Movies & TV Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for movie and tv enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

In many films and TV shows, just before a seminal moment (though not necessarily before a climax), the director will call for a character's face to be half in darkness, half in light.

I first noticed this technique in 'The Empire Strikes Back'. During the lightsaber scene between Luke and Darth Vader, there is a moment when Luke is pushed back, underneath a stairwell, and half of his face is in darkness, half is in light.

Last Sunday, I saw it again in 'Boardwalk Empire'.

Just before Eddy Kessler jumped off of the balcony, he looked in the mirror. Half of his face was in darkness, half was in light.

What is the name of this technique? And what is the director trying to get across?

share|improve this question
up vote 6 down vote accepted

According to an article on, this is called "Face Framed In Shadow."

A face half-covered by shadow, very often through a partial Lightning Reveal. Good way to emphasize a character's sinister side. This can overlap with Hidden Eyes.

It is also sometimes called "chiaroscuro," which seems to be a bit more broad than just applying to the face.

A visual trope, using a stark contrast between dark and light in an image, usually for dramatic effect. Generally uses directional lighting and sharp shadows.

share|improve this answer
One of the best examples of this: – Barry Hammer Oct 11 '13 at 7:31
That is stunning. some great CGI there. – moobot Oct 14 '13 at 10:49
It was popularized in film noir, for exactly the moral-ambiguity reasons you mention (which applied to the lighting scheme of the whole film and film movement, not just actors' faces). – Geoffrey Booth Dec 5 '13 at 2:08

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.