Artist Spotlight, Pro Tips

Behind the VFX: How to Turn a Daytime Scene into Night


Audra Coulombe is the Marketing Manager for The Molecule, a VFX, Motion Graphics, and VR company located in New York and Los Angeles.

Turning day into night initially seems like one of those effects that you’d only need in sci-fi shows or films about the apocalypse. In reality, it’s way more common than you might think. When production crews don’t have the time or budget to reshoot a scene at night, visual-effects teams can come in and change it digitally.

If it’s done well, the audience doesn’t even know that VFX were involved in constructing the nighttime scene. Like many things in VFX, however, the secret behind effectively creating day-for-night shots goes far beyond the flick of a switch.


Setting the Scene

Establishing shots are important not only for telling you where a scene is taking place, but also what time of year and what time of day it is. Often, productions will use the same establishing shot throughout a season or series, with added effects from a visual-effects team to help sell the progression of the story over time.

Sometimes, a production will purchase stock footage for these shots and the visual-effects team will doctor it to fit the story. So, for example, if your story takes place in Moscow and you can’t take the trip, you can purchase stock footage of Moscow and alter it to play as the perfect establishing shot.

From FX’s The Americans (use the slider to switch between scenes)

Turning the Lights Off

The first step in turning any daytime shot into a nighttime one is to color grade it to be darker. Mark Friedman, compositing supervisor at The Molecule, warns against making the scene too blue, however; it might seem like an easy way to sell the shot as a nighttime one, but it won’t be the most effective, or the most true to reality. “What sells a day-for-night shot is not what you take away, but what you add back in,” he explains.

… And Turning the Lights Back On

Whenever you turn a scene from day into night, there are tons of other features that you need to think about to make your scene come alive. Take, for example, a scene with a house. During the daytime, the house’s windows reflect the exterior environment; after the sun sets, the lights inside the house turn on to reveal a whole new world of detail, and VFX artists need to create the interior of the building from scratch. As Mark explains, “We’ve built ceilings, walls, and lamps. Sometimes we’ll take stock photos of rooms and put them in.”

From USA’s Royal Pains (use the slider to switch between scenes)

The color of the interiors is also important. In the example above, you’ll notice the color inside the kitchen on the bottom right window is more white, and the color of the lighting inside the bedroom is warmer. We tried to imagine ourselves in our own homes — the fluorescent task lighting of the kitchen will have a cooler hue than the warm tungsten lighting of a normal lightbulb in a bedroom. “Stock footage really sells it,” Mark continues. “It’s more than just making the window glow.”

Illuminated Interiors
A collection of illuminated interiors from Pond5

Where Artistry, Physics, and Geometry Collide

Although VFX artists add in these lighting details in 2D space, you have to think about how light moves in 3D. Porch lights, car headlights, traffic lights, and street lamps will all need to be taken into account, and they all throw shadows based on the 3D geometry of their environment. Light moves in a straight line, so not only will you have to paint in the light of the porch light, for example, but you’ll also need to look at how that light bounces off the clapboard on the side of the house and the bushes in front of it.

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If it’s precipitating in your scene, you’ll also need to think about how snow and rain refract the light that hits them. The next time you’re watching it snow or rain, watch how the particles go from darkness through the wedge of light and back into darkness again. Being a keen observer of how your environment looks at night will help you understand how to recreate it digitally.

For more visual inspiration on recreating light sources in the dark, check out the clips below!

Lights at Night Collection

What other VFX secrets would you like to know more about? Tell us in the comments!

Top image: Before and after shot from HBO’s Ballers, VFX by The Molecule