The darkness holds great power. Mystery, fear, the unknown all lurk within its murky form, which is why it has been such an effective backdrop for classic cinema. A reliable trope of the horror genre and, by definition, the very thematic fiber of film noir, night scenes have been crucial to so many stories throughout film history. Aspiring filmmakers sometimes struggle with capturing these portions of their script due to elevated budget costs for locations, lighting kits or personnel needed to shoot these scenes. Luckily, there are ways to get those pages in the can by using some time-tested tricks that even the greats have employed at one time in their evolution as storytellers.
Day for Night
Perhaps the most famous trick is shooting day for night. This means you are actually shooting your scene during the day, in daylight, but underexposing tungsten film and adjusting the white balance to produce a blue or dark effect on the picture. Daylight film also can be used as long as there is a tungsten filter over the lens to produce the same result. Since the brightness of the sun is used for backlighting as moonglow, you want to shoot these scenes on a very sunny day and avoid catching the sky in your shots, as the clouds and the sky color will give the ruse away. Point some fill lighting on the actors by using reflectors or handhelds as key and fill lights to achieve contrast in the image. With the popularity of shooting on digital video, achieving day for night requires adjusting the camera to tungsten or indoor settings or just applying a "day for night" filter, which comes in a variety of sizes for different lenses. Using this technique avoids the high costs of overnight location and equipment rentals such as costly generators, and it opens up the availability of actors who can't commit to shooting through the night.
Shooting Night Interiors
These are some of the easiest scenes to shoot because they can be done during the day by covering up any windows or outside daylight sources. Light the scene with practical sources such as candles, lamps or other light sources, then add back and fill light through setups that a cinematographer designs with the resources he has available. However, the moonlight sometimes needs to be seen in the shot so cover the windows with colored filters and scrims to cut the light drastically and use the sun as the primary light source. When dusk starts to come and you're "losing the light," add additional lights to match the color temperature of the sun.
Shooting Night Exteriors
Actual night exteriors shot under night skies require the most planning to ensure your images aren't murky and too underexposed to use in the final cut. Assess the scene and see what practical lighting exists first before setting up your light package. The biggest mistake most aspiring filmmakers make is to overlight the scene to the point where it feels like a movie set. Filters and colored gels go a long way to create soft low-key lighting and should be used for fill lights on actors in closeups to create contrast.
Fix it in Post
Most editing software now allows you to fix mistakes in post-production by adjusting the color temperature, saturation, contrast and brightness of the image. These elements are huge lifesavers to first time filmmakers who have made miscalculations on set. Some advanced editing programs use digital computer imaging technology to digitally enhance or remove certain aspects of the shot that are unattractive or invisible due to underexposure.
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