"Moonlight": DP James Laxton creates poetic look on ALEXA

In an unforgettable announcement at the 2017 Academy Awards, "Moonlight" garnered Best Motion Picture of the Year. Cinematographer James Laxton talked to ARRI about his Oscar-nominated work that was captured with the ARRI ALEXA Plus.

Nov. 2, 2016

Directed by Barry Jenkins and based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, "Moonlight" paired Laxton and Jenkins together again after the helmer's first film "Medicine for the Melancholy." The film went on to also win Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali. Other nominations included Best Cinematography, Film Editing and Original Score. New York Times film critic A.O. Scott called the film an “unbearably personal film and an urgent social document,” and “a poem written in light, music and vivid human faces.”


The biggest decisions Jenkins and Laxton made before production began were to shoot in Florida, especially the Liberty City neighborhood where the action takes place, and to shoot in anamorphic. That latter decision, says Laxton, “came intangibly.” “We didn’t have discussions about [shooting in anamorphic],” he says. “But it just felt right. It makes sense just of because how large the story feels, how nuanced and bold and strong. We wanted to capture the characters in a way that was large and impactful.”

On "Moonlight," Laxton (whose wife Adele Romanski was also one of the film’s producers) and Jenkins began by putting photographs and clips in a Dropbox folder, from Spike Lee’s "Clockers," Kar-Wai Wong’s "Happy Together," Andrea Arnold’s version of "Wuthering Hights," Sally Potter’s "Ginger & Rosa" and various photographers found on Tumblr. For the camera, Laxton chose the ALEXA Plus. “Skin tone was of incredible importance,” he says. “We wanted to make sure our black-skinned actors would look natural and interesting skin tone. We were lighting them with a style that was more realistic than flattering and we wanted the skin tones to feel warm and not harsh. ALEXA gives a grace and softness to skin, and that was very helpful to us.”

“Also, we were filming in a lot of nights, so light sensitivity was very important to us,” he adds. “I was pleased with how ALEXA handled low light. In some scenes, we could actually render the night clouds. It was partly due to the ambience of a Florida night, but to be able to make out clouds at night was pretty amazing.” Laxton did lens tests at camera house Cineverse, and ended up picking the Vantage Hawk V-Lites.

The movie was shot completely in Miami, much of it in Liberty City and nearby beaches, which inspired the movie’s color palette, a rainbow of bright magentas, lime green and ocean blues, and lighting. “When we were inside homes or night exteriors, we were trying to push that thought a little further, by warming up the gels on the lights or in some instances making some pinks and greens,” says Laxton. “We wanted the audience to be impacted by the imagery, to feel how strong the emotions were throughout the film, and the lighting was aimed to support the concept.

Laxton describes how he and Jenkins work on-set. “Both Barry and I feel it’s important for us to be on our feet with the actors and react with them,” he says. “We’re not the kind of guys who sit in video village and make requests. We’re physically moving around with the cast and crew.” That explains why Laxton operated most of the movie (with the exception of Steadicam scenes). “We never wanted the camera to sit there and watch a scene take place with a long lens,” he says. “We wanted the camera and lens to integrate with these stories, which often means walking and talking in spaces. I think that speaks to our idea of never wanting to be an observational perspective and always wanting to be part of the action.”

The scene he is most proud of takes place at night, on the beach, and is pivotal to the movie. “We had to provide 100 percent of the light artificially in that scene,” he says. “There was nothing for a base exposure level. We brought in a lot of lights and the electric and grip departments did a lot of work. We dedicated a lot of time and resources to it because it’s an important and long scene in the film. And it turned out well.”

Colorist Alex Bickel of The Color Collective counts that scene as one of his favorites to grade. “Night exteriors without practicals to justify a light source are always tricky, but James gave us a beautiful silky negative to start with. He bathed both actors with a soft, elegant source for "Moonlight" that still left us plenty of shape to create a dramatic ratio. I think the final sequence is a nice visual companion to the delicate nature of the scene.” 

Laxton concludes, “By no means were we attempting to present an observational understanding of the story...We never wanted it to feel like we were removed emotionally from any moment. With the choices we made, we wanted to present the characters as real, fully rounded people, where you can be a bad person and good person in the same moment. Barry often talks about the film being a fever dream on some level – and that the audience is part of the dream.”