Cinematography Mailing List - CML

Shooting Night Interiors

I'm about to start a project that has a significant element of Night-Interior with no motivated sources. Meaning, curtains drawn, no candles and no power. Isolated location.

The cast do use some candles and a flashlight now and then but NOT ALWAYS. I have a pretty good idea of what I want to do but I'd like to gather as much reference material as possible.

"Death and the Maiden" comes to mind but I really didn't like the way that looked: way too lit. There must be some better references out there...



Well, it's OK to be near pitch black for short sequences if a flashlight is going to be turned on (I'm thinking of the opening of "Radio Days") - but for extended scenes in the dark, you have to make up SOME source, even if it's indirect ambient night skylight. You assume that the characters' eyes have adjusted to some sort of dim light, and you expose or print it down to what feels dark but still hold enough detail.

On home video, however, dim photography does not play well because of the ambient room light that most people view their TV sets in. I didn't see "Death and the Maiden" in the theater, but I'm sure that the transfer was brighter looking than the print for easier viewing on TV (unfortunately). The Criterion laserdisc of "Seven" (transfer supervised by the director) was dark enough for many reviewers to suggest that it should be viewed only in a darkened room.

"Seven" and "Silence of the Lambs" have many good, dark scenes. Philippe Rousselot is a real master of the dim, soft ambient night look which is great when printed or transferred dark enough, but looks too flat and lit if shown too bright. Look at "Interview with a Vampire" (the last scene where Louis finds Lestat in the abandoned mansion) or parts of "Mary Reilly". "Lost Highway" takes underexposure to extremes but some of the milkiness is effectively creepy - "Blue Velvet" has a similar vibe in spots. "The Game" has some good scenes where it's pretty dark.

Gordon Willis and Bruce Surtees both did a lot of really dark stuff in various scenes in their movies. I remember Willis even complaining about Surtees' work in "Escape from Alcatraz" saying that the film might as well have run black leader in some scenes.

I personally like the stylized night work of old b&w movies, like in "The Innocents', "Night of the Hunter", "Jane Eyre", or the castle scenes in the original "Dracula"...

David Mullen


Good God... Be careful here. Talk to your production designer. I just trapped myself into this situation a little while back and I cringe at the results. Make sure that your walls are not white!!! If you're having to work with "no-light" white walls will KILL you. It's best to create some sort of edge light as separation on your actors -- but if you have dark walls 90% of your work is done and you can get away with murder. Keep your front fill soft and at least two or three stops down. Don't be afraid to let your actors drop into pools of nothingness (as long as the narrative permits it) for a moment or two to help sell the idea - but be careful of the difference between your lit areas and your dark areas. I can highly recommend Kino's as backlights - an idea that I thought was crazy until my gaffer sold me on it - and as was mentioned earlier they're easy to hide. If you keep your walls dark and fill with very soft, underexposed, white light and then edge just a bit at key or less you can easily sell the idea of "no light."

Jay Holben

"Jackie Brown" had some of the most amazing night-for-night photography I've seen in a long time. When it was "dark" it was really dark, but they devised clever ways that you could still see what was going on. Samuel Jackson in a car on a street at night, his face looking almost completely without detail, but you could still see his eyes! And then of course that scene where he and Pam Grier keep turning that light on and off in her living room. Wow.

Both interiors and exteriors. Beautiful stuff. Check it out in a theatre, if you can, if you haven't seen it yet.


Maybe Tarkovsky's "The Sacrifice" (Sven Nykvist).

Thoughts : I have found that I don't feel nearly as much need for literal motivation in Black and White as I do in color. I've thought about this but haven't been able to articulate exactly why this should be the case.

I'll note FWIW that in "The Sacrifice" the night scenes are very close to monochromatic, (and in fact Tarkovsky often mixed B&W and Color in in his films.)

My latest film was about 90% night scenes, half of them dark interiors. A major reference for me was a nativity by Geertgen tot sant jins - 15th C. It's in the National Gallery, London. (Hope the sp is correct). Unfortunately I only know it from reproductions. It is one of the first "night for night" paintings in the Northern Renaissance. It depicts the Christ-child in the straw bed, in the manger, with a view out an open window in the rear with shepherds or Magi visible outside. The directional motivation for the interior is in fact the Christ-child i.e. that is the source. For the dark landscape and shepherds (or Magi I forget) the apparent source is a very small angel, that looks almost like translucent glass in the reproductions. So this angel is the source of the exterior light. Now I'm not getting religious on you but I'll point out that this is a wonderful example of motivated lighting that is not 'realistic' in any physical terms (though it may have been to Geertgen) but is nonetheless wholly organic in terms of the subject. (Actually I'd call it Neoplatonic but I'll stop here..)

I'd also look at LaTour and Rembrandt.

-Sam Wells

If you're looking for low-light situations or single source situations - also take a good look at Caravaggio's works like The Denial of Saint Peter - in which the soldier's face is completely in shadow, but his silhouette is separated by the light on the woman's face. Both Caravaggio and Rembrandt usually utilized the appearance of a single source, although Rembrandt's was usually softer then Caravaggio's. Like the Nativity that Sam mentioned, Rembrandt had The Adoration of the Shepherds in which the Christ-child is the source (although there is a gas lantern it pales in comparison to the luminance from the hay). But in both artist's work you never find a principal subject that is without detail. The dark areas of Caravaggio and Rembrandt's work are often the background players. Andrew Wyeth is another great one to look at for naturalistic low-lighting situations like his Cider and Pork or The Stanchions or Toll Rope - interestingly enough all of the three examples have no people in them - just mass "underexposure" just to the point that detail is still possible.

I find "lighting for darkness" the best solution in most cases, but if you have an inexperienced director it can be a hassle. In this situation, you'd pay most attention to your ratios of light and dark, but keep the levels up a bit - then print down. This helps assure that the dark areas are not milky - but good solid blacks - because there is information on the negative in those areas, it's just printed down to the point of loss of detail. It sometimes seems that with today's stocks - especially the Vision stocks - that good solid blacks are becoming more and more of a challenge. With keylight exposure possible from 8fc (ISO500 @ f1.9) and most of the vision stocks being able to read five stops easily down - you're looking at detail information at 1/4fc! The detail in the low shadows at this level tends to milk things up -- especially if you don't have a hot source in shot to increase the apparent level of blacks. So if you jump up a bit to a key level of say 40fc (f4 @ 500ISO) you've got a little more room at the base level to print things down into black. Of course in low-budget situations this kind of control is only possible in tighter shots.

Best of luck.

Jay Holben

This is just a note to be classified under interesting, but useless trivia.

Rembrandt would have no idea what all the ruckus is about "Rembrandt lighting".

Most art historians hold that Rembrandt never intended his art to look at all dark. It is the oxidation of the paints he used that created this "Rembrandt look".

Rembrandt would be *horrified* at the distruction of his art caused by the dramatic darkening of the pigments he used.

Cliff Hancuff

Clear Day Software Publishers of SunWhere(tm) and MoonWhere(tm)

I seem to recall Fred Murphy did some nice work in "Murder in the First" in the solitary cell. Regards,

Jim S.

I've got to question you here - as far as I've read - the differences in oxidized or aged oils and refurbished paintings is not so much the light/dark aspect as the wide color pallet that he used. Most people have associated reds/oranges/yellow with Rembrandt, but it would seem that he used many more vivid colors that had aged to yellows. I'd have to say, again only from my reading, that he worked intentionally dark - especially in works like The Rich Man from the Parable and The Rising of Lazarus - there are obviously areas of deep dark and only highlights. This idea may be true for more of his portraiture work - as in self portraits and portraits of Sasha - but not in his "narrative" works.

Jay Holben

Those light pigments must have been REALLY bright.

I realize that my post was more inspired from an vague memory of a Discovery Channel program or two and not the result of my study of art.

I defer to your accounting as a more thorough an understanding than my own.

Cliff Hancuff

Clear Day Software Publishers of SunWhere(tm) and MoonWhere(tm)

Boy, it's amazing how differently we can see things. I thought 'Jackie Brown' looked pretty lousy. There's a night scene early on where Sam Jackson goes to pick up his doomed minion at a courtyard-type motel. It becomes a long steadicam shot ending with Jackson and the other guy in a 50/50 in the 'proscenium' at the end of a passageway. In the background, presumably a street, it is solid black, actually a little milky. Jackson has no light on him and I don't think the other guy does either. So you have the arch, which is light in color AND has light on it, and a black area under it where you can barely make out either actor. Maybe they missed their marks. Maybe it was the last setup of the night and Tarantino insisted on rolling before the DP was ready. Who knows? But I don't think it does the story or the performances any good. And that scene with the lamp going on and off seemed very very gimmicky to me.

I will be the first to admit that 'Jackie' is a much bigger movie than anything I am getting asked to shoot. And doubtless Tarantino is happy with the look, to whatever extent he cares.

Maybe the thing is that Tarantino is DP-proof and *no one* is going to do their best work with him.

Alan 'Nothing if not critical' Thatcher

I think Cliff was referring to the famous case of "The Night Watch", which after cleaning, turned out not to be a night scene at all. The varnishes used by Rembrandt both caused overall darkening & yellowing over time, although Rembrandt was not a colorist in the manner of, let's say, the Venetian school in Italy. He DID use dark backgrounds - and black was a popular clothing color of the day. His narrative paintings tended to be about biblical stories, which were not popular in his day; the middle-class Dutch population preferred landscapes & still lifes and the wealthy preferred portraits of themselves. Although Rembrandt is associated with soft, natural lighting, if you study his narrative paintings, you'll find that the lighting is also quite theatrical with a dramatic spotlight effect on Christ (motivated sometimes) with the rest of the frame falling into darkness.

I think the difference between Rembrandt and Caravaggio was more than the fact that Caravaggio used harder "key" lights and higher contrast (necessary because his works hung in dark churches usually high above the alter) but also that Rembrandt used more glazing to add depth to his dark areas, allowing them to recede into darkness gradually. Of course, there are many more differences between the two men and their work...

David Mullen Cinematography/L.A.

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