Insights Into "Russian Doll," "Ozark," "Mrs. Maisel," "Man in the High Castle," "Umbrella Academy"
Natasha Lyonne as Nadia Vulvokov in "Russian Doll." Lyonne is also a co-creator and EP of the series (photo courtesy of Netflix)
Cinematographer, editor, production designer perspectives on the art and craft of their shows
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For Chris Teague, Russian Doll (Netflix) was a cinematographer’s dream come true. He recalled seeing the lookbook for the show, describing the imagery as “unique,” “absurdist,” full of “surrealist art and photography,” serving to “illuminate what the world of the show was going to be. There was the opportunity to really shape the feel of the show with the cinematography and do something I hadn’t really done before.”

“Surrealist” may be an understatement as Russian Doll introduces us to Nadia (portrayed by series co-creator and EP Natasha Lyonne), a cynical young woman in New York City who keeps dying and returning to the party that’s being thrown in her honor on that same evening. She grapples with finding an escape from this strange time loop.

Teague gravitated to the RED camera with Helium sensor for Russian Doll, part of that choice driven by Netflix’s mandate for 4K delivery. In testing his options, Teague assessed that the Helium ended up yielding what he wanted, a look which he described as “a little dirty, a little messy...We clicked up the ISO on the camera to add a little texture,” to push back against the high resolution. “The texture of the image felt more organic than a native 4K camera where the look would tend to be more digital.”

Teague paired the RED with the Leica Summilux lens to achieve “a lot of separation between the subject and the background. Nadia is kind of living outside of her world. She’s kind of stuck in and out of time.” Using a lens that could separate Nadia from her surroundings made sense, explained Teague.

A bond between Teague and production designer Michael Bricker grew during the series. “We became friends working on the show,” related Teague. “He brings a lot to the table, which is inspiring for me. His ideas led to other ideas. We worked together to accomplish things. I had a trust in him. I knew he cared so much about the show.”

Teague added that he and Bricker teamed on “things camera and design-wise that weren’t the typical ‘right things to do,’” opting for dark and reflective surfaces in environments that most would try to avoid--but they were the right choices in terms of supporting the story. For Teague, a prime lesson learned was that “if you’re doing something that isn’t ‘the right thing’ to do, maybe you’re on the right track,” reaching for “something different,” paralleling the uniqueness of the Russian Doll narrative.

Bricker meanwhile shared that among the lessons that impacted him on Russian Doll was that it served as a window to “how I’m evolving as a designer. I’m much more interested now in the lighting, which I know is the realm of the DP. So much of how a set looks has to do with lighting. We’re designing in a world about tone and character. The way a show is lit in my mind has to be almost the first conversation.”

Thus the collaborative connection with Teague proved invaluable. “Lighting gives you control as a designer,” said Bricker. “The colors of walls change with lights. We had to look at color temperature. What do I want? Is that what the DP had in mind? We would pick colors based on what the lighting would be.”

Bricker’s approach to Russian Doll was to celebrate the magic as well as the darkness of the story. He embraced the dying in every episode, being a bit playful about it. He created a world that was New York in nature and at the same time which had a magic edge to it, constructing varied environments.

Russian Doll marked Bricker’s first TV series, his background being mostly in indie film. Bricker said he made “braver choices with Russian Doll than I’ve ever made.”

At press time, Bricker was in Toronto to design the first season of Dare Me, a USA Network/Universal Cable Productions series based on a book by Megan Abbott.

Teague too has an indie background, winning the Haskell Wexler Award for Best Cinematography at the Woodstock Film Festival for Bob and the Trees in 2015. Two years later, Teague earned a Tribeca Film Festival Jury Award for Best Cinematography in a U.S. Narrative Feature on the strength of Love After Love. As for other recent TV endeavors, Teague shot season 3 of Netflix’s GLOW.

Shooting and editing Ozark
Some five years ago, Ben Kutchins shot The Longest Week, an indie feature starring Jason Bateman. The two developed a rapport and Bateman liked the look of the film. The actor/director remembered Kutchins and called him when he was in the market for a cinematographer to lens Ozark.

Their reconnection on the Netflix series has been creatively gratifying. Kutchins observed that his experience on Ozark has been “a bit of a meditation on minimalism. We’re not doing the flashiest things. Instead we go with the simplest and most thoughtful version of whatever it is we want to accomplish, how to best tell the story of a particular scene. We don’t need a crane, a bunch of fancy lighting, crazy gear. All we need are a few individuals of like mind listening to each other, appreciating each other’s input and honing in. We allow actors to have the stage in front of them to do their best work. It’s a very respectful set. Each person is given the time to work, putting their all into creating this world....A great day on Ozark has us doing like 10 shots, engaging the actors, giving them the stage--rather than setting up 50 or 60 different shots hoping the editor could figure it out later. It’s a beautiful experience to settle into that minimalist way of working, to feel comfortable in that space, not rushing to get more.”

Kutchins described the feel of the show as “a slow burn that makes the audience lean in and look around the corner. Rather than pointing flat on someone’s face, the camera may be off to the side at times, peering through a doorway. What is this person thinking? What’s the impending threat? How are they going to survive? The show is so dark, so cold but at the same time it teeters on this little bit of hope, which is what carries you through a bleak outlook. The audience comes to love the Byrde family, flaws and all.”

Kutchins tested four or five cameras for Ozark, delving into their flaws and all. He said choices were limited given Netflix’s 4K shooting requirement. “We knew we wanted the show to have a very dark feeling, to shoot in a very low light,” related Kutchins. “We went with the camera that responded to that--the Panasonic Varicam which at the time was a newer camera. It felt like film, cinematic in the shadows.”

Kutchins earned his first Best Cinematography Emmy nomination (for a One-Hour, Single-Camera Series) last year for “The Toll” episode of Ozark. His filmography includes such TV series as the pilot for and multiple episodes of Mozart in the Jungle, and such features as Sundance Audience Award winner Crown Heights, and Sundance Fest selections Sleeping With Other People and Ten Thousand Saints.

Meanwhile Cindy Mollo, an editor on Ozark, is a two-time Emmy nominee--for the TV movie Dash and Lilly in 1999, and an episode of Mad Men in 2009. Earlier this year she earned her second career American Cinema Editors (ACE) Award nomination, for the “One Way Out” episode of Ozark. Mollo’s first ACE nod came back in 1996 for an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street.

Mollo said “One Way Out” posed among the biggest creative challenges she’s experienced on Ozark. “When you read it, you think, ‘oh my God, you better now screw this up. It’s so well written with amazing scenes for Laura Linney’s character when she gets kidnapped....As an editor, my thoughts were how do I not get in the way of it because it’s so well done? I found myself gently messaging things, not to throw the performances and writing out of whack.”

What Mollo perhaps likes most about working on Ozark is not only the high quality of the stories and performances but also the series mantra of “never force feeding the audience with cutaways to things. We don’t show what the characters see since it’s obvious from the context of the scene. The shots are a little longer than you would have on a show where they’re typically cutting a lot more. We’re giving the actor the moment so we can see what he or she is thinking from looking at a face. We’re not spoon-feeding our viewers, instead getting them to lean in to pay attention. We stay with the performance and let the audience soak it in.”

Mollo added that she had edited House of Cards before Ozark “so I was already experienced with shows that didn’t need to spoon-feed things to the audience.” Mollo noted that as an editor on Ozark she’s “encouraged to have a point of view and make choices to create the best possible version of the show.”

Cutting The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Earlier this year Kate Sanford won the ACE Award for cutting the “Simone” episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon). This was her third career ACE Award, the first coming for an episode of The Wire in 2007 and then Treme in 2011. In between those first two wins, she was again nominated in 2009 for another episode of The Wire.

To garner her latest ACE Award, Sanford had to beat out a field that included her colleague on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Tim Streeto who was nominated for the “We’re Going To The Catskills!” episode. This was Streeto’s second career ACE nod, the first coming in 2012 for Boardwalk Empire

Streeto and Sanford both worked on Boardwalk Empire in addition to Vinyl and Mrs. Maisel, and most recently Fosse/Verdon (FX Networks). On each show they individually cut different episodes. Still Sanford and Streeto have a team mindset, spawned by their affinity for--and rapport with--each other.

Boardwalk Empire was the first serious drama I worked on,” recalled Streeto. “Kate had done The Wire and had a ton more experience. I was new to HBO and we clicked. She was so generous to me, my having come from a background in indie features.”

Both Streeto and Sanford were drawn to Mrs. Maisel. “I wasn’t a hundred percent sure I was up for a comedy but the writing was terrific. Brian Kates, our friend, edited the pilot, which was fantastic. I went in with full energy on the show,” related Sanford.

Streeto shared, “I never worked on a comedy. I had worked on things that had humor in them. This show (Mrs. Maisel) was clearly a comedy. I was interested in the show for that reason--that and working with a female main character. I had been working on male-centric shows up to that point. And the writing was fantastic.”

There was also the allure of working with series creator/showrunner/director/writer Amy Sherman-Palladino and showrunner/director/writer Daniel Palladino, both of whom Streeto described as “brilliant.” Sanford added, “The most successful shows I’ve worked on are where showrunners have the most control. For The Wire, HBO let David Simon do what he wanted. Amazon also let them (Amy Sherman Palladino and Daniel Palladino) work with complete freedom....To be in this bubble making something very special with one creative unit is a great gift.”

Also a great gift, said Streeto, is being able to work on a show with Sanford. Streeto noted that he and Sanford end up together often because in part they both live in New York which has a smaller community than L.A. “Because we’ve worked together successfully and get along, we wind up being paired after a bunch of people are interviewed,” said Streeto. 

Sanford and Streeto have cut to do full justice to Mrs. Maisel, a show that is funny but also has pathos and heart while balancing actor performances and character-based moments with music. Furthermore what seems like banter and asides can carry or lead to major story points, revelatory in terms of characters and narrative. “Amy and Daniel challenge us every episode,” said Sanford. “Every script has different challenges.” Sometimes the challenge, she observed, is not to edit, noting that it’s not uncommon to stay on a frame/scene for several minutes to let the character performances take full effect.

Designing The Man in the High Castle
Production designer Drew Boughton already has two Emmy nominations for The Man in the High Castle (Amazon)--in 2016 and 2017. The show has also garnered him two Excellence in Production Design Award noms from The Art Directors Guild, one in 2017, the other earlier this year.

He got the chance to work on the show due to a collaborative relationship with David Semel, who directed the pilot episode. The two had worked together earlier on Hemlock Grove, which resulted in Boughton being brought into the High Castle fold. Boughton recalled that he was immediately attracted to the series, in large part from it being based on the work of author Philip K. Dick. Boughton noted that Dick’s creations have gone on to achieve high water marks in production design--with such films as the seminal Blade Runner, Minority Report and Total Recall. And on the TV score that has also proved to be the case for The Man in the High Castle.

Boughton said the biggest creative challenge posed by the series this current Emmy-eligible season was the creation of a machine to travel from one world reality to another. The creation of this mechanism, he related, had to be in the context of the Nazi mindset. “Nazis would be incapable of spiritual travel so we essentially had to make a piece of machinery that accomplishes what it’s made for through physics and violence,” explained Boughton, bringing a new, perverse twist to what had traditionally been the time travel machine affording users the opportunity to go from one dimension to another.

Boughton said he’s proud of the work done for The Man in the High Castle, how the real world and the make believe world of 1962 seem to be getting a little too close for comfort. The what-if world in the series introduces us to what life would have been like had the outcome of World War II been different. Fast forward to today with the rise of white nationalism, and for some, observed Boughton, the show delves into areas “nobody really wants to deal with.” The series, though, continues to get high marks and has arguably become more relevant today than ever. Boughton conjectured that the worlds of shows like Game of Thrones and The Crown, past production design winners in this Emmy category, are more interesting and beautiful to prospective TV Academy voters. He reasoned that voters are attracted to them in a way that doesn’t apply to The Man in the High Castle. But it’s that uncomfortable edge of High Castle that makes it such a gratifying series for him to work on.

Boughton added that he’s indebted to his co-workers. “I do loose sketches and sometimes 3D models of different designs for these worlds,” he said. “Then I work with the art directors, carpenters, painters and set decorators to see what we can achieve. They all contribute a ton of fleshing out that I hadn’t thought of, which makes things great.”

Cinematography and VFX for The Umbrella Academy
Speaking of other worldly worlds, consider The Umbrella Academy (Netflix), based on Gerard Way’s Eisner Award-winning comic book series in which estranged siblings with extraordinary superhero powers are reunited when their father dies. Their coming together uncovers dark family secrets as well as a looming threat to humanity.

Among the artisans contributing to the series are cinematographer Neville Kidd and VFX supervisor Everett Burrell. The former won an Emmy in 2014 for the “His Last Vow” episode of Sherlock while Burrell’s Emmy pedigree goes back to his work as a makeup artist--winning an Emmy in 1994 and then getting nominated the following year, both on the strength of Babylon 5.

Kidd was brought on to the series by EP/writer Steven Blackman, whom the DP had worked with before on Altered Carbon. Being invited to create a new world with him on The Umbrella Academy was too good an opportunity to pass up. “I love world building, creating a world that no one had ever seen before from a graphic novel that had a huge following,” said Kidd. “I read the script and could see the world in my head.”

Kidd broke new ground on Altered Carbon by deploying the ARRI Alexa large format camera system. This is believed to have been the first use of that camera system on a TV series. For The Umbrella Academy, Kidd again turned to the Alexa 65 to help make a fantastical world seem real, “The wider larger format allows you to see much more of this world. We used much wider lenses and the world had a gorgeous look to it, enabling people to enjoy the beauty of The Umbrella Academy.”

Kidd shot the first three episodes, alternating with DP Craig Wrobleski on subsequent installments, with Kidd then doing the season finale. In all, Kidd lensed six of the episodes, with four shot by Wrobleski.

Key to creating the worlds of The Umbrella Academy, continued Kidd, was he and Wrobleski properly dovetailing with the VFX ensemble, including overall visual effects supervisor Burrell, as well as the Weta studio team.

Burrell recalled that he and Kidd first met on Altered Carbon, meaning that going into The Umbrella Academy they already had a good creative working relationship. Burrell assembled varied effects houses, including Weta, Spin, Method and Digital Film Tree, to help realize the show’s vision. Burrell and the DPs worked months in advance, sharing notes, going back and forth to set the stage so that they could do full justice to the show.

For Burrell, the approach was simply “to serve the story. We’re not just making spectacle images. We had to fit our work into an amazing story of characters. Effects weren’t the focus. These were not big spectacle visual effects. They had to be subtle. At the same time, they had to be featured in a unique way, always tying into the story, the actor performances and the characters. You could never get in the way of the story.” 

This is the sixth installment in a 16-part series that explores the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, cinematography, producing, editing, music, production design and visual effects. The series will then be followed up by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners on September 14 and 15, and the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony on September 22.

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