Perspectives On Shooting "Homecoming," Production Designing "Big Little Lies" and "The Morning Show"
"Homecoming" cinematographer Jas Shelton
Insights into "Dead To Me" from the series creator, "Life Below Zero" from a three-time Emmy-winning cinematographer

Jas Shelton’s initial attraction to Homecoming (Amazon Prime) proved fortuitous as most recently affirmed by the first Emmy nomination of his career--in the Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series (Half-Hour). The nod came for the “Giant” episode, part of season two for which all the installments were directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez and shot by Shelton. The two had a deep collaborative relationship going into Homecoming, having earlier teamed on the indie features C.O.G. and The Stanford Prison Experiment.

Shelton said of Homecoming, “I was a big fan of the first season. One of my best friends, the best man at my wedding, was Tod Campbell who shot season one. So I was excited to get an opportunity on season two. I was in Spain at the time during a family vacation. I had sworn to my wife we would stay for six weeks.” But then the call came from director Alvarez. So much for an interrupted vacation as the chance to take on a great job for “one of my favorite directors” brought Shelton back stateside shortly thereafter to start prepping.

There was much to live up to, acknowledged Shelton who cited the job Campbell and director/series co-creator Sam Esmail had done on a season on that was “visually so dynamic, incredible and unique. Todd and Sam had done so many things that were new, and bringing new to the old. It was amazing content they created.

“Going into season two,” continued Shelton, “we wanted to have some continuity from season one. But we also wanted season two to have its own voice as well.” Towards that end, Shelton recalled that he and Alvarez came up with the idea of keeping the framing style and a lot of the aesthetics from the first season. Yet rather than use different aspect ratios like season one, they would turn to color palettes to help define moods and characters, to distinguish the two seasons and timelines.

The show centers on the Geist Group, a mysterious wellness company with a strange treatment initiative that includes memory erasing drugs. Season two brings a new lead character, Jackie (portrayed by Janelle Monáe) whom we first see wake up in a boat with no memory of how she got there--and for that matter, who she is.

The color palettes come into play as Geist’s headquarters appear sun-kissed and warm--a carryover from the first season--as compared to the season two-introduced LUT for Jackie’s scenes which contain dark blues, cool greens and evoke a Gothic feel.

Shelton carried over the same camera package from season one to season two, deploying the Panavision Millennium DXL 2 with G Series anamorphic lenses.

The second season’s episode two, the aforementioned “Giant,” includes an ambitious sequence which seems like a continuous single take following Jackie as she gets out of her car, breaks into a house, hides from its resident/owner Audrey Temple (played by Hong Chau), eventually leading back out of the house and into the car again in pursuit of Temple. The choreography of the season had to be meticulous, with the scene mapped out in highly detailed storyboards, aided and abetted by a collaboration with production designer Nora Takacs Ekberg to construct the set in such a way that the entire back half of the house was removable.

Shelton credited his “amazing crew” with taking on any and all challenges, bringing a constant positive vibe and energy to the proceedings. While season one, said Shelton, was pretty much all on stage, the second season of Homecoming had some difficult locations--in the woods, on the water. “We were trying to accomplish complex, choreographed shots, taking a very feature film approach within a very tight TV schedule.”

Also helping to meet that challenge was director Alvarez. From the first feature they teamed on (C.O.G.) which premiered at Sundance, through to The Stanford Prison Experiment, Shelton and Alvarez developed a shorthand, a shared aesthetic spanning work that is thoroughly storyboarded while leaving room for improvisation. That experience “put us in a really good position with Homecoming,” assessed Shelton, adding, “I love working with Kyle. He has a unique vision while always aware of cinematography as a component important to storytelling.”

Over its two seasons, Homecoming has received two Emmy nominations--both for cinematography. Shelton’s nom follows the season one nod earned by Campbell in 2019 for the “Optics” episode.

John Paino
Production designer John Paino’s first Emmy nomination came in 2004 for an episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Fast forward to last month and he picked up his second and third career nods--both in the Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Contemporary Program (One Hour or More) category. He earned the latest pair of honors for his work on Big Little Lies (HBO) and The Morning Show (Apple TV+).

Paino has production designed Big Little Lies for both its seasons--the first directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, the second by Andrea Arnold. It was the latter’s “I Want to Know,” “The Bad Mother” and “What Have They Done?” that garnered Paino his Emmy nomination. Paino got the Big Little Lies gig based in large part on his track record working with Vallée, spanning such feature films as Wild, Dallas Buyers Club and Demolition. Vallée, noted Paino, was one of the first to direct all episodes of a limited series season. Similarly, Arnold became the sole director on season two of Big Little Lies.

Paino’s The Morning Show nomination came for its very first episode, the Mimi Leder-directed “In The Dark Night Of The Soul It’s Always 3:30 In The Morning” episode.

Though Big Little Lies and The Morning Show are distinctly different shows, Paino sees parallels in terms of his role. “I consider each show or project I work a chance to learn about a subculture or world, pointing a lens to it or recreating it.” 

Big Little Lies takes us to Monterey, Calif., where seemingly idyllic homes and breathtaking views hide the not-so-idyllic secrets and insecurities of the families who reside in them. The environments tell us much about the characters and how they want to be perceived--and keep the show grounded in reality as intense drama unfolds in each episode.

As if that isn’t challenging enough, consider that Big Little Lies was originally intended as a one-season miniseries. There was no intention of another season. Thus many of the spaces carrying over from one season to the next had to be recreated all over again, necessitating finding what had been used or completely remaking environments.

Meanwhile for The Morning Show, Paino and his team had to recreate the world of the morning television show and everything that goes on behind the scenes. The technology behind doing a morning show had to be real and functional as the Apple TV+ cameras had to capture the crews and cameras bringing us the a.m. TV proceedings. “It was a fascinating subculture to explore,” said Paino.

Among Paino’s nominated colleagues is Amy Wells who served as set decorator on both The Morning Show and Big Little Lies. Paino has been working with Wells since the first season of Big Little Lies. He cited her work in television and film, the latter including such Paul Thomas Anderson-directed features as The Master and Inherent Vice. Paino said Wells pays great attention to details and has “an impeccable eye...She digs into characters with me. I give her broad strokes and then she goes to town. We have a great symbiotic relationship.” Between seasons one and two of Big Little Lies, Paino also worked with Wells on Sharp Objects, another miniseries in which Vallée directed all the episodes.

Nominated alongside Paino and Wells this year for Big Little Lies is art director Austin Gorg whose credits include the Damien Chazelle feature La La Land. Gorg, Wells and Paino also collaborated on Sharp Objects.

Gorg succeeded James F. Truesdale who was art director on what turned out to be the first season of Big Little Lies. Truesdale is now nominated alongside Paino and Wells for first episode of The Morning Show. Paino found Truesdale, a veteran art director whose work spans features and TV, to be a valued collaborator with vast experience that he could tap into. “It’s good to listen to people, getting their opinions,” said Paino, who found that especially true of Truesdale.

Paino’s experience on both Big Little Lies and The Morning Show reaffirmed his belief in the importance of having “a really good crew whom you trust as collaborators and not just as people who are performing tasks. I don’t think you should be afraid to let go of decision-making at times. At the end of the day, you can take the advice of others or not so don’t be afraid. People do their best work when you let them do what they do best.”

Paino’s nomination for Big Little Lies is one of five that the show received this year, the others being for Outstanding Casting for a Drama Series, Contemporary Makeup (Non-Prosthetic), and two for Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep and Laura Dern).

Meanwhile The Morning Show garnered eight nods, the other seven being for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series (Leder), Main Title Design, Lead Actress (Jennifer Aniston), Lead Actor (Steve Carell), two for Supporting Actors (Billy Crudup and Mark Duplass) and Guest Actor (Martin Short).

Liz Feldman
An unlikely friendship between two women dealing with tragedy has yielded an unlikely outcome for its series creator as Dead to Me (Netflix) has scored four Emmy nominations--for Outstanding Comedy Series, Casting for a Comedy Series, and two nods for Lead Actress for a Comedy Series (Christina Applegate as Jen Harding, Linda Cardellini as Judy Hale).

Upon receiving her nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series, Dead to Me creator Liz Feldman--who earlier this year won a Writers Guild Award for the show’s pilot--stated, “I created Dead to Me as a way to work through my own grief and loss, hoping that Jen and Judy’s story might help people through theirs. For our traumedy to be honored in this way is a twist I did not see coming. It’s truly life-affirming and I’m deeply grateful.”

Feldman shares the best comedy series nomination with EPs Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Applegate, Chrissie Smith, co-EPs Cardellini, Cara DiPaolo, Jessi Klein, Elizabeth Benjamin, Dan Dietz and Joe Hardesty, and producers Buddy Enright and Denise Pleune.

Feldman credited assorted others for the success of the show, including stout support from Netflix and CBS Television Studios, her stellar cast, and the nominees for helping to assemble that cast, Sherry Thomas, CSA, Russell Scott, CSA, and Sharon Bialy, CSA.

“This was my first foray into streaming, the first single-camera show I had ever written,” said Feldman. “I wanted the show to feel different than any other comedy which would require really well-rounded actors.” She noted, for example, that Thomas had cast some of the greatest shows on TV, including Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, The Handmaid’s Tale and The Walking Dead. “When I looked at her choices, they were always really interesting and nuanced. I wanted to cast this show and make it feel as interesting and complex as possible.”

In a prime example, the casting mavens suggested filling one role with someone who had been under Feldman’s nose all along--Applegate. Feldman and Applegate were developing another show at the time which ended up not coming to fruition. “As soon as they said her name (for Dead to Me), I could feel it in my gut,” recalled Feldman who then needed someone special providing a complement and balance to Applegate’s character. The casting directors came up with Cardellini. “I had never met Linda. As soon as I set down with her, we were like friends forever. Those two people (Applegate and Cardellini) had never worked together. To choose those two people was a form of sorcery.”

There were other inspired bits of casting, continued Feldman, citing as examples Katey Sagal who portrays Judy Hale’s mother and Natalie Morales as Michelle Gutierrez (Hale’s friend). Feldman described Sagal as being “a kind of subversive and totally appropriate choice.”

Feldman said that what the show’s casting directors do best is “they understand the tone and bring in actors who really live in that space.”

As a writer, Feldman found herself living in that space more than she had envisioned. She noted that you hear about actors who take their roles home with them. “I found the same can be true with writers.” She remembered everyone in the writers’ room grappling with how Applegate and Cardellini’s characters would figure out what to do with a dead body. This led to Feldman being among those putting herself in the shoes of her characters, trying to come up with something that would “feel authentic” in the face of such a predicament. “I found myself really tense,” said Feldman, bringing home with her the somewhat obsessed pangs of empathy needed to help resolve the situation on screen.

Most importantly, there was a lesson to be learned from the Dead to Me experience for Feldman. “Like so many writers and artists in this business, it’s really natural to doubt yourself and worry about if you’re handling a specific story the right way. I am really hard on myself in terms of not just my work ethic but also the amount of humanity I bring into the story. You want to make the experience of the characters as real as possible so people can relate to them.” Feldman shared that one of the takeaways she’s had from Dead to Me is that it all “worked out probably better than I would have allowed myself to believe. Hopefully what I’ve learned is to trust myself which can be a hard thing to do.”

Michael Cheeseman
Life Below Zero (National Geographic) has registered much higher numbers than the nil in its title relative to Emmy proceedings for cinematographer Michael Cheeseman. This marks the fifth consecutive year that Cheeseman’s work on Life Below Zero has been nominated in the Outstanding Cinematography for a Reality Program category--and thus far he’s won the Emmy three times. His latest nod--received along with fellow show DPs Danny Day and Dwayne Fowler--came for the “New World” episode.

Day has been nominated alongside Cheeseman all five times, also sharing in the three Emmy wins. By contrast, this is Fowler’s first Emmy nom. He was bumped up not too long ago from camera operator to DP on the series.

Cheeseman said that the healthy competition within the show among its cinematographers helps to set and maintain a high standard. “We see each other’s work, push boundaries forward. As we see each other’s footage, it pushes us. We inspire each other. The healthy competitive nature brings my game up.”

The inherent challenge is keeping one’s game up as the temperature plummets, steadfastly chronicling how people living in remote corners of Alaska constantly battle for the most basic necessities. Staying a step ahead of storms, subsisting on whats is hunted and foraged--and even dealing with the spring which has its own set of hurdles to clear before the deep cold returns.

Just getting over to remote locales in a relatively timely fashion can be arduous for the crew. And upon reaching a destination, the series team is creating, shooting and producing on the fly. Cheeseman deploys the Canon C300 Mark II digital camera, citing its attributes of being strong, sturdy, durable and able to handle extreme elements while serving as a workhorse. “We keep them bare bones,” he related so that they can take the cameras most anywhere, hike a couple of miles, accommodating different angles and perspectives.

Cheeseman said that he personally “tries to attack each episode with a different mindset,” and that doesn’t just pertain to what would generally be regarded as pivotal scenes. He gives careful consideration and thought to the mundane as well, explaining that he’s lensed assorted scenes of wood being chopped over the span of the show. “Each time I talk to the team about how can we attack this differently,” he explained, whether it be a different angle or capturing an emotional aspect, trying to convey the real feeling of what a person is going through, thinking and feeling when chopping wood. “Each time I do something, I try to be as creative as possible.”

That approach, continued Cheeseman, has served the reality series well. Even with all the Emmy nominations, he stressed, “We don’t take things for granted...We don’t stop working hard. This show has evolved each season, getting better and better.” He observed that when you look at each season, you can see how the cinematographers have stepped up their game.

Life Below Zero has two Emmy nominations this year, the other being for Outstanding Picture Editing for an Unstructured Reality Program.

This is the final installment in SHOOT’s 16-part weekly series of The Road To Emmy feature stories. The features explored the field of Emmy Award contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, writing, producing, showrunning, cinematography, editing, production design, music, sound, costumes and visual effects. The Road To Emmy series will be followed by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners in September, and the Primetime Emmy Awards later that month (9/20).

Credits:

Homecoming (Amazon Prime); Kyle Alvarez, director/showrunner (season 2); Jas Shelton, cinematographer (season two).


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