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OK. It starts off...and you can see me and my guitar.
...a dark stage,
and then a beam of light,
—Dewey Finn, School of Rock
This Spectacle trope comes from the theatre, and like many other things in the theatre, this is a method for directing the audience's attention. All the stage lights go out, save for one spotlight that shines down on something, and suddenly that something has become everything. Most often it is a character, saying or doing something that really matters. Sometimes there are more than one spotlight at work, simultaneously or not. But the point is always to momentarily reduce the world to a small, enclosed space where there are no distractions.
This trope is found in most media, including animation, where no physical lights are involved. It has existed for longer than even electrical stage lighting (the term 'in the limelight' comes from the pre-electric chemical method, making it Older Than Radio), and can still claim to have both popularity and credibility. It is also a staple of Film Noir; in film posters, often the Dick or some streetwalker would be standing under a street light, and everything else would be black.
The closest thing you can find to a Real Life example of this is using a spotlight on a stage for delivering a speech or something similar. The Dramatic Spotlight very effectively creates a dramatic mood, and since it is so effective, it is also easy to misuse. If you have a poorly-written character whose troubles you haven't made the viewers care about, the Dramatic Spotlight isn't likely to make them start caring; it is likely to produce Narm. When Played for Laughs, however, there is a lot of humour to be found in deliberate overdramatization. Large Hams thrive and flourish in this light.
This trope can be seen as a more extreme version of Notice This and Conspicuously Light Patch, where something also stands out in an image. In those tropes the focus point wins the fight for attention easily, while in this trope, there isn't really a fight.
Often worked into the Corner of Woe.
Compare Emerging From the Shadows.
- There were quite a few dramatic spotlights in Chicago (Justified Trope, as the film switched back and forth from real life to stage production where spotlights would be expected).
- On the old Jimmy Durante Show, Jimmy would close the show by singing a closing number while walking away from the audience, stepping from spotlight to spotlight across a darkened stage (simulating street lights).
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Vampire Luke is beginning "The Harvest" on the stage of the Bronze, illuminated by a spotlight. Buffy, who's entered via a skylight, ends up getting into a fight with the vampire on the catwalk who's pointing it at him.
- In the play The Actor's Nightmare the lead character is alone on stage doing a soliloquy (which he doesn't know) and the spotlight moves around - he keeps having to jump to a new place.
- During the Archives bit of Amnesia the Dark Descent, there is a (barely) playable flashback from when Daniel first laid hands on an Orb, during the expedition in Algeria. There is a pedestal with the Orb on it, in a circle of light. Everything else is darkness.
- Left 4 Dead: happens from your perspective when the character you are playing as uses a first aid kit (white) or is getting killed by a special infected (red).
- In an episode of The Simpsons where Krusty reveals to the world he's Jewish, he asks for a spotlight, and the spotlight operator thinks he's doing a bit.
Boys and girls, I'd like to be serious for a moment if I may. Spotlight, please. I just wanted (spotlight moves away from Krusty) I just wan- (spotlight moves away again) Come on guys, I'm not doing the spotlight bit!
- Two of the songs in My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic feature this trope: "Winter Wrap Up" in the episode of the same name, and "Find a Pet" in "May the Best Pet Win!".
- In the same show, the trope is parodied in the episode "Party of One". Pinkie Pie draws the (wrong) conclusion that her friends have all turned against her from her interrogation of Spike, and declares so in a Dramatic Spotlight. Then it turns out the light comes from the lamp she used to interrogate him with, as he turns it off.
- The trope is parodied again in the "Hearth's Warming Eve" episode. Spike the baby dragon gets one when he starts Chewing the Scenery during his narration of a play, but since he's on a stage, it's justified in-universe.
- Linus asks for one of these in A Charlie Brown Christmas for his True Meaning of Christmas speech (seen in the page image for the latter).
- There is a sequence like this in Batman the Animated Series, in the episode where Baby Doll first appears.
- Genie conjures several of these during his "Friend Like Me" song in Disney's Aladdin.
- Happens during the song "Hakuna Matata" in The Lion King.
- Phineas and Ferb: "Tip of the Day" - Candace gets one during the Aglet song. They bring up the lights as she begins ranting about how it doesn't matter that the end of a shoelace is called an Aglet.