And the Oscar Goes to...

By Orla Ahern

02 March 2016

I'm a lover of horror films. There is no other artform that stirs such a visceral reaction in the pit of my stomach.

This week has once again seen my favourite film genre roundly ignored by the Academy in Hollywood. In all the fanfare surrounding Leo and his his long-awaited triumph, the films I love, those masterfully manipulative celluloid manifestations, have once again missed out.

There is one simple thing that makes a successful horror movie - and that is fear. From the ghoulish figure of Frankenstein to the morbidly fascinating head spinning of The Exorcist, fear makes these images live in our nightmares.

There are many elements that help build fear on film - acting, direction, score, costume, special effects - but the one that fascinates me with its simplicity is the employment of lighting.

Dracula: Prince of Darkness- 1966

Do you recall cowering under the bed sheets as a child? Fear of the dark, that liminal place where the monsters live, is a universal childhood trope. Directors of horror movies love manipulating darkness. The film-set lighting engineer plays a vital role in the presentation of these ominous shadows, ramping up the intensity to its denouement.

A cloaking darkness makes for grander revelations. In Wilhelm Murnau’s Nosferatu, the balance of light and darkness creates a looming sense of fear. The silhouette of a figure ascending the stairs to his young victim is a classic image. The shadows strip the dark figure of facial and physical features; only malevolence remains.

Nosferatu- 1922

The application of the practical effects of lighting stretch well beyond the world of cinema. Our Head of Lighting at Max Fordham, Nick Cramp, explained to me that filmaking informs the work done by him and the team. 'We use cinematic principles of lighting all the time in our designs,' he told me. 'Film makers have always tried to make an emotional connection with the audience through the visual, and so we find these techniques in lighting can heighten the sense of drama and character in our installations.'

Nick manages the Light + Air group at Max Fordham. Architectural lighting is just part of their remit - their expertise extends to daylighting design, building facade performance, natural and mechanical ventilation, as well as building form and orientation. Their ambition is for a different kind of emotional reaction, of course. Nick assures me you'll never be frightened in a Max Fordham building! Unless, of course, you're watching a late-session blood-curdler at somewhere like the Birks Cinema in Aberfeldy, Scotland.


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