Mothlight: The Filmmakers of NOCTURNES

At Sundance 2024, NOCTURNES won a special award for craft for its total sensory immersion into the world of Himalayan moths and the scientist, Mansi Mungee, who studies them. Delhi-based filmmakers Anirban Dutta and Anupama Srinivasan film the verdant forest and the lovely living tapestry of moths that would alight nightly on the illuminated hanging sheets used to study them. Before the film’s premiere, I spoke with Dutta and Srinivasan (who thanked cinematographer Satya Rai Nagpaul, editor Yael Bitton, and production house Sandbox) about creating the ASMR-level intimacy of their sounds and images and their philosophy behind portraying nature.

How did you land on the subject of moths?

AD: We were in the Himalayas making a film on snow leopard habitats. We had gone for a long trek, and we came to a food joint, where Mansi [Mungee] was sitting at a table nearby. And we got to talking. She said, I work in this incredible place [studying] moths. She described this scene of lights coming on and thousands of insects rushing in and the screen slowly filling up. It just sounded like an amazing cinematic idea. It seemed very much like my childhood where I lived in Andaman in the south of India, where there used to be an outdoor cinema. People used to come with 35mm projectors and they used to put up these screens and we as kids would rush out to see what was happening. It evoked that sensation in both of us, and we felt, oh, let's go to this place and check it out.

How and why did you film the moths in this audiovisually immersive way?

AD: We have been feeling, especially post pandemic, especially looking at my children, that their connection with nature or the outdoors is slowly getting disconnected. And somehow this has been in the back of our mind, what's going on. So we wanted to tell a story where we can reconnect with nature and situate human beings as one of the many creatures or organisms who inhabit this world. That informed our cinematic language, that idea of immersion. Not to extract the human being out of nature using telephoto lenses, but to show how human beings working in the forest are really small in that immense expanse.

AS: And similarly, there is a way of looking at nature and creatures by isolating them and making the background blurred, and this is exactly what we avoided. And it all had to be done very subtly without disrupting the work of the scientists. They were using lights anyway so we just enhanced the light a little bit so that our cameras could get enough depth of field, so that we don't have this thing that only one part of the moth is in focus and the rest of the moths are out of focus. That was a very conscious decision not to have this isolation effect, because that for us was the philosophical core of the film. The sound design, the visual language, everything is linked to the core idea of what Anirban was saying about scale: how we shift this balance in which we keep focusing on the human story and animals and nature are in the background. How can the viewer, by just looking at the moths, not listening to any human voice, make their own connection with the insect, without in any way anthropomorphizing them?

What kind of microphone setup did you use to record the lovely soundscapes?

AD: Our experience of an image is influenced by the sound that we hear. With immersive sound, you experience more, you can imagine what is beyond the two dimensional-image that you see. How do we get the audience to feel what it was like when we stood there in the forest when Mansi and Bicki were working? So, we had mono mics to record the characters and the specific sounds. We had stereophonic mics, and also multiple lapel mics, which were clipped to the moth screen, so we could hear the tac-tac-tac of the moths hitting the screen. And we had a 5.1 microphone there to create the ambience bed. All of this we brought together in the Atmos mix. The whole idea was to transport you to that location, for you to be with us as we were watching and hearing.

What were the challenges of filming in this forest environment?

AS: The most beautiful part of this and the most challenging part was that it's really far out. It's a very precious and unique forest where many people don't go. So it's very, very challenging because of the rain and the cold. The moisture was a huge issue for our lenses, the fogging, and protecting the sound equipment from the rain. It could be sunny and then in five minutes, it would be pouring. But the interesting thing is that the scientists don't stop their work for the rain—because the moths don't stop! That's why we included that scene in which it's pouring and they're still taking photographs. There's no break.

AD: And we didn't want to run a generator inside this precious forest. So we had huge truck batteries to power our equipment so that there was no noise pollution or any pollution of the natural environment. And we were very clear that the color temperature of the light that Mansi was using would not change—they had a particular wavelength of UV light [they were using]. So we had to spend a lot of time finding the perfect light and illuminated it just a little more. And then we could get a little exposure to our images.

Filmmakers Anirban Dutta and Anupama Srinivasan, courtesy of Sundance Institute

What do you call the sheets the moths land on?

AD: They call it the moth screen. And it's incredible because it's made with the fabric that is used to stitch your shirt. It's a simple fabric, and each grid has measurements that they use to measure the moths later. So that is done with very simple things, which really charmed us.

What did you learn about moths in observing Mansi’s study?

AS: The hawk moths were one of the easiest to identify because they have this triangular shape and they're more sturdy than some of the other delicate-looking ones. That's something now we can do really easily, because Mansi trained us. There's this whole life being enacted on that screen, which we still find fascinating even when we were watching the film during the sound mix. We were amazed by just the diversity in sizes and shapes and the delicacy of their wings, and even now we notice a moth that we haven't seen before or doing something, you know, knocking another one off. I think that all affects their ability to fly. So in the study that Mansi is doing, it's specifically for hawk moths, but what will happen to more frail moths because their ability to fly is even less? If there's even a marginal change in temperature, then they will be affected much more even than hawk moths.

But this lab’s work is ongoing. Mansi’s mentor is Ramana Athreya, and his biodiversity lab continues with the quest. What he always says is that we find newer questions to ask. We’re very far from learning even about all the moths in that particular forest, because thousands of species there have been described, but they estimate that there are ten times more. It's on par with the Amazon in terms of biodiversity.

I liked how you showed Mansi’s concentration—we’re observing someone observing. And the grunt work of science.

AD: Yes. Whether it's science or in sports, it's actually this process: you do the same thing day in and day out. And in science, a lot of this is about daily rigor. You get up, you just go and put up the screen, and you photograph. Some days you have a good day, some days you don't have a good day. But you get up and do it. This is something that we really liked, because how do you tell a story or make a film about something which is so repetitive? It's a big challenge as a filmmaker. Then what happens is you start looking at things that you would not otherwise notice, which was the drama on the screen. So as we were filming, we felt this film is also talking to us about looking at things with more attention, more detail. That’s something that we are losing with our devices: we are swiping, we are looking at reels. It's all about such immediate reaction to things. Here was something that you had to wait for. And that was philosophically very appealing to us.

AS: And we try to capture that sense that even though you may be a grant scientist from a city, once you come to this location, you have to get into the mud and move rocks, or you just have to sit huddled up waiting for the moths to come. You're really at the mercy of nature. To do fieldwork in this landscape is difficult. It's not only about the result.

I also kept wondering what the forest smells must be like.

AD: Oh it’s very, very, very, very, very different. When you are on a more walkable surface, it's different from when you go into the forest, inside the canopy, where you smell all kinds of moss and earth. The smell changes with elevation as well. And if you are there at a certain time, there is a bloom of rhododendron and then you start smelling the flowers.

Did you have any reference points in cinema for what you wanted to achieve? I thought of Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

AD: Well, you got it! [laughter] Yes, we are very inspired by Apichatpong.

AS: One filmmaker who is a great inspiration in terms of treatment, story, drama, character, is Yasujiro Ozu. Because he leaves out so much of the drama, in a way. So what happens in just ordinary conversations becomes so deep and poignant. So we were really inspired by that in trying to understand what little we do of the human characters in the film through their dialogue, which seem really mundane. You know, “It's going to rain today,” this sort of thing. And then one guy says, “You know, my clothes are torn, I don't have any clothes to wear tomorrow.” And I think looking at these really mundane dialogues offered a deeper sense of the human condition, which Ozu inspired. And of course Apichatpong Weerasethakul, for this mystical quality which he brings to observing nature. And Tsai Mingliang!

AD: What we like about Apichatpong, Ozu, and Tsai Mingliang, is how they use time in cinema. And I think the way we look at things is somewhat dictated by giving that time for you to get beyond the obvious. When I take my audience a little further than that, they start watching and hearing more, because I haven't cut the shot. Then you get a little uncomfortable in the beginning but slowly you settle down and you start hearing and seeing and then feeling more. And Anu and I are both very inspired by music. We feel that cinema can achieve a quality like a beautiful piece of music that you go and hear again and again.

For the record, why do moths go to the light?

AS: That's a question that has not been answered satisfactorily. There is something in that they get attracted to the moon and that helps them navigate. So when the moon is not there, they go towards the light. But there's no very good explanation of why they get attracted to light. Anirban mentioned about the wavelength of the light, and how through trial and error they've managed to figure out the right mix of UV and normal light to attract moths. I think that must have something to do with the wavelength of the moonlight. But as is said in the film, their lights work well only when the moonlight is not there.

It's a phenomenon that is described in Indian poetry. When you want to say that somebody is attracted to somebody, you say it's like a moth to a light.

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