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‘Moonlight’ Glow: Creating the Bold Color and Contrast of Barry Jenkins’ Emotional Landscape

Cinematographer James Laxton and colorist Alex Bickel break down how they created the look of this year's breakout indie; plus exclusive images.

“Moonlight” Exclusive Image

Courtesy of Color Collective and A24


There’s an inherent visual tension in the look of Barry Jenkin’s “Moonlight.” Set in the harsh realities of Liberty City, an impoverished section of Miami where Jenkins and co-writer Tarell McCraney grew up, the sun-drenched neighborhood is filled with bright pastel colors and lush, tropical green trees and grass.

“Tarell calls Miami a ‘beautiful nightmare’ and I think what we’ve done is paint this nightmare in beautiful tones,” Jenkins told IndieWire in a recent podcast. “We wanted to embrace the tension of that beauty, juxtaposed with the very dark things that are happening to the characters in the story.”

READ MORE: Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast: ‘Moonlight’ Director Barry Jenkins Reveals the Unconventional Way He Cast His Three Leads (Episode 10)

Right from the start, Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton discussed wanting to move away from a documentary, or realist look, that has come to be expected of American indies tackling social issues like “Moonlight.” They wanted a dreamlike feel that immersed the audience in the world of the protagonist Chiron, but that was also rooted in the color and light of Miami.

Whereas many cinematographers play it safe in exposing dark skin tones, especially in harsh light, Laxton built his look around pulling rich, beautiful color from the actors’ faces while still executing one of the boldest lighting designs of the year.

"Moonlight" Exclusive Image

“Moonlight” Exclusive Image

Courtesy of Color Collective and A24

Testing the Limits of Contrast

To capture Miami, Laxton knew he’d want the actors’ skin to have a big shine, so the audience could feel the sun beating down on them. Building off this, he decided he would really push the contrast ratio in virtually every scene, using a single source lighting scheme with no fill light, so the light would fall off into shadows and sculpt the characters’ faces.

“When I saw those first test shoot images, I quickly realized James and Barry were really going for it and this was going to be a visually aggressive movie,” said colorist Alex Bickel, who has worked on a number of stylized indies, like “Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter,” “Blue Ruin,” and “Indignation.” “Barry certainly wasn’t playing it safe with the story and he didn’t want to play it safe in the visuals. That got me excited.”

Working with the colorist during preproduction gave Laxton the confidence of how far he could push the contrast on set and still make sure there was detail and rich color, especially on the cast’s dark skin tones when their faces were in shadows.

“The idea for us on set, at a base level, is to create an exposure that allows you to get into the DI [Digital Intermediate] with someone like Alex and have room to make color decisions in post,” said Laxton. “That’s true of every film, but especially ‘Moonlight,’ where there [were] greater opportunities to lose detail in potentially underexposed parts of the frame.”

Creating the Color Grade

A raw image from the camera compared to the final color graded image that appears in the movie.

A raw image from the camera compared to the final color graded image that appears in the movie.

Courtesy of Color Collective and A24

Early during preproduction Jenkins and Laxton shared photos with Bickel as a way of expressing what they were looking for from the quality of light they wanted.

“Then starting with the test footage, I could see the lighting ratio and design they are implementing, and my job is to design grades that can achieve the emotional impact they are after,” said Bickel.

READ MORE: ‘Moonlight’: How Nicholas Britell’s Score Balances Poetry and Southern Hip-Hop

With “Moonlight,” Bickel thought of the image in three distinct steps: create a nice thick color by pulling information out of the mid-tones, add blue to the blacks, and tease out the highlights so there’s white glint that’s on top of the image.

Bickel marvels at the way Laxton’s light falls off into shadows, modeling the characters’ faces, but that there is still so much detail.

“When you are doing day exterior and your grade is going to have a really high contrast level, it’s hard not to end up with a whole bunch of black and whole bunch of white,” said Bickel. “[With this film] there’s such great presence to the skin tone. It’s never chopped up where you can’t get in there to pull out detail.”

Working closely with Jenkins and Laxton, Bickel would experiment with grades to get the color palette and look that matched the emotional quality of what the DP and director wanted. The first image the trio felt they nailed was this image of Juan (Mahershala Ali).

A raw image from the camera compared to the final color graded image that appears in the movie.

A raw image from the camera compared to the final color graded image that appears in the movie.

Courtesy of Color Corrective and A24

“This photo has everything about ‘Moonlight’ in it,” said Laxton. “It has our lush, tropical palm trees in the background with the bright blue sky peaking through. Great saturation. It has that Miami sheen on his skin and Mahershala’s skin has this amazing color and still relatively dark on one side. It sort of encapsulates how we wanted the film to look.”

Bickel adds that this image became so important to the three collaborators they would constantly come back to it, using it as a touchstone for how the rest of the film should look.

Emulating Three Different Film Stocks

Working with color scientist Bill Feightner, Bickel has been able to develop LUTs [mathematical formulas that modify images] so that the color in a movie responds similarly to how it would if shot on a specific film stock.  For “Moonlight,” which is told in three distinct chapters, the decision was made that each chapter would emulate a different film stock, giving each its own look.

READ MORE: ‘Moonlight’ and ‘Luke Cage’ Breakout Mahershala Ali on the Power of Diverse Roles

The first chapter was set to emulate Fuji film stock, which according to Bickel, is a little warmer and brings out a lot of texture in the skin tone. The third chapter used a modified kodak stock, which according to Bickel is less “restrained” and provides more pop and shine to the image.

A raw image from the camera compared to the final color graded image that appears in the movie.

A raw image from the camera compared to the final color graded image that appears in the movie.

Courtesy of Color Collective and A24

The most distinct looking chapter of “Moonlight” is the second, which Bickel credits to the old Agfa film stock it was set to mirror.  The long retired German film stock was known for adding a cyan to the images highlights, which is what gives the middle section of “Moonlight” its greenish-blue hue. This can be seen in the image of Naomie Harris image above.

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