Cinematography Mailing List - CML


After reading an interview that touched on how to represent moonlight (can't remember who it was--hopefully someone can remind me), I adopted that cinematographer's method, which is to think of moonlight as *pale* rather than blue.

Just that slight change in the way I thought about the light made a vast improvement in my own lighting for moonlit scenes. My feeling is that the best way to represent moonlight is to "suggest" it by manipulating the relative color temperatures of the units used for the scene, without making it really obvious to the audience.

To that effect, I generally try to make the "moonlight" in a scene appear almost white, but slightly cooler than any artificial sources present. For example, if I have an interior with a tungsten unit for moonlight at the window and a table lamp inside the room, I'll gel the moonlight unit with 1/4 or 1/2 CTB (depending on how cold I want it--1/4 usually does it). If I have an HMI outside, but tungsten inside, I'll actually warm up that HMI to kill off some of the blue.

I think the same way when setting an ambient light level for a night interior room. I sometimes like to set a warm area around a practical (say, a bed lamp), and have the light fall off into a murky, but pale, darkness. This works well for some stories, not so well for others.

I think the key is moderation, unless you're lighting bad erotica.

Chris Ray

Personally I hate the convention of blue moonlight, though it does have its certainly works in those big night exteriors in 'Michael Collins.' On a physiological level, at low light levels you are seeing with the rods of your eyes, therefore mostly in monochrome. When this issue came up on the AOL Cine board, Stan McClain mentioned a neat solution which a DP he'd assisted for used on a movie 25 years ago. The movie was 'Jonathan Livingston Seagull,' and I'm sorry to have forgotten the DP's name. The movie was about seagulls, obviously, so there was a lot of footage of them flying, including at night. Well, you can't light up the sky at night. So the DP had the ingenious idea of shooting that footage day for night, which was a good idea as there would be no missing car headlights or anything else to give it away. AND he shot on black and white, probably filtering orange or red to darken the sky, which he printed with a slight bluish tint onto the regular color print. Stan McClain thought it worked great. I haven't seen the movie but it certainly sounds good, don't you think?

I haven't had to do many night exteriors which were outside an urban location. In a city I think it's not hard to motivate light from other sources than moonlight: streetlights, windows, store signs, etc. These can be many different colors: warmish as if from windows, orangey-brown for sodium-vapor, greenish-blue for mercury vapor, etc. It can look extremely natural and unlit, whereas with 'movie moonlight' I think you are counting on a movie convention to carry the idea.

A counter-example: in the recent 'Swing Blade' there are some night scenes with a very obvious, very blue source, though only on the principal action--the background falls off completely. In scenes which take place on the small-town street there are even mercury vapor-streetlights reading greenish in the background. This movie looks to have been shot completely under the gun so I don't mean to slam the DP, but the lighting really stood out to me, and not in a good way. Why not have used pools of greenish light like those streetlights? As it is, you see what you're supposed to see, but it looks like it's spot-lit.

Unfortunately on a low-budget movie you are often lacking in the prep time which would allow you to come up with a simple and effective solution to a problem like this. The fall-back is, I guess, to put up a big blue light and say it's the moon. What watching this scene impressed upon me was: never let yourself get cornered this way!


At a talk a couple of years back a gaffer asked Steven Poster for any tips in lighting night scenes. Mr. Poster said that he adds a little bit of green to his lights in addition to some blue. I have never experimented with that concept, but it does seem interesting.

My vote for best lit night scene in [my] recent memory : Forrest Gump. Just an ever so slight evidence of blue if any at all.

My vote for worst lit night scene (interior): The Brothers McMullen. The DP seems to interpret moonlight as a bright blue Times Square neon sign, but since the house was in Long Island I doubt that was the motivation for it. ;-)

My vote for best day-for-night (color) scene: Jaws. My mouth dropped when I found out the exterior night scenes of the boat were shot day-for-night. Vey convincing.

My vote for worst day-for-night (color) scene: Jesus Christ Superstar. It was a "black and blue" film.

Jus' my opinion,

Layne Uyeno

We have about a 3/4 moon tonight, very bright where we are (in the country) so I spent a couple minutes out there looking at the garden. If you think about it, it's just reflected daylight (bounced off the moon) and appears to be about as blue as daylight is. Looked blue at night compared to tungsten, but not deep blue.

Such a sharp hard shadow...

Jeff "Mister Moonlight" Kreines

Here's the poop on Sling Blade. I talke the with film's color timer, Dan Muscarella, for an upcoming article on Timers. He told me about his experience with Sling Blade. Billy Bob Thornton was present for every timing session and very diligent about the film's look. They shot on Kodak, CFI used Kodak intermediate stocks all the way to the Answer print. However, unbeknownst to Dan, the IN was taken to a Lab in Canada for the release prints and was printed onto Fuji stock. Fuji positive stock does not react 1 to 1 like Kodak. A Kodak-timed IN for Kodak release would have to be completely adjusted for a Fuji release. In Sling Blade's case. It wasn't. The end result of all of this is a shift to GREEN in the release prints. Thornton and Muscarella had given the film a wonderful warm "goldenish" hue that is entirely absent from the film's theatrical release. Hmmm... I wonder if that'll change for the video release.

Just one more headache to think about.

Chris Probst

Nestor Alemendros once said that it was easier to do day-for-night and dusk-for-night in color because you can use blue as a way of "signaling" the audience that the scene was supposed to be night. Silent movies used to tint night scenes blue, even if they were shot obviously in daylight, so the color blue in this case could be seen as symbolizing night.I feel that moonlight should feel cooler than tungsten light - but it should also be lower in saturation, which is harder to accomplish.

But what color you use should be determined by the script - realism is relative anyway. Most of us can barely see by moonlight while in a city; but once I was in the middle of the desert at night under a full moon and it looked so bright and produced such crisp shadows that it felt like a bad day-for-night shot in a movie!

An interesting note: in the French movie version of "Cyrano", the D.P. used blue moonlight in most of the scenes, even though Cyrano talks about the "saffron moon". There is even a matte shot with a yellow moon in the sky above streets bathed in blue moonlight.

Anyway, if I feel that the scene emotionally needs cold lighting, I make the moonlight blue. But if the scene needs warmer lighting, I either make it white or I suggest that sodium streetlights are lighting the scene and use orange gels on the lights.

David Mullen

This is he technique Second Unit DP David Nowell used for the night flying sequences of "Flight of the Intruder" He did use a deep red filter to darken the sky, but tried to avoid the sky and shot downwards toward the Intruder jets and placed them against the ground, the water, or clouds. The resultant B&W negative was printed onto color stock with blue coloration. Since the aircraft were gray and run without navigation (wingtip) lights when in combat, it was totally a believable effect.

Bill Bennett

I've always felt that the appropriate amount of blue in moonlight (none to massive) should be decided from project to project using the same criteria that we use to determine how much color and what type of color palette will be used for the daytime footage.

I don't think that it's always necessary for moonlight to appear absolutely "realistic." For some projects, it's appropriate that it be more expressionistic. It's one of those areas of photography where the DP is more or less forced to make an aesthetic/stylistic decision that effects the tone & mood of the piece, and how the audience will feel about what they're seeing.

I think that the convention of blue moonlight derives from at least two items: 1) As others have said, when we see moonlight (reflected sunlight) it is generally seen with a tungsten reference, so it appears blue. 2) The skylight we first see at dawn before the sun rises, and the skylight we see last at night after the sun has set (before total darkness) is blue. The following "moonlight" is of such low intensity that we don't see color very well, which is similar to what happens when we view colors under a heavily saturated source. (Colors complementary to the source color turn black, blue & black are hard to tell apart, etc.) Perhaps these factors cause us to subconsciously think of moonlight as a "blue wash." In an area lit solely by moonlight, our eyes adjust, so that we're "seeing into the shadows." They also (theoretically) adjust to "time-out" the blue. But we still have trouble differentiating color at such low light levels, so we still have the same (monochrome-ish?) effect of a "color wash."

For these reasons, I think that a more "realistic" moonlight effect for a "realistic-type" film, would be moonlight that is not so much "less blue," as lower contrast. True, the lower contrast will desaturate the blue moonlight, but it effects other aspects as well:

A low-contrast approach mimics what happens to your eyes in a an area lit totally by moonlight, where your eyes adjust to "see into the shadows."

There are fewer deep shadows (especially close by), and very few "highlights."

Deep shadows may occur further away from us, but perhaps they are not quite as "deep" as they would be if our eyes were adjusted to a brighter artificial source?

I've seen some "low-contrast" approaches to night exteriors, and have been wanting to try such an approach for some time now, but haven't had a opportunity to try it on a project on which it would be appropriate. (Maybe a SLASHER film, eh?) :)

Has anyone had success using low-cons or some other method to achieve such a "realistic" moonlight effect? How did you achieve it?

Sean Peacock


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