Eye Piece: Moonlight DP James Laxton Illuminates Miami’s Bold, Blue, Beautiful Darkness

Following the life of Chiron, a young man coming of age in Miami during the “War on Drugs,” Moonlight is sensitive and subtle—yet director Barry Jenkins and I gave the visuals boldness and strength, ideas more congruous with the inner turmoil of our characters’ feelings, and the particularity of their environment, than with the slow-building narrative itself.

One thing that had a large impact in shaping this concept was our choice to shoot the film in an anamorphic format. Often anamorphic is used on big, blockbuster films—X-Men, Star Trek, Transformers—so audiences associate this photographic style with epic scenes and enormous scope. While Moonlight doesn’t have planets exploding, the wide format communicates the force of the characters’ pain and struggle.

The city of Miami also played a large role in shaping how Moonlight looks: its colorful palette of houses, sodium vapor street lights, blue waters, lush green plants and trees. The city grounds our film in a clear and specific place, and also gives us a bright, saturated canvas that supports, again, the characters’ emotional intensity.

Moonrise kingdom: Alex R. Hibbert as young Chiron in Moonlight

Moonrise kingdom: Alex R. Hibbert as young Chiron in Moonlight

Miami at night is especially magic when working with as great a camera as the Arri Alexa XT. Combining its low light sensitivity with the light pollution from the city, we have a number of night exteriors in which clouds in the sky render clearly—an exciting surprise and an additional level of realism.

One of our most challenging scenes, photographically, was a night exterior on a dark beach, a scene where Chiron and a friend share a heady, meaningful exchange. I distinctly remember a night in pre-production spent scouting the beach location with Barry, thinking I needed a new light meter. No matter how high I rated the ISO, I couldn’t get anything to read. In fact, the meter was working fine; there was just no light spilling out on to the beach from the nearby hotels and clubs, as we thought there would be.

I immediately knew I needed to provide all the light in the scene. In night beach settings, it can be extremely difficult to realistically motivate a key light. Our talented gaffer, Kiva Knight, and our key grip, Anthony Schrader, built a 14-by-14” soft box with 36 LiteGear FauxFlo LEDs rigged above half grid diffusion. With the FauxFlos, we were able to dim down to a level that gave us just enough exposure to separate our characters, yet still incorporate them into the deep background lights of the city. To fill in the rest of the beach we had a 4K HMI and 1Ks gelled to match color with the sodium vapor lights of the parking lots behind us. I was extremely nervous because the scene is such an important moment in the film, and in the end I think we got it right.

Magic in the moonlight: DP Laxton (foreground) orchestrates a night scene on the beach

DP James Laxton (foreground) orchestrates the night scene on the beach

Moonlight was both the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and the most fun. Barry pushes me to places I didn’t think I could go. I can’t wait to work with him again. MM

Tech Box

Camera: Arri Alexa XT

Lenses: Vantage Hawk V-Lite Anamorphic Primes

Lighting: A little bit of everything. Interiors mostly relied on LiteGear LiteMats

Color Grading: Color Collective with Alex Bickel

Moonlight opens in theaters October 21, 2016, courtesy of A24. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Fall 2016 issue. Photographs by David Bornfriend, courtesy of A24.

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