I Watch Outlander for the Lighting . . . I Really Do
I’ve decided that my Outlander obsessive tendencies might actually be scientific. Just hear me out. Studying scenes from the STARZ TV show has improved my critical thinking skills. Yes, really, it’s possible. Just ask author Amy Herman who wrote Visual Intelligence to help people do just that. It’s science. Seriously, science.
Somewhere in my obsessive re-watching that began in 2016, I realized I was missing so much of the rich detail on the screen. After reading Ms. Herman’s book, I developed a plan—watch each episode AT LEAST three times and focus on a different aspect each time: story, costumes and setting, in that order. Recently I was inspired to add a fourth—lighting—and this time, I’m taking notes.
The role played by lighting is, as you might expect, complex. And while I haven’t made it through all 29 episodes of Seasons 1 and 2, here is how Outlander is brought to light, overall, and in a few notable episodes and scenes.
When the Outlander crew from Seasons 1 and 2 crew spoke with author Tara Bennett (The Making of Outlander: The Series) about the different aspects of the show—lighting, writing, music, set, costumes—both Showrunner Ron D. Moore and Director of Photography (and native Scot) Neville Kidd mentioned the role played by Scotland’s unique landscape and light.
There’s a cool silvery blue light that glistens over the green fields of Scotland. When paired with the warmth relayed through an abundance of candles, torches, fireplaces and campfires of Outlander, the screen is magically illuminated, revealing numerous fine details. The dramatic profiles and the half-shaded faces, and the shimmer and glimmer of wedding dresses and knives, transport us to another place and time.
“The show is a love letter to Scotland in a lot of ways,” Moore told Bennett. I totally get that. It’s as if the entire cast and crew coalesced magically in writing this extraordinary letter, each bringing their singular talents to the task.
Kidd’s expert use of what he called Scotland’s “wonderful quality of light” along with technical lighting brings out the best in everything and everyone, whether outdoors or in. From episode 1.01’s opening credits and spectacular green surrounding the Glencoe munros to Claire’s “I have to go back” scene in episode 2.13 with her face exquisitely lit by the rising sun, light in all forms and shades play their own vital role in the series. That includes the dark of night because, as Claire says to King Louis in the Star Chamber, “For without darkness, there can be no light.”
If you hadn’t realized it before, lighting is an essential and highly technical art form. I know that because I Googled it and, as usual, discovered way more than I could ever absorb, even about the basics.
Expertly articulated, “Lighting is an essential tool for enhancing the video image. The subtle use of light creates atmosphere and mood, dimension and texture. It can help to convey a plot line, enhance key elements such as set color or skin tone, and signals the difference between comedy and drama, reality and fantasy.”
There’s the key, fill and back lights of three-point production. So many technical considerations such as:
- location—indoors or out
- time period—past, present or future
- type—hard and hot like the sun vs. soft and cool
Then there are serious tools. Bounce cards that, you probably guessed it, reflect light onto actors or objects, along with large silks to filter sunlight and a paper gel used on windows to soften exterior light—that’s called neutral density, all very technical. And, when what you really need to do is block out light, there’s the good ole, low-tech velvet curtain.
Whew, who knew?!? What I did already know, from my own observation, is that Outlander Season 1 and 2 Director of Photography Neville Kidd is a lighting genius.
Kidd shared some of the lighting techniques he used in Outlander with Bennett. “When we’re filming 1743, we used a lot of reflected lights in the studios to re-create outside scenes and different colors of woods to give a unique feel and quality.” He continued on to say, “We use a lot of candlelight flames. We use flame sources or tungsten lighting to replicate candle lighting.”
In another interview, Kidd mentions a candle trick he uses indoors. For authenticity, he instructs the crew to leave a few unlit.
Candles, sigh. Who among us doesn’t like a good candle-lit scene on screen or at home? The result is not only a realistic setting but a ‘warm’ atmosphere that sets the mood, making us feel as if we’re in the 1700s or 1940s. Kidd said, “I think we wanted to make 1743 a bit more raw than 1945, like you were really living and experiencing it, almost like all of your senses were slightly overstimulated.”
In yet another interview, where he was asked the secret to his unique perspective through the lens, Kidd responded, “I try to make people want to be where I am, that’s probably the best way to describe it.”
Yes, I want to be right there with Jamie and Claire, illuminated by the cool silvery blue light and wrapped in the warm Castle Leoch ivory, yellow and orange interior, overstimulated! Yes, yes, yes!
Wait, where were we? Oh yes, evaluating lighting—candles and torches, fireplaces and campfires, and the beautiful light of Scotland. Some notes on my lighting re-watch progress follow.
Before I get to my absolute, all-time favorite scenes (so far), I should probably talk about a couple that I’ve labeled honorable mentions. These two are visually stunning and captivating but, for some what-may-seem-weird reasons, they didn’t bump to the top of my list. But they’re scenes with obvious lighting that would cause you to get to the bottom of my list of favorites and go, “but what about?!” So, I’ll just go ahead and head you off at the pass. Agree to disagree?
First, from Episode 2.04, “La Dame Blanche,” there’s what I’m dubbing for this purpose the ‘come find us’ scene. Yes, from the moment Claire starts walking across the room to that door Jamie had closed behind him, through their heartfelt re-connection, the blue light was absolute perfection. So, why didn’t I love it then? Because for me, it is really a ‘Jamie, what the he**’ scene. As soon as he said, “Think it best I sleep elsewhere tonight,” he lost me. I get that he’s not himself, still dealing with the aftermath of his horrific past. I guess it was disappointment that I felt when he chose not to reach out to Claire, then and there.
Another on the honorable mention list is the final ‘I have to go back’ scene in Episode 2.13, “Dragonfly in Amber.” Claire, Brianna and Roger are standing in the muted blues, grays and browns of the pre-dawn mist at Craigh Na Dun. Claire learns Jamie survived the Battle of Culloden, just as the sun starts to rise. The colors begin to come alive, first with Claire’s light coral lipstick. She turns her face to the sun rising over the stones and, wow, what an amazing closeup. Caitriona’s hair and makeup is dreamily perfect, the scarf colors makes her eyes pop for the extreme closeup. I bet they used all kinds of bounce cards to get it just right. So, again, why is it not closer to the top of my list? I think it’s once again selfish disappointment. I simply wasn’t ready for it to end.
And while those are two beautifully lit scenes that I’m sure are at the top of someone’s list, here are my four favorites.
Episode 2.07, “Faith”