Do moviemakers like filming in the dark?

One of my pet peeves is when a significant scene (or large amount of an entire movie) takes place in dark settings, or at night. I find that it makes much of the detail difficult to see. But for exactly that reason, I’d think that it makes things a lot easier for the special-effects people. For example, it is a lot easier to hide the strings and cables which hold and pull a character or a prop, when there are lots of shadows all over the place.

It seems to me that this happens a lot in action films, whether of the superhero type (Superman, Spiderman) or of the more general type (Rocky). I do realize that very often, a scene will take place in the night or dark for very real dramatic purposes, but I often wonder if sometimes that is just an excuse for laziness and cheapness.

The final straw which led me to ask this was when I saw The Departed a couple of days ago. The first few minutes of the film take place about 10-15 years before the rest of the story, and it was pretty dark throughout that portion, and it was difficult to get a good look at Jack Nicholson’s face. I can’t help feeling that the darkness was chosen to make things easier for the makeup department – if it had been brighter, it would have been much more difficult to make him appear that much younger.

Any comments? Has this cheapness been noticed or documented elsewhere, or is this phenomenon just in my imagination?

Dark is the current style. While it does make it easier for special effects, etc., that’s only a side effect.

Also, darkness is considered more dramatic. And, of course, in horror movies, it makes it easier for the monster to hide.

I’m sure a more experienced filmmaker will chime in, but filming dark scenes in the actual dark can be a real bitch rather than an easy way out. Think about it – daytime shots can be darkened, but nighttime shots cannot be lightened without sacrificing picture quality.

Though I find this annoying, too, I don’t recall any overly dark scenes in The Departed. (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, on the other hand… although even then I realized the VHS was to blame the fgirst time I watched it). Did you see it in theatres or at home?

In a theater. But it was only that opening section that bothered me – Nicholson’s face always seemed to be in a shadow. Someday I’ll watch the DVD and doublecheck.

Yes, usually filming at night is a big pain. Even if it looks dark to you in the final product, it still requires a ton more lights, and the accompanying equipment than an outdoor daytime shot. In fact, a lot of night scenes are shot “day-for-night”, meaning they are actually shot during the daytime, although Wiki tells us this technique is uncommon nowadays.

The opening scene was a flashback in which Nicholson’s character was grooming the kid for a life in organized crime. With a face as time worn and ragged as Nicholson’s, it would have been hard to use make-up to make him appear to be 15 years younger. I think the semi-dark was a device to help us imagine Nicholson as a younger man-

This is interesting (and I do not mean that sarcastically), but not relevant to my question. Even if the scene is darkened post-filming, it still has the effect that the props guys and makeup people can get away with stuff that they couldn’t get away with if the brightness was turned up.

I guess a way of rephrasing my question would be: How often does it happen that the filmmaker will choose for a certain scene to be at night or in shadow for these sorts of nondramatic reasons?

I think the worst are the British crime series, where things will be done not only in the dark but in the rain. Very high contrast spots of light all over the windscreen as you try to make out what the cops on a stakeout are reacting to.

Well, of course manipulation of light is a cinematographer’s #1 tool in the art of story-telling. I don’t see why using light (or lack thereof) to give an actor a certain desired appearance, in lieu of heavy make-up, is a “non-dramatic reason”.

I think it would have to be pretty low-budget to set for night just to make special effects or make-up easier. Or a director who mindlessly thinks night is in. It’s not like the script writer or director would be lazy for the sake of make-up and special effects (it’s not their job). And I don’t think the examples mentioned would fall into that characterization. I’m pretty sure they do it either because the story requires it or they really think it’s aesthetically appropriate, not to annoy you.

I wonder what kind of special effects you’re thinking of, that darkness would make easier.

If the goal (i.e., the “certain desired appearance”) is one of darkness and foreboding, involving a degree of creepiness and spookiness, then I totally agree with you. And that may indeed have been their intent.

But I feel (and it seems that Beaucarnea also does) that the main function of that scene was to show us a flashback of events from when Nicholson’s character was younger. The movie was just starting, and I don’t think darkness was really needed yet as part of the story-telling. But I’m willing to be outvoted.

Things like hiding the wires which support a flying superhero, or the wires which quickly pull a character who is being thrown across the room.

I recall that the end of Apocalypse Now was shot dark (or, rather where there was only light coming from one direction so half of everything was left black.) Marlon Brando was supposed to diet for his part, but didn’t. However, when Coppola suggested shooting him as an overweight, dionysian sort of figure, Brando refused. So they were stuck trying to thin him down via lighting.

As an example of where they didn’t try the darkening technique, The Bridges of Madison County supposedly used a foggy lense to blur out the wrinkles of its two main characters.

Spy Game didnt even really try to youthen the two protagonists when we see their 20-years earlier figures. Personally it didn’t bother me, but I think it did bother a lot of people.

I have to admit, it’s annoying when the CSI guys wander through a crime scene waving their little mag-lites around instead of, y’know, hitting the light switch.

Well, the tricks and techniques for hiding those things even in full daylight shooting (you can do a lot just with the positioning of the camera) are pretty well known, and if not, they can fix th rest in post pretty easily. So I don’t think that’s the main reason for shooting dark scenes. I think it’s mostly done for dramatic effect.

Of course, there is the famous case of Apocalypse Now. When Marlon Brando showed up for filming, Francis Coppola was horrified to see he’d become hugely obese, not what he had imagined for the crucial role of Kurtz. Coppola had no choice but to shoot Brando’s scenes in deep shadow, with close-ups on Brando’s face.

That seems to be one of their trademarks and they actually addressed it within the show. In an early episode the team enters a room and someone flips on the light. Grissom immediately tells them to turn it off, saying that they need to leave the room exactly the way the perp left it. (Which may or may not make sense, but at least they made some attempt to explain it.)

It’s doesn’t though. The wires are like airplane cables (and much thicker than you’d think) and with all the bright lights aroud (as a previous post said, there are a LOT more liights used at night) the cables look bright and white and show up quite a bit more noticeably withthe higher contrast than they would against, for example, a blue sky.

It might make it easier to blot out in post-production, but the work to hide them is going to be about the same.

“You can get away with almost anything if it’s dark.”
I was told variations of that repeatedly in college (digital effects and animation). It’s true. Lighting is easier with fewer lights, little mistakes are hidden in the darkness (Hell, big mistakes get hidden in the darkness), you don’t have to work as hard on the background, you can more easily direct the eye with light/dark contrast. Numerous reasons, but because everybody else knows the trick, too, one has to be judicious in it’s use.

Thanks, all! Clearly, there are many different views on this…