Watch This Film Shot Entirely By Moonlight

Sam Shapson's short film, 'Refuge' is the first film shot according to the cycles of the moon.

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Jul 19 2015, 1:30pm

Screencap of the film via

For the first time in the history of cinema, a short film has been shot entirely by moonlight. The ethereal, moody aesthetic of director Sam Shapson’s narrative short, Refuge, lends itself to the science fiction genre. It is six minutes of high-stakes drama shot over two-days time followed by two months of post-production.

Shapson first discovered the burgeoning technology of moonlight cameras when he saw the short film, Moonlight, that Sony put out with the A7s—the camera responsible for Refuge. With an ISO capability of up to 409,600 (compared to the max ISO of a standard professional camera, such as the Canon Mark III’s 25,600), the Sony A7s allows a freedom for shooting in low-light conditions normally considered impossible without the use of artificial lighting.

“In terms of milestones I'm aware of, we haven't seen a breakthrough like this camera since Kubrick teamed up with NASA to shoot scenes of Barry Lyndon in candlelight,” Shapson tells The Creators Project, “which, since that was 40 years ago, really says something about the significance of the territory this technology is entering.”

REFUGE // A Moonlit Short Film from Sam Shapson on Vimeo.

As with any new technology, the Sony A7s is far from perfect. Shapson notes that shooting at anything over 51,200 ISO renders an irreparable amount of noise in the quality of the image, which means much of the camera’s lauded ISO range is pretty much unusable. And even at that “lower” ISO level, the amount of post-production for Refuge was, according to Shapson, “soul-crushing.” For every one second of footage, there were ninety seconds of rendering to reduce the noise and some of the more difficult shots took entire days of post-production.

Post-production intensity was not the only setback of shooting by moonlight. In fact, there were many. So many that Shapson says, “To be honest, now that I've shot a film in moonlight, I wouldn't really recommend it. At least not seriously.” First and foremost, he had to assemble a crew that was ready to follow him into a cinematic abyss. “Finding a team that's willing to take a plunge into the unknown like that — following me an hour's drive into the mountains over two nights — was definitely a fair challenge. You don't realize it until you're standing out there exposed, barely able to see your feet, but safety is big concern. In LA, you don't think about falling off cliffs or being stalked by mountain lions, but those fears hit you hard when you're surrounded by darkness.”

Photo courtesy of Sam Shapson

Beyond that, there are many independent variables that must coalesce seamlessly when you rely on one source of natural light. And though the moon and its patterns seem relatively predictable, the amount of detailed knowledge required to shoot with it are exponential. Of these hurdles, Shapson says, “The real problem with filming in moonlight isn't the technology — it’s scheduling. You've got a surprising gaggle of factors to consider. Which nights will the moon be full, and how full does it have to be? How many days before or after the full moon are you willing to go? How high in the sky will it be in this cycle? Then also don't forget, you're not just tracking one celestial object, you're tracking two. The moon and the sun. If you're trying to be pure about it, you have to take astronomical twilight in account to avoid any residual sunlight, which limits you to only shooting when the sun is greater than 18 degrees below the horizon on either side. Oh and by the way, if anything goes wrong or you get rained out, you might need to push production a whole month to hit the next full moon.”

So, was it worth it?

Shapson says, “My hope wasn't really to prove that everyone should leave their lights at home and chase the moon. I saw a new extreme for what's possible creatively. No one had explored these tools in narrative and I wanted to push the limits. That's a big part of how artists learn, by checking out what everyone else is doing to get a feel for the possibilities and the boundaries. Now that I know this extreme is possible, it removes the limits on so much else.”

Photo courtesy of Sam Shapson

Photo courtesy of Sam Shapson

Learn more about the director here

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