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Adding Dramatic Effect through Lighting Techniques

I get a lot of reaction to the dramatic lighting effects on my Halloween projects. Some effects are easily apparent, other lighting effects are more subtle but wouldn’t look as interesting if they were absent. Whether you’re creating a dramatic slasher walk-through tour, or just looking to enhance your front yard cemetery, a well-thought out lighting plan will take the experience to a whole new level.

Here is what I consider the basic, four principles of Halloween Lighting (Placement, Effect, Type, and Tone) and how to get started creating a dramatic experience -

Placement – Wherever your props go, so does the emphasis to see them. Placement focuses on where to position the lights and there are times where the props drive the placement (such as large gate all ToTs must pass through) and times where lighting drives the placement (like casting dramatic night shadows by backlighting an old sycamore tree from above). Before you set out a single light or extension cord, map out where props will go and what natural emphasis you’d like to create. Then you can move on to build drama through the effect.

Effect – Lighting is about creating an emotional mood with your scene. Reminiscing about favorite shots from movies or experiences at a theme park can help create a guideline for the mood you want to create. Some Halloween sets best focus on as little light as possible to confuse or frighten patrons, while others can create a more inviting, colorful, and whimsical experience suitable to an all ages crowd. Soft, back lit objects can be made to appear further away or a well-placed strobe can make a prop to appear twice it’s size with movement. Take note of the kind of effect you’re looking for and now you can finally go shopping and select the type of lighting system you need.

Type – With so many lighting choices available, this phase can be quite overwhelming. Incandescent, LED, Spot, Strobe, Floods, Filters, Washes, Lazers, Bluetooth enabled, etc., etc. the choices are literally endless. With the advent of microprocessors and LEDs, the lighting effects one can achieve can be quite breathtaking - all at a nominal cost. However, less is more and in the case of selecting which lights to use, it’s best to start with as few lights as possible in order to not over complicate the effect. Take a look at various online images of other Halloween yards and take note of those photos that jump out at you – what was it that worked so well? How many lights are you able to pick out? What types of lights are they using? Look critically at where things were positioned (or in some cases, should have been).

Starting this exercise with some flood lights (large washes of color) in the background or against the larger structures (i.e. house) and using a few pin lights (smaller focused lights - like a flashlight style) to highlight key props (tombstones, skeleton faces, signs, etc.) is a good starting point. I have nearly converted to all LED lights (due to low heat and low cost) and nearly always purchase white versions. I use colored gel filters to change my light colors each year so I’m not stuck with the same colors year after year. So, now that we’re talking about color, let’s get to Tone.

Tone – Tonal quality or Hue is a fancy way of determining color and the associated effects. Halloween isn’t always just Orange and Black, and for many haunts, all colors can be taken into account. For our Pirate Haunt, we washed the house with a Gemmy ball light in blue in order to simulate moving water. On the porch, the Mermaid's face and tail was cast in green and yellow spot lights. These added to the artificial sense of water. The Mermaid tank was artificial (i.e. no real water), but the lighting is what created the illusion of water. When we pulled out those same lights the following year for our Star Wars theme, my 5-year old neighbor commented that Darth Vader’s color should always be Red and that I should nix those Blue lights. Boy, was he on to it! I did have one Red Gemmy Ball light that was the ticket! Additionally, using complimentary colors (think - opposites like orange and blue, or red and green) to highlight specific items can help create a rich sense of contrast that allows key props to jump out that might otherwise be hidden. As mentioned above, most of my LEDs that I’ve bought are of the bright white variety and I cover them with photo gels to change the color for my needs. See the 2015 Pirate link for a tutorial on how to make simple light hoods on your pin and flood lights and convert them to any color necessary. I’ve also used Bluetooth enabled LEDs for the past few years which connects to my mobile phone so I can change between 24 different colors and 16 motion effects. Although somewhat more pricey, they double during our Christmas decorations later in the year as well.

The key here is to experiment – at night of course, setting up and taking down, and moving them all around to get the feel you desire. You’ll know when you have positioned things just right – as you’ll see it in a whole new light.

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