Production design of “El Camino” – interview with Judy Rhee

December 15th, 2019  |  Film · Interviews

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it’s my pleasure to welcome back Judy Rhee. In this interview she talks about the changes in the art department in the last few years that follow the rising demand for original content, the blurring lines between storytelling in film and in episodic productions, what defines success and what keeps her going. Around these topics and more, Judy talks about her work on “Jessica Jones” and “Better Call Saul”, and dives deep into creating and crafting the world of “El Camino”.

Kirill: Since we spoke last back in 2012, you’ve done quite a few productions, including “Jessica Jones”, “Better Call Saul” and your latest “El Camino”. Has anything changed for you in general in the art department in these last few years?

Judy: It has changed a lot not just in the art department, but in the industry in general, because there’s a greater demand for original content. It has increased the volume of work not only in New York but nationwide and possibly worldwide. There’s a lot more selection of work to choose from. It’s mostly streaming and TV. A lot of the interesting projects that have come my way have been mostly in TV. I still like to do movies, but they just haven’t come up as often as the TV work has.

For instance I was called to do “Jessica Jones” Season 2, and that was a really great project. It was one of five Marvel shows that was shooting in New York at the time. That was a huge challenge for me, because I’d never done work before that involved so much stunts. That was really interesting to design with that in mind, knowing that certain walls were going to break, or certain windows had to collapse on cue. It was a lot of fun, but it was quite demanding.

For a lot of these shows there is such competition. Everyone’s trying to top the next show and make it stand out in some original way. That drives specifically the art department to make it as visually interesting and original as possible.

After “Jessica Jones” I went to do “Better Call Saul” Season 4 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. That was a lot of fun and that was another huge honor for me. I was a huge fan of “Breaking Bad” and of “Better Call Saul”, so I was thrilled to get the interview and then get hired to do the job. It’s interesting to work on shows that you like and enjoy, and I’ve always tried to do that. On films you work with interesting directors and writers, but working on a show that you’ve actually watched and enjoyed has a different dimension of interest and commitment. I met Vince Gilligan while doing “Better Call Saul”, and I got called right after that to work on “El Camino” which was the last project I did. We finished it about a year ago and it just came out.

The last 5-6 years have been pretty full and packed. My first TV work was on “Alpha House” with Amazon. It was one of their first original series that they did – before people knew Amazon was doing original content. I did three seasons of that which was 6 years ago. Amazon came back to Garry Trudeau and said they only wanted to do half season, and he felt like he couldn’t tie up the series in half a season. He felt that 5 episodes were too short to finish out everyone’s character, so he opted not to do Season 4.

At that point I was called to do “Patriot” with Steve Conrad. The pilot was in Montreal and then we did Season 1 in Chicago and Prague. That was also a great project with great writing. All these projects I have worked on had such strong writing. I feel very fortunate to have worked with great writers, showrunners and directors. I feel very lucky.

Production design of “El Camino” by Judy Rhee.

Kirill: With this variety of productions on Amazon, Netflix and AMC, some releasing episodes on a weekly basis and others releasing the whole season at once, does it feel that the line between what is a movie, what is a TV show and what looks like a TV show but might be a 10-hour long movie is no longer as distinct as it used to be?

Judy: That’s one way to look at it. Some of these shows are like an extended film, depending on how it’s available. Sometimes you do have to wait a week. A lot of viewing habits have changed because of how the formats have changed. A lot of people watch the entire season in a weekend, so it is like watching a 10-hour movie.

The approach though depends on the program. Sometimes you have all the scripts up front, so you can treat it as one long movie. But more often than not you don’t have all the scripts up front. You’re getting the information as it’s happening, so you don’t always have the luxury of planning ahead. You have to take it one script at a time. You may know the general arc of the characters of the season, but not always. You don’t always know where it’s going to end up. You try to make each episode like a movie, and as interesting or visually engaging as possible – not necessarily knowing if you’re going to come back to that same set or not. Sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t, depending on what happens with the writing.

It’s not something that I consider when I am designing because you don’t always have that information. On a 10-episode series you may just have the first 3 or 4, so that’s the only information you can go off.

Kirill: You worked with a single cinematographer on all the season episodes of “Jessica Jones”, and the same on “Better Call Saul”. Does it make easier for you to keep a consistent visual language, even as different directors come in?

Judy: Absolutely. It’s important that the director of photography [DP] and I are in sync and in constant communication. You do start to develop a shorthand, and I start to understand how they prefer to light. You take that in consideration for the designs that you come up with. You have as many conversations during pre-production as possible. You go through each set, whether it’s a palette, a mood or certain angles of each character.

Those things get discussed early on with the showrunner and the writers and it gets determined. But once they start shooting, it becomes harder to sit down and have these conversations because they’re always shooting and they’re always on set. And the production designer is always prepping ahead one episode, so they’re not always around. I’ve never worked on a show where you had alternating or multiple DPs. Some shows do have that, but I’m thankful that I’ve only worked with one DP per season. It is helpful.

Kirill: As you doing shows with an established visual look, how much freedom does it give you to have your own take on it?

Judy: Both “Jessica Jones” and “Better Call Saul” had new sets to design, so we weren’t just going back to do the same sets.

I did enjoy the first season of “Jessica Jones” and I thought the writing was really good. Melissa Rosenberg did an incredible job of bringing in a female hero’s point of view based on a true-life trauma for her superpower. It can be figurative or literal, or it could be a metaphor depending on how you want to look at it. And also she had an interesting way of casting the first season of the show and the level of diversity in it. You saw people of color in roles that weren’t traditionally cast. Her character’s roommate happened to be Asian and that was not a big deal. It was just a character.

Back to your question, when I interviewed for joining the second season, there was some hesitation. But she did ensure me that there were a lot of new sets coming up, and there would be many things to open for interpretation. That was part of the conversation she and I had early on. Jeri Hogarth’s apartment was a great collaboration with David Schlesinger the set decorator. We had a lot of fun doing that. Knowing the history of Hogarth’s character being a man originally in the graphic novel, and then seeing how that gets to be reinterpreted for a female character was interesting. And that was just one of many new sets we got to do.

It was the same for “Better Call Saul”. When I interviewed for that show, they told me that there would be a fair amount of new sets. But it also does go back to a certain look that was established. That certain look really was established for “Better Call Saul” on “Breaking Bad” because you are traveling in the same world. But even within that context there’s still a lot that can be interpreted or reinterpreted for new sets coming up. I didn’t find it constrictive at all. I found it challenging but also creative.

Production design of “El Camino” by Judy Rhee.

Kirill: You mentioned the rising level of expectations from the art department. Do you think that’s one of the factors why most of the new shows at that level do 10-12 episode seasons and not the more “traditional” 20+?

Judy: Part of it is the quantity of scripts that are written. Shows that have been around for a few seasons shoot 22 episodes straight through. That is because they’re able to have either enough writers to have 22 scripts to shoot, or they have enough writers on staff to continually write as they’re shooting to get to 22.

I’ve never done that many. I’ve only done 10, and that’s about 8 months. But that’s a pretty long haul for the art department. I really can’t imagine doing 22 episodes at the level of expectations that they currently have. I think the only way to do it is if you continually go back to the same locations or the same set. You would have many sets that you’ve built on stage, and you continually go back to them. I think that’s how a lot of those shows operate. Those shows that have been around for a while have a certain established repertoire that they continually go back to.

On a 10-episode show you’re constantly going to new sets and new locations to keep it visually different and interesting, and have a variety. It’s a lot for the art department.

Kirill: Looking forward in time, if we talk again in 2029, do you think this level of expectation is going to continue to rise?

Judy: I do. Who knows what’s going to happen to all this original content in streaming. Everyone’s getting in on it at this point, and there’s more and more every day that are wanting to do their own original content. The demand will be there for a while. I don’t know how long that’s going to last, but because of the sheer competition they’re going to have higher expectations. I see it continuing for a long time, absolutely.

Kirill: Going back to your work on “Better Call Saul” and “El Camino”, it’s a well-established universe with a lot of time jumps in the timeline. How do you keep track of everything in that universe so it remains internally consistent for the viewer?

Judy: There’s a huge team of people in addition to the art department that has to keep track of all that. It’s tremendous. “Breaking Bad” shot before “Better Call Saul”, but the later is a prequel. So you do have to go back a lot to “Breaking Bad” to see what was established, said or seen previously. The great thing is that it gives a lot of opportunity for Easter eggs to bring back things from “Breaking Bad” to “Better Call Saul” because it is a prequel. There’s a huge team of people who keep track of it.

Everyone knows that it has a huge fan base and everyone is looking for those Easter eggs. Everyone’s also looking to make sure that it’s all correct because it is scrutinized pretty closely. It’s a lot to keep track of.

Kirill: How did “El Camino” start for you? You said that you did it right after “Better Call Saul”. Do you look forward to collaborations with people who you already worked with?

Judy: I absolutely do. You have a certain shorthand or language that you share for that particular director or writer’s way of working. It’s nice to repeat the working relationship because you know how they work, what their expectations are, what their style of working is. Everyone is different, so there’s less time spent on trying to figure out or trying to adjust to what it is that they expect from you. It’s actually a luxury to work with people again.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as your favorite set on “El Camino”?

Judy: Kandy Welding was a lot of fun to build. We got to layer a lot of character, timeline and personality into that set. Another fun one was Todd’s apartment. Vince Gilligan was completely open to what my interpretation was going to be for Todd’s character, and that was great fun to come up with different ideas for it.

There’s never one way to do anything. You just have to make a decision on what feels the best and what will help tell the story in the most visually interesting way. This character is so complex. On the one hand he’s very polite and friendly. He always feels bad after he kills someone, but then he won’t think twice about killing you if he has to. How do you show that kind of dichotomy in where a person lives, without it being over the top? Are you giving too much away? What is it that you want to say or not say about this character?

It was fun to interpret him. On the surface he’s the sunny human being, and I thought wouldn’t be unexpected and interesting to have his apartment be sunny on the surface. We took the idea of the pastel colors of Easter eggs, which is fun, festive and childlike. There is something childlike about him. So when I ran this idea by Vince, he thought it was great and that it would help reveal or not reveal a lot about his character.

Production design of “El Camino” by Judy Rhee.

We started with that idea of walking into his space and getting that first impression. But then, as you go further into his apartment down the hall and into his bedroom, the palette gets darker. It becomes more like an anatomy chart which is graphic and more saturated in its palette. So we ended up in his bedroom where the shootout almost happens when Jesse gets caught by the two fake cops. Jesse searches for the money, and they search for the money, and we do spend a little time in his bedroom, which is really the heart of who he is. We wanted it to be like the anatomy chart of an old heart that I found in a flea market.

I thought that could be interesting to have those colors in there, and Marshall Adams the director of photography agreed that having that bedroom be a darker palette where those scenes would take place would be more interesting. Vince agreed as well, so there was a fun conversation and a discovery that we all had about how to show Todd’s apartment, and what do we want to say about him. I think it worked out well. That was a lot of fun to put together.

Kirill: How much time does it take for you and your crew to prepare this apartment set to look like it’s been completely torn apart before and during Jesse searching for that money?

Judy: We shot all the entire set completely intact, and then we had to go in and destroy it. It took us two days to get it to look like it had been destroyed, searched and powdered by the police. When you see him ripping the walls, those individual wall panels were replaced with prepped wallpaper that would rip easier than it had been originally installed. That took two-three full days to prep those individual wallpaper panels so that Jesse could rip those down on camera.

Then we go back to showing that overhead shot. When I first read the script, I saw that whole scene ending up with poor Jesse being in this rat’s maze that he couldn’t get out of. Shooting the aspect ratio we did, I designed the set for that lensing and for that end shot. Vince thought it was a great idea, and so we implemented that as the final shot of Jesse looking for the money. The whole set was designed around the aspect ratio that we were going to be shooting for that overhead shot. That was an overnight to lift all the ceilings and to prep all the walls. So the whole conversion took 2-3 days.

Production design of “El Camino” by Judy Rhee.

Kirill: You’ve been doing this for a while now. Does it feel a bit sad to take these beautifully designed sets and start tearing them apart for the production, or perhaps afterwards when they’re no longer needed?

Judy: There’s always a little of disappointment that it has to get destroyed, that it has to go to the dumpster [laughs]. The saddest part is that I don’t always have time to take photos. I’ve been trying to be better about recording all the work but yes, it only lives on in what was captured on the camera.

There’s so much work that goes into designing a set, and making it become what it does before they shoot it with everyone’s input. You have carpenters, scenic artists, set dressers, and then it’s over in a blink of an eye. It gets destroyed very quickly.

Kirill: You mentioned Kandy Welding as one of your favorite sets. Was that an existing location, or did you build it from scratch?

Judy: That location we found, and we built a set on stage to match what it would look like. We built out for the exterior shots where Jesse is looking in before he goes into the space. We built the exterior of that at the location, and then we matched the interior on stage.

The layout was built for a certain choreography that Vince wanted for the shootout, for how many people would be in the scene, and what he wanted to take place beat by beat. The glass wall into his office was designed because he wanted to see glass shatter for the end shootout. The door was placed where it was because he wanted him to be shot and then slide down. There were specific things that he wanted to see from the script, so those moments were integrated into the designs.

Kirill: How many vacuum cleaners were there in that vacuum cleaner shop?

Judy: It was a real vacuum cleaner store in “Breaking Bad”, but since then it closed and it’s been a furniture store for the last 2-3 years. So the set decoration team had to locate, find, buy, salvage all those vacuums that you see in that set.

We went back to the furniture store and made a location deal with them. We took it over for about a week to prep it, paint it and shoot it. There were certain changes we made to it. That counter was moved for its new placement, and we built out wall plugs so that we can have some light behind him. All the vacuum cleaners and all the set dressing had to be found, bought and brought in from outside all over the area. They did a great job.

Production design of “El Camino” by Judy Rhee.

Kirill: What went into finding the right cars for this film?

Judy: It’s a hunt. It takes time to find them, and oftentimes you have to modify them or fix them or paint them to get it to be what you want it to be. The El Camino had to be found. They had to find two new ones. I think one was local and one was from out of state. They were brought in and we did the paint job for those. I don’t remember if they had the Pacer.

They didn’t keep a lot of the cars from “Breaking Bad”, so those had to be found again and painted to match. Finding the cars in Albuquerque is the job of the teamster team, whereas in New York it’s a prop master who has to find the picture cars. They did a great job with all the cars.

There was more specifics to these cars than I think people realize. It had to be big enough for him to duck under. We had to take the doors off to rig it for certain camera angles. We needed doubles for the overhead shots. So there were a fair amount of tricks that had to be performed with these picture vehicles, and they did a good job finding all of them.

Kirill: Have you gotten used to Albuquerque weather by now?

Judy: In the desert it gets really cold, no matter what time of year it is, and in the winter it can get really cold. It’s different from New York where I live. It’s not a wet cold. It’s a dry cold but it still gets really cold.

I think the lack of moisture and the elevation are the hardest things to adjust to. There’s no moisture in the air. Your skin feels it, you’re dehydrated faster, your body has to adjust. It took me a little bit of time on “Better Call Saul”, but by the time we were shooting “El Camino” I was used to it. It took me maybe 2 months to adjust to it again.

Kirill: My last question on “El Camino” is about the cage where Jesse was kept. Was that built underground, or as a set?

Judy: It was both. We built it on stage for all the shots where we’re inside with him looking up. There were also a couple shots where we’re up top looking down at him, and that was also on stage. But on the wider shots where it’s supposed to be located right next to the Quonset hut, that was dug at a location.

It didn’t make sense to go to the original location where they shot that in “Breaking Bad”. All those structures were gone, so we would have had to build all those structures. We’ve narrowed it down to the needs of the script, which was that we needed to see it next to a Quonset hut. So we found an existing Quonset hut in downtown Albuquerque, and we dug a hole. There was a dirt parking lot next to it, and we dug a hole in that that was half the size. No one ever goes in there. We only shoot Todd walking to the edge in a medium wide.

When Jesse is in there looking up and Todd comes down and drops in the cigarette, that was all stage work. Then, when we see Todd from up top, that’s all at the location.

Production design of “El Camino” by Judy Rhee.

Kirill: You mentioned that your involvement with “El Camino” finished a year ago. As this time passes, and you sit down to watch it for the first time after all the edits, sound, effects and color grading went it, do you get to enjoy it as a story or do you look at things that you did on it?

Judy: I have both things happening simultaneously when I watch it. The first time I saw it finished was at the premiere with all the color correction and the sound. They did have occasional screenings of rough cuts in LA, but since I live in New York and I was working here, I didn’t get a chance to see any of the progress it was making.

I didn’t see it until it was completely finished. I am able to watch it as a viewer following the story. But also there are moments where I remember those certain particular shoot days or certain issues we had with certain items. For example, the welding piece that we had to put in to the Quonset hut where we recreated Jesse running back and forth on the leash – that whole thing had to be recreated from scratch.

So there were certain moments where I get pulled out of the story and then I go back into it. My experience when I see it for the first time when it’s finished is both. You have those memories of certain days or certain sets being put together. And then there are other times where I do think that I’m glad that that worked. It depends on the show. It depends on how much time passes.

It had been a full year from finishing “El Camino” to seeing it done, so enough time had passed where I was able to see it more as a viewer than as a participant.

Kirill: Do you have a definition of what success is for you? Is it the acceptance of critics, of your peers, of the audience or perhaps the longevity of some of your productions?

Judy: Success for me is to continue to work with interesting writing and scripts. To me it’s always about the writing. That really is what determines what projects I end up doing. So because of that I still travel a fair amount for work, because not all the scripts that I am given or have the opportunity to work on are in New York.

Success would be the acknowledgement of my peers. I don’t really care about critics. I never have, even before I really went into this business. I judge work based on what I think is good. I don’t really pay that much attention to what other people say, whether it’s a painting or literature or a Broadway play or a movie. I have my own criteria of what I think is good, and that’s what I seek out. I don’t really care what critics say.

For me success would be continued expansion of work, working with good writers and good directors, working with interesting material and having acknowledgment from my peers. Those are the things that I would gauge my success on.

Kirill: What keeps you going in the field?

Judy: Like I said, it’s about the writing. I’m curious to see what new challenges I can experience for the material. It would be interesting to always keep it new and different, and not do the same thing over and over. I think that would not be so interesting for me.

Maybe there will come a time where I’m not going to want to travel and would prefer to just stay home in New York and only work in New York. But that hasn’t happened yet. For me it’s really about the writing and the material.

Production design of “El Camino” by Judy Rhee.

And here I’d like to thank Judy Rhee for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of production design. I’d also like to thank Andrea Resnick for making this interview happen. “El Camino” is available for streaming on Netflix. Finally, if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.

Working with Retrofit and Moshi in Kotlin

December 4th, 2019  |  Desktop · Kotlin · Trident

Radiance comes with a number of sample / demo apps that showcase the flexibility and power of its APIs. One of those demos is Lumen. Its main goal is to highlight the feature set of the Trident animation library. Lumen uses MusicBrainz JSON web service to search for all albums of the specific artist, and for the list of tracks on individual albums. Sending requests and parsing responses is done with Retrofit and Moshi. Lucent is the port of Lumen to Kotlin.

Let’s see how it works together in Kotlin.

We start by adding the build dependencies on Retrofit and Moshi:

dependencies {
    implementation "com.squareup.retrofit2:retrofit:2.6.2"
    implementation "com.squareup.retrofit2:converter-moshi:2.6.2"

Next, we define our service interface that maps to MusicBrainz APIs:

Note the usage of fmt=json attribute in all @GET functions, and usage of @Query and @Path that matches the expected endpoint contracts.

The data classes map to the matching MusicBrainz entities, using @field:Json annotation with the matching name attribute, along with @Json annotation on one of the data classes to properly map it to the matching JSON tags:

Now we can create a Retrofit object and fire off our request:

And to get the list of tracks for the specific album:

This is it. No messy handling of HTTP requests, no manual parsing of JSON responses. All driven by metadata and encapsulated by Kotlin data classes.

Production design of “Carnival Row” – interview with Frank Walsh

November 19th, 2019  |  Film · Interviews

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, I’m delighted to welcome Frank Walsh. In this interview he talks about the beginning of his career, how technology continues to reshape the industry, finding the next challenge and never stopping to learn new things, and the complexity of the art and craft of production design. Around these topics and more, Frank dives deep into his work on the fabulously designed first season of “Carnival Row”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Frank: I took a Three Dimensional Design course at Hornsey College of Art for my BA, and it was a fairly unique course in design at that time. Students were designing furniture, architecture, ceramics, silversmithing – and that’s where I started. It was during that course I met a tutor there who made me consider that silversmithing was just one manifestation of a design process. I got interested in designing furniture, this expanded into the interiors for my furniture and finally architecture, and ultimately that got me into the prestige London centre of creative arts, The Royal College of Art, to do my master’s degree in architectural design. Whilst it was there that my deeper interest in film and television came about when I took a Liberal Studies module and Christopher Frayling tutored me on Sergio Leone and spaghetti westerns.

That was the first time I’d ever sat down and been introduced to the idea of analysing a movie scene by scene, and understanding how the elements of a movie go together – from the sets, the cinematography, costume, sound, and music. It opened a whole new world to me, and I just thought the complexity was so fascinating. So in the weeks running up to my graduation, I started to write a lot of letters to anybody I could find in the industry.

On the sets of “Carnival Row”. Production design by Frank Walsh. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Through one letter, I was introduced to the art department on the Bond movie “Moonraker”. Ken Adam was designing it, and it was one of those lucky moments that shape a life. One of the juniors was leaving to go onto another film, and I was just there at the right moment and coming from a post-graduate university education into the industry, it was quite an unusual route at that time to get into the art department on a movie.

It was a great privilege having Ken Adam as my first boss. I used to look after his office, sort out all his drawings and whatever else there was to do to assist. The department at Pinewood was charged mainly with shooting all the visual effects and miniatures that appear in the film, so I was immersed in that very special aspect of film making from the very start. Working and learning from Ernie Archer who had won an Oscar for “Nicholas and Alexander” and a nomination for designing “2001: A Space Odyssey” the assistant art director on it and Peter Lamont who later gained an Oscar for his designs for “Titanic” who was the visual effects art director. The Director being Derek Meddings who during filming was awarded an Oscar for his pioneering effects work on Superman, and subsequently was again nominated for ‘Moonraker’. So I enjoyed a fantastic grounding early on in my career with that film and saw how solutions can often be found through ingenuity rather than always technology.

Then I had a fortunate period of working on several films with Elliott Scott whose background was from the very early post-war years through films such as the Indiana Jones films, “Labyrinth” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, and with three Oscar nominations to his credit. It gave me grounding in the depth of the art department for film, what sets are about and how you integrate with all the other departments. It was all about being aware that the art department is almost like a catalyst to the production, a place from which all the information comes from. It involves all the other areas, including special effects and visual effects.

This was the early days of ILM, and on one film I was working with Dennis Muren. Pre computers, the art department were hand-drawing all the camera projections for the VFX elements. I learned how to use the American Cinematographer Manual to work out camera angles, lenses, depth of field. Those were the days when you’ve plotted everything in the art department for visual effects. It taught me that the visual effects and the art department are basically one entity and hopefully going forward in the future we meld into one department.

I was very fortunate to have had an all-encompassing training very early on, starting from making tea to standing by, storyboarding, drafting sets, graphics, set dressing and designing.

Kirill: If I look back at the last 10 years or so, the presence of the smartphone technology in my life has changed so much of my everyday routine, and yet almost all of those changes did not seem to be major when each one of them was introduced. If you look at the last 30 years of technology in visual storytelling and how it changed the art department, what do you see?

Frank: It certainly has evolved. I recall trying to hide a non-period telegraph pole with a tree, using signalling flags as it was before mobile phones. I’ve been very lucky in that things have happened to me at just the right moments in the industry. When I started, we didn’t have any computers. You did budgets by hand on a calculator, and it was laid out as a paper spreadsheet. Doing scheduling was all done by hand. As computers came out, I was just in the right place at the right time and was willing to understand and absorb new technology even as many of my superiors rejected its implementation.

Working on “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” with Joel Collins with whom you spoke a couple of years ago. It was one of his first productions, and both he and Dan May had come from a background where there were comfortable with emerging technology. For them, the challenge probably was moving into the bigger feature film world, and my competency to guide them as a supervising art director and assist them with the process of delivering the sets was a great collaboration. For I was learning from them as much as they from me, about how the technology was changing, and that’s something I’ve always tried to do. My mantra is that you should never stop learning. And embracing developing technology and ensuring it effectively used.

Concept art for “Carnival Row”, train station exterior. Production design by Frank Walsh. Courtesy of Frank Walsh and Amazon Studios.

However, when I teach, I do still try and encourage my students to get themselves grounded in the old approaches – technical drawing with a pencil. That mental process is critical. The amount of effort you do to do a paper drawing is different from what you do on a computer. It makes you much more focused on the process and being economical. It’s just physically tiring to cover a piece of paper with a lot of drawings. I think it gets them to an understanding that you have to analyse things. The new technology makes things happen very quickly and very rapidly. But there are certain cases where even though you have that technology, sometimes it’s better not to use it or rely on it alone.

Sometimes I feel there’s an overuse of visual effects that is detrimental to the storytelling. I’m not decrying anything in particular, and there are great movies that are very born out of visual effects. But there is a need to be respectful that the story comes first. My sets are always designed around making an environment for an actor to perform in and understand. That they can immerse themselves in and allows them to engage with their character totally.

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The art and craft of cinematography – interview with Tony Miller

November 13th, 2019  |  Film · Interviews

One is a beautiful amalgamation of fragility, poignancy, irreverence and razor-sharp wit. The other is a breathtaking journey through a Victorian metropolis that reflects on the inescapable pervasiveness of bigotry, prejudice, racism and intolerance. Meet the cinematographer behind “Fleabag” and “Carnival Row”.

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Tony Miller. In this interview he talks about the beginning of his career shooting documentaries, the transition of the industry from film to digital, various facets of the role of a cinematographer, and choosing his projects. Around these topics and more, Tony dives deep into his work on the first season of “Carnival Row” and two seasons of “Fleabag”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Tony: I studied drama at Bristol university, as I thought that I wanted to be an actor but soon realised it was not my bag and I found myself drawn to cinematography.

When I left university, I self-funded a film documentary about the student uprising in Burma. I crossed the border illegally into Burma in 1988 at age 22 and filmed the first big genocide in which thousands of students were killed, and then crossed back with the film footage.

It was a big risk, but it helped kick-start my career, and I landed a big Channel 4 commission to go back and make a full one-hour documentary.

After the Burma experience, I spent 18 months filming a portrait of whale expert Dr Roger Payne. I then ended up shooting documentaries for the next 12 years, many were anthropological and that was an amazing time. There was a British tradition of verité documentary filmmaking and I was very lucky to join the tail end of it. I travelled with the same crew for about 9 months a year and was booked up often a year ahead. All was shot on film. By 26 I had been Emmy nominated and Emmy awarded.

I think that what it taught me was how to light with what I had. How to shoot handheld. What mattered and how to cut it in your head – work out what you needed to tell the story. You didn’t have a second chance or take. You really had to cover things very quickly and find the emotion and drama in how you shot those images. I found that it was a wonderful school for cinematography. All my heroes – Chris Menges, Roger Deakins, Robert Richardson had started in this way. (They all continue to insist on operating by the way).

Film was a craft and when you did not see it processed for some weeks you had to know exactly what you had shot. So, you shot tests – multiple tests when you had down time and worked out what latitude you had – what made things look more contrasty… What stock to use when the light was harsh.

Film was an expensive commodity, so you thought carefully about what you shot.

At some point I started shooting commercials, and then I started to be offered drama and fiction work. By my mid-30s, I realized that I didn’t want to be traveling around the world 9 months a year. I did my first big TV drama when I was 32, and my first movie a few years later. However, shooting fiction I soon realised that I was still often away 9 months a year!

Cinematography of “Fleabag” by Tony Miller.

Kirill: Is there anything that still surprises you when you join a new production?

Tony: I’m always nervous the first few days, and I’m amazed how much there is still to learn. Every project is challenging, it is what makes it fascinating. I think if I felt it was easy, I wouldn’t do it anymore.

It’s still remarkably challenging on so many levels and the opportunity to do something new and different and sensitive is always there. Human nature is vast and so is underscoring the drama with light and a camera.

And on another level, you’re dealing with politics which is such a big part of our job. The bigger the production and the bigger the budget, the bigger the politics gets. Politics is a tricky business! You work with directors who are all very different and your relationship is always a close one. I’m continually surprised and fascinated by what we do.

Kirill: You mentioned that you started back in the days of film as medium, and nowadays digital is almost everywhere. Does it feel sometimes perhaps overwhelming how fast that technology is evolving in last 5-10 years?

Tony: Yes, it does. I’ve talked a lot at various events – BSC and Cameraimage about HDR and how it will take over all of our homes. I think it’s wonderful. I used to hate it, but after having seen “Roma” in HDR and also in a theatre, I thought that HDR looked more amazing and had more depth. I have now done six productions in that format and adapted to some degree how I shoot for HDR.

It is in a way a metaphor for how fast change comes at us these days. You have to keep up with the technology, but I have a crew that does some of those things for me.

But digital has opened the realm of cinematography from a niche profession that used to have maybe 30-40 DPs in Britain who were working at a high level, to now around 400-500. There are other reasons for it, such as people coming here from Europe and everybody seeming to want to shoot in England, but fundamentally it has made the craft of cinematography far more accessible and I think that is a great thing.

Breaking the fourth wall on “Fleabag”, cinematography by Tony Miller.

Kirill: How do you see the balance between the artistic side of what you do (finding the right way to tell that story) and the technological side of it (keeping track of all the latest cameras, gadgets and software)? Is one more important than the other for you?

Tony: But it’s all about the artistry. It’s all about how you read the story, how you tell the story, how you underscore the story, how you reveal the emotional beats. There are all the key elements that shape your approach on operating a camera and finding the decisive moment.

How do you crescendo to that moment? How do you back off? How do you underscore those key moments in a scene? Is it a close-up or is it a big wide shot? Experience really helps, but it doesn’t mean you’re always right. The big lesson in cinematography that I love is that often I’m right, but frequently I’m wrong.

Technology is really important. Those are our tools of the trade and they keep getting simpler and better – like LED lighting which is revolutionising how we work. I still use big tungsten sources, but LED is making me think and it saves time.

Cinematography of “Carnival Row” by Tony Miller.

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