"Moonlight" made headlines last week when it won the Academy Award for Best Picture after a mix up of envelopes mistakenly named "La La Land" in its place. After seeing "Moonlight" at a showing in New London this past weekend, I can absolutely say it deserves that award. The story is well-crafted and beautifully told through its music and visual and narrative parallels. However, "La La Land" still managed to rob the film of one award I firmly believe "Moonlight" should have won: Best Cinematography. "La La Land" is absolutely a gorgeous looking movie and is full of intensely visual moments, especially in its epilogue, but its cinematography doesn't go much farther than that. "Moonlight" uses the visual medium to actually assist in telling the story and creating the journey its main character, Chiron, goes through, all using only one camera.
Chiron is a shy, soft-spoken character, so "Moonlight" opts for visual cues, camera movement, and color to tell his story, making the cinematography essential to the movie in a way other nominees didn't. Since the film only had one camera, every shot had to be well-thought-out. The cinematographer, James Laxton, spoke to IndieWire about the look of the movie and its role in moving the story, as he and colorist Alex Bicket sought to create a high-contrast look to capture the film's location, Miami, in bright pastel along with the darker tones of the actors skin, enhanced by blue and green light to keep the contrast from making the film go black and white. Each chapter of the film is designed to emulate the color style of three different film stocks: the warm texture of Fuji for "Little," the ancient cyan of Agfa for "Chiron," and the "pop and shine" of Kodak for "Black."
Despite every aspect of its filming being so essential to creating the story, the Oscar still went to "La La Land." Since the film is so visually crafted throughout, it's hard to choose specific moments that capture the importance of its cinematography and why it should have won, but here are five shots that stand out the most.
1. Paula in red.
This shot is one of the most visually striking in the movie, partially for the way the music drowns out Paula's scream and partially for the specific way it is shot. It takes place in the first chapter, which is created almost entirely from young, bright blues and greens. When she slowly stalks from her room in red, bathed in pink light, it's jarring, especially in contrast to the shot of Chiron standing in the dull kitchen staring beyond the camera. The shot is set up so that Paula is framed by the walls of the room Chiron and the camera stand in, slightly off-center and bending nearly out of the frame to look directly into the camera, placing you in Chiron's place. The pink and red press in on her rather than filling any space in the kitchen, giving that light entirely to Paula's emotion and mental state. Each time this still shot comes back throughout the movie, that image of Paula leaning into the kitchen, through the barrier of the green walls and down to our level before shutting the door and drowning out the pink light feels angry and unsettling because of the way the shot frames her.
2. In the ice.
This moment is our first glimpse of Chiron in the movie's third act, and acts as a direct parallel to the last time we were given a shot of Chiron with his head in the ice. The last shot, though, was accompanied by flickering lights and an ugly green coloring. This one is entirely steady and completely colored by a dense, heavy blue. So much of "Moonlight" is filled with moving shots focused on Chiron's back, from the first shot of him running through the grass to the last shot of him standing by the ocean, always following him through his life, but this one is level and stationary, from its lighting to its camera movement, panning ever so slightly up on his back so you can see the muscles flex blue, calling back the image Juan painted at the beginning: "In moonlight, black boys look blue." It's a shot focused on reminding the audience of every aspect of Chiron's past as we enter the final act as well as telling them what to expect of where Chiron is in life at that moment, all through the color, camera placement, and movement.
3. The fight.
The weight of this moment in "Moonlight" is almost tangible, since the only people that know how high the emotion here is are Chiron, Kevin, and the audience. We have seen Kevin play-fighting with Chiron when they first became friends as kids. We've seen Chiron speak more than he has in the entire film as he talked through secrets with Kevin on the beach. After the quick motion and circling the camera has been performing throughout this scene, the placement of the camera directly in Kevin's place so that you must look directly into Chiron's eyes from Kevin's perspective forces the audience directly into Kevin's mind. Only you and these two boys know the weight of what is about to happen, so by giving you Kevin's perspective on Chiron, you understand what is passing from Kevin to Chiron and back to Kevin. It heightens the emotion of the scene by handing the audience every emotion tied to it.
4. "I'm your mama, ain't I?"
This shot uses the same technique as the last, but to a completely different effect. The beginning of the scene is blurred, emphasizing the surrealness of Paula's sudden kindness and the haze the drugs have left her in. When the shot finally comes into focus, we get to see Paula, looking directly into the camera and at Chiron, saying, "Well, I'm your mama, ain't I?" Even though she is so close to the camera, you can feel the distance between her and Chiron, especially with the following shot of Chiron, looking wary. It's the first moment from Paula where she appears soft after years of treating Chiron poorly, so even though we're allowed to look directly into her eyes, it feels completely disingenuous and dreamlike. It is a shot that is normally used to allow a connection between characters, but is used expertly here to create the opposite.
5. "Middle of the world."
In a moment that has become one of "Moonlight"s most iconic, Juan teaches Chiron to swim in the ocean after Chiron avoids going home again. The scene was filmed in water shallow enough that the young actor, Alex Hibbert, could stand safely, so the camera had to be placed right where the waves crashed. The camera sits half submerged and constantly flooding, creating an effect that feels as if the view point itself is struggling to stay above the water in the same way Chiron is. The scene feels soft and doesn't suggest danger, because of the bright blue that floods the first act of the movie, but the camera placement asks the audience to feel that panic and struggle as Chiron takes his first strokes. The above shot is placed once again behind Chiron's back so we can watch him learn and grow (on the very same beach where the final shot takes place, focused on his back until he turns for the first time and looks back to us). The shot is constantly flooded with a gentle blue, creating both the fear and floundering of swimming in the ocean for the first time and the serenity we and Chiron are able to find with Juan.
The cinematography is focused entirely on providing insight into Chiron's mind and journey, continuously providing meaning through every shot rather than appeasing a certain aesthetic or tone. The camera-work in "Moonlight" is an example of all that can be added to storytelling through every aspect of film, especially since the actual storyline of the movie is fairly simple if not looked at through the creativity of its creation. "Moonlight" just came out on DVD on February 28th, so if you haven't seen it yet, I'd suggest watching it and judging it for yourself.