Filmmaker Interview

POV: For those who haven't seen The City Dark, can you tell us what the film is about in your own words?

Ian Cheney: The City Dark is the story of the disappearance of darkness — the disappearance of night. When I moved to New York City, I realized something was missing from my life, and something that had been very important to me growing up spending a lot of time in rural Maine, which was my connection to the stars and the night sky. So I began to wonder what does it mean now that more than half of the world's population lives in cities? What does it mean that the majority of us are now growing up disconnected from the stars? That launched this film which was a quest to understand both the psychological effects of light pollution, what it means to us as people, what it does to our sense of the universe when we can't see the night sky, and also increasingly the physical effects of light pollution. How does excessive artificial light in our environment everywhere affect ecosystems and human health?

POV: Can you describe the film stylistically? What are the aesthetic choices that you made when you were building this film?

Cheney: When we set out to shoot a film about the night there were some obvious technical challenges to overcome. Most of our cameras worked better in the daylight, so I needed to figure out how to best capture the world at night. I'd grown up spending a lot of time trying to take pictures at night of the night sky above my parents' barn in Maine. So to transform those still images into a film, into motion picture, we ended up using a lot of time-lapse cinematography. So much of the film is composed of sequences of still images, single exposures for 30 seconds or more that could capture the starlight or city lights, strung together — hundreds of images to create an animation of the night. That became, in a way, the visual backbone of the entire film. We then folded in hand-drawn animations which are roughly based on the kind of drawings I would make as a kid charting the night sky, and sit down interviews, and a lot of time spent with the people out trying to combat light pollution.

POV: The film is set up in chapters. Can you talk a little bit about the progression of chapters and why you used that structure?

Cheney: The film does unfold in several chapters which roughly delineate my own adventures. I knew nothing of circadian rhythms, of migrating birds, of hatching sea turtles, of the sheer extent of the energy waste that we see when we are sending photons up into outer space rather than just lighting the streets to the extent that we need it. So the entire film charts my own discoveries as a filmmaker and in that sense I think it's a very real reflection of the fact that most of us don't think much about the way we light our world. We tend to take it for granted and the more we start to see the wastefulness and also the possibilities for better lighting and bringing back the stars, I think the more we'll step outside and look at our city lights very differently.

POV: Whenever we talk to people who have seen the film there's a large percentage that have at least, in the short term, made changes to their own sleeping patterns. They order curtains or they'll put on night shades and it's in relation to your chapter about night-shift workers and how light affects you physically. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Cheney: The idea that light at night might be somehow affecting our health or putting us at increased risks of certain cancers is on the one hand shocking, bizarre and hard to believe. And then on the other hand it's extremely intuitive. If you think about the fact that humans too evolved on a planet that for the most part in our middle latitudes of the planet had pretty regular cycles of light and dark — roughly, very roughly 12 hours of light and 12 hours of dark. We've only disrupted that in the last 100 or 150 years with extensive electric lighting. So it makes a lot of sense that we, like the birds and the turtles and the moths and the fireflies and any other species, essentially every species that has evolved on the planet Earth, that we're starting to see some potential adverse effects. I admit I now travel with eyeshades and I have blackout curtains in my room at night. That's just one way of bringing back a little bit more darkness and sleeping better which of course anybody will tell you makes you feel better.

POV: And what are the implications of the scientific experiments that are being done on night-shift workers?

Cheney: Some early surveys of women who work the night shift, in particular nurses who work the night shift, revealed that there seemed to be a correlation between people who work the night shift and had their circadian rhythms disrupted and increased risk of breast cancer. One potential link seems to be the production of melatonin which is only produced at night during the dark. Scientists are now trying to figure out if that's true, if there is a link between exposure to light at night and increased risk of certain cancers. Scientists are trying to figure out what type of light, what color light, what intensity and for how long. Many of the researchers I've been talking to are focusing in on light on the bluer end of the spectrum, so a lot of these cancer researchers are already installing red nightlights in their bathroom at night because red light seems to disrupt our circadian rhythm that much less.

POV: Are there solutions? When an audience walks out of the theater, and is exposed to a lot of these new ideas and influences of light pollution, what is there that we can do about it?

Cheney: There are super clear solutions to the problems of light pollution. At the core of it are pretty simple design principles. If light pollution is mostly caused by the fact that lights outside are sending light up into the sky and then bouncing off of dust and making the sky appear to glow, representing a tremendous waste of light, why not have our lights oriented downward and shielded and only lighting what we need and when we need it? A lot of technologies are coming online now that make it possible to light the world in a much more sensible way. There's a revolution happening in lighting anyway, which is the shift from the era of incandescent lighting, these hot light bulbs that we trace back to the days of Edison, to solid state lighting and more energy efficient lighting. In fact, this year ushers in a new era of requirements for lights to be more energy efficient in the United States. I think that represents a pretty cool opportunity to also save energy not just by changing out the nature of the light but also changing out the nature of the light fixture and where the light is oriented.

POV: There's a very touching scene with urban boy scouts who are basically discovering the night sky really for the first time. Can you talk a little about that and your experience of growing up in rural Maine, which is a much different one.

Cheney: I was lucky enough to spend some time with a group of boy scouts from the north end of Manhattan, up north of Harlem in Washington Heights, and experience one of their first nights outside of the city as they were looking up at the night sky. It raises a lot of interesting questions, actually, about how we come to value something like the night sky or the wilderness and of whether we protect something only when we're about to lose it or not. Their experience is a reminder of just how important having some glimpse of the universe above really is. It's an instantly perspective-expanding experience. Neil deGrasse Tyson in the film runs the Hayden Planetarium, and he talks about how looking at the night sky gives us a kind of cosmic perspective, a sense of our place in the universe, that on the one hand might make you feel a little small but on the other hand makes you realize how special we are, how special a place this is and helps us keep in perspective our everyday lives vis-à-vis the scale of the universe.

POV: Are there any particular instances or parts of this film that you actually struggled with in terms of telling the story? What was the most challenging part of pulling this all together?

Cheney: For this film in particular, the story of melatonin and circadian rhythms for me was so complex that it took us a long time to work through the animation we needed, the illustrations we needed, the interviews we needed, the visuals we needed to try and render that story clear to people. But from initial reactions it seems to be both respectful to the science and accessible to the audience.

POV: How do you describe yourself? Are you a filmmaker? A journalist? Environmentalist? An activist? How do you describe the work that you do?

Cheney: Good question. Depends who's asking. To my mom I say, I'm just doing the best I can. I got into filmmaking because I wanted to tell stories and make art and make journalism about topics that I cared very deeply about. So, I've been working in film for eight or nine years now and as a documentary filmmaker and as an independent documentary filmmaker, you end up wearing a lot of hats. You're part a writer. You're part a grant writer. You're a researcher. You're a roadie, you're lugging your equipment around. But I also like to think that I'm, to some extent, getting to live the life of an artist and an activist, somebody who is trying to tell visually beautiful and interesting stories about topics that affect all of us in very meaningful ways.

POV: And as a filmmaker, as a documentarian, what kind of responsibility do you feel you have towards your audience?

Cheney: The City Dark is a very personal film and in some ways it's sort of a selfish film. I wanted to figure out what I was losing as an urban dweller when I couldn't see the night sky. So I made it for very personal reasons. But at the same time I had to constantly keep in mind who I was making the film for as a result. We have to make sure that at every turn we're being as clear and as entertaining and certainly as honest as possible because audiences are super smart. Some of the issues that we explore in The City Dark are pretty complex, so we have to kind of dumb them down to a level so that even we can understand what we're talking about when we watch the film through. But I think it's always worth remembering that audiences pick up on every little subtlety, and we get to see that in traveling around with our films through pretty amazing question-and-answer sessions, where people pick up on every detail, on every loose screw, on every fact that might seem a little sketchy. So the early process of sharing the film with audiences actually helps us hone the film towards the final product.