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‘Moonlight’: How ASC Nominee James Laxton Shot the Beautiful Coming-of-Age Oscar Contender

Credit goes to his partnership with director Barry Jenkins, Miami street lamps, and yes, moonlight.

“Moonlight”


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One of the great joys of Barry Jenkins’ masterful “Moonlight” is the dreamlike quality of James Laxton’s cinematography, which has earned him a well-deserved ASC nomination and will surely propel him to an Oscar nomination as well. However, creating the aesthetic was a tricky balance.

“There is a base layer of the film that is real and tangible, because it’s shot on location in Liberty City, Miami, but it doesn’t intend to depict those places as real,” Laxton told IndieWire. “We did tests to see what reminds us of Miami and evokes that feeling of temperature. Miami still has sodium vapor light (from street lamps), which has that warm, red-green quality, so that combination with our moonlight scenes on the beach reminds the audience of a different world beyond our beach moments.”

For the viewer, that translates to a palpable sense of the hot, tropical environment, accentuated by pastels, as well as the shiny, sculptural beauty of the dark-skinned characters who populate the rite-of-passage drama.

Jharrel Jerome and Ashton Sanders in "Moonlight"

“Moonlight”

Photo by David Bornfriend, courtesy of A24

Yet there’s no mistaking the subjective nature of “Moonlight,” which revolves around Chiron coming to terms with his identity as a gay African-American male (played in three chapters by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes).

Each chapter (emphasizing childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood) has its own visual style but with a recognizable through-line. “There are subtle shifts in how we moved the camera,” Laxton said.

For example, the first chapter contains a hand-held, frantic vibe, symbolizing youth, whereas the third chapter offers a more watchful and intimate gaze during the long diner scene that reunites Chiron (Rhodes) with his close friend, Kevin (Andre Holland).

The other challenge was presenting the supporting characters from Chiron’s point of view (including his crack-addicted mother, played by Naomi Harris, and Juan, the drug dealer and father figure, played by Mahershala Ali). “[That] has to do with having the camera low at the height of the young child, to emphasize that this is his story,” said Laxton, who shot on Alexa XT.

Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland in "Moonlight"

“Moonlight”

Photo by David Bornfriend, courtesy of A24

“And also in [chapter two], when Chiron comes back to meet with his mother in that courtyard, we basically put the camera in place of Chiron and she looks directly into the lens.”

But it all comes together in the climactic, multi-layered diner scene, in which Kevin romantically cooks Chiron a meal, hoping to rekindle their friendship and take it to the next stage.

“There’s definitely a tension between the two characters, and there’s also a patience that the two characters are giving each other,” Laxton said. “They haven’t seen each other for a long time and shared these intimate moments. I find they’re both giving each other space to open up during a moment that weighs heavily on both their minds.

“As the scene progresses, we’re also getting more telephoto in our lenses and tighter close-ups. Almost so tight that the next edit that breaks the scene is that shot of the bell over the door jingling. To me, it’s like your breath catching up to you.”

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