Written by: Karen K. Rutledge

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 planwatch 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 fourthlightingand 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 Seriesabout the different aspects of the showlighting, 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.”

Technical Stuff

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:

  • locationindoors or out
  • time periodpast, present or future
  • typehard 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 lightthat’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.

Lighting Direction

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 interviewKidd 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 interviewwhere 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 lightingcandles and torches, fireplaces and campfires, and the beautiful light of Scotland. Some notes on my lighting re-watch progress follow.

Honorable Mentions

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”

“Faith” was mostly filmed in multiple indoor settings. Lighting Jon Gary Steele’s lush Prague/Paris sets must have been a cinematographer’s dream gig, particularly Ron Moore’s favorite scene, the King Louis Star Chamber where Claire is drawn into the King’s desire to punish the Comte St. Germaine and Master Raymond in order to get Jamie released from the Bastille. My eyes were drawn to the cool blue of the ceiling reigning over the warm glow from the torches around the room and I immediately knew that some strange stuff was going to go down in this scene.

The midnight blue ceiling had a large opening in the middle surrounded by these irregular-shaped openings, multi-purpose gems that created the illusion of the stars in the night sky, magic and mystery. The light through the large opening served as the direct light source to illuminate Claire and the other characters, making the King’s wig appear to glow at times. As the scene progressed, Kidd shifted the light through certain openings then others to illuminate the many meticulous details in the room and certain aspects of the scene, like Master Raymond’s sleight of hand, his confiscated book and the snake in a box.

The contrasting warm glow from the torches all around the room evoked the flames of hell, where the Comte says he and Claire will meet, and provided back lighting for the actors. According to Steele, the torches were “bowls of fire, scattered around on tripods.”  The torches and strategically placed single candles, likely artificial, added to the mysterious feel, eerily illuminating the rich set detail including the massive door, pillars and masked faces of the guards.

Episode 1.02, “Castle Leoch”

I love the 1700s scenes from “Castle Leoch” for the range of lighting required. They encompass both interior and exterior scenes, showcasing the castle and the stunning Scottish sky and countryside.

From the beginning, with candlelight inside the castle and fires warming the courtyard as the travelers wearily arrive, we get it. Cold and rainy outside, warm and dry inside. There’s a nice little lighting juxtaposition thrown in here as Claire enters the castle with Jamie and Mrs. Fitz through the torch-lit hallway. She recalls her 1940s visit with Frank that was illuminated by a different torch, a modern-day flashlight.

Yes, Mr. Kidd, we want to make that walk and end up in by the fire in the guest room where Claire nurses Jamie’s wounds by fireside. He shares his outlaw past that led to the flogging scars on his back and Claire reveals her husband is not alive in some of the most poignant lighting in the series.

Other scenes range from a fully lit gathering hall to those where the outdoors are brought in, like in Colum’s study and Claire’s bedroom. Claire ventures outside several times, under skies that are alternately beautiful blue with fluffy white clouds to silvery overcast to stormy bluish gray. 
There’s another, more obvious juxtaposition, at the end when Claire is escorted to the dungeon-like surgery by Dougal to meet Colum, which she also recognizes from her visit with Frank. The predominantly grayish-blue light is now reflective of Claire’s ominous feeling as she realizes she is being held as Column’s prisoner, thus having lost her opportunity to get back to the stones and to Frank.

Episode 1.03, “The Way Out”

“The Way Out” contains my very favorite scene (so far), at about 22 minutes. It’s the one I always manage to bring into conversation, where Jamie tricks Claire into going back to the surgery because, let’s face it, she does love the Rhenish and clearly does not appreciate the potential for danger inside the walls of Castle Leoch.

This time the light in the surgery is much warmer, despite it being evening. There’s a soft, bluish twilight coming in through the windows. There’s the torch on the stairway and candles, a lot of candles – on the tables and mantle, standing sconces near the stairs and candelabras lighting her medical supplies.

Of course, Jamie and Claire gravitate to the nice little fire in the fireplace as they talk about how Jamie doesn’t mind Claire seeing his back because she doesn’t make him feel pitiful about it. I love the dialogue and the ‘eye sex’ as she “checks his wound” with the blue twilight enveloping them and candlelight thrown in for good measure. 

I’ll say it again, holy effin moly! Wait, again, where were we? Oh yes, lighting in the surgery. Given the small filming space and the number of crew likely joining them, I’m making an educated guess that we’re seeing mostly artificial flame sources here.

We’ve covered some delightful scenes lit with candles, torches, fireplaces and by the expertly enhanced natural Scottish light. Now to campfires.

Episode 1.11, “The Devil’s Mark”

You may not know that there’s a campfire scene in “The Devil’s Mark”, at about the 49-minute mark. You did, huh? I figured so.

In any case, others may be unaware so here’s the sanitized overview. Jamie has rescued Claire from the witch trial and they make a stop after they have put some distance between themselves and danger. Sitting on a log in a lush green forest, with light filtering through the trees, Jamie asks for the truth and Claire tells him about traveling through the stones and her desire to go home. And he believes her.

I think any of us could believe what someone told us in such a romantic setting. But wait, there’s more. They travel on for several days through forest and glen, talking about life at Lallybroch before we finally get to the campfire scene, although it was likely shot inside and beside an artificial fire. As we learn along with Claire the following morning, Jamie has been cooking up one of his “it’s the right thing to do” plans. He’s decided to take her to the stones instead of Lallybroch, having no doubt that she would return to Frank.

So, what’s a man to do on what he thinks is the last night with his wife? They’re all alone in the woods in the dark of night.  They’re lying there together, faces in profile, with Jamie watching Claire sleep. I think you’ll get the gist if I say that incredibly romantic and loving shenanigans on Jamie’s part commence. 

Oh, yes, she decides to stay. Sorry, Frank.

Critical Thinking Skills Enhanced? Yes!

Here’s proof that observation of art can improve critical thinking. Until I watched this scene for at least the fourth time, this time with the focus on lighting, I thought it was all about Jamie creating a special memory for himself. I still think that’s true but I also think it was about something more, about Claire and what he thought would be her future without him.

What led me there was a song that came to mind, from 1977. Maybe it’s because the band’s name is Firefall, maybe because of the song title or lyrics, maybe all three. No matter the reason, I suddenly had a deeper understanding.

Maybe you’ll agree that “Just Remember I Love You” perfectly fits the scene by the campfire. Jamie creates a memory of his love for Claire she can recall through time—when the nights get long, when her hopes are fading and when sorrow is her only friend.

The song ends with a bittersweet repetition of “it’ll be all right.” I wonder if that’s what Diana Gabaldon intended with this scene. It would be grand to have an opportunity to discuss with her.

Have you learned something about yourself or life 
from looking at a situation in a different light?

Source: OCB