Friday Night Lights: Hollywood Night Vision Myths – Part 2

    Last month I covered two movies that grossly exaggerated night vision. Hollywood has perpetuated certain myths about night vision. To some, this is as bad as guns making an actual foley noise every time the firearm is handled. We will take a look at some more movies and TV shows and rip apart the scenes in this Hollywood night vision myths part 2.

    Patriot Games (1992)

    This is one of the earliest movies that I can recall that had night vision. Sure there were some other movies in the 80s but for me, Patriot Games is the one I always think of.

    If you haven’t watched Harrison Ford portray Jack Ryan in Patriot Games, then I highly recommend it. Spoilers coming in hot if you haven’t seen this movie. Although it came out in 1992 and you’ve had 27 years to do so. In the movie, Jack Ryan foils an assassination attempt on a member of the British Royal family. In the chaos, Jack Ryan defended his life and the life of the Royals by shooting one of the assassins. The person who died was the brother of Sean Miller, portrayed by Sean Bean. Sean Miller vows vengeance. Miller discovers where Ryan lives. Lucky for Miller, the Royal he tried to kill was visiting Ryan. Two birds with one stone. Miller and his band of cohorts attempt to kill everyone under the cover of darkness and use night vision goggles.

    They appear to be using PVS-7 goggles and skull crushers.

    In the video clip above the film utilizes some POV footage that appears to be from an actual night vision device. As the camera moves around you can see the vignette of the POV circle at the far left and right hand sides of the screen. The cinematographer either used a lens to zoom in and physically cropped out the top and bottom or this was done in post. Regardless it was awesome that they actually used real night vision to film rather than try to fake it.

    But is there anything wrong with these scenes? Nothing bad but it just shows what Hollywood does. In all of the non-NVG POV scenes, you can clearly see everything in that house. Hollywood fakes “night time” condition and it is present in the NVG POV scenes. You can see a faint chicken wire look to the night vision. This is considered fixed pattern noise. The “chicken wire” shows up in image intensifier tubes when exposed to brighter environments. Since the “chicken wire” is in every scene they clearly have a lot of light illuminating the scene.

    Even though the filmmakers did a good job using night vision for certain scenes there is a glaring “cinema sin”. Their sin is the myth that lights will cause night vision to temporarily blind you.  Just before the “turn on the lights sequence” the female baddie is in Jack Ryan’s daughter’s room. As she is scanning for her targets, artificial lighting goes off and illuminates the entire room. And yet we don’t see the fictitious blinding from too much light.

    Lightning lights up the room.

    In the scene above, Jack flips the master switch in his basement to turn on the house lights.

    The two bad guys walking into the basement are exposed to a light bulb right in the face. The first guy winces and lifts his goggles up while spraying and praying.

    Night vision does not do this. While image intensifier tubes certainly amplify light, they do not keep amplifying all light and metaphorically become brighter than the sun. This movie was made in the 90s and so they were most likely using either Gen 1 or Gen 2 night vision. From the NVG POV scenes, it looks to be Gen 2 since the fixed pattern noise is not found in Gen 1 systems.

    The problem with this scene is that night vision, especially today’s Gen 3 tubes have something called auto gating and automatic brightness control. When exposed to a bright light source the tube will rapidly turn off and on. This helps save the tube from burning out. Also, the image appears to dim. Like if you turn on a room light at night, the room will be so bright that the night vision will dim down and if you try looking out a window, the auto gating will make it too dark to see anything since the entire room you are in is lit up. This is the problem I have the lightning scene above and the “turning on the lights” scene. This myth is still going strong that people who buy night vision still believe it is not remotely safe to turn on room lights when your night vision goggles are turned on in the same room.

    Another problem with Patriot Games is the choice of night vision device and weapons. The bad guys got their hands on some UZI SMGs. But trying to aim while wearing PVS-7 is nearly impossible without a laser. The problem is the fact that the objective lens is in the center of the goggle. The image is split into two and bounced using mirrors into your eye. Due to the shallow depth of field that night vision lenses have, you would not be able to shoot very well without aiming. You would not be able to get a proper sight picture. So then you would have to resort to hip firing if you did not have a laser.

    Navy SEALs (1990)

    In this scene, a SEAL is providing overwatch with a Barrett M82A1. However, what is mythical about this scene is the bogus “starlight scope” that has dual function thermal capabilities.

    Below is a screenshot of supposed POV from the starlight night vision scope that Dane, aka GOD, uses to shoot this bad guy. This is not what night vision looks like. It is green phosphor or white phosphor. Also, check out the fake reticle and range finder.

    After that sequence, there are two more bad guys but “God” cannot see them so he switches to thermal. The only thing the moviemakers got right is the switching of the yellow in the prop scope to a blueish tint light seen below.

    However, the little blue LED is the only thing that is real in this scene. Thermal is black and white. In some thermal devices, you can use different palettes that help better show temperature differential.  What thermal cannot do is see through solid objects like a brick wall. And yet that is what this movie is trying to portray.

    It is the same BS you saw in Robocop (1987).

    Silence Of The Lambs (1991)

    Here is another iconic movie with night vision. But it is not as good as Patriot Games. Simply because Buffalo Bill isn’t actually wearing night vision goggles. I guess the film producers did not think it was necessary to rent a pair of night vision goggles. I can understand why because in the scene you only see the goggles for a few seconds.

    In this screenshot, they appear to be just a modified pair of binoculars mounted to a set of actual goggles and a head strap keeps them from falling down.

    We do see a lot of NVG POV and this time these filmmakers make the same fake POV image. Binocular night vision with dual tubes looks just like ordinary binoculars. When you look through them your eyes coalesce the two images into one circle. From the NVG POV scenes, it looks like they may have been using Generation 1 night vision and compensated for the poor low light performance by turning on some lights. Watch Clarice grope around in what appears to be a well-lit room. Ahh, the magic of acting. As she fumbles around in fear, you can see a harsh shadow casted from the lights used to illuminate the scene, I suppose they could have used IR lights in this scene.

    The Venn diagram of two POV circles is false stop perpetuating it.  Unless Hollywood would have you believe you are looking through a GPNVG monocular. According to L3, you can split pano quad tubes and use the siamese bino as a monocular. In this instance, you would have the POV seen above.

    Here is actual POV through one monocular of JW Ramp’s ANVIS10.

    Modern Warfare (2019)

    The most recent game that uses night vision is Modern Warfare. Yes . . . Bravo 6 Going Dark. Sigh. That phrase has certainly been overused.

    There is a functional problem with that scene. How did Captain Price wear panoramic night vision goggles UNDER his boonie hat? In order to have folded up night vision goggles, there is a mount that folds. Which you then need to wear on some sort of helmet or skull crusher. Yet we only see the goggles and the boonie hat. Did the animators for the sequence not question this scene? “Wait this isn’t physically possible in real life!”. It is not lost on me that I am begrudging a video game. However, Modern Warfare does try to be based on reality. They mimic real guns and gear. It is not much to ask to try and keep the fiction to a minimum.

    For due diligence, JW tried it when the video game trailer first came out. Yeah, it just doesn’t work like how it was portrayed.


    The night vision sequences in the game are not bad. It definitely gives the look and feel that you are looking through white phosphor night vision however I wish they had taken it an extra step and strive for better accuracy.

    The characters in the game are using panoramic night vision goggles. PNVGs aka quad tubes. In fact, the premium edition of the game came with a set of digital toy night vision goggles. Even though the toy goggles are just toys, the ones portrayed in the video game are supposed to be realistic. Then they should have mimicked the reality of night vision. The field of view (FOV) is not great with night vision. You get tunnel vision since you can only see 40 degrees at a time unless you have pano NVGs and you can see 91-degree FOV. Infinity Ward, the produces of Modern Warfare, could have replicated this limitation to using night vision goggles but they did not. If they won’t replicate the FOV they could at least retain the shallow depth of field, DOF. You should not be able to see your gun and optic in sharp focus while still being able to see downrange.

    Another glaring issue is the ever-present IR illuminator. See the photo below. You can see a distinct circle of light. We do not see anything giving off this artificial light but it only seems to be generated by the main character you are controlling. Your teammates seem devoid of IR lights other than what is on their guns.

    Hollywood Night Vision Myths Part 2 Wrap Up

    I hope you enjoyed this edition of Friday Night Lights. I have a couple more movies and video games that I can take a closer look at their night vision use and then rip it apart to tell you where they got it wrong or in some rare instances, they did it right. If you have any recommendations for night vision scenes in video games, in movies, or in TV shows let me know in the comments below.

    Nicholas C

    Steadicam Gun Operator
    Night Vision & Thermal Aficionado
    Flashlight/Laser Enthusiast
    USPSA competitor

    Any questions please email him at [email protected]