Cinematography of “Manifest” – interview with Sarah Cawley

January 10th, 2020

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Sarah Cawley. In this interview she talks about the industry transition from film to digital, recent advances in lighting technology, the multiple hats she wears on the set as a cinematographer, and the on-set dynamics on episodic productions. Around these topics and more, Sarah dives deep into her work on the second season of “Manifest”.

Photography by Tai Lam

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

Sarah: My name is Sarah Cawley and I’m a cinematographer. I started out in feature films, and I’m now working largely in television.

I went to college when I was 18, and I did not know what I wanted to study. Soon after as an undergrad I took a film class and I made a Super 8 film, and at that moment that was it. I became very interested and I knew that I wanted to work in film, just based on that one project. I transferred to Purchase which is a film school outside New York City. It’s a program where you everyone has to take acting, everyone has to take writing, everyone has to take directing, and we all took cinematography. It quickly became clear to me that I didn’t really want to be a writer or an actor, but I really loved cinematography. I wanted to shoot everyone else’s films, and so I started doing as much of that as I could.

I had a great time at Purchase and when I graduated, I moved into New York City. Independent features were still very much happening at that point, so I shot everything I could get my hands on, and started working on bigger sets that way.

Kirill: Do you remember if there was anything particularly surprising or unexpected for you when you joined your first few productions?

Sarah: The thing that surprised me was how many aspects you had to be aware of, how many questions you had to answer, and how many people are involved. There’s this group of people who come together. We look at the script. Someone wrote it, which is an accomplishment right there. And then there’s so many other questions to be answered. That was what really surprised me.

What time are we going to shoot here? Can we shoot this scene during the day, even though it’s a night scene? Which way do we want to be looking? How many people are we going to need to do this? How many people can we do it without. You’re interacting with such a large group of people. The first time I worked with a production designer was a big surprise to me. We decided that we were going to paint the walls of this set blue. It was a night scene and I lit it with blue light, and it was all too much blue [laughs], and I started to realize how important prep was.

You could make those decisions in advance, and when you show up on set you know what is happening. That was the biggest reveal to me – how many times good creative decisions are made during prep. You’re not getting your good ideas when you’re there on your shoot day. You’re really just there to execute them.

Kirill: How things have changed for you as the industry has migrated almost completely to digital?

Sarah: That’s a big change. In the beginning I was shooting film, and people made prints. So other than making some printing adjustments that could change the basic look of the film, a lot of everything was locked into that negative.

I welcome digital and I’m not opposed to it. I love film and I still sometimes shoot film. There was a period around 2006-07 when digital was used a lot, but there was no post-production control. You could shoot something and see how it looked like on your monitor on set. But you had no way to save your LUT [lookup table] or communicate a color decision list to your post colorist. People were still learning their way. Sometimes the post path would be complicated and the project would end up not looking the way that the cinematographer wanted it to.

And then everything caught up, and now DPs understand that they can build a LUT, they can save it, they can communicate to their colorist, and they don’t get as many surprises between what they see on set and what they see in post. I have to say there’s some digital things that I’m just plain thankful for, like the ability to use power windows to darken certain areas of the set. Making those secondary color corrections is such an asset and such a benefit to the cinematographer. On a television schedule you don’t have time to cut all that light on set, and color correction now is a really big asset to a cinematographer.

Even beyond the camera, all the lighting revolutions that come our way in the last 4-5 years are super beneficial. I’m talking about the LED revolution, like the Arri SkyPanel where it’s one light and no gels. It’s DMX controlled, and you can use it to make lighting effects. We use it to make our lightning for that iconic airplane scene in the promo for Season 2 of “Manifest”. You can do lightning effects, you can do color control, you can do dimming. You can do it all remotely without ever touching a gel. It just enables you to go much faster and control the light better.

Another big find is Astera lighting tubes. They are LED tube lights with color control, but the amazing thing about them is they’re self-contained. They have their own battery, so you don’t even have to connect power.

Cinematography of “Manifest” Season 2 by Sarah Cawley. Courtesy of NBC Universal.

Kirill: We have so many screens in our lives. A lot of people are watching these shows on TV sets that were calibrated to look great in the store, but it’s too saturated to watch that at home. Some people watch movies and shows on their phones and tablets. Does it bother you that you lose control over how people actually watch what you shoot?

Sarah: That’s true. There are some terrible monitors. People have their saturation dialed all the way up. People go home, turn on the television, and whatever is there is there. On some level it bothers me a little bit, although I also understand why people watch shows on their tablets. It’s so convenient that it’s hard to resist.

It bothers me a little bit, but I also am accepting of the fact that that’s the way some people consume content. I try not to let it bother me too much. Although I have to say that when I walk into a Best Buy and I see all of these monitors set up for smooth motion where the brightness is turned all the way up, it can be a bothersome thing.

Kirill: You wear a lot of hats on the set – keeping track of technical advances in cameras and lighting, finding the right artistic expression to tell the story, managing the budget and managing people. Is it hard to convey this complexity when somebody asks you what you do for a living?

Sarah: When people walk onto the set, and they see the lights and the camera, they might think that that’s it. They think that the camera and the lights are all there is to it.

You’ve touched on an important point. There’s a lot that goes on all the time with learning about cameras and lights that are coming out, and hearing the stories of how other people use it. I hear word of mouth from other cinematographers. I go to trade shows. There’s a lot of ways to stay in touch with the gear that is coming out.

But also managing the human side of things is one of the continuing challenges that I recognize. You have to put together a crew of talented people who will show up and come out for you. Even doing that right there is a special skill. Because you are managing such a great amount of people, you have to keep them inspired. You have to buy them coffee, thank them at the end of the day, and keep them encouraged. It’s not an individual sport. It’s not something like a photographer where I can work with my own camera. There’s a lot of moving parts and there is quite a bit of complexity to it.

The human interaction aspect is often overlooked. But if you look at that group of talented, highly creative people who are together for 12-14 hours a day, day after day, they’re going to get tired. It’s quite a mix of different things that you have to keep together and keep people inspired, so they keep yielding their best work. It’s more difficult than just going to a trade show and looking at lights.

Kirill: How do you manage to condense all of these things into 30 seconds you have with this random person you meet at a party?

Sarah: I say this all the time – a picture’s worth a thousand words. When I notice that people get lost in talking, I try to show an image to someone or get an image from them.

Sometimes when a new director comes on, they’ll show me a still and that will help me so much. We have a scene in episode 201 that was directed by Joe Chappelle. It’s a night exterior scene in a parking lot in modern-day New York, and he showed me some stills from the film “Slumdog Millionaire”. We wanted to do hotspots of light in the background, and he showed me four or five images from that film, and I completely understood what he wanted and how it was going to make us feel. Then I could turn around and explain to the gaffer what lights we needed, and show the operator what he had to get into the shot.

That kind of meshing of the minds and sharing an image can really help. Any kind of image, any kind of visual storytelling can really be worth a lot more than words. People do tend to get lost in words, especially when they’re starting to feel that TV schedule and get a little bit tired.

Cinematography of “Manifest” Season 2 by Sarah Cawley. Courtesy of NBC Universal.

Kirill: Speaking of your major collaborators – the director, the production designer, perhaps the showrunners on TV shows – do you think it’s important that everybody’s on the same wavelength as far as finding the right way to tell the story, or do you think there needs to be a little bit of a clash of opinions?

Sarah: I think it’s inevitable that there’s a little bit of clashing and some different ideas. I don’t thrive on conflict, so I don’t like to be in a continuous state of fighting. But everyone is going to come at this a little bit differently.

Sometimes a director will come in, and they’ll want to put their own stamp on the show and take it in a certain direction. Then the show runner may say that that’s not really what we’re doing here. That kind of dialogue is something that I’ve learned not to fear. It’s inevitable that there’s going to be some discussion. Every now and then it might get heated, and that’s just the nature of the process. It’s not something to fear or walk away from. We’re trying to get a lot done and there are many voices involved.

The DP is on for the whole season, so the DP sees the cast and the set every day. Then the director comes in with the new voice, and they might point out some things that are brand new and no one ever noticed. They’re bringing that new voice which is going to help the show. It might start to take it in another direction, at which point the producers might say “That’s not what we’re doing here”. That type of dialogue is healthy communication, and it’s part of the process and nothing to back off from.

Kirill: You mentioned that you started in the world of feature films, and that you’re in episodic television these days. Do you think that’s a larger trend to see more interesting storytelling migrating away from mid-budget feature film and into longer format episodic world?

Sarah: That shift definitely did happen. I remember shooting an independent feature called “Fay Grim” that got a lot of great press in 2006. Ted Hope was the producer on that show and we were going to do a sequel. He was a well known independent feature producer, but now he’s the head of production at Amazon.

I remember that it was around 2007-08 that I started seeing my colleagues and my peers who had been doing independent features shifting to move to television, and I went with them. I had been shooting independent features – which are great. They take some of the same skills. You still have to be able to read a script, tell a story and shoot fast. But between the economic contraction of 2008 and the writers’ strike of 2007, it wasn’t the best period for a couple years.

When I worked on them, independent features were sometimes funded by individual equity investors would had put their money into a film. And after 2008 those people went away.

The first TV show that I got on was Season 1 of “Ugly Betty”, and it was with somebody I had done independent features with before. And then I looked around and I said “Wow, a lot of people who I used to work on movies with are now working in television”, and I have to say I’m very happy about it. Having Netflix, Apple and some of the networks foster the big structure behind the project is great.

Features are hard to get together. You have to create this one production. You have to get all these factors to line up and make one film. But if you’re plugged into a larger network like Netflix, everybody benefits from the structure. There’s a lot of resources and a lot of momentum, and it’s really a golden era for content creation at this point. There’s so many more interesting shows now than there ever used to be, and I’m really happy for that change.

Kirill: Do you think it’s sustainable? There’s so many stories that are being offered to me as a viewer that it feels overwhelming.

Sarah: I think that we might be in a little bit of a bubble, because there are so many shows right now. There’s only a certain number of eyes in the world and only a certain number of viewers. At this moment, especially in New York, there’s a ton of content being created. It seems like most shows are finding an audience, but I just wonder if maybe the number of shows that are being produced is going drop somewhat in the coming years.

You have all these new platforms that are exploding now, like for example, Apple is getting into the game. I wonder if the number of shows being produced might drop off slightly in the coming years. At the moment it almost feels slightly like a bubble.

Cinematography of “Manifest” Season 2 by Sarah Cawley. Courtesy of NBC Universal.

Kirill: If you look back at some of your earlier productions, what do you remember? Do you remember the bad things, the good things, or some mix of the two?

Sarah: I definitely remember a mix of the good things and the bad things. There are moments when everyone comes together on sets, sometimes before dawn, and they start honestly sharing their ideas. We’re all working intensely towards a goal, and that feels great. I feel fortunate to be in that situation. I love being on set. I have the best job in the world and I just love how intense it is.

But it’s a mix. I’ve done so many jobs, and I see the beginning, the middle and the end. And at the end it’s almost like a portal closes and the whole experience is over now, and that can be tough. I definitely remember it as a mixed situation.

When people are just getting into the business or they’re looking at it from the outside, they say “Oh, working in film or TV must be so exciting”. But the fact is that the hours can be brutal. It can take over your life. I have kids and I remember when my daughter was talking about my schedule on “Ugly Betty”. She would see me in the evening at the beginning of the week, and then on the morning at the end of the week. So Monday morning I would start at 6AM and be home at 8PM. Then everyday we would start later and finish later, and by Friday we’d start at noon and be home at 3AM at night. That was part of her memory growing up – my crazy hours on this show, and how every single week would have that trajectory to it.

The intensity, the hours and some of those crazy inconveniences that come up are definitely part of my memory. That’s just the nature of the business. It’s so rare that you’re on a project and you’re going be home after 6 or 8 hours. It’s just going to come and take over your schedule.

Kirill: How do you choose your next production, and what brought you to “Manifest”?

Sarah: Well, timing is a factor. It has to be something where I’m available, and “Manifest” came up last May which was some great timing.

The thing that drew me to “Manifest” was the fact that it was Season 2, and that meant an opportunity to elevate the visual style from season 1. The showrunner and the producers wanted to keep the same plot points as Season 1, but we all wanted to reboot it and introduce more style and more visual storytelling. So I’ve used it as a unique opportunity.

It’s a genre combo. It’s a drama, but it also has some science-fiction aspects to it with all the callings and the things that happen on flight 828. That kind of genre-bending combination was something that I viewed as a nice challenge.

It was an opportunity to stylize it more. Shooting out on the streets of New York really is still one of my favorite things. I always think if you’re shooting in New York, you should be out in the environment rather than on the soundstage – and the producers shared that viewpoint as well. I was drawn to some of those big action set pieces where we were out on the streets of Manhattan.

Kirill: How does it work for you when you get into this established world and you do want to evolve it? How much space do you have to bring something of your own into it?

Sarah: During prep of Season 2 I decided to test some things. Testing is a creative process. It sounds like it might be boring, but it’s really not. Joe Chappelle directed the first episode of Season 2, and we had a few weeks of prep. We did a number of days of tests where I showed him some different looks for the callings. We did some different lighting, and we figured out our nosedive sequence on the airplane.

The callings are a very sensory experience and they’re subjective. We really wanted them to look different from they did in Season 1. The first season was a straightforward, non stylized approach to photography. We tested a number of different things for the callings. We ended up with the Lensbaby which a lens that organically distorts the edges of the image, giving you a feeling of subjectivity. I was thinking that if there’s a nosedive on the airplane, let’s try some different looks. I showed him a lightning storm, I showed him the camera on a three-axis Lambda head that had a steering wheel on it. That way you could crank the camera 45° really fast, and it would make everything look like a nosedive.

I showed him some things and he picked the things that he liked, and then we screened them for the showrunner. I ran with it. I showed him things and he would react to it. He was pretty receptive, we sent it out, and we got our whole new stylized visual vocabulary. I had a good opportunity at the beginning of Season 2.

Kirill: How does it work when you are working with multiple directors? You probably don’t want different episodes having significantly different visual styles.

Sarah: That is part of the process. Directors come in and they want to put their own signature on the episode, but the fact is the show has a vocabulary that’s been established.

It always starts with listening. The director will come in and talk about how that person feels to them and some of the things that they want to do. At that point we’re all listening. But if it looks like it’s going to deviate too far or it’s going to move away from the vocabulary established between the producers, the show runner and me during the prep conversations, we’ll try to guide it back. We’ll say that we can try to go down a certain path, but if we go too far, we’re going start to move away from our vocabulary and our formula. That’s a delicate balance.

Kirill: You mentioned how intense the schedule on these productions is, and there’s a lot of high-quality storytelling being done in episodic television these days. Does it feel that every new production that you join keeps on raising the level of expectations?

Sarah: In the last 10 years the expectations are really high, and the thing that I’ve noticed is the number of days is being cut down. If I was doing a 1-hour pilot ten years ago, we’d have 17 days. And now the schedules are getting shorter, while each day is getting longer.

The way the budget expresses itself is in terms of days. You get less and less time. It really forces you to think on your feet and prep as much as possible.

Kirill: Probably that’s where those advances in camera and lighting equipment come in handy – that you can do more in less time.

Sarah: Even the fact that you can change colors on all these new LED lights without having to utilize gels is amazing. Everything is DMX controlled, sometimes from an app on your phone. You can do so many things with the new generation of lights – fire effects, nightclub lighting, lightning, color-changing, dimming, not even having to run power because now they’re battery controlled. It’s all very helpful.

There’s a new generation of soft crates. It’s a snap grid of a sort. It’s these little attachments that go on every light that control that light to cut it off the wall. It’s an amazing advance in technology as well. That cutting of the light used to be done by grips, and now there are more and more accessories coming out to make that process faster. The color changing, the dimming and the light control is really beneficial for these new schedules. I actually don’t know if we would have been able to do it with the technology from even 8 years ago.

Cinematography of “Manifest” Season 2 by Sarah Cawley. Courtesy of NBC Universal.

Kirill: Without spoiling the storyline of the season, was there a particularly challenging or memorable sequence for you in this season?

Sarah: I’m definitely being mindful of the spoilers, because this show is very big on revealing things. I will say that the season finale is one of the biggest set pieces that I’ve ever shot, but I can’t probably get into that at this point.

The one that is out now is at the beginning of the Season 2 promo. It’s the nosedive scene on the airplane when Melissa is saying “Why are we back on flight 828?” That’s now an iconic scene, even before the season starts airing. I got to use all these different technical approaches to get it to really feel like this airplane was crashing in a storm, which is a tough thing to do.

I felt like that was starting episode 201 with a bang, and it’s an iconic part of what they’re showing for Season 2. There were lighting challenges, camera movement challenges, and just visual design that was great. So I would say so far with what I can talk about, that the nosedive scene in the beginning of episode 201 is the one that I view as a challenge, and I’m really proud of. I will say the finale has some stuff too, but can’t really talk about that yet.

Kirill: How does it feel now to look back at what you’ve done on this second season?

Sarah: I’m very proud of the look that we got. It took a huge amount of effort to get the bigger action set-pieces to look as polished, stylized and amazing as they as they do. There’s a lot of production in New York right now, and I am very happy about the crew that I got together. It was a hand-picked group of talented people – the gaffer, the key grip, the camera operators. Everyone was really an A-list crew member. That’s one thing that comes to mind.

Kirill: This is the impression I get from doing these interviews – how much people that stay in the industry enjoy and love what they do, because otherwise probably it would be very hard to stay in it.

Sarah: It’s true. The days can stretch to 12 or 14 hours, and you have to love the job.

I have a tradition in my family that we do on the New Year’s Eve. At the end of any given year we read our top 10 favorite moments from the last 12 months. And 3 of my top 10 moments were on this show because I love it so much. If you love it, it gets you through. Some people might not be able to manage the schedule, but if you love it, it’s your thing.

Kirill: You talked about staying aware of the technical advances, as well as finding the right artistic expression to convey certain story points and emotions. Between these two, the technical and the artistic, do you think one of them is more important to you as a cinematographer?

Sarah: I think that the artistic side is always going to end up being the more important side. It all really comes down to story. Are we going to tell a story? Is it going to be an interesting story? Is it going to involve you as the viewer? That’s really what’s going to make a show or a film work.

Without the story and the artistic side to guide it, you could just get lost in the technological advances. If you go to one of these huge trade shows like NAB, you can wander through a gigantic convention center just full of totally amazing gear. But that’s not what’s going to put a movie into your mind and make you always remember it. You’re always going to come back to the artistic side of it. What is the story, what is the look, what is the feeling.

That’s what human beings engage with. We engage with stories. We don’t engage with concepts.

Kirill: Do you have a definition of what success is for you? Do you read what critics are saying, do you look at the ratings numbers, do you look at what you peers might be saying about your work?

Sarah: I measure success on whether I’m getting to work with interesting people, if the phone’s ringing and I feel like I’m connecting with other creative people.

The comments and the feedback from my colleagues and my peers is very important to me. I love it, I really do. I love it when my show does well. One of the first TV shows that I was shooting on was “Ugly Betty”, and I was thrilled that that show was a hit. It was a new show, it was Season 1, and it was a hit. That feels good.

You’re putting your heart and soul into the show, and you want a lot of people to watch it. And it also creates a feeling of connection which is something that I like. I don’t like to be isolated. I like to be connected.

Kirill: You talked about how many stories are being told right now in episodic television. Does it feel to you that sometimes it’s almost random what gets popular, and what can’t seem to find its legs and gets cancelled quickly?

Sarah: I do think so, because opinions are formed so rapidly now. If there’s a positive cascade about a show, then it can become a hit. My example for it would be “Russian Doll”. I had a couple of friends telling me that I had to watch it, and so I did. I loved it and that show had a lot of supporters.

Opinions get formed and people share information so rapidly. They say “You should watch this” or they circulate a clip from a show that catches on and goes viral. I do think there’s a little bit of random aspect to it. Sometimes it takes a show a little while to find its legs, and sometimes it might get cancelled before that has an opportunity to happen because producers aren’t as patient as they once were. It’s possible for a show to get lost in the shuffle, and there’s a certain element of luck whether your show is the one that catches on or not.

Kirill: If you win the lottery tomorrow and you don’t need to work anymore, would you still be somehow connected to this creative field?

Sarah: Absolutely, that’s how I know that I’m in the right tribe. If I won the lottery tomorrow and I were a millionaire, I would probably still be hustling to get another show [laughs]. It’s a big part of my identity and I really do enjoy it so much.

Cinematography of “Manifest” Season 2 by Sarah Cawley. Courtesy of NBC Universal.

And here I’d like to thank Sarah Cawley for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of cinematography, and on what went into making the second season of “Manifest”. I’d also like to thank Katie Dooling for making this interview happen. The show is available for streaming on NBC. 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.