Chiaroscuro is an Italian term which means light and dark and basically refers to the high contrast light/dark style used in Renaissance painting and later in cinema. Cecil B De Mille is credited with first applying the terminology in 1915 while filming The Warrens of Virginia. He lit the actors’ faces half in light and half in shadow, he defended this ‘strange’ form of film lighting to the unconvinced studio executives and christened it Rembrandt lighting. However, before him German Expressionism also to some extent embraced this high contrast form of lighting and there will always be disagreement as to which movement or director used it first. The Hollywood Film Noir period in the 1940s – 50′s established it as a film-making standard.
Whether you choose to term it Chiaroscuro or Rembrandt lighting or Renaissance lighting what is clear is that it evolved as an effective tool for focusing the viewers eye on the subject as it typically darkens the background while lighting only the foreground subject. Again, the light would only be on half the subject and this would give them a strong 3 dimensional shape and a sense of volume. This effect was notable in Orson Welles’s 1941 classic Citizen Kane and the film’s place in cinema history is to a great extent down to how chiaroscuro was accentuated throughout the movie. Indeed, Welles was a talented painter and art fanatic and film critics maintain that he clearly mimicked the work of Renaissance painter Caravaggio in the cinematography of Kane.
The style and application of chiaroscuro lighting will change from director to director, cinematographer to cinematographer with some preferring the ‘cameo’ style that makes the background completely black and the subject entirely lit or the classic style with half the face in shadow and half lit brightly. It has now evolved as a loose term for dramatic noir-style lighting with extremes of blacks and lights, casting strong shadows.