top of page
  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History

Horrible History: Lighting the way

Updated: Feb 18

Introduction What follows was inspired by a @HistoryFilmClub tweet shown right. Like many who responded, naming just one historical inaccuracy in a film or TV show proved far too difficult. Sadly, and contrary to the claims of directors, producers, costume designers et al., far too many historically themed media productions are beset with inaccuracies. Not wishing to be unreasonably critical, we thought there was an opportunity to highlight some of the more common errors and then counter them with whatever historical evidence exists. In this way we hope to learn something, but there are some caveats to be born in mind:

  • We know films and TV dramas are fictional, whether they claim to be ‘based on true events’ or not. Yet that does not always excuse the liberties taken with characters, timelines, locations, costume, technology, props, action sequences (especially fight scenes), and a whole lot more.

  • That said, ‘errors’ are clearly excusable if a production is rooted in the fantasy genre, is not claiming 100% historical accuracy, or is not a factual documentary.

  • However, where inaccuracies appear, especially in historical documentaries, we think it only fair to point them out because they mislead the audience.

  • And finally. we are well aware from our experience advising filmmakers and from being on set that liberties are sometimes taken due to production constraints.

Lighting the way So, with that in mind, what can we ‘learn from mistakes’ connected with lighting in historically based creations. Wall sconces and torches are favourite lighting motifs in films set in the ancient and Mediæval eras. There is one major problem with most depictions however: the settings are usually, but not always, too well lit. In Mediæval castles, for example, far more reliance was placed on windows to admit natural sunlight but, contrary to film and TV, ancient halls and castles generally would have been quite dark. Torches were not lit every ten metres along corridors, nor were rooms flooded with candlelight. Indeed, the idea that rooms were lit all the time is most certainly a ‘Hollywood-ism’. Rather, if you wanted illumination, most people carried it with them in the form of a candle, a rushlight or an oil lamp.

If you want to experiment in your own home to see how effective such things are, then get a candle. For authenticities sake, peasants would have used ones made from animal fat, known as tallow, which was smoky. The nobility and clergy on the other hand preferred beeswax that burned brighter and cleaner. Regardless of your chosen medium, put the candle in some sort of holder, light it, then turn off all the modern lights. Allow your eyes a minute or two to adjust and you will find that you can move about your unlit home with perfect confidence, by the light of a single candle. You may also discover that the light given off by candles, tapers, rushlights or oil lamps is a much warmer glow perfect for inducing a more mellow ambience. All of which leads us to how film-makers use different lighting methods to set the tone or mood of a scene.

Torches Film-makers typically deploy two forms of torch to light an actor’s way: handheld burning brands or those attached to a wall. At a time devoid of electricity (or gaslighting), torches provided much needed illumination, but fire was a constant hazard in the ancient and mediaeval world. Property owners, apartment dwellers, city magistrates, and even monarchs lived in fear of the potential damage caused by unchecked fires, particularly in urban areas. While burning torches were carried by the joyous celebrants at Roman era weddings, the very same torches still retained their potential to cause harm and, in some cases, signalled the potential for violence to break out.

After Gaius Julius Caesar’s assassination, in 44 BC, Rome’s citizens gathered in the Forum to hear erstwhile colleague Marcus Antonius’ eulogy. They collected pieces of wood and furniture from the surrounding locality to make an ad hoc funeral pyre upon which to burn the dictator's body. Fired by Anthony’s words - literally - many of those present then grabbed pieces of flaming wood as torches from the pyre. As the historian Plutarch noted: ‘people rushed up from all sides, snatched up half-burnt brands, and ran round to the houses of Caesar's slayers to set them on fire.’ It is unsurprising that rioters wishing to arm themselves would take to Rome’s streets brandishing a fax (Latin for a ‘torch’ or ‘firebrand’).

Burning brands In most movie settings it is unclear what flammable material is being used with the typical burning brand. In most cases it appears to be some form of material coated in a flammable fuel, perhaps pitch or animal fat, wrapped tightly about the end of a wooden stick. To be of use the burning torch is typically held in front of the bearer, but this creates a few problems. Firstly, as the layers burn off little pieces of flaming cloth or dripping hot fat or pitch can become a hazard to the user. At the same time, the bearer is effectively walking into, and breathing, acrid smoke while being dazzled by the torchlight itself. Furthermore, the flammable material can burn off quite quickly and would need replacing frequently, which is something you rarely see in films (in much the same way that, in the old cowboy movies, six-shooters seemingly never ran out of bullets!). Forget the movies.

Sconces The second type of burning brand are usually set in a bracket or sconce affixed to a wall. These torches are typically consist of an open cup containing the burning fuel, although precisely what sort of fuel is often unclear. Some type of pitch soaked wood or other material (cloth perhaps?) may have been preferred, or perhaps larger candles were used. Regardless, there are several problems with how this type of torch is often depicted on film.

Firstly, a flickering flame produces inconsistent lighting which, depending on how the torch is positioned, may not illuminate an area or corridor particularly well. As before, if you were moving from place to place, it is far more convenient to carry a light source with you.

Secondly, torches are largely impractical indoors because, depending on the fuel used, they can create a lot of obscuring, noxious fumes. Such smoke is potentially lethal in a poorly ventilated space such as in a tunnel or windowless corridor.

Thirdly, lighting is often depicted positioned high up on walls well above an average person’s reach. As an anti-tampering measure this makes a great deal of sense and can be readily seen with building perimeter security lighting. For period pieces, positioning at height is not too much of a problem if gas or electric powered downlighting is used to illuminate an area. But consider the rather typical ‘Mediæval’ example pictured in a scene from the film ‘Ironclad’ (2011):

1. Two large burning wall sconces are shown, blazing away one either side of a gatehouse entrance. Set within the much larger, imposing arched gateway is a portal presumably secured by a door. Taking the height of said portal to be the standard size of just over 2 m, then it seems the wall scones are set even higher. How do the castle’s occupants refuel these torches? While it is not inconceivable that a servant had to regularly position and climb a ladder to reach the bowls to refuel them, this is labour-intensive and not very practical.

2. The sconces shown are best described as uplighters. Precisely what illumination value would these torches offer? Most of the light generated would be lost, although at night the castle walls would be bathed in a comforting, warm glow. Only a relatively small area of ground below would be lit, and then only poorly. In this example, the torches would only illuminate either side of the gateway which, let us be honest, is unmissably large, even at night. In other words, they again serve no practical purpose.

3. Moreover, it is daylight, why are the torches burning at all! They are not providing any additional light, so why waste fuel? Fuel is expensive (something we can all identify with currently). Cutting or foraging for wood, or the processing of animal fat, would have been a time consuming and once again labour-intensive activity. The Castelain charged with running the castle probably would be loathed to squander his lord’s money recklessly in this manner.

Just like the oddly placed braziers burning in street scenes for no apparent reason, these wall torches, and many other forms of naked flame depicted in movies, must be using a gas mantle supplied by a hose concealed within the sconce or, in the case of a brazier, camouflaged in some manner along the ground. Clearly gas fuelled fires are preferred by set designers and lighting specialists as they provide a safe, continuous, adjustable and reliable flame. Moreover, the ‘atmospheric’ lighting they produce can still be supplemented by modern studio lights.

Night owls The invention of gaslighting followed by the electric lightbulb has allowed us to be far more active well into the night. Before their advent most folk rose with the dawn, worked during daylight hours, and went to bed earlier as darkness fell. In other words, they took advantage of natural sunlight and worked outside if possible. As already mentioned, oil lamps, rushlights and candles were all options to light the way from place to place. Wealthier folk could afford to burn oil or candles to light their evening or night-time activities. For poorer people, rushlights were an alternative but even these came with a cost, either in time and resources to make them, or money to buy them. In other words, the oil for lamps, or candles and rushlights were relatively expensive to burn and would not be wasted frivolously.

Considering the screenshot above from the film 'Barry Lyndon' (1975), why do so many films and TV shows depict scenes with gratuitous numbers of candles burning even in daylight? Oddly, this even applies to electric lighting in much more modern settings. The answer seems simple enough. Lighting technicians are employed to create the director/producer’s desired ambience or ‘mood’. So, lights, candles, etc. are left on or burning in positions where there is no obvious lighting need, and at inappropriate times of the day, simply to set the scene. Yet, it is also worth bearing in mind that even high-definition cameras do not ‘see’ as does the naked eye. By their very nature cameras need light to capture images. Too much and the image appears over-exposed or suffers ‘white out’. Too little and the camera struggles even to register an image. While these effects might be useful to enhance the storyline, viewers may struggle to see what is going on, which can be both frustrating and irritating. With this in mind, it just makes sense for lighting technicians to err on the side of caution regardless of how historically inaccurate the scene then becomes.

And finally… This has either been a rant on some pet peeves with media representations of historical themes or food for thought. Regardless, thank you for reading this far. Until next time, Bon appétit!

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page