Cinematographer Checco Varese, ASC found himself deeply drawn to Them (Amazon Studios), an anthology series on terror which in its first season takes us to 1950s suburbia. A Black family moves from North Carolina to an all-white neighborhood in Los Angeles where they confront evil forces, next door and other worldly, that threaten to tear their household apart.
Varese saw the show as a rare creative opportunity, “a combination of terror, racism and red lining” that could address “a social issue in the context of the horror genre.” While he’s best known on the TV front for having lensed nearly 30 series pilots--more than 20 of which were picked up--Varese committed over the multi-episode long haul to Them, underscoring how attracted he was to the series’ premise and creative potential.
Horror is a genre in which Varese has gained a preeminent reputation, perhaps most notably with the Warner Bros./New Line hit feature IT Chapter Two. But the creative allure of the IT franchise and Them goes well beyond horror. For Varese, IT was much more about drama and mystery, with psychological elements at play. In the same vein, Them too is more substantive than horror for horror’s sake, delving into the human condition, enabling audiences to connect with the characters, finding an empathy for them and what they face.
Varese’s other horror-related endeavors over the years include such fare as the TV series The Strain and True Blood, and the feature Prom Night. The cinematographer’s credits, however, also extend into other areas, including the thriller action adventure series Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan and the motion pictures El Aura, 5 Days of War and The 33. The latter followed the extraordinary real-life survival story that captured the world’s attention in 2010--the collapse of the Copiajo gold and copper mine in Chile and the miraculous rescue of all 33 miners after 69 days of being trapped below the earth’s surface under an enormous boulder twice the size of the Empire State Building. For The 33, Varese earned a Golden Frog nomination at Camerimage in 2015.
“When I look at projects, it’s not about the shots. It’s about what the audience feels,” shared Varese. “You cannot be in communion with the characters or subjects unless you feel for them, you love them, you know who they are, their feelings and fears.” It’s the story’s potential on this front that drives Varese’s decision to work on a project.
In the case of Them, Varese also embraced the chance to work with varied directors on the episodes, including Janicza Bravo, Daniel Stamm, Craig William Macneill, Ti West and Nelson Cragg. “The directors all have different imprints and approaches. They are all talented, brilliant. I loosely say they each has ‘a signature.’ They have their own grammar, their own prose. Nelson Cragg for example comes from a cinematographer’s point of view. Janicza Bravo comes from an acting/drama background. All come with their own words for the poem we’re trying to construct.”
Helping to realize that poem with different filmmakers was a challenge and a joy for Varese who opted for the Sony VENICE digital camera to tell the story of Them. Among the factors causing him to gravitate to the VENICE were its ability to do justice to African-American skin tones, and how versatile and “friendly” the camera is in low light levels.
The choice of VENICE along with all the other decisions made by Varese for Them were driven by his desire to attain authenticity for the series. That priority is grounded in his own lensing roots as a news cameraman and war correspondent. Varese began his career in the mid-1980s, spending nearly a decade shooting news coverage and documentaries within major global hot zones of conflict, including the Middle East (Gulf War, West Bank and Gaza Strip crises), Latin America (Chiapas uprising, Salvador and Nicaragua Wars, Colombia drug war, Chile’s military junta), Europe (Bosnia and Chechnya crises) and Africa (South Africa riots, Rwanda crisis).
Subsequently diversifying into music videos, commercials, episodic TV and narrative features, Varese noted that his background in news always has him hearkening back to reality. Even if its not news or a documentary pursuit, what he shoots “has to be real," observed Varese. "Pennywise (the demonic clown in IT Chapter Two) has to feel real. The audience has to believe it exists in a real world. So often I think about how would I shoot it as if I were a news cameraman.”
Them affirmed for Varese the inherent collaborative nature of storytelling. “You need to be surrounded by people more talented than you. If wardrobe, hair, makeup, production design are not equally or more talented than I am, my work doesn’t shine. If you take the actors in Them, their level of performance--without that, my contributions mean nothing. You need directors who take the characters and story and move them forward, elevate it all. It’s irrelevant how good you are unless you’re surrounded by people better than you.”
Jupiter’s Legacy (Netflix) appealed to costume designer Lizz Wolf on several levels. For one, the series would be her first foray into the superhero genre. She also would get to reunite with its producer, director and writer Steven S. DeKnight. The show additionally offered an array of costuming challenges spanning the protagonists’ supersuits, their origins dating back to the 1920s’ era, as well as contemporary fashion. But most importantly, it was a chance to break new ground in costume design as DeKnight brought Wolf super early into the process, giving her a cumulative nearly couple of years to create the costumes, an amount of development time which in turn enabled costume design to play an integral role in shaping the series and its unique brand of storytelling.
The latter opportunity built upon the often heard dynamic of an actor not being able to fully delve into a character until being outfitted. The costume is key in helping performers see, embody and share the characters they are portraying. Jupiter’s Legacy took costuming’s influence, though, to another level. “The producers and Netflix clearly saw this as an opportunity to have a costume designer in on the very beginning, contributing to this origin story of superheroes and developing these characters,” related Wolf.
She added that costume designers are usually tasked with assimilating into worlds built by production designers and visual development departments. Jupiter’s Legacy, by contrast, gave more world building responsibilities to the costume designer. She was gifted with the latitude to explore the characters and stories from the ground up, to “find out who they were as people before they became superheroes,” helping to infuse a multicultural narrative into the show’s DNA. Wolf was able to go beyond source material to construct backstories which helped to define Jupiter’s Legacy.
Based on the graphic novels by Mark Millar and Frank Quitely, Jupiter’s Legacy is a century-spanning origin story and modern-day action tale rolled into one. The series introduces us to the first generation of these superheroes who face the tricky proposition of passing the torch onto their children--a process fraught with tension and a rejection of old school rules, not to mention a looming existential threat on the supervillain side.
Wolf quipped that she was brought in so early on Jupiter’s Legacy to counterbalance being involved a bit late for her prior collaboration with DeKnight, the feature Pacific Rim: Uprising, which he directed and co-wrote. That initial teaming proved fruitful and gratifying, so much so that DeKnight gravitated to Wolf for Jupiter’s Legacy, a project for which assorted collaborators in three countries came together. Combined, affirmed Wolf, they made an indelible impact on the show, underscoring the importance of teamwork. Among those collaborators was production designer Frank Walsh whom Wolf described as having done an “amazing” job, embracing the groundwork, foundational aesthetics and design established by the costume department, bringing even more to it through his acumen.
While Jupiter’s Legacy had a one-season run, Wolf is hopeful the show will spawn offshoots and other superhero fare. Her wish is that the experiment of bringing costume design early on into the equation will be the case with more content generally. She’s seeing that starting to happen more in the industry, not prioritizing costume design over other disciplines but rather a growing realization that costume design in the early conceptual, character development and storytelling phase can inform the experience and make it work better for the actors and the production.
Jupiter’s Legacy, shared Wolf, gave her “a renewed sense of what is possible.” Developing the aesthetic for the origin of superheroes and the next generation of those heroes provided many happy discoveries as to what costume design can bring to the party--along with realizing the promise of technological breakthroughs such as 3D-engineered knitting that helped to advance world building and character development. The experience additionally reaffirmed for her the value of paying attention to details and intricacies that many people will tell you that no one sees. “Never shortcut the details,” she said, because even if unseen they can be felt by an audience, adding to the authenticity, believability and relevancy of the story.
Editor’s note: This is the ninth installment in SHOOT’s 16-part weekly The Road To Emmy Series of feature stories. The features will explore the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, writing, producing, showrunning, cinematography, editing, production design, music, sound and visual effects. The Road To Emmy series will then be followed by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners in September, and then the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony on September 19 broadcast live on CBS and streaming on Paramount+.