Los Angeles Times
James Laxton | ‘Moonlight’
The scene: Chiron (Ashton Sanders), a gay Miami teenager, has his first sexual encounter on a darkened beach.
Shot significance: You never forget your first time, but in Chiron’s case, it’s especially fraught. In the housing projects of the 1980s, being openly gay is dangerous, and it’s not clear even Chiron knows where the evening is going until his friend Kevin leads the way. “It’s a private moment,” says Laxton, “shared with two people on a beach and no one around to judge.”
Birth of the shot: Although “Moonlight” was shot digitally, Laxton and director Barry Jenkins used lookup tables (a digital file that color codes an image) to emulate a different film stock for each of the movie’s three chapters: Fuji for the first, Kodak for the last, and Agfa for Chiron’s teenage years. “It has more of a pastel tendency,” Laxton explains. “The colors seem to mix in interesting ways that we just felt was appropriate for the story.” They also decided to shoot with a long, narrow anamorphic frame in order to enhance the movie’s cinematic qualities. “It places an importance on the images,” Laxton says, “and gives them value in a way that stories like this sometimes don’t get.”
Although the scene doesn’t require
any elaborate camera moves, it proved to be the most difficult in the film. “Nighttime beaches pose a very physical challenge to cinema, generally speaking,” Laxton says. “One question we ask ourselves in any scene is ‘Where is the light coming from?’ When you’re doing a scene that takes place in complete darkness, that’s a difficult question to answer.”
Making it work: Without betraying the realism of the scene, Laxton created “a soft overhead pool” around the characters, which serves as an oasis in the middle of the darkened widescreen frame. It required careful adjustments to render the actors’ facial expressions visible while keeping the light confined to their little corner of the world, an oasis both isolated and protective. When the camera is facing the ocean, Laxton notes that you can’t see anything but a black expanse, but the lack of light on the waves only underlines the sense that, for this moment and for these two young men, nothing else exists. “It’s sort of an abyss behind them,” he says, “but I think we accept that as an audience. It doesn’t appear to be realistic on some level, but we’re so interested and engaged with this very personal moment that these characters are feeling.”