One of the biggest challenges a cinematographer can face is an expansive night exterior located far from motivated light sources. I’m referring to such places as the open ocean, the plains, a forest, a mountainside…or, as in this case, the remote desert.
There’s no shortage of heavy artillery available to help define the action and sell the effect: the huge Musco Lights, BeBee Lights, Wendy Lights or any of the custom-made rigs that can project a massive amount of illumination across great distances. Another approach involves creating as large a “moon source” as possible, suspended high above the action. But this soft light doesn’t pack quite the same wallop as the previous units, can sometimes look “toppy” and is more difficult to control. There’s also the option of shooting Day-For-Night. Executed with the proper care, it can look impressive and be a cost-effective way of solving the issue. The downside is that it requires time and cooperation from the weather, the director and all departments. It also tends to limit your shooting angles.
What to do then when none of these options are on the menu?
Let most of it go dark, of course!
In this scene, Walton Goggins’ character of Boyd Crowder leads his posse as they attempt to smuggle some contraband across the border to the U.S. Just when they think they’re home free, the Federales spoil the party.
Rather than travel the company to northern Mexico, we shot on some undeveloped land behind our stages at Santa Clarita Studios. Perched on a flat patch beneath a hillside, no city lights could be seen in any direction; for all intents, we were in the middle of nowhere. The effect is totally believable and the property served us well.
I’ve never cared for night exteriors that don’t carry any information in the background. Though I understand why a cinematographer might expose something that way, it doesn’t appeal to my taste – and I didn’t want to fall into that trap. Since I didn’t have the equipment, time or crew to light an extensive area, the secret was to provide only a hint of background detail in the wide shots. Just a little would be enough, and that was a good thing because it was all we were capable of delivering! Once the traffic stop was underway, the headlights and flashing units on top of the cop cars would carry the day in terms of reference sources. The road dust raised by their kinetic arrival added a nice touch in the early part of the scene.
I didn’t particularly care for the light inside the truck cab as the vehicles approach in the wide shot, but director Michael Pressman – whom I love, by the way – insisted upon it. A small LED did the trick.
Compared to how things were done in the old days, it’s amazing what we’re capable of with modern equipment. What we see now is a far cry from when night exteriors in far off places were commonly lit to the same key level as day exteriors in the open sun!
The clip shows the result, the diagram shows the tech particulars.