Cinematographer Ross Riege finds himself in the current awards season conversation for his lensing of two shows: Rutherford Falls (Peacock), a comedy with a serious undercurrent; and The Walking Dead: World Beyond (AMC), a drama/horror thriller that lends a new perspective to the franchise.
While the two shows seem to reside in distinctly different worlds, Riege said he was drawn to them in large part by the bond they shared--namely a willingness from their creators to break from past conventions so that each show could find its own identity.
Riege happily discovered that the brain trust on Rutherford Falls, for example, was open to his suggestion to shoot large format, quite unusual for a comedy series, to get the camera closer to the show’s characters. The ARRI Alexa Mini LF offered not just hand-held maneuverability but also the ability to feel the environments spread out behind the characters. The separation of depth helps to get us intimately connected to the characters and their surroundings, both of which drive the narrative.
Named after the small Northeastern town in which it’s set, Rutherford Falls breaks new ground by featuring Native American perspectives and characters sans stereotyping. And beneath the smart and charming comedy of the series are different visions of what constitutes cultural preservation as reflected in the priorities of Nathan Rutherford (portrayed by Ed Helms), a descendant of the town’s original founders, and his friend Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding), a Native American. Both are proud of their heritage. So when the town proposes to remove the statue of its founder, conflict ensues. With a writing room that has strong indigenous representation--along with Native American cast members such as Schmieding and Michael Greyeyes (who plays tribal casino CEO Terry Thomas)--the series and its cultural monument quandary become particularly topical today.
Helms, Michael Schur and Sierra Teller Ornelas are the creators/writers/producers behind Rutherford Falls. Schur (Parks and Recreation) and Helms collaborated on The Office but soon saw that in order to do justice to the premise of Rutherford Falls, they needed another dynamic, the indigenous POV of Teller Ornelas. She and several series writers of Native American descent prove essential to capturing a perspective not often seen in television, ultimately helping the series to authentically represent two histories of America.
Riege related that Teller Ornelas was also likely instrumental in helping to bring him into the Rutherford Falls fold. The two had worked together earlier on an episode of the Warner Bros. series Selfies.
Soon after he got the Rutherford Falls gig, Riege found out he’d be working with Lawrence Sher, an accomplished cinematographer whose lensing of Joker garnered him an Oscar nomination. However, Sher wasn’t shooting Rutherford Falls but rather further extending his reach into directing. Sher directed the show’s first three episodes. The season’s production schedule was organized into blocks of three episodes, a means of adapting in order to work productively and safely during a pandemic. In a single day, for instance, the crew could jump from shooting a scene for the first episode to immediately taking on a sequence for the third episode, and so on--all in the interest of efficiency and saving time in the big picture.
All the while, Riege and Sher looked to give dramatic scope to Rutherford Falls--in some respects akin to how the Coen brothers play comedy in Fargo, bringing a darkness to the humor. Riege developed an elevated, cinematic look for Rutherford Falls, something more common in films and prestige dramas than in comedy series. Riege said that his goal was to make it so that someone couldn't determine if a still image from Rutherford Falls was from a comedy or a drama.
Riege noted that working with Sher was “a really fun process,” which gave him the opportunity to learn from an industry stalwart. Riege said that he and Sher spoke the same language and were excited to work with one another. Riege was impressed with Sher’s directorial acumen, generousity and penchant for setting his key department heads free to do what they do best.
The Walking Dead: World Beyond
While Riege collaborated with Sher for the first time on Rutherford Falls, by contrast The Walking Dead: World Beyond marked a reunion with a most familiar colleague, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Riege connected initially years back with Vogt-Roberts on the short film Successful Alcoholics starring T.J. Miller, Lizzy Caplan and Tony Hale. Vogt-Roberts co-wrote (with Miller) and wound up directing the short when he moved from the East Coast to Los Angeles. In the market for a DP to lens the short, Vogt-Roberts set out on a trail that ultimately led to Riege after sifting through the work of several candidates. The two hit it off and Successful Alcoholics was released in 2010. Since then, Vogt-Roberts and Riege have teamed on varied projects, most notably the feature The Kings of Summer, which made a major splash at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
When he signed on to direct the pilot for The Walking Dead: World Beyond, Vogt-Roberts gravitated to Riege. The director and cinematographer departed from the visual norm for The Walking Dead franchise. They wanted World Beyond to have its own aesthetic to better serve the story, which is centered on teens coming of age within the framework of the apocalypse. The narrative defined the visual approach that Vogt-Roberts and Riege developed for the series.
“We wanted it to feel experiential from the kids’ point of view,” explained Riege who went with ARRI Alexa Minis for what eventually evolved into more of a handheld camera show than they had originally envisioned.
Bringing a different visual dimension to The Walking Dead franchise is in line with what Riege and Vogt-Roberts have done in the past on a variety of projects. For Comedy Central’s Mash Up series, for example, they didn’t go with the standard multiple camera, live stand-up comedy shoot. They instead opted for a more cinematic approach, which in turn may have influenced a subsequent shift in stand-up fare. “Live stand-up today now looks more filmic,” assessed Riege in comparison to the pre-Mash Up norm.
Riege’s TV credits over the years also include Grey’s Anatomy, The Catch, You’re The Worst and Queen America. On the cinema score, Riege lensed such fare as the narrative feature Me Him Her (directed by Max Landis) and the documentary The Great Alone (directed by Greg Kohs).
Editor’s note: This is the eighth 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+.