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Nope's New Day-for-Night Technique / Hoyte van Hoytema FSF NSC ASC


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Source: KODAK https://www.kodak.com/en/motion/blog-post/nope

Hoyte van Hoytema FSF NSC ASC

"One of the major challenges on Nope was how we were going to shoot the night-time sequences, which were mainly all big set pieces. When Jordan and I went on the night scouts around Agua Dulce, we saw that there was no available light whatsoever, and realized there was no way we were ever going to be able to light and photograph these large expanses convincingly.

"But nature at night is very special and interesting. As we stood there, and our pupils dilated, we started to notice very fine details in the mountain ridges and the expansive presence of the space around us and thought it would be great to capture that essence in the film.

"Of course, we could have shot traditional day-for-night, but that has its limitations because you must have the sun exactly in the right place, or we could have tried greenscreen and CGI, but even then, the results can look kind of fakey."

Accordingly, Van Hoytema casted his mind back to some of his previous challenges and, with an inspired twist of creative thought, came up with a ground-breaking solution to shoot the night scenes and a pioneering new way of shooting day-for-night using a hybrid of film and digital.

As he explains, "When I worked on Ad Astra, we encountered a similar problem when it came to shooting the lunar battle/chase/action sequence with Moon Rovers in Death Valley, and our inability to light up a big area with a single light source. We needed to cover enough distance to be able to shoot the chase, but soft light or double shadows from any sources would have been an awful giveaway.

"So with the help of my friend, Kavon Elhami, who runs a camera house, we purchased two decommissioned 3D-stereo camera rigs on which we could mount two cameras. One was an ARRI Alexa, specially customized to capture infrared, the other a regular 35mm film camera. Instead of lining-up the cameras for 3D parallax, we found a new way to align them so that both cameras were shooting the exact same image – one infrared, the other on film – so that every frame would overlay perfectly later in postproduction.

“The infrared camera is only sensitive to a very specific wavelengths of light and the images are monochromatic. When you shoot in natural sunlight, with a slight contrast boost, it results in images that are brightly lit, however, the skies are dark. The 35mm camera contains all of the vital color and texture information. In the perfect composite of the two images in post-production, the desert resembled the lunar surface. That meant we got close to the lighting character on the real moon.

“So for Nope, I had the idea of scaling up that same kind of rig and using it to shoot our day-for-night scenes in broad daylight – but this time using an ARRI Alexa 65, pointing upwards vertically and shooting in infrared mode, in perfect alignment with a Panavision System 65mm film camera, which was on the horizontal axis.

“However, it’s vitally important that the different gates and lenses are identical, that you have exactly the same depths-of-field, that your focus pulls translate in exactly the same way, and that the two images are completely in-sync.”

As part of his quest in creating the new day-for-night rig, Van Hoytema necessarily visited Panavison in LA, as the company owns and maintains the small number of existing 65mm cameras.

"During the development and test phase we worked with Dan Sasaki, the magician at Panavision, who can build whatever you want, based on his understanding of physics and what is needed artistically," says Van Hoytema. "He made sure the twin sets of Panavision Sphero lenses we used were tuned to be identical in their performance."

Development of the specialist rig required a close cooperation between ARRI, Panavision, Van Hoytema and his own development company, Honeycomb Modular, in what he describes as "a beautiful collaboration between amazing people at amazing companies, to solve one person's obsession to do something a little weird and nerdy."

"In the early stages, we took a rather shabby-looking prototype rig, held together with screws, cable ties and gaffer tape, out into the desert to shoot tests. My DIT, Elhanan Matos, is not your standard DIT, and when we do new technology like this, he's all over it. He helped in getting the two-camera synched up, and although the video taps on the 65mm camera remain poor, he gave us a good on-set approximation of what the final image would look like.

"We then liaised with my DI colorist Greig Fisher at Company3 in LA, mixing those two sets of images together, and the result looked to me like an entirely plausible-looking night. In fact, using this technique you can peer much deeper into the dark expanse than we had done before on Ad Astra. And, after additional lighting effects were added in VFX, our night scenes really came alive. When you sit in the cinema, especially in an IMAX theatre, and you look around the image it’s a very, very special immersive experience."


The production-ready day-for-night camera rig proved to be a sizeable, weighty and somewhat unbalanced lump, and it still needed to be motivated for visual storytelling purposes.

"We didn't want to be limited in terms of how we would move the rig around," says Van Hoytema. "So I worked with Dean Bailey and his team at Performance Filmworks, to work out how it could be adapted to fit on their various gyro-stabilized Edge cranes vehicles. I’ve worked with them before on Tenet and Dunkirk, where their vehicles had to drive over extremely rough terrain, and I had the same ambition to put this rig through equally rough stuff.

"They worked really hard to adapt their stabilized head for the rig, and all-of-a-sudden, we had the ability to drive everywhere – we could follow running horses and shoot other dramatic action scenes. It became a wonderful, crazy tool that was capable of giving us shot after shot that you might have thought were impossible and probably have never seen before."

As for the ramifications for other filmmakers, Van Hoytema says, "I think it's something that can, and probably will, be used more and more. Right now, through Honeycombe Modular, I am developing a new device that will enable you to use just one lens for two cameras, meaning that the rig can be much smaller, and any lens artefacts translate into both formats making post easier."

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This is amazing. I was speculating on how they achieved this effect and I guessed something entirely different and entirely wrong. Men had some night skies added in post that I wasn't wild about (fantastic vfx overall however) and Northman had night exteriors that had great depth too. But what they did here totally mystified me and I would never have guessed this was how it was achieved.

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17 hours ago, David Mullen ASC said:

That makes no sense - the moon casts the same shadows as the sun does, just much dimmer.


Alright, alright… I’m completely wrong, I admit haha. Was thinking that the moon was a softer source than it is. Looked up some info on moonlight shadows and the first article that popped up had your nighttime photos in it!

I’m still left feeling like the day for night in Nope looked a little off… but now I can’t ascribe a reason to it. Maybe a subconscious thing since I had seen BTS photos before the film (and knew they shot all those scenes during the day). I still loved the movie—the night scenes feeling a bit wonky fits the tone of the rest of the film anyway. Plus great tech of course.

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41 minutes ago, David Mullen ASC said:

Here's the thing -- if you ever go out into the deep desert under a full moon on a clear night, it feels like a day for night scene in a movie.  The problem is that most viewers don't have that experience with moonlight.

The main difference I've noticed is that moonlight has a warmer color temperature. I compared day for night and night for night with the fastest equipment I could get my hands on. The main difference isn't the shape of the light, it's that moonlight is warmer.

The cinematic convention is for a darker sky. (With night for night, the sky is typically black.) The above process seems convoluted in the extreme, but at the same time – it worked pretty well for me.

Edited by M Joel W
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I think moonlight is around 4100K so it's warmer than daylight but cooler than tungsten.  But at night with no other sources, your rods are working more than you cones, and your eye's iris is wide-open, so the perception is of a rather monochrome world where it is hard to focus on things from far to near, you see everything but it feels soft.

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It probably felt more like this on that night, very hard to see except the stars. It feels like a head cold.

This is another problem with the notion of "realistic" moonlight in movies, at some point, the narrative demands you actually see things like an actor's performance, or action in the frame, so you can never really darken everything to what would be realistic. It would just get murky on the screen.




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Trouble is that when people see those videos shot under real moonlight, they think "I don't need to light!" -- not realizing that these images are only possible on the few days per month when the moon is full and the weather is clear. Imagine trying to plan a 4-week feature around a real full moon and hope the weather is clear those nights.

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On 9/9/2022 at 8:52 PM, David Mullen ASC said:

Here's the thing -- if you ever go out into the deep desert under a full moon on a clear night, it feels like a day for night scene in a movie.  The problem is that most viewers don't have that experience with moonlight.


Over the various lockdowns I spent several nights out under the stars doing astrophotography.

I went out in full daylight, and waited many hours until the darkest part of the night, with no artificial light.

It really is amazing how much your eyes adapt over that time, and what night actually looks like to the human eye when fully adapted, especially under a full moon. 

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6 hours ago, Darius Mackenzie said:

This with the a7siii? 

Panasonic S1 with an f0.95 lens, just because that’s what I own. 6K mode, so per-pixel, which helps with low light I believe. I'd like to try an A7S3, I bet the result would be similar though.

Fwiw I’ve been experimenting with using the red channel for luminance for day for night. (Plugging in, after a LUT or in a color managed workspace, the red channel for luminosity.) With a bit of grading, it can get pretty close to the effect in Nope pretty quickly. Doesn’t always work. You need a sharp lens because blue/purple CA at high contrast edges (trees against the sky, for instance) gets more saturated and thus deeper black than they sky itself, resulting in dark halos around leaves. 

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