Ula Pontikos Reflects On Lensing Season 2 Of "Russian Doll"
Ula Pontikos, BSC
DP succeeds season 1 Emmy winner Christopher Teague, teams with the show’s driving force--actor, director, writer, EP & co-creator Natasha Lyonne

What do you do for an encore when the first season of a series receives critical acclaim to the tune of 13 Emmy nominations and three wins? That was a prime challenge facing the creative minds and artisans behind Russian Doll (Netflix).

The answer in part resided in adopting and embracing a new orientation while retaining the character-driven foundation of the show--and putting in motion a narrative which helps to nurture further development of those characters. Whereas Russian Doll and its time loop had Nadia Vulvokov (portrayed by series EP, director, writer and co-creator Natasha Lyonne) repeatedly dying in season 1, we are taken in season 2 to the pregnant body of her mother, Lenora Vulvokov (Chloe Sevigny). Going from recurring death in season 1 to how one starts living in season 2 brought an engaging context and perspective that took the series into a fascinating new space.

And breathing visual life into that space was cinematographer Ula Pontikos, BSC who took on season 2, succeeding Christopher Teague who had lensed the first season with distinction. In fact, Teague’s work on Russian Doll, specifically the “Ariadne” episode, won the Emmy in 2019 for Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera (Half Hour) Series. (The other two Emmy wins for Russian Doll were for production design and costumes.)

Not only did Pontikos have to clear a high creative bar in terms of cinematography but also deftly navigate a non-linear time-travel path while adapting to production during the COVID pandemic. On the latter score, Pontikos noted that Russian Doll was one of the first shows to resume (after being shut down some 10 months earlier) full-scale production in NYC as restrictions started to be lifted. She described the experience as a journey into “the scary and unknown,” recalling that meetings after scouting could not be in person but rather were on Zoom. There were limits on the number of background artists on set, and mask wearing was the norm. So much of filmmaking, she observed, entails “physical and human interaction”--with Zoom and the like “a step removed” from that collaborative ideal. Yet cast and crew came together to help realize the creative vision for season 2.

Pontikos noted that she’s a big fan of season 1, describing Teague as “a fantastic cinematographer” who laid a great visual foundation for Russian Doll. She in turn kept elements of that foundation, giving the audience a familiar feel which is an important anchor in the context of the shifting reality fueled by the time travel dynamic. Still, though, there was room for new wrinkles as season 2 transports us to eras ranging from the 1940s to ‘50s and ‘80s as the characters delve into family histories and we get a sense of the impact that one generation has upon the next and so on.

While Teague deployed the RED camera (with HELIUM sensor) on season 1, Pontikos switched to the Sony VENICE for season 2. She viewed the VENICE as the best fit for the second season, relating that the camera could maintain the saturated look of the prior season while dovetailing nicely with low light levels and the variations of the different eras needed for season 2. Pontikos opted for such lenses as Leica, Baltar and Super Baltar to work in conjunction with the VENICE.

Among the prime challenges was doing justice to pivotal New York subway scenes. A huge LED wall was built to create the desired effect, the projection of these visual assets giving a measure of control that couldn’t be realized shooting in the metro subway system itself. The LED solution lent a heightened reality, explained Pontikos, as Nadia walks through trains and leaps through the bodies of her mother and grandmother, ending up giving birth to herself on a platform. There were assorted varied shots outside the carriages, trains going through tunnels, characters walking on tracks. Extensive planning on stage was designed to match real locations, a massive lighting set-up was built--efforts that reflected a combination of what Pontikos described as “manpower and brain power” to orchestrate and coordinate the moving elements.

Pontikos relished the planning that went into season 2, citing for example her close collaboration with Lyonne (who co-created the series with Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler), EP/director Alex Buono and storyboard artist Peter Beck. Pontikos recalled three weeks of their working together, immersed in ideas, storyboarding, preparation and getting to know one another. “The most rewarding part for me is the pre-planning,” related Pontikos, laying the groundwork for making the most of when you are on set and very much in “the go-go moment.” 

Pontikos, a native of Poland, graduated from the National Film & Television School in London. Her feature lensing debut was the Andrew Haigh-directed Weekend which premiered in 2011 at SXSW where it won the Emerging Visions Audience Award. Pontikos also shot director Hong Khaou’s Lilting which won the Cinematography Award in the World Cinema-Dramatic category at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, the Debbie Tucker Green-directed Second Coming which earned a BAFTA Award nomination in 2016, and director Paul McGuigan’s Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool, which too garnered a BAFTA nod.

Pontikos other TV series credits include Showtime’s Three Women, and U.K. shows Glue, The Game, Humans and Marcella. She was invited to join the British Society of Cinematographers in 2015.

Pontikos has shot commercials for notable directors including Traktor, Tarsem, Vincent Haycock, Kim Gehrig, Pep Bosch, Tim Godsall, Mike Maguire, Nacho Gayan and Marcus Soderlund.

This is the ninth installment of a 16-part weekly The Road To Emmy Series of feature stories which will explore the field of Emmy contenders and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, writing, producing, showrunning, cinematography, editing, production design, costume design, music, sound and visual effects. The Road To Emmy Series will then be followed by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners on September 3 (Saturday) and 4 (Sunday), and then the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony on Monday, September 12.

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