Cinematography of “Little Fires Everywhere” – interview with Jeffrey Waldron

April 19th, 2020

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my delight to welcome Jeffrey Waldron. In this interview he talks about how the changes in the world of episodic productions in the last few years, the dynamics of having one vs more cinematographers working on a season, building a visual language for the story and evolving it as the story progresses, and choosing his productions. Around these topics and more, Jeffrey dives deep into his work on Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere”. Fair warning – we did the interview right after Episode 6 aired, and there are plenty of spoilers throughout the interview on the storylines in the show.

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

Jeffrey: I knew very early that I wanted to be a storyteller. As a kid, I was obsessed with animation. To me it was like magic, those earlier Disney films were like moving paintings. Now I have a daughter and I’m revisiting all of them, and they’re still just so beautiful. I loved the artistry and the control that the artists had over each frame in terms of balance, color, movement – complete mastery of what was in that box.

My experimentation in hand-drawn and stop-motion animation eventually put me face-to-face with a 16mm camera. From there my interest in film expanded and I started shooting still photos. I found I also enjoyed the documentary-style approach where you don’t have any of that control. Ultimately, it’s a combination of both of these elements for me – creating magic and finding magic, and in trying to combine those two interests, I realized I wanted to be a cinematographer.

In high school I started volunteering on indie film sets to learn lighting, to learn how a DP [director of photography] worked, how to use light meter and how to tell the story with camera and light. It was my passion, and when I graduated high school, I moved to LA to go to film school – and I’ve been here ever since.

Kirill: If I can bring you back to those first few times on the film sets, was there anything particularly surprising or unexpected for you?

Jeffrey: The surprising thing early on was just how much of a collaboration the whole thing was. I had started out making my own films, and especially coming from an animation background where you’re all alone, you’re doing it by yourself. When I started volunteering on a lighting crew, I started to realize that there was more to it than some grand vision at the top shared by a couple of key artists. There were so many talented hands in place making that image you see. It’s about how the light is shaped, it’s the way the painting is hung on the wall at exactly the right height for the composition, there are all these details in everything you see. I just love that kind of collaboration where everybody has a sense of what this can be and is working hard to make it the best version of that.

Cinematography of “Little Fires Everywhere” by Jeffrey Waldron.

Kirill: Is it hard to convey this organizational complexity when you talk about what you do for a living?

Jeffrey: I usually answer the question of what I do rather quickly, but there is of course a lot to it.

I think people know what a cameraman is, but I don’t think they know that there’s a role that is ultimately the shepherd of how they’re perceiving the work – in terms of light, color, composition, choices of depth of field and all these tools we have at our disposal. I don’t know that they know that those are all actually conscious choices, and that to pull off any of that stuff you need huge teams of skilled individuals.

You don’t want to take away from the magic of what the filmmaking is doing by explaining too much about what’s behind it. Hopefully that stuff is invisible. It’s the combined hard work of the crew members – the camera teams, the grip teams, the electric teams, the art department, wardrobe, and all of the other departments. But if the story is being told right, you hope most people feel that stuff rather than think about it.

Kirill: What do you see in the world of episodic productions in the last few years? Do you see higher expectations from the production side of things? Do you see that the audiences are expecting a higher level of storytelling?

Jeffrey: I think there’s a push from all sides to push the storytelling. The audiences expect more from the small screen than they ever have before. I think audiences now demand more depth in story and bolder cinematography. They see episodic more as a long-form feature than the TV shows we used to know.

I also see the showrunning side of it pushing the boundaries. If you’re a creator, there’s a huge competitive drive toward bigger and better. What can we do with this medium that we’ve never done before?

And then you have studios and networks like Hulu, Netflix and HBO that are driven from the top to outdo each other, to find new heights.

Cinematography of “Little Fires Everywhere” by Jeffrey Waldron.

Kirill: Do you ever want to hear a compliment that it was a well shot episode where people focus on your part of it and not on the story itself?

Jeffrey: Of course you want some recognition, but I think the better compliment is that the episode worked really well. Now you definitely don’t want to hear anything negative about it [laughs] but the best compliment you can hear is that it was amazing storytelling all around. If I can read that in a review, if I can hear that from somebody, then I know that we all did our part. You don’t want to stand out or be distracting in any way. You don’t want anybody to be thinking about cinematography.

Kirill: How do you choose your projects in general, and what brought you to “Little Fires Everywhere”?

Jeffrey: I had just come off of a production in New York called “Mrs Fletcher” that was based on a book. The author of the book was one of the producers and was heavily involved. There was something wonderful about trying to take the prose of a book and discover a visual representation of that. Is the book formal? Is it loosely written? How do we create the fabric of the book in this series?

So when another book adaptation came along on the heels of that, I was again inspired to try to bring it to the screen. I read the book before the interview, and I also read the first couple of scripts. The book was amazing but there was also a lot of additional depth that Liz Tigelaar the show runner brought to her interpretation in the scripts. It was exciting to me.

Beyond that, I’m a 90’s kid. My last three years of high school were in suburban Washington DC. We lived in a house very similar to Elena’s, in a world very similar to Shaker. I felt an instant connection and I knew throwing myself back there, tapping into memory to help create the visual story, was going to be fun for me.

Cinematography of “Little Fires Everywhere” by Jeffrey Waldron.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as the only right way to tell a story? Or is that a subjective decision for you with your collaborators?

Jeffrey: It’s all very subjective. Different sets of collaborators would approach this all very differently. It’s important that you’re on the same page as your collaborators, and that you’ve defined to each other what you’re doing and how you interpret it.

Here we felt that Elena has this control in her life, and Mia’s bringing this artistic chaotic energy. And we agreed, well here’s what that means to us as visual filmmakers. This is how we can establish Elena — more composed, more formal — and here’s how we could frame Mia, looser, edgier. And then once their worlds collide, we can start to be a little more chaotic all around. So long as you have those conversations where everybody’s excitedly pushing in the same direction, you’re in a good place.

Kirill: How did you approach splitting the story arc between two cinemathographers, so that for me as a viewer it would feel that it was told with a single voice?

Jeffrey: I came in to pre-production at the same time as the other DP Trevor Forrest. I wasn’t hopping on later and trying to catch up. We developed much of this together from those initial conversations with the creators. We were exploring our references together in terms of what we were seeing for this and what we were inspired by.

Then as he hit the ground running on the pilot, I was able to visit his set, watch his dailies and see how they were approaching what we had been talking about. That gave me the opportunity to react to it and adjust for the ongoing arc of my episodes – rather than just trying to mimic what I was seeing. It all had to do with being in pre-production together, and approaching the story the same way from the beginning.

Cinematography of “Little Fires Everywhere” by Jeffrey Waldron.

Kirill: Stepping a bit outside of “Little Fires Everywhere” to your other productions such as “GLOW”, how different is it when you’re the only cinematographer working on the entire season?

Jeffrey: It is a different process with one DP. You’re alone in pre-production as you’re developing the show’s complete visual approach with your first director. Then it’s you bringing that approach to life and evolving it, while there’s a lot more give and take when you create with another DP. When you’re alternating with somebody else, you’re watching their dailies and seeing how they’re approaching these same challenges. You make it your own within the established vision, but ultimately it’s a process of sharing.

On “Little Fires Everywhere” we had created a progression throughout the season where each episode was slowly moving from summer to winter, and basically from order to chaos. We were able to keep interpreting and evolving because every new episode was driving the look forward in these ways. So each DP returns for their next episodes and keeps creatively pushing those things further.

It is a lot simpler when it is a single DP. However there are a lot of challenges to being a single DP on a show like “GLOW” or “Dear White People” where you have directors that are cycling in and there’s no time to prep. On “Little Fires Everywhere” Trevor had one director and I had two directors. But on “Dear White People” or “GLOW” you can have six to ten directors. There it’s more about new directors landing into the show and you trying to catch them up on how the show works. You show them how we have been creatively approaching similar situations to the one they’re about to be in.

For “Dear White People” I created a guide that the director could read before we met. It had references on what the creator and I had come up with for the visual language of the show. You just don’t have any time to talk to that new director in any deep sort of way. You can maybe meet them at lunch, but you’re shooting all the time. There’s no prep days to discuss the finer points or visit locations together. Obviously you want the director to bring a lot of their own creativity to the project, but a guide like this can at least catch them up on the deepest creative conversations that we’ve had.

Kirill: You did four episodes on “Little Fires Everywhere”. How much time each episode took you?

Jeffrey: Each two episode block was prepped for about 4-5 weeks, and then we shot for about 12 days per episode — two episodes at a time. While Trevor was shooting his episodes, I was prepping mine. So we’d prep for 4-5 weeks, and then switch to shooting for 4-5 weeks. Some episodes were a little longer in terms of schedule – I think the first and final episodes might have had an extra day or two. There were some days we were overlapping, so we had to share crew on different stages splitting up the different actors and actresses.

Cinematography of “Little Fires Everywhere” by Jeffrey Waldron.

Kirill: Do you have a personal preference on how you shoot an episode? Do you prefer to do it in chronological order, or complete one location and then move on to the next one?

Jeffrey: I think that for the story and the actors, there’s always going to be a preference to shoot in chronological order. It helps me too, for instance it definitely helps when I’m connecting an exterior scene to a scene on a soundstage so we can match the lighting and weather continuity.

That said, it’s rarely ever possible. From a production standpoint, they’re always block-shooting locations and it ends up all over the place. Usually that’s the only way to do it — there are so many factors from cast availability, location availability, time of day — that make each schedule a complicated, often very scattered puzzle.

I think it’s especially hard on the actors. I think they would wish that everything was as chronological as possible. They are building their arc in a much more personal and emotional way. But that’s just how it works out.

Kirill: Is it a challenge for you to shoot something that is set in modern day, to make it visually interesting for the viewer?

Jeffrey: “Little Fires Everywhere” takes place in 1997. One of the ideas we had in the first couple of episodes was that Elena has this visual order, and we wanted to create a visual comfort. It’s the filmic equivalent of ’90s suburban style that isn’t inherently visual to begin with. It’s more comfortable in a way, it’s like the cinematic equivalent of that beige couch in her comfortable living room.

That’s how we wanted to set it up, but even by Episode 2 I was starting to push things a little bit darker as the danger increases. Then, as the season goes on, it starts to become a little bit more about the darkness and uncertainty. What begins as more formal camera movement and soft frontal lighting gives into handheld, edgy lighting, cooler tones, longer lenses, and a bit more shallow depth-of-field. But in the very beginning our idea was not to blow people away with it. We just wanted it to feel comfortable, and that’s how we approached it.

Kirill: Does it feel a bit surreal to be watching episodes right now and see how different our life in April 2020 is compared to this “normal” everyday routine they’re having?

Jeffrey: It’s an interesting time to have a show coming out weekly. I don’t know if the context changes the meaning of this show, but I do see a reaction from audiences who want to escape into that world. People are really engaged. It’s quite comforting and a good reminder that in times like this we need entertainment. We need to escape the drama outside our front doors, people want to delve into stories like this and it’s wonderful that they’re also able to view a complicated America through the prism of Elena and Mia’s relationship.

Kirill: Does it sometimes feel random what catches people’s attention from the productions that you’ve been working on so far?

Jeffrey: I’m always surprised. I never know what the reaction is going be when we finish. You’re just so in the thick of it, and you’re looking at the day-to-day and shot-to-shot of it. By the end of it I’m never sure that something will be either liked by critics or by audiences. I’m always delighted when I find people are watching this stuff we’re making.

Cinematography of “Little Fires Everywhere” by Jeffrey Waldron.

Kirill: Talking about more technical details, I’d like to hear a bit more about one of my favorite parts so far. It started in the first episode as Mia was shooting stills from her bedroom window, and then we see it again as she’s taking photos at the birthday party in Episode 3. Can you talk about the technical side of the camera transitioning to those black-and-white stills, freezing the moment?

Jeffrey: On set we shot two basic Steadicam passes. One steadicam pass would be leading Mia who is taking pictures during the party, as she’s going through three rooms. We would hook into whatever she was looking at, and we would be there always right in front of her. And then we did a pass as her, drifting from subject to subject. After that it was up to the editors to pick those freeze frames within her point of view.

Episode 6 just came out, and it’s quite different in that it takes place in 1981. It’s the same characters, but different actresses. There’s also a lot of Mia’s beginning her photography career. She’s in art school in New York.

It takes that technique that you’ve asked about to a new dimension. She’s on the streets of New York and we’re seeing the world through her lens. And that ultimately that leads to a pivotal scene later in the episode where she’s in a bathtub with her mentor-teacher. They’re beginning a relationship and they’re taking pictures of each other and again we’re using that same freeze-frame black-and-white approach to show the genesis of a very important photo in the series.

Cinematography of “Little Fires Everywhere” by Jeffrey Waldron.

Kirill: You talked about going into the darker side of the story in episodes 2 and 3. From the technical perspective, do you find that the digital cameras today are good enough to capture low light images?

Jeffrey: Absolutely. We shot on Alexa LF and I think that the cameras we’re working with now are exceptional in the lower light realms. They capture shadow detail in a beautiful way, even if in final color we end up wanting to push it a little more crunchy or a little more contrasty. In terms of the lower end of the curve from highlights to darkness, the cameras are exceptional. So yes, our camera was able to capture beautiful detail within darker parts of the frame.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as your favorite scene, or perhaps the most challenging scene on this show for you?

Jeffrey: There were a lot of challenging scenes, and most of those were especially hard because of the time limitations surrounding them.

The most challenging scenes are generally ones where multiple characters are moving through multiple rooms and multiple spaces. That was part of the language we wanted to establish, but it came with its share of technical difficulties. The characters have very different skins tones, and we wanted to be able to let them move around freely but also look good, so you need to hide lights or ride levels because you don’t want nuclear practicals or windows feeling unnatural. So as you turn a corner this window source might fade down on the dimmer board as it comes into view. You’re trying to maintain a look in a way that feels natural without creating distractions for the audience.

Kirill: Is it still hard to expose different skin tones the way you want them to be?

Jeffrey: It’s more about celebrating the complexions of the different actors. You want them all to look great.

This doesn’t necessarily have to do with skin tone. What looks good on one actress won’t necessarily look good on another. A certain amount of edge, or this amount of darkness, of this amount of hard light might look better on one than the other. So if two actors with very different faces are both working in the same space, you have to find ways to balance all of those things.

Skin tone is definitely only one factor of many in how we approach lighting an actor. For instance skin reflectivity is as much a factor. Two people’s pigmentation might be exactly the same, but they can be very different in how they reflect light. The shape of a face, a particular hairstyle, hair color – these all play into how you light them.

Kirill: It’s not a particularly glamorous show, except maybe for the very beginning. How do you maintain the balance between the realism of it and making it a little bit more visually appealing for the audience, something that attracts my attention as a viewer?

Jeffrey: That’s a great question. That’s the great tension of modern cinematography in a lot of ways. You obviously want something to be beautiful, not necessarily in a classical way, but have some aesthetic appeal. And then there’s also a lot of emphasis on realism in cinematography. I think it’s a sliding scale from docu-realism to super formal. On one end you have formal camera movement and nuanced lighting vs all handheld movement and no lighting at the other.

This show is somewhere in the middle of that sliding scale. We might have a formal camera push, but maybe we’re letting the light be a little more raw for this moment. It’s all about interpreting story and point of view. Is it a hard emotional moment? Is Mia in her creative space letting loose? Then we’ll lean on a less lit, long-lens handheld feel. Is it a more romantic moment? Then we’ll play up that romance and the painterly quality of that.

Generally you want to define and stay within a section of that sliding scale and then make your decisions based on character and story from there. You don’t usually want to play both extremes of a documentary feel and full music video at the same time.

Cinematography of “Little Fires Everywhere” by Jeffrey Waldron.

Kirill: Do you ever find yourself lost in the moment, looking at the actors’ performance and not paying attention to the technical side of things?

Jeffrey: We have these amazing actresses in our show. That one scene at the end of Episode 2 with Elena and Mia on the couch talking about motherhood – I do remember getting lost in it. Luckily, we had seen it enough times and there were no technical surprises there. I definitely fell into that scene and felt emotional.

Sometimes I put the headphones on to hear the sound mix as it’s happening, to hear the performances. And there are times when I really want to focus on the technical. Then I won’t put those on – I’m just looking at the visual side of it. When I really need to focus – and that’s most of the time – I won’t listen.

Kirill: Having said that, as you watch every single take and you see every scene so many times, do you get to enjoy your episodes after they’ve been fully edited?

Jeffrey: Yes, especially when some time has passed. We shot “Little Fires Everywhere” last summer and fall. You forget the things that you were worried about on the day. It’s wonderful to see it ironed into a scene that works really well, even though in the moment I was wishing for more time to do this or that.

It’s still hard to watch anything I do. Right now I’m using the hiatus to watch a lot of my shows, and I’m asking myself what can I do differently [laughs]. You always see the faults in your work in a way that nobody else will. But the really brutal thing to do is to turn the sound off and watch your shows – without the music, the performance and the writing. I’m always looking for ways to learn from myself. I want to see what can be better.

Cinematography of “Little Fires Everywhere” by Jeffrey Waldron.

Kirill: How much do you obsessed over these tiny details? Is it difficult to flip that switch as you spend time with you family or friends over the weekends or in the evening?

Jeffrey: This is something I’m working on all the time. I do bring home a lot of the obsession. During a show I don’t sleep very well. It’s ridiculous to say, but I wake up thinking that I should have said something about whatever little detail slipped through my fingers [laughs].

I’ve had many sleepless nights over things I don’t remember at all now, and none of it ends up mattering. But I can’t turn off that part of me [laughs]. I wish I could. It’s not perfectionism. It’s just wanting to do better. That’s where the growth comes from. If it felt easy, I wouldn’t necessarily be growing as an artist.

Kirill: We’ve talked a bit about the technical side of things, knowing the camera details, the lighting setups etc. And then you have the artistic side of things, which is about finding the right expression, the right way to tell that story. Do you think that one of these is more important than the other?

Jeffrey: I think they’re equally important. The technical is there to execute the artistic. But if you’re ever caught in a place where the technical is superseding the art, then something might be wrong. To me it starts with the idea, then it turns into a mental image, and then I’m thinking about what are the technical bits necessary to pull this off.

Kirill: Perhaps this is not for “Little Fires Everywhere”, as it’s still relatively fresh in your memory. If you look at your productions from 4-5 years ago, what do you remember? Is it mostly pleasant? Do you find yourself wishing to “suppress” some of those memories?

Jeffrey: It’s mostly very pleasant memories with the crew. For a lot of people it’s just a show, but for me it’s like a chapter of my life. I spend that chunk of a year in close quarters with people. Mostly the memories are good.

It’s me having great collaborations with great directors. It’s me working with my crews who I love, crews who bring a lot of this great work to the screen. Once in a while it is somebody who you remember as toxic, but ultimately it’s all the goodness. I do remember specific shots that we pulled off, shots that were triumphs. But I don’t usually remember any of the things that I thought were big problems at the time.

Cinematography of “Little Fires Everywhere” by Jeffrey Waldron.

Kirill: I can see some string instruments behind you and maybe a drum set. Is this what you do in between your productions to relax and recharge?

Jeffrey: Me and my wife are both musicians. Playing instruments – guitar, banjo or piano is a way to unwind and occupy your brain with something completely different from the collaborative film set experience. Especially now during the hiatus, I’m spending quite a bit of time trying to progress in terms of my music practice.

Playing music has always been a big part of my life, and it’s always been a release valve for a lot of the stress of working in the business.

Kirill: Ignoring the hopefully transient nature of this forced break, what keeps you going in this industry?

Jeffrey: I love what I do. I’ve always dreamed of doing it, and I count myself among the lucky few that get to do exactly what they’d imagined. I’ve wanted to do this since I was a kid, and I look around sometimes and can’t believe that I’m actually doing it for a living.

So while it is stressful and it’s hard work, it’s extremely rewarding to see the work of your crew, your imagination and your collaboration creating a piece of art and entertainment for the world. Sometimes the stressful details don’t matter. It’s just something for your brain to be working on, to make you better. Instead, you look back at the day and you think that we really made that scene. That was a chapter in a book a month ago, and now we’ve made it a visual piece. It’s the joy of creating. It’s pretty amazing.

Cinematography of “Little Fires Everywhere” by Jeffrey Waldron.

And here I’d like to thank Jeffrey Waldron for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of cinematography. You can also find him on Twitter. I’d also like to thank Andrea Resnick for making this interview happen. The first season of “Little Fires Everywhere” is available for streaming on Hulu. 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.