have to make perfectly logical sense. Most of the later shots have single shadows cast to the side or even nearly straight downward.

What’s important in the later shots is clarity of action and expression in the service of the story. Showing those multiple flickering cast shadows again would not only be unnecessary, it would be confusing.

An individual painting can have motivated light as well. At the top of this painting by Peder Severin Kroyer, we can see light flooding in through an upper window. That glimpse of the source allows us to understand where the sharp spots of light on the work table come from.


Justin M. said...

Definitely one of the earliest errs of my artist career. Motivated light can help define or destroy your subject and thus "message" of the work! I've seen it happen far too often when I plan a piece poorly (or even those UN-happy accidents). Do you accept donations for the Gallery Flambeau?!

Erik Bongers said...

Off-topic, but a late congratulations on your 1000 posts!

Erik Bongers said...

This topic makes me think of an Andrew Wyeth painting - Her Room where the 'motivated' light source is implied, but not really shown. That is, the shell is obviously lit by sunlight from a window at the right. But we see neither sun nor window.

This painting also gives a bit of a spin to the concept of 'motivated light' in the sense that the light itself in this painting feels like a 'presence', a conscious being, a visitor, a stranger, a god if you will. But even atheists like me sense it.

Will Kelly said...

This is very interesting. I like the painting... the figures in the foreground are slightly illuminated as well - what type of lighting are we seeing there?
It's almost as if the viewer is standing in the doorway with a lit courtyard in behind them.

Anonymous said...

Spirited Away is a wonderful movie, i love it!

Tyler J said...

Miazaki is such a great artist. This is something that I will need to consider more careful in the future, throw it into the mix, as it were.

@Eric- The Wyeth painting is interesting, at first I didn't feel like the patch of light on the door and the patch of light on the table were "jiving", but it dawned on me that the door is at a different angle to the light source and therefore gets a different treatment.

Also, you don't have to be religious to be spiritual...I would submit that you have a strong spiritual identity that manifests itself in your art (all artists, poets, writers, etc do, in my humble opinion).

Dave Lebow said...

As always, your posts seem to address some problem I am having with my current painting in the present moment. I appreciate this info about the importance of a logical light source.

Justin M. said...

@Will, good eye!
I definitely think this is one of the points J. Gurney was trying to make. The "doorway" lighting you mentioned that appears to come from behind the viewer (us) helps us register the subject matter more clearly.
I love this depth of conceptualizing an excellent painting process requires! So engaging.

@Stari, I have yet to be let down by anything so far as touched by Miazaki!

@Erik, ...wait, I'm confused at what you're saying on your second post.

"...light source is implied, but not really shown".

Do you mean that it's hard to trace the origin of the lighting (so diffuse maybe?) so it appears that it has no origin?
If that's what you mean, then I understand what you're saying. Motivated lighting, as I understand it from this post, has to be really shown. That's how we, as the viewer, can even begin to understand it (successfully).

@Tyler, I agree with ya man! Everybody I know who can get into the process of creating has that potential in them. That presence, you say, which manifests in their work is there because it was placed there by the artist's "dream->will->hand". I think this is very important for us to recognize, as it permeates throughout all our endeavors really. The question is, how well will you apply that unknown we call talent?!
A clever mind should be asking, "and what, dare we ask, is well... what makes something successful?"
I want to know that myself. I've heard a lot of answers to that question, but they seem to be divided into camps, "schools" I guess?

Okay, getting too deep for this hour. Night Y'all!

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

Neat clip and illustration for the topic at hand. Motivated light - what a great concept!

Unknown said...


Tyler J said...


Good thoughts there. I suppose the "what" that makes something successful IS talent, but that word always raises a question in my mind:

What is talent?

At first glance, it seems pretty straightforward, but if you really think about it, what exactly do we mean when we say it. I recall a quote attributed to Michelangelo which runs along the lines of:

"If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it wouldn't seem wonderful at all."

To me, this sentiment is a challenge that talent is a gift bestowed at birth. When someone is referred to as talent, regardless of how much praise they are intending, it always marginalizes the hard work and dedication that they put into their craft.

This is not to imply that talented people cannot also be very hard working, in fact, I would argue that the two are closely aligned.

I fear that this has run off topic, but would be interested in some thoughts about this subject as its one that I struggle with.

Daniel Silberberg said...

Great movie, and I love your analysis of it. The lighting contributed so strongly to the believable sense of space within the film, which was a big part of its visual appeal.

Unknown said...
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