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. Developed in the Renaissance for painting and became very popular among Baroque painters, all the way to the school known as "tenebrism". And never quite vanished since. (Wikipedia has more here.) Film Noir is fond of it, but it is found in all sorts of works in visual media, whether constantly or to underscore moments of high drama. A great number of critics and satirists have pointed out that mainstream videogames and movies are drifting towards this. A Face Framed in Shadow — half lit, half-shadowed — is often called chiaroscuro. Games with Cel Shading tend to employ this with their shadows. May combine with such tropes as Evil Is Not Well Lit, Conspicuously Light Patch, Woman in White, and By the Lights of Their Eyes, and even Raven Hair, Ivory Skin. Generally speaking, a work that combines dark brown or black shadows over much of the image with bright silver and gold (or flesh-tone) highlights is usually described as chiaroscuro. Used with care, it can produce eye-popping 3D effects, often trompe de l'oeil. The term comes from Italian, where it means "light-dark". English words derived from the same root are, respectively, "Sheer" and "Obscure". In addition, by a bizarre coincidence, similarly pronounced Shiro and Kuro mean "White" and "Black" in Japanese, resulting in a bilingual pun. Not to be confused with the ancient desert city of glass from the tabletop RPG Exalted. Or that rat from The Tale of Despereaux (though he was named for this trope as a joke by his parents). A Super Trope to Dramatic Spotlight, Emerging from the Shadows. Contrast Hollywood Darkness, when even the dark isn't dark. See also Mood Lighting and Color Contrast. Not to be confused with Darker and Edgier, since this trope is typically used to highlight the bright spots. Contrast Nuclear Candle, where light sources illuminate the screen completely and without any appreciable shadows.
open/close all folders
Anime and Manga
- Used frequently in Soul Eater, particularly in scenes in Soul's head, or at the home of Crona and Medusa.
- Kara no Kyoukai loves shading, and shading loves Kara no Kyoukai. The seventh movie has particularly good examples.
- In Castle in the Sky, the final confrontation shows Sheeta and Pazu as pale figures against a dark background.
- In The Castle of Cagliostro, the scenes just before, and at, the wedding use chiaroscuro extensively.
- Hiromu Arakawa uses this often in Fullmetal Alchemist.
- Also seen often in Gurren Lagann, notably in the Eye Catch graphics.
- The Demon Ororon makes full use of this trope.
- Used extensively by science-fiction mangaka Tsutomu Nihei, especially in the cult favourite Blame.
- An episode of Cowboy Bebop uses this as a homage to Batman: The Animated Series.
- In Sangatsu no Lion, the artist employs this technique whenever she wants to emphasize Kyoko's malicious personality traits by having her enveloped in shadows in front of bright background.
- Tite Kubo uses this technique occasionally in Bleach. Fans have joked that whenever he accidentally spills ink all over the page, he just makes it into a new special attack.
- In Sailor Moon Crystal's Act 1 Cold Open when Usagi is Dreaming of Times Gone By, the dream prince and princess move to embrace and kiss, and their bodies and background are bright, but their facial features are so shadowed as to be just barely visible.
- Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio liked to use this.
- When paintings darken over time due to bleaching of colours and dirt sticking to the canvas, this is seems to be in play. For example, Rembrandt Van Rijn's Night Watch was originally a day scene.
- The twin fantasy/comic painters Brothers Hildebrandt made extensive use of this style in their fantasy artwork.
- As pictured above, the art style known as tenebrism (from the Italian word for "dark" and/or "murky") has this effect as its main selling point.
- Hellboy, and many of the other works of Mike Mignola. After all, it is his Signature Style to have things largely defined by their shadows.
- V for Vendetta used this heavily.
- The climactic fight scene between The Spirit and the Octopus took place in a darkened room where the only light was a falling match.
- From Bone, the night that the rat creatures attack Thorn's farm.
- The cover of Fantastic Four #500, set during the rather dark Unthinkable storyline, appropriately featured the Four standing in darkness, lit only by Johnny's flames.
- Sin City. Frank Miller loves to utilize this in his artwork anyway but it seems to be more obvious in this black and white comic series.
- One Hundred Bullets had a significant amount of this, with a signature design having a character shown entirely in black with only their eyes and teeth in white.
Films — Animated
Films — Live-Action
- Used to great effect in American Beauty, where symbols are highlighted by improbably bright lights.
- The Fountain is possibly the most chiaroscuro film ever made, in terms of brute force of imagery. All the swirly gold things and pitch black backgrounds were achieved with microphotography. Even the hospital is lit this way, with lots of dimly lit Moroccan screens, making it the most Awesome but Impractical hospital one is likely to visit. And also very hard to see.
- Blade Runner, in the tradition of Film Noir, helped pave the way for many of the more Grim Dark sci-fi films that followed it. Everything in future LA seems to be powered by / lit by natural gas flares and strobe lights.
- One version of this was from near the end of Apocalypse Now, when a swinging lightbulb throws the main antagonist's face into (changing) light and shadow.
- Like many tropes, the usage of Chiaroscuro in film was widely popularized by Citizen Kane, although it was already common in German expressionist cinema.
- Frequently used by Stanley Kubrick.
- In Barry Lyndon, special lenses facilitated candlelight filming. The use of light in that film becomes very notable to anyone with knowledge in lighting or photography. Most films use a ton of artificial light in scenes that are only supposed to be lit with a few candles, thanks to the technological limitations on cameras. However, Barry Lyndon didn't use any artificial light, with the entire scenes sometimes being lit by a few candles. In order to achieve this, Kubrik had to use cameras intended for NASA during the Apollo moon landings.
- Kubrick's second film, Killer's Kiss, was shot almost entirely in this way, in black and white, with dramatic contrast between light and darkness and lots of shadowy scenes with bright lights cutting through them.
- Dark City uses chiaroscuro lighting in spots to achieve a Diesel Punk / Film noir effect.
- The cellar scene from Signs. The lightbulb gets broken, so there's several tense seconds of pitch blackness, then they turn on two flashlights, which provide the only light for the remainder of the scene.
- From Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Anakin's duel with Dooku. Their lightsabers provide the only illumination.
- The entire second half of Pitch Black.
- Halloween (1978) is an excellent example of this trope's use in horror. The multiple shadows provide so many places for the killer to hide in, the viewer can't tell where he'll jump out from. Particularly notable is the white mask which seems to 'materialize' out of the shadows.
- The Godfather films love this trope. To the extent that in many cases it's so dark parts of the film remains un-exposed. This was why it has been problematic to transfer to DVD, as it's very hard for digital media to handle pitch blacknote .
- The Silence of the Lambs plays with this liberally, mostly in the introduction of Lecter, but rather frighteningly in the climax, where Starling is illuminated through nightvision goggles, shown desperately lost in the darkness.
- I Am Legend has it when Neville enters a building after his dog.
- Serenity used this in the scene on Haven when Shepard Book is advising Mal.
- Alien and its sequels
- On this aspect, The Element of Crime is essentially Blade Runner turned up to eleven.
- Last of the Mohicans, particularly the Fort scenes.
- Inland Empire uses this to create an unsettling, dreamlike atmosphere.
- Due to the low powered light sources and the pitch-blackness of the coffin, most, if not all of Buried is shot like this.
- Peter Jackson pulled this off to a frightening degree of success during the scene that introduces Aragorn in his adaptation of The Fellowship Of The Ring.
- The Harry Potter film series got this way progressively as the series continued, to the point that parts of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2 were near impossible to watch at home with daylight streaming through your windows.
- In Casino, Martin Scorsese uses a brief shot of chiaroscuro to introduce the Dons of the Midwest.
- The finale of Skyfall is this, with the burning ruins of Skyfall manor being the only light source.
- Murder mystery Crossfire is lit this way throughout, starting with the opening scene, when a brawl that ends in a murder is staged in a dark room lit only by a single lamp.
- Villains by Necessity: It's the name of the world, as chosen by Mizzamir. It makes sense with the book's moral message Grayand Gray Morality, both good and evil are necessary for existence.
- The main villain of The Tale of Despereaux is given this name, which becomes much more important as the story goes on
- Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Darkness and light are the two most striking visual motifs in the novel.
- Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary frequently uses light to contrast Emma's ideals and darkness/shadows to emphasize her actual living conditions.
- The novelization of Revenge of the Sith has a chapter called Chiaroscuro, and light and shadow come into the description a lot during it.
- Canadian publisher CZP has an online magazine called Chiaroscuro, and deals with dark, weird fiction. Most of their books embody this trope, thematically, in some way.
- CSI and its spinoffs use this in many scenes, usually accentuated by a strongly colored light.
- Joss Whedon fell in sticky icky love with this trope.
- Firefly: the ship was actually fully constructed and lighting was accomplished by sources available on the set. Often, in order to get light where it was needed, the lighting artists put little sheets of metal down to bounce the light from a lamp onto the actor.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel loved this. Is it meant to be scary? Then you can't see a dang thing.
- Dollhouse makes use of this as well. For example, Ballard's confrontation with Dewitt occurs in an office that used to be well lit. Heck, that entire show reflects its moral ambiguity in its dramatic lighting.
- Whenever something appropriately dramatic happened in Star Trek (Original Flavor), they framed Kirk's eyes with a band of light, the rest of his face in shadow. It was strange.
- How I Met Your Mother had one with the Captain. When Ted and the Captain get on the boat and they set sail, the Captain's face is divided by a shadow into a smile and an evil glare.
- Supernatural, especially in the first two seasons, often had faces framed in shadow... even outside in the middle of the day.
- Mad Men is a dark show, thematically. Beautiful people, beautifully lit.
- Lost Girl is always gorgeously lit, usually darkly. The main character is a Badass Longcoat Private Detective Femme Fatale who qualifies as an Anti-Hero, who frequently hangs in old decaying buildings. It's pretty much a supernatural detective noir show.
- Pushing Daisies uses this occasionally, both as a Homage and Affectionate Parody of Film Noir movies.
- Space: 1999 (the first season) had this in spades. It was pulled off brilliantly and offset the white plastic sterile color scheme of Moonbase Alpha, fitting the somber, thought provoking atmosphere of the first season. Unfortunately, for season 2, this moody lighting style disappeared along with Kano, Victor, and Paul.
- The final scene in the Top Gear Middle East special, where the three presenters (playing the role of the Three Wise Men) bring their gifts to the stable, is lit with candles in this fashion. James May lampshades this in the episode commentary, remarking the scene is lit "like an old master."
- The West Wing had a whole lot of this going on, especially during the quiet, character-driven or philosophical, conversational scenes which usually happened at night, at the end of the workday, where the only available lighting would be small office desk lamps, in contrast to the usually well-lit, daytime, hectic, energetic, plot-driven WalkAndTalks.
- Bones occasionally uses this, and the play of light and dark is sometimes played with metaphorically as it is scenically. The lab is brightly lit, but the subject matter is dark; the interrogation room is often lit so the suspect has a Face Framed In Shadow, but once they're revealed to not be the killer, their heads often turn towards the light so you can see their face. The room behind the one-way glass is dark, as though to represent their invisibility to the other side. Lit windows in the dark seem to be popular.
- The X-Files would occasionally light the scenes in this way. Inevitable for a show featuring dark conspiracies and nasty monsters. A good example of the trope is a very squicky scene in "Leonard Betts". It is set in a storage locker where Betts uses his extreme regenerative power to create himself — he creates another Betts. Only his body is lit and some bright, scary light comes through a door into the locker, and the rest of the scene is very dark.
- Dexter uses this trope quite a lot. It's most obvious in Dexter's kill rooms where he murders criminals. The show also uses the contrast of bright sunny days and dark nights in Miami.
- Game of Thrones is full of this trope.
- Ultra Seven, to further set itself apart from Ultraman (the former being sci-fi-heavy, favoring aliens over kaijuu, positing moral dilemmas, showing more scary imagery, having music that wouldn't be out of place in a feature film), is shot tighter and in deep shadows, even inside the Ultra Garrison base.
- Ultraman episodes would be shot in that style from time to time.
- A medical drama Monday Mornings has Chiaroscuro nearly as default lighting, and this trope is employed to a great effect during their M&M meetings (it stands for Morbidity and Mortality, also referred to as "311") when they are called out on their screw-ups and they have to explain how they killed their patients and if the deaths could have been prevented. The only brightly lit scenes are when the doctors perform operations. It's visually stunning.
- Doctor Who, specifically the Hartnell and Troughton eras which were all shot in black and white. This type of lighting frequently served to offset the look of the cheaply made sets and props. Interestingly, this was one of the original reasons that the film noir lighting style was developed in the first place.
- Used frequently on The Sopranos, to show the moral ambiguity of the characters.
- The classic music video for Madonna's "Vogue."
- The front cover for the Scissor Sisters' album Ta-Dah.
- Talking Heads used this extensively in their live shows, particularly the Stop Making Sense tour. As seen here (note 4:50, when David Byrne goes ballistic).
- Numerous black metal album covers utilize this technique, with the Trope Codifier being Darkthrone's Transilvanian Hunger◊.
- The music video for In the Air Tonight  by Phil Collins which also includes Face Framed in Shadow.
- My Brightest Diamond's debut album Bring Me the Workhorse featured a few photos of Shara Worden, starkly lit with pitch blackness behind her.
- The Agonist has a song named this.
- The music video for "Run to You" by Pentatonix.
- Exalted has the city of Chiaroscuro, which provides this effect in abundance.
- Left 4 Dead uses this to provide atmosphere, light, and to tell players where to go, as humans tend to go towards the light because they can actually see what's there. According to the developer blog and commentaries, the maps in Left 4 Dead were changed to promote, rather than fight against, this natural inclination of ours (custom campaigns that don't follow this line of thought are considered notoriously hard to navigate through). For example, one of the maps that takes place in a city was originally designed to have most of the windows in buildings lit and bright, giving the impression that The Virus wiped everything out quickly. Changing the buildings to be without power made people move faster and more efficiently to the goal, which remained well-lit. Plus, it's frickin' scary.
- Kingdom Hearts uses this throughout the Port Royal world, with the live-action characters cast in realistic, murky, brown-and-black night tones while Sora, Donald, and Goofy remain lit so brightly and colorfully that it's like they're in the middle of the afternoon. The end result is a very stark contrast between the grimmer characters from one world and the much, much perkier heroes from others. In general, the series has pretty heavy use of this. Pure white backgrounds with characters with dark auras (Terra especially), or pure black backgrounds with intense colors (the Dive Into The Heart screen where Sora chooses his keyblade) are incredibly common throughout the game.
- In No More Heroes shadows are pitch black, even in the light of day.
- Doom 3. You use a handheld flashlight, but not along with the gun, because there's no duct tape on Mars. The very first Game Mod for the title, aptly named "Duct Tape", gives a gunlight to a few of the marine's guns; others that come later expand on the concept. The BFG Edition does away with the headache by mounting the lamp on your armor. It only lasts for 30 seconds or so before needing a recharge, but that's far less annoying than having to swap weapons while under attack when a monster inevitable pops up right in your face.
- Taken to the extreme in MadWorld for the Wii, where everything is either black or white (or red).
- The Big Reveal in BioShock does this.
- Ōkami and its sequel Ōkamiden make use of this, which is natural considering the art style is based on Japanese ink paintings. Shadows are pitch black, completely opaque, and flow like ink.
- Mass Effect 2 is considerably Darker and Edgier than its predecessor, and tends to cover character's faces and environments in darker shadows. Mass Effect 3 takes it even further, with the inside of the Normandy now looking like a hollywood submarine.
- Alan Wake is built around this. Since the mysterious "Dark Presence" thrives in darkness and shadows, the majority of the game is spend fleeing between the sparse lighting, and even battle sequences require weakening monsters with flashlights.
- Most of the Silent Hill series.
- As much of it takes place underground, Metro 2033 is prime for this. Most of the levels are dimly lit, and light is usually a sign of habitation... or danger. Especially bad in places where the mushrooms are the only source of light (aside from your headlamp), but they glow radioactive green, and indicate that you're going to suddenly die of radiation poisoning.
- Zelda started using this for nighttime and cave areas in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and then expanded upon it for The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, the latter of which uses shadow as a recurring motif. Your only decent light sources are the occasional torches and lanterns held by either the Moblins or Link; rushing through cave areas without carefully inspecting the lit-up path can lead to a tumble down a pit.
- Much of the artwork for The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask is drawn in this style, though it's not done like this in the game itself.
- Many a Stealth-Based Game uses this when shadows are used as a hiding tool by the protagonist, notably Thief and Splinter Cell.
- Gunnerkrigg Court: When Annie and Kat enter the room under Anja's old lab.
- Order of Tales: Koark and the Bottle Woman in the tunnel.
- Used extensively in Miamaska's darkly lit scenes. Seen here, here, here, aaaaannnd here.
- Girl Genius: Heavily used in Castle Heterodyne. Here, here, here, and here, for instance.
- The Dreamland Chronicles:
- Bob and George: Such as here and .
- Wapsi Square: In the library
- The Adventures of Dr. McNinja: here
- Wooden Rose the forest in the dream
- Fey Winds The attack
- Pibgorn After a death
- Thistil Mistil Kistil As Odin sends him off
- In Wake the Sleepers, the opening.
- In Blue Yonder inside Claremont Apartments. And again inside the N-Forcers' HQ.
- In Strays, during Meela's transformation during the night, and again about the fire while she howls.
- In Impure Blood,
- In Quentyn Quinn, Space Ranger, in his evac suit when ejected into (dark) outer space.
- In Love and Capes,
- In Dresden Codak, Melchior, blond and pale, talking to a Shadowy Council in a dark room.
- In Tales of the Questor, the late night pursuit into the Tumbledowns is done in this.
- In Faux Pas, after Myrtle injured Cindy and gave her an overdose of cough medicine, they talk of getting her something to eat — and all look at a panel where she is white against a much darker scene.
- In Ava's Demon, the crash landing has the bright streak of the ship, and phosphorescence on the land, in the gloom.
- In El Goonish Shive, Raven listens to the news in a dark room with light coming from another room and the strip ends with his Face Framed in Shadow.
- In Reds Planet, the scenes around campfires.
- In Sinfest, moments when Lil' E is comtemplating his Amnesiac Dissonance often have stark light and shadows: looking at his old enemies list, confiding in Tangerine, and longing to be like angels.
- In Cucumber Quest,
- In Reds Planet, this guides Red to where she can escaped the crashed spaceship.
- Referenced in the Strong Bad Email '''Trogdor''' from Homestar Runner. Tasked to draw a dragon, Strong Sad, depressive nerd, draws a realistic picture and explains that he had used this technique.
- Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog has this during the song, My Eyes. While watching from the street, Doctor Horrible sings about how soon "only darkness will remain." While he's doing this, a street light casts light on one side of his face, while the other is completely shadowed. When he mentions that "darkness is on the rise" he steps back, and out of the light, so that the only light striking him is a few feeble glimmers from a hobo fire.
- Though the art style is very simplistic overall, many of the darkness scenes in Nan Quest tend to invoke this style.◊ In particular, the Anasazi Lounge scene is an example of this; everything is in very harsh shadow, with occasional stark highlights.◊
- Star Wars: Clone Wars: Anakin's knighting ceremony. A darkened chamber, with only the Jedi Council's lightsabers for illumination. Anakin and Asaji Ventress fight in a dark chamber at one point, with only the red and blue lightsabers lighting the room.
- Samurai Jack: a fight between Jack and a Ninja, cast in lighting so harsh that everywhere is either very bright or pitch black. The Ninja is invisible when it's in the darkness. Jack pulls out his own ninja trick, becoming invisible in the light.
- Batman: The Animated Series, as to be expected considering its inspiration from Frank Miller.
- In ThunderCats (2011), this is used in "The Duelist and the Drifter" while introducing the Duelist, and during the Drifter's Nameless Narrative. The figures are backlit, but their fronts (or their head and shoulders) are near-totally concealed in heavy shadow.
- Shakespeare: The Animated Tales made very effective use of chiaroscuro in its adaptation of Macbeth. Characters fade in and out of the shadowy background as they enter and leave a scene.