Nobody thinks very deeply about the way hospital lighting is used, yet it may have a subtle importance. Garish, incredibly bright lights bring out the worst in peoples features, so it’s no surprise that filmmakers and television executives produce their shows in ways that are not identical to a real hospital scenario. While cloud light panels could improve the look of your average hospital, it’s unlikely they’ll ever be as nicely lit as what you see in a Hollywood setting.
The reasons hospitals light their rooms in such a way are obvious enough. In a situation where details can make the difference between living and dying, and doctors and nurses need to see every aspect of the peoples bodies they are operating on or examining, having the most amount of light possible is of paramount importance.
But these hospitals aren’t really concerned with how their patients and staff will look. It’s quite the opposite in the land of film and television of course, and this is why the lighting in the fake hospitals of these shows is so different.
Lighting isn’t just a matter of turning on the lights when it comes to movie making. In a Hollywood film, a large amount of people are employed, all with the job of lighting the actors, actresses, settings and props in the manner the creator wants. Henry Fonda was once shooting a scene when he asked the director for his “doo-hickey”, this “doo-hickey” was in fact a tiny light that aimed into Fonda’s face, giving his eyes a wet, wistful look that was his calling card. Lighting tricks like this are the reason Hollywood stars are able to look so iconic and attractive. It’s not common that we stop to consider these differences, due to the fact that this style of portraying life is everywhere. Only when we directly compare the films of Hollywood with documentaries about real hospitals could we start to notice the major differences.
If you think the sets in House or other hospital fictions are realistic, compare the way they look to your average actual hospital. Even ER, a show that was routinely praised for its gritty realism, was clearly lit in such a way that no self-respecting real doctor would allow themselves to work in such a place. But the creators of television drama require this kind of lighting for the reason real hospitals couldn’t allow it: the increase in the amount of shadow. While shadow in an actual situation could mean causing injury or losing the patient, on a film set it means more handsome leading men, and sultrier leading ladies.
It’s really no surprise that Hollywood tends to cheat to make their actors look better than they do in reality. But when you start to think about the way real situations are shown onscreen, it leads one to a deeper question: If Hollywood is willing to make alterations to the lights and look of characters from real life, what changes are they creating to the way the people behave, and manner in which they interact? In short: Don’t ever look to Hollywood film for an insight into real life.