Understanding Cinematic Lighting for Stand-Ins

NOVEMBER 23, 2020
Crew setting up cinematic lighting on film set.

Like Background Actors, Stand-Ins are an important part of movies and TV shows. During production, they take the place of the principal actor for lighting, blocking, and camera set-ups. If you want to work as a Stand-In or just want to know more about how movies and TV shows are made, this intro to cinematic lighting will help you be a pro the next time you’re booked by Central Casting.

First, it’s important to know there’s a difference between multi-camera and single camera lighting. Since sitcoms (like Mom, Bob Hearts Abishola, and Last Man Standing) use multiple cameras at once, the lighting has to work for each camera, each actor, and allow for the characters to move around. To make this work, the majority of multi-cam lighting comes from a series of lights above the set. Lighting is not a big responsibility for multi-cam Stand-Ins; instead they focus more on camera blocking.

Single camera productions (like MacGyver, Ramy, and Pose) are shot with one camera, with the lighting tailored to each shot. Much of a single camera Stand-in’s job is lighting and camera setups, which is why they often need to match the height, complexion, and build of the principal actor.

Why is cinematic lighting important?

Lighting is about more than just being able to see the action on screen. It can convey mood, inform story, give importance to a prop or character, and works with other elements to create the overall aesthetic of a production.

Bad lighting in a scene can give off the wrong tone, make it so the viewer can’t see what’s happening, and just make a project look amateur. Stand-Ins are an important part of the lighting process and allow the crew to work out the right placements while the principal actors are getting ready or fulfilling other duties. While each production is different, usually the director and director of photography will determine the look of the project, while the gaffer and electrical department will implement it.

Lighting basics

Depending on the desired look of each shot, movies and TV shows will use a variety of lighting setups. The standard basic setup is the three-point lighting technique, which includes these elements:

  • Key light: the primary and strongest light source used, often placed on one side of the actor.
  • Fill light: placed opposite the key light to soften shadows and add dimension.
  • Back light: situated behind the actor to define their shape and set them apart from the background.

When working as a Stand-In, the three-point setup is just one of many techniques you’ll see when you’re on set. Here are some other types of cinematic lighting you may encounter:


Named after the signature style of painter Rembrandt van Rijn, this technique uses a light placed above and to the side of a subject to create a dramatic contrast. You can recognize Rembrandt lighting by the triangle of light it creates on a subject’s face.

High-key lighting

Very bright light that produces limited to no shadows. Often used in comedies, especially sitcoms, because it creates an upbeat tone and does not need to be modified scene to scene.

Low-key lighting

Used to create more dramatic and mysterious moods, low-key lighting features heavy shadows and high contrast.

Hard lighting

Bright focused light that creates harsh and defined shadows. Filmmakers can use this lighting effect to draw attention to something in a scene.

Soft lighting

Balanced light that creates soft smooth shadows. Soft lighting is more flattering and natural looking than hard lighting.

Want to put your new cinematic lighting knowledge to use as a Central Casting Stand-In? Be sure to create or update your Stand-In resume and read these tips for submitting for Stand-In work.

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By Meghan Dubitsky

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