Mood Through Method: Alternative Lighting Techniques in Cyberpunk Visual Media

K. Adam White '08, English 65, The Cyborg Self, Brown University, Spring 2005

In Blade Runner and its darker cyberpunk brethren, Alexander Rosenthal describes how light is almost a controlled substance, a symbol of power or perhaps hope. The anime Serial Experiments Lain, generally eschews sunlight altogether in favor of a cloud-covered, hazy atmosphere. The release from any sort of natural illumination heightens the impression of artificial light, an often overlooked but vastly important technology. Lain in particular is often illuminated only by the glow of her computer screens, a digital light that hovers around her head as she sits in the center, plugged in, a vacant look on her face. The effect is strong enough that when the door opens the intrusion of the light from the hallway feels more artificial than the comparatively cool and pure digital glow. Rather than denoting power (although Lain is powerful indeed in the Wired), the lighting choice chooses to emphasize the artificial nature of the world and blend the line between reality and the digital. When even the real world is lit by a grey, cloud-covered sky, resorting to the more welcoming glow of a computer screen or the pulsing lights of a digitally themed dance club seems more welcoming. The atmosphere provides a very appropriate backdrop for the story.

The Matrix depicts the virtual world in much the same way, never revealing the sun in favor of a greyed, cloudy sky. In the real world the sky is gone entirely, burned and sealed off by humanity in a failed effort to deactivate the solar-powered machine army. In lieu of natural light, a particularly effective technique in the Matrix is the use of color tinting. Scenes in the real world have a faint, cooler blue tint, while the scenes inside the Matrix are tinted an unnatural green. The resulting effect is a greater unconscious separation between the two in the mind of the viewer, although most cinema goers did not actively note the dichotomy.

Ghost in the Shell contrasts these dark or moody environments with wide shots of the sunlit sky, traversed by giant airplanes. While very atmospheric, the actual images are not that unusual. Ghost in the Shell II: Innocence likewise has some sweeping sunset shots, although much of the action takes place at night or indoors. In such a familiar visual environment, the technology seems even more foreign when it is revealed beneath the synthetic skin of Major Kusanagi and the other cyborgs.

Discussion Questions

In terms of technology, Ghost in the Shell is the most realistic of the shows we have directly dealt with in class (at least more so than Blade Runner or Bubblegum Crisis). Lain goes even a step farther, where the only technology not currently available is the high-power network infrastructure and monitor equipment. From a visual standpoint Ghost in the Shell is even more realistic than Lain, due to the more natural lighting effects. Which of the worlds we have viewed seems the most possible today? (Unfortunately, few have seen Lain).

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Last modified 24 March 2005