Moonlight: Behind the Making of the Oscar-Nominated Movie

See the powerful images that inspired Cinematographer James Laxton.


The story of Moonlight invites the audience to follow the life of a character who’s young, black, queer and who feels so alienated from the world around him that he can’t see himself as he is. The life of Chiron is delicately revealed by cinematographer James Laxton who portrays him within a distinct pallet of blown out color photographs that set his life in a faded part of Miami where screenwriter and director Barry Jenkins was raised. With shots burned by lens flares and bold camerawork viewers are a reminded that being personal in every level can help a story resonate with an audience.

David Bornfriend/A24
David Bornfriend/A24Cinematographer James Laxton and director Barry Jenkins on location in Miami.

“I think we all have gazes,” says Laxton about his take on photography. “We all have a way in which we’re viewing the story that we’re telling and I think who we are dictates so much of how we see the world.” In Moonlight, it’s the process of keeping the audience aware of the maker’s hand and of the actors playing. It’s an intentional move away from the aloof style and perfection of most big budget films today that attempt at realism.

On the phone Laxton is modest about his work and credits the film’s success to his close friendship with Jenkins. Their filmmaking style developed after they met in college at Florida State University. “I started talking about this movie 17 years ago when I first met Barry,” Laxton tells TIME. “We didn’t talk about Moonlight of course, but I think on some level those conversations about what it is to be a filmmaker, who our voices are as filmmakers. Those conversations started when we were in our early 20s in college. And that’s still true today.”

Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the play on which the movie is based, both grew up there in the same part of Liberty City, Miami. It’s a historically black community where the majority of residents live below the poverty line. Jenkins used his own experience, growing up with mother struggling with addiction, to write the screenplay. “I knew that relationship like the back of my hand because that’s where my life and Tarell’s overlapped,” he told the Hollywood Reporter.

“Authenticity is something I think we’re always sort of playing with,” says Laxton, when discussing their creative process. “I mean Moonlight is not necessarily a realist movie by any stretch of the imagination. Especially visually, it isn’t. That being said, I don’t think the movie’s untrue. It’s sort of the delicate balance of providing images that allow an audience to feel like they’re watching a real experience. But presenting it in maybe a way that’s providing a larger lens to look through.”

The film, set in three acts, follows Chiron’s life, and opens with a drug deal using some familiar tropes of an archetypical dealer named Juan, played by Mahershala Ali, as he pulls into the frame in a flashy car to check in on one of his minions. Everything that should feel familiar and gritty is photographed in the bright mid daylight and blown out whites.

David Bornfriend—A24
David Bornfriend—A24Director Barry Jenkins, behind the scenes with actor Mahershala Ali.

From this point, two contrasting scenes are paired as the camera quickly begins to move and swirl around Jaun’s conversation until a boy who’s being chased by a pack of angry boys calling him a faggot interrupts him. “It allows the audience to almost be disarmed in the first three minutes of this opening shot,” says Laxton. “You can’t help on some level just go, wow, I don’t know what’s happening here but I’m just going to sort of sit back and watch. I think it’s that moment where the language in which Moonlight is established. It allows us to make choices later on in the film, that if we don’t set up our language that way at the beginning, could possibly feel like not as organic.”

Moonlight’s setting in Miami was essential to the story. “Everything we did was in real locations, which was important for us to create that authentic sensibility that Moonlight is supported by.

David Bornfriend/A24
David Bornfriend/A24Cinematographer James Laxton films Ashton Sanders.

When describing the look of the characters within the location Jenkins told TIME last month, “Cinema is a little over 100 years old, and a lot of what we do is built around film emulsion. Those things were calibrated for white skin. We’ve always placed powder on skin to dull the light. But my memory of growing up in Miami is this moist, beautiful black skin. So we used oil. I wanted everyone’s skin to have a sheen to reflect my memory.”

While trying to establish texture of the place, Laxton spent eight weeks studying the light and the humidity of the location. The duo also shares a lot of photography. “My morning routine is I make a cup of coffee and I’ll just like scroll through Tumblr images for the first 20 minutes of my day,” says Laxton. “It just wakes my mind up.”

Henry Roy—Sunday Gallery
Henry Roy—Sunday Gallery James Laxton cites the work of Henry Roy was someone shaped how he and Jenkins the look of Moonlight. Above: Roy’s work from his book from Out Of The Blue.

Photographers like Henry Roy inspired Laxton. “He’s someone who I think Barry and I were actually familiar with from our college days in this magazine that we were obsessed with called Hobo,” he says. “Roy was someone that I think shaped a lot of how Barry and I sort of approached the film at the very, very beginning.”

Earlie Hudnall, Jr.—PDNB Gallery
Earlie Hudnall, Jr.—PDNB GalleryLaxton and Jenkins shared lots of photography including the work of Earlie Hudnall, Jr.

Other photographers like the great Earlie Hudnall Jr. were found on Tumblr shared in dropbox folders along with the work of Dutch art photographer Viviane Sassen also had a huge influence on Laxton’s choice of colors for some of the film’s most iconic scenes like the swimming lesson, set in it high contrast colors and crystalline blues. The moment feels biblical as Juan holds Chiron in what looks like a pieta over the waves. As Juan releases him to float, Chiron quickly steadies himself and Juan says, “Right there, you’re in the middle of the world”. In the midst of this pivotal moment of self-discovery there’s a real awareness of the camera as the water is lapping against the lens. Laxton had to maneuver a 200-pound camera in an underwater housing for the scene. The waves distort the lens to accentuate the feeling of being present at such an intimate moment.

Viviane Sassen—Stevenson Gallery
Viviane Sassen—Stevenson GalleryAnother photographic inspiration was the work of Dutch artist Viviane Sassen. Above: D.N.A., 2007.

“I don’t mind being reminded that I’m watching a movie,” says Laxton. “I think that younger audiences are more accepting of this than older audiences. But this idea that the medium is always present when watching something I think is a good thing. It’s something that allows an audience to really sink into a story.”

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Another strategy in accentuating the film’s unique feeling is using a single Arri Alexa XT camera through the whole shoot. “The whole thing was one camera,” says Laxton. “We never had two cameras actually.” Whether it’s one of the many tracking shots following Chiron’s back through his world or watching his reaction, one can sense a precision in every shot.

Laxton used Hawk V-Lite anamorphic lenses, throughout the film to help amplify the emotional state of the characters within the majestic widescreen format. “The attempt was to promote those emotions, not just to present them, but to promote them to a place where you can sense the intensity by which Chiron’s character is going through these things. What it means to that character to be bullied, to have to deal with these sexual questions that he’s going through in his teenaged years. Our idea was to present them visually with that same amount of intensity. Which for us meant anamorphic lenses that express this heightened sense of existence that I think audience members sometimes associate with bigger tent pole films, but were presenting this sort of nuanced subtle story but with that same heightened value.”

A24Actor Naomie Harris from Moonlight.

The use of natural and ambient light throughout the film mixed with small warm fill lights and touches of color play on the film’s dream-like sense of reality. Laxton cites director Spike Lee and Claire Denis as inspirations as well as Wong Kar-Wai’s work on films like Happy Together and In the Mood For Love. Notes of Wai’s work can be felt in some of the most dramatic moments where Chiron’s mother, Paula, played by Naomie Harris, stands over her son scolding him while a pink light glows from her bedroom.

“It’s funny how much license you can get with some choices like that pink light,” says Laxton. “That’s an idea that kind of came out of our process on the set. It somehow seems appropriate in a way that again doesn’t speak to the realism of the movie but it somehow speaks to the emotional value that I think we were trying to present to our audience.” In a scene that could have been so much darker and so much grittier this lighting choice elevates the scene to a slightly surreal place. “There’s a few reasons I think why that pink light doesn’t sort of ring false for people,” says Laxton. “I think one of them, It’s a way in which we provide a three dimensional value to a character like Paula, Chiron’s mother.”

David Bornfriend/A24
David Bornfriend/A24Actor Ashton Sanders from Moonlight.

In the complex scene Paula is obviously aware and frustrated by her son’s burgeoning sexuality and she’s simultaneously dealing with her own struggles with addiction, motherhood and sexuality. “That pink light behind her in that scene and within the film generally helps to express another side of her,” says Laxton. “I think the color pink can have a lot of associations but I think one of them can be beauty. On set it rounded out this character in this moment that is very dark and very intense. She’s yelling at her son. But it allowed us to understand that she’s a whole character as well.”

When asked about his favorite scene in the film Laxton immediately turns to the third act where the shift in style in subtle and more nuanced. “I’m very proud of and very happy with the diner scene in story three,” says Laxton. “While it doesn’t have the most bold, visual, stylistic stuff happening, there’s a real precision to choices we were making that I’m very interested in. I just feel satisfied that we got what we set out to get. We transition from handheld to dolly, from dolly to steady cam. There’s a delicacy to I think my work in that scene that I think really makes me feel really proud.”

David Bornfriend/A24
David Bornfriend/A24Actors André Holland and Trevante Rhodes from Moonlight

“It evolved when the character is also evolving,” says Laxton. Throughout Moonlight Chiron’s character maintains a sense of childlike behavior that carries into his adulthood. “There are these sort of lonely frames that exist, even when he’s a grown man. These frames provide a sense of loneliness that he’s still struggling with as an adult and still permeate the visual language that we were using in story three.”

UniversalStill from In The Mood For Love by Wong Kar-wai.

Thinking back to his own childhood Laxton says, “I remember wearing out VHS tapes of my favorite movies as a kid and having the tracking being a mess and trying to watch movies that were faded. And all those things, oddly enough, I think what they do in a way is they disarm me. They remind me that I’m watching a movie. They remind me that I’m having an experience that is really personal. And they allow my mind to sort of relax and just let a story be presented to me.”

Laxton and Jenkins have cited the work of directors Wong Kar Wai, Spike Lee, and Claire Denis as sources of inspiration for Moonlight.

“This idea of being really personal and unique with the way in which you tell your story. I think it’s really funny that the business generally is sort of moving towards a directing by committee approach. Where – because movies are costing so much money these days that there’s so much at stake and therefore everyone, every sort of person involved with the film chimes in with their of personal feelings. While I think audiences are actually chomping at the bit for really personal unique visions of things. Its sort of funny that this moment is happening at a time when those two things could not be further apart from one another.”

Moonlight moves away from the coldness on anything impersonal and uses a well-worn authenticity along with a small handful of the films recognized by the Academy this year. When looking at the cinematography section at the Oscars, Laxton says, “Its amazing to be on that list. It’s like Lion, Arrival, and La La Land, these are really personal visions of things.”

David Bornfriend/A24
David Bornfriend/A24


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