Week 2 – Lighting Techniques Used in Silence of the Lambs (1991)


Title:  Silence of the Lambs

Director:  Jonathan Demme

Cinematography:  Tak Fugimoto

Year:  1991

Actors:  Jodie Foster (Clarice Starling)
Anthony Hopkins (Dr. Hannibal Lecter)
Jame Gumb (Buffalo Bill)

The beginning of the film shows a young FBI trainee, Clarice Starling, running through a training course surrounded by thick fog.  The course is surrounded by trees and due to the low lighting it is obvious early morning.  Much of the film is shot using low-key lighting to create the feel of intimidation and tension.  However, there are moments when Clarice, as the film’s heroine, is cast in brigther lights throughout the film.  This lends itself to how the Director and Cinematographer wants its audience to interpret their characters, good vs. evil.

Much of the Silence of the Lambs is centered on dark, sadistic and evil characters such as Buffalo Bill and Dr. Hannibal Lecter.  The lighting used in the film, or lack thereof, is used to contrast the relationship of good vs. evil (i.e. Starling vs. Dr. Lecter/Buffalo Bill).  The darkness of the movie mimics the darkness of the theme of the movie.  Throughout the movie the camera is positioned using the same angle as the light when Clarice visits Dr. Lecter, this casts dark shadows onto Dr. Lecter, as some say it makes it hard to read the body language of Dr. Lecter making what he will do next hard to predict.  This effect keeps you on the edge of your seat or if you’re like me, your hands over your eyes.

There are few key scenes in the movie where lighting is distinctly part of the scene:  1) three-point lighting is used to light the Dr. Lecter while sitting in his cell.  The lighting is bright and harsh and adds urgency to the scene; 2) the scene in which Starling unknowingly shows up to Buffalo Bill’s house following a lead.  As she enters the house and realizes that he’s the killer, he shuts off all the lights in the house and it becomes pitch dark.  The shot is framed as if you were Buffalo Bill looking through night vision goggles.  You’re able to see Clarice struggle in the darkness.

If the lighting wasn’t as deliberate and obvious, the movie wouldn’t be the psychological thriller film classic it is today.  The lighting adds to the thrill and darkness of the movie’s theme of sadistic psycho-tortuous murder rampages.

Goodykoontz, B., & Jacobs, C. P. (2014). Film: From Watching to Seeing, 2nd Ed. San Diego: Bridgepoint Education Inc.


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