Day For Night

by Randy Murray on December 21, 2011

In movie and TV production sometimes it’s necessary to cut corners, to make the best of a limited budget or sub-optimal conditions. They have a type of filming, shooting, that they call “Day For Night.” It literally means “we’ll shoot during the daytime and use filters or other effects to make it appear to be nighttime.”

If you’ve watched old Westerns you’ve seen this effect. Nighttime looks gray, but everything is completely visible. The Lone Ranger TV show must have one of these scenes in every other episode.

If you or I walk into the night we find that it looks very different from those old movies. Even new movies and TV shows find it very difficult to show what it really looks like at night. A single candle lights up an entire room. Stepping outside is never stepping into the pitch black. There’s a good reason for that. Showing pitch black on the screen is confusing.

Heightened reality is what movies and TVs do. You can substitute day for night and, with a little adjustment, the audience will go along with you.

But movies and TV are visual and auditory media. As a writer, you don’t need to heighten the reality, to substitute one thing for another. You can, and should, explore the thing itself. If it’s dark, what do you see, and more important, what can’t you see? What is the dark like?

You, as a writer, can accept limits. You won’t lose a reader because you spend five minutes in the dark. Five minutes in the dark up on the big screen would be an eternity. When your character has only a single small candle, what they can and can’t see, their struggle, is what’s interesting and important. There’s no need to make it more interesting by making everything easier to see for the reader, by heightening the reality of the moment.

Writers need to think clearly about creating environments and how they describe them. The limits, the dark, the light, is a big part of that. You’re actually faced with the opposite problem that Day For Night is designed to solve. You have to figure out how to use Night For Night and Day For Day and let your reader see it through your words. There’s no need to heighten a visual reality. You’ll have more of a challenge approaching reality itself.

Let your reader spend some time in the dark. It can work for you. Don’t be afraid.


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