The distribution model is disruptive, the production slates are prolific, and the money spigot is on. The ripples are being felt far and wide, not least behind the camera, where cinematographers are given the budgets and schedule – and the freedom – to create quality.
A good example is Netflix’s The OA.
“Netflix takes risks,” says The OA director of photography Lol Crawley BSC. “No one wants to fail, but they take risks with the content, and that makes you bolder and braver in your choices. The format can change – our show no longer has to have commercial breaks and last a certain number of minutes. Storytellers are embracing these new structures. I found Netflix to be incredibly supportive and hands-off. They let me just get on with it, you know?”
In the long history of cinematography as practiced within the realities of television production, that is a rare sentiment indeed.
Crawley was nominated for a 2017 American Society of Cinematographers Spotlight Award for his work on The Childhood of a Leader. He took top cinematography honors at the 2008 Sundance Festival for Ballast, a film he credits with helping get the gig on The OA.
The OA is a mystery that blends sci-fi and fantasy elements. Co-creator and co-exec producer Brit Marling stars as a young woman named Prairie who resurfaces after having gone missing seven years ago. Blind at the time of her disappearance, she has somehow regained her sight in the interim. Over the course of eight episodes, she tells her story to a group of recruits, whom she needs to help rescue other missing people.
On The OA, Crawley and his team shot for about 86 days. Exteriors were done mostly in Woodbury Hills, north of New York City, and many of the interiors were done on sets constructed at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens. Cameras, lenses and Codex equipment were provided by Panavision New York. Crawley thought of the show as a five-hour feature film divided into two worlds: a more real, recognizable setting in current-day Michigan, and the place where Prairie begins her captivity, which is depicted in a visual style that feels more documentary.
Netflix stipulated that the recording format be 4K RAW.
DP Lol Crawley shooting Hyde Park on Hudson
“We chose to shoot everything on the Panasonic VariCam 35 with the Codex V-RAW recorder,” says Crawley. “That was the way to go for RAW capture. We shot the Michigan scenes with Panavision anamorphic lenses, but with everything framed in 16:9. For the other setting, we designed a more handheld, searching style, and I shot with spherical lenses. It’s subtle. Hopefully, viewers can sense the aesthetic difference, but are not quite able to identify the difference.”
Before choosing the VariCam 35, Crawley considered various RED cameras as well as the Sony F55 and F65 cameras. He also tested the Sony A7x.
“I was keen to emulate the look of a still photographer named Todd Hido,” he says. “The mercury vapor lamps in his photography have a strange, ghostly light. His work feels more caught and less engineered than Gregory Crewdson, as good as Crewdson is. Hido shoots a lot of night photography with long exposures, and obviously that’s not going to work shooting moving images. But one of the reasons I went with the Varicam was that it has an 800 ASA native setting as well as a 5000 ASA native setting. I wanted to shoot night exteriors in a very real environment, and try to light with film lights as little as possible. Increasing the ASA seems like the natural thing to get more light in there. Besides, I kind of like the noise at 5000. I wanted to be brave and bold and shoot as much as possible with a very high ISO.”
“WE CHOSE TO SHOOT EVERYTHING ON THE PANASONIC VARICAM 35 WITH THE CODEX V-RAW RECORDER”
Crawley prefers to operate the camera himself when possible, especially in handheld situations. Certain complex scenes were storyboarded, but often the handheld scenes were more instinctive.
“The way that a camera operator finds a frame, and the way a still photographer finds a frame, is a hard thing to articulate,” he says. “I like to watch a scene and respond to it. I like reflections, and I like shooting through doorways. I like natural light or the feeling of natural light. I like to be quite bold with the exposures. You feel in your gut the way you’d like the master to play out. I’ve done shows where the director forced a certain approach to headroom, for example. On The OA, Zal booked me for a reason – largely the way I compose, along with lighting. My handheld tends to be quite responsive – I try to lock in with the actors and react and respond to what they’re doing. So he let me run with it, for the most part.”
Crawley and his DIT, Matthew Selkirk, used a process of live grading to achieve minimal discrepancy between his intentions on the set and the imagery he brings into the color correction suite. In post, the grade was done at EFilm with colorists Tim Stipan and Tom Reiser.
Early on in the process, Crawley and director and co-exec producer Zal Batmanglij had seen a test of high dynamic range (HDR) imagery and didn’t think it was right for the project. But during the grading process, they revisited HDR.
“My first impression of HDR was that it felt like the difference between looking at a photograph and a projected slide,” Crawley says. “In a sense, the light really does feel like it’s coming from the image, especially with clouds or points of light like practical lamps. We thought it would be great if every time we went into the story, it popped like that, and in the more familiar, naturalistic setting, we suppressed or calmed the HDR down in order to make it feel like something we’re used to seeing.”
During the shoot, the VariCam 35 and the Codex recorder were capturing all the information necessary to make these HDR manipulations in post.
Netflix was “incredibly supportive” throughout the post process, Crawley says. “They were very generous with grading time, and let us get to where we needed to get to.”
The OA debuted on Netflix in December of 2016 and was recently renewed for a second season. Critic John Doyle of The Globe and Mail said, “The OA is Netflix’s strongest and strangest original production since Stranger Things. In terms of substantive, original drama, it transcends it. Mind you, it is unclassifiable in the context of drama, mystery, science-fiction and fantasy, since it is straddling all sorts of lines and blurring them. It is outright astounding and brilliant, too.”
Images courtesy their respective owners.
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