Cinematography of “Briarpatch” – interview with Zachary Galler

June 13th, 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 Zachary Galler. In this interview he talks about his path through the various positions in the camera department in his career so far, the hidden complexity of what goes on behind the scenes to bring these stories to our screens, digital vs film, and working with multiple directors across the season arc of a show. Around these topics and more, Zachary dives deep into creating the worlds of the delightfully sumptuous “Briarpatch”.

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

Zachary: My name is Zack Galler, and I started in this industry about 18 years ago. I grew up going on set, because my dad was a director of documentaries and small commercials when I was a kid.

I had the love for films since I was 14 when my dad took me to see “Pulp Fiction” in a theatre. It’s cracked my head open like an egg, and I realized that there was stuff that you could do and say at the movie that I hadn’t even conceived of as a kid. I fell in love with it, and I started gorging myself on all sorts of different things. It started with Tarantino who was, for me, the coolest director. When I got a little bit older, I started getting into European cinema, but basically I had this love for film when I was in high school. I used to go on set with my dad and he also knew some casting directors. So as a summer job growing up, I would go be an extra on a TV show and spend my time there.

Then I went to film school in New York for about 18 months, and ended up feeling like there are so many prerequisites. It felt like it was things I had already discovered on my own, and I ended up dropping out to play music – not knowing exactly how I was going to be getting involved in film in New York City. At some point I was talking to a gaffer on a job that I PA’ing on, and he got me a job working in a lighting rental warehouse. That was my introduction to the technical side of things. I worked there loading grip trucks to go out on jobs in the New York area for about a year. Then I started going out on sets and worked my way up from there.

I was an electrician and a grip, and then I was a gaffer. I had a really good DP taking me under his wings early on, probably before I was ready. That gave me the confidence to explore and he taught me so much. The first film I shot that had any cohesiveness to it was for this Columbia grad student, and I started building my portfolio from there doing music videos and shorts in New York – teaching myself camera language using the knowledge I had from lighting.

I shot a bunch of indie movies, and I was really lucky that the first feature I did got into Sundance competition, and the second feature I did got into Berlin. After about 6-8 indie movies, my agent reached out about a TV show and it’s been a lot of TV ever since and a couple movies in between. So that’s been my journey through the lighting department, starting as a truck driver and a warehouse guy, and working hard ever since.

Cinematography of “Briarpatch” by Zachary Galler.

Kirill: When you talk about what you do for a living, how do you convey this complexity of how many people are involved in bringing these stories to the screen?

Zachary: The way that I look at my job is that I’m creating a world for the viewer to escape into or exist within, and cinematography has to be comprehensive like that.

Think about what it takes to make your everyday life going, and now imagine installing that temporarily in the warehouse somewhere or making that on a random street in New York. It takes a lot of people because there is a ton of detail, and the better shows are a complete world. You need to have a safe work environment that lets people to work within these space. It has to be well thought-out from an aesthetic angle. There are many layers of detail in the production design, the location and the lighting, and it takes a lot of people to put these things together in a way that lets you take them down again after you’re done shooting.

There’s an interesting interview with Harris Savides I read a long time ago where he compares this to merchant marines. You have this army of a sorts that comes in, does their thing and then takes it all down and disappears. Usually, it’s a hugely efficient, well-run machine.

Kirill: If I go along with this metaphor, do you want me as a viewer to think about this complexity, to think about all the layers that go into telling these stories when I’m watching it? I certainly don’t think about everything that was involved in making that loaf of bread when I buy one at my local grocery store.

Zachary: Ideally, the viewer is never thinking about anything technical like that, but rather ingesting it through the osmosis of what we’re serving. I’m there to serve the story and the actors, and usually they are holding up their end of the bargain. I don’t want the viewer to think about the camera or notice a cool looking light. I’d love for them to be able to immerse themselves in the world.

Hopefully, we’re creating worlds that look seamless and not contrived. My ideal goal is to always create a realistic world for you to exist in. But if a viewer is feeling self-aware, that becomes less effective, and the spell that we’re trying to cast is a little bit less strong.

Cinematography of “Briarpatch” by Zachary Galler.

Kirill: Your portfolio has sections for different types of productions, from music videos to commercials to narrative storytelling. Is there any particular kind of production that is your favorite, or do they all exercise different parts of your creative brain?

Zachary: They all exercise different parts and they all have their own merits. I feel lucky that I’ve had the chance to work on a diverse variety of projects. Feature films definitely scratch a different itch than commercials, and TV is an in-between – and each requires a different skill set.

TV is such an interesting combination of crafts. You have to be so aware of your time and schedule. When I’m working on a TV production, it feels like you’re fighting schedule, while on movies you’re fighting the budget – and it’s all made better or worse by how much you can get everybody to care about the story you’re telling. Commercials are a whole another, sometimes frustrating, ball-game altogether. On music videos you usually fighting against your resources, but they provide such a fun platform to experiment visually.

Once you come up with the way that the world exists on your TV production, you have to go so fast – but not necessarily formulaic. By the time you’re on set, there are certain choices that you’ve already made, and there’s not a lot of time or room for discovery. Sometimes you get lucky and you get to work with people that support that, but that doesn’t happen frequently.

Cinematography of “Briarpatch” by Zachary Galler.

Kirill: Does it feel that the debate between digital and film has been settled by the economical aspect of it? My impression is that the quality of digital is roughly on the same level, but it’s more economical to shoot digital.

Zachary: I feel like this is a producer’s battle at this point. If you do film, the cost is a little bit more upfront. But it also depends on the particular project. Maybe you’re doing something period. Maybe you don’t have the budget to make your sets quite as good as you want to. It’s nice to have the crazy resolutions that we have sometimes, but it’s not a necessity. In an aesthetic way, film can help you sell things you might not otherwise be able to sell.

It’s an interesting question, and it’s a philosophical question. It depends on where the producer and director’s priorities are. There’s so many different types of productions where the #1 priority may be the aesthetics, the visual, the world – and those are the people that are going to be a little bit more receptive to fight for film.

At this point, economically it’s a wash. Film may cost a little more up-front, but there are definitely benefits on the back end. If you have a lot of people that, for some reason, need to see dailies fast, that can be slightly problematic. And aside from spending a little extra money up-front, it requires a commitment from everyone to be more disciplined on set. You can’t just let the camera roll and find your performance with the camera rolling. It’s a way of working it, and I’m not here to say that it’s right or wrong way to work. Some directors employ that technique, but you can’t do that when you’re shooting film. Everybody needs to be on board for that to happen. It’s certainly a valuable tool that should stick around, but it’s not the right tool for every director and DP.

Cinematography of “Briarpatch” by Zachary Galler.

Kirill: Connecting to your work on “Briarpatch” that has lots of exterior night shots, do you feel that you can achieve what you want to achieve with the current generation of digital cameras – especially in low light conditions?

Zachary: Definitely. The cameras get better and easier to work with. I’m not hugely invested in the technological side of it, and I don’t have a romantic attachment to any camera or camera system. Each one is a specific tool for a specific job. For instance, the pilot episode of “Briarpatch” was shot on Panavision DXL with a RED sensor. The rest of the season, for budgetary and aesthetic reasons, was done on RED RANGER system and slightly different lenses.

I feel that the technical limitations are dropping away faster and faster all the time. You can do so much. Going back to the earlier film discussion, when you process film, you see how sensitive the stock is. There’s something so beautiful about underexposed film. We’re living in a great time, technically, for all this equipment and especially for low light. Aesthetically, you’re able to get to a wonderful place.

Kirill: As we started talking about “Briarpatch”, what brought you to the show?

Zachary: At that point, I had just done a show called “The Act” for UCP, and once you have a good experience, you try and keep working with a lot of the same people. My agent got me a meeting with Andy Greenwald and Andy Campagna, and I had the opportunity to watch the pilot that was directed by Ana Lily Amirpour and shot by Tod Campbell.

There was a period of a full year between the time the pilot was shot and when it went to series. That gave then time to assess how successful they felt they had been in the pilot. We had a good conversation about what we wanted to take moving forward and what we wanted to change moving forward. There were people from Esmail Corp and Anonymous Content. It was super collaborative. They were friendly towards the creative and the visual side of it, ready for some interesting work with the camera. That meeting went well, and I got the offer to do the job.

Cinematography of “Briarpatch” by Zachary Galler.

Kirill: Apart from the pilot, you did all the episodes on the first season of the show, working with multiple directors. How do you find the balance between maintaining a consistent visual language and providing space for directors to bring their voices?

Zachary: That’s an interesting thing about TV. You know that when you’re the only DP, that means you’re the one constant. The directors who come in for individual episodes know the expectations, and I’ve had great collaborations with my directors.

Sometimes, the tricky part of being the only DP is having to leave the set and go scout locations. You end up leaving your camera operator or gaffer in charge for a few hours, and you work with your AD to schedule scouts before you start shooting that day. It can end up being a long day, but it’s worth it.

You get prep time with the director on the weekends, and then either before or after shooting days, unless it’s a crazy long day. The director already knows the feel of the show, and I talk with them about the outline of what we’re doing. I ask them if they plan to do any big setups or big shots outside of the framework that is established. That’s the great thing about TV. Most of the time, you have the resources to execute on that wild idea the director has.

I’ve been lucky to have an experienced crew that is ready to change course in case we need to. I’ve been lucky to work on offbeat shows that attract offbeat directors. I’ve seen really interesting creative ideas, but there haven’t been any big surprises for me so far.

Cinematography of “Briarpatch” by Zachary Galler.

Kirill: You said that there was a period of a full year between the pilot and the rest of the series. How much of that look you’ve adopted, and how much did you want to push in your own direction?

Zachary: As I watched the pilot and read the scripts for the upcoming episodes, I realized how much bigger the world was going to have to get, and how much less control we were going to have over the sets and the situations. I also knew that the scripts would have more pages compared to the pilot, while at the same time we were going to have fewer days for each episode.

I wanted to switch to slightly faster lenses. On the pilot they shot anamorphic, going with Panavision, C Series and B series, as well some cool funky old lenses. I wanted to have a slightly different toolbox, so we ended up going with a master anamorphic switch that had a full stop on a lot of the lenses. The full season ended up taking 4-5 months, and you have to work with the availability of those sets of lenses. Also, during the time between the pilot and the series there were a couple advances in the RED sensor. We went with RED RANGER which had a slightly higher ISO capability as well.

A big night exterior in the desert gets a lot easier when you can do it with LEDs instead of HMIs. You can have much more freedom to work when you can work at a lower light level out there.

So we did chance cameras and lenses, but they did some wonderful stuff in the pilot with wide-angle close-ups and playing with the idea of how grotesque some of these characters were. We definitely brought that over into the series. But after seeing how complicated the storyline and the scripts were becoming moving ahead, I definitely simplified the pilot techniques a little bit.

Cinematography of “Briarpatch” by Zachary Galler.

Kirill: Do you feel that sometimes people expect a certain “visual vocabulary” to be employed, like using strong yellows for exterior shots in Texas summer? Do you find yourself fighting, if you will, against such established norms?

Zachary: Tod established it well in the pilot, and we talked about this going forward, which was to not do the underexposed, flare’y, super soft look that is quite common right now. That’s the convention that I was trying to buck. We were shooting with the sharpest camera and the sharpest lenses from the master anamorphic system. We used the sharpest lenses we could get, and the RED camera feels very sharp as well. But it wasn’t bucking the convention just for the sake of it. To me it was making it look hyper-real, surreal and pulpy.

As far as Texas being hot? We shot it in New Mexico, but there’s no way around the bright harsh sunlight of it. I never really thought about the warmth of it, because it feels so aesthetically right when you’re there. Soderbergh’s “Traffic” immediately pops into my head. I don’t have an example of a desert aesthetic taken to a cool place. We weren’t trying to necessarily buck that. We wanted to embrace how hot it was.

We had the challenge of showing how hot the place is. That was something that Andy the showrunner lifted from the books. We were constantly aware of having everybody look sweaty – except for Rosario Dawson. She was supposed to never sweat at all. So the heat was supposed to be a character in the story, or something that was part of the viewer’s experience with this. So we leaned into that golden heat that you’re talking about, and tried to keep the highlights from blowing out.

When we had a point-of-view shot, we would have those little propane tanks you’d use to start a charcoal grill. Then the special effects crew would make a flame bar right under the lens to make the heat waves. That way you were looking down a road and seeing that golden Texas heat. You don’t need to rock that boat. You can use the viewer’s idea of what this is because they’ve seen it so many times, and accept it as a fact about this place that we’re in.

Cinematography of “Briarpatch” by Zachary Galler.

Kirill: And the exact opposite of that is the scene where Allegra and Daphne go into this bunker in the middle of the shootout. It’s all neon purple with a touch of fake flames all around. How did you approach creating that look that washed the entire room?

Zachary: The idea behind it was that Jake is living in this ’80s party house but he’s not rich enough to update it, so he’s leaning into this party mentality. The room itself was a set built by our wonderful production designer Richard Bloom. I worked with him to be able to put LED tubes into the whole room.

The room is an octagon, about 25 feet in diameter. We worked together to be able to hide two rows of LED tubes around the ceiling. We had a softbox built into the middle of the ceiling that had a couple of SkyPanels in it. Everything was LED controlled. We also had lighting under cabinets that held all that fake product. Then you control everything from a wireless dimmer board. You can dial any color.

We had a couple different colors that we used throughout the show. It’s the old technique of giving each character a color, and Jake’s mansion is one of the places we did that. But here you have this night blackout scenario where his place was running on emergency power, and we brought it back to that ’80s party mode.

Kirill: Do you prefer to capture as much as possible in camera and not tweak too much during post-production in color correction?

Zachary: Absolutely, as much as possible. I never know how much time or control I’m going to have in post-production, but I do know how much I’ll have on set. So I always try and get as close as possible on set.

This show was my first time that I worked with a DIT, and we were able to take the time to get it right on set. The only time where we had to color-correct was where they had used footage not as originally intended. It would be taking a scene and jamming it somewhere else in the edit, so we would fix it to match the overall look. We also color graded some day exterior stuff, because the weather in New Mexico is insane. But otherwise it was a very quick and smooth color correct.

Cinematography of “Briarpatch” by Zachary Galler.

Kirill: Some of my favorite scenes were night exterior with Allegra and A.D. Do you find it challenging to light a scene that has different skin tones and complexions in it?

Zachary: I find that it’s always particular to the actor, no matter the skin tone. You definitely have to be aware when you’re lighting people with drastically different skin tones. It presents interesting challenges, mostly from a grip perspective, of having less light or more light on someone to make sure that they’re exposed.

Even if someone’s skin is less reflective because of their skin tone, with the current generation of digital cameras you’d still have so much latitude in the shadows, as long as you’re making sure that you’re capturing information. Also, in this day and age, underexposure is not necessarily the big taboo that it used to be.

You definitely light more for someone with a darker complexion, but at the same time it’s not a horribly difficult challenge. I don’t want to get too technical with the particular details of controlling LED lights, but pretty much the same techniques work no matter the skin tone. If you have someone with a darker complexion, you can read more details when you have a larger source. They’re reflecting light in a different way than someone with a lighter complexion. I always try and use as big of a source as possible anyway, so it’s just a matter of intensity of light. And in general, certain colors work for certain people, and others don’t. This goes for light, but it also goes for costume as well.

Cinematography of “Briarpatch” by Zachary Galler.

Kirill: The hallway of the hotel floor where Allegra stays is one of the recurring locations on the show. For locations such as this, do you try to find different angles to not make it visually repetitive for the viewer?

Zachary: Hallways are good a couple times, and then they get boring no matter what. Also, there’s only so many ways to shoot a hallway.

In our show, this hallway was used for such specific purposes by each director. I didn’t have to worry too much about repeating just because the scenes themselves were different enough. It lent itself to being a little bit different each time. We definitely were trying to find different ways to have her come out of the elevator and discover someone, and find different places to have these conversations in the hallway. The set itself wasn’t too difficult to do that in. I felt like there was a lot there to work with.

In other repeating locations, like her hotel room for instance, for each episode I would try and not do something the same way we had done it in a different episode. Certainly sets, as well as locations, shoot better in different directions. You’re always weighing that. Am I trying to have this be different just to be different? Is it going to hold up aesthetically? You want to assess your motivation. Why am I choosing to block this with the director from this direction?

There were some tough sets on the show. Gene Colder’s office in the police station was supposed to be in only one scene. But then Richard Bloom the production designer did this great office, and we ended up shooting lots of scenes in there. That was fun to try and find different ways to shoot that. It’s a learning exercise because we didn’t want to repeat ourselves in there. It was such a nothing room that nobody intended to be in. But then we had established it, so we couldn’t really change it either.

Cinematography of “Briarpatch” by Zachary Galler.

Kirill: Looking back at it, is there anything that stands out as particularly challenging or rewarding?

Zachary: You always go back and look at stuff, and wish you have done this just a little bit differently. That police station was a tough set. And that hallway that you brought up was tough as well. I feel that our locations were so strong in this show. So when you’re doing something like this, you want to bring the same power to every set and it’s hard with how strong some of these locations are.

I certainly feel like we were successful in a lot of the angles in a set. There were times where we were sitting in color correction and looking at some shots for a couple of minutes, and I found myself wishing I had done it slightly differently. But nothing big stands out as a particular challenge for me.

Shooting cars with tinted windows in the desert while it’s scorching hot outside is tough. I wish there was a better way to do car stuff. There’s only so many shots in a car, and you never know how long it will take to get in and out of there.

Cinematography of “Briarpatch” by Zachary Galler.

Kirill: On the spectrum between the true-to-life documentary look and the full-blown hyper-sleek music video look, where would you place “Briarpatch”?

Zachary: Hopefully “Briarpatch” is way weird on that spectrum. From the very beginning, from lens and camera choices to locations to casting, this show is supposed to feel weird. We always talked about David Lynch and Coen Brothers as our references, and where we wanted to, hopefully, get – given the TV schedule and multiple directors that we had.

Andy Greenwald is the show runner, and their sensibility was to have it weird. They wanted me to push it as far into strangeness as I could, while still maintaining some semblance of a weird world. We knew that it wasn’t a supernatural or dark world, but rather a seedy portrait of America that felt grotesque, surreal and dangerous.

There are definitely times and places in the show where we lean into a strange look, and then times and places on the show where it feels much more natural. The look is very carefully orchestrated to live within the same world. There was not a lot left to chance. As much as I could decide, I would decide ahead of time. Even for the exteriors we were trying to always put shape and light, and not let it feel totally natural and normal at any time.

Cinematography of “Briarpatch” by Zachary Galler.

Kirill: Stepping away from the show for the last few questions, how much do you find yourself obsessing over these details while you are working on a production? Are you able to detach from it a bit and find time for your family and friends?

Zachary: During a production, it’s full tilt. You really have to love this, because you’re going to sacrifice a lot of time away from family and friends. You have to have a love for creating these worlds, or else you’re going to be miserable.

As far as obsessing over details, I try and be self-aware. I try and be aware of the cut, aware of the screen and the way that people are going to be watching this. And then I try and be aware of how am I going to feel when I’m looking at it later. Am I going to be proud or disappointed in myself for the choices that I made on set?

There’s definitely a world in which you can go down a rabbit hole of obsessing over minute details. I ask myself whether I’m going to remember this when I’m in the room with the colorist. There’s a way that you can really screw yourself by taking hours and hours to light something, and it’s going to mess up your whole day later on down the road. Are you willing to compromise everything vs compromising a little bit? Are you willing to accept that compromise and say to yourself that you’re the only one that’s going to notice this?

It’s a constant dance. You’re trying to think of the viewer, and think of your own integrity. And it’s not that the two are necessarily mutually exclusive. I just try to be self-aware and not obsess over every single detail.

I feel that the other part of your question is about the work-life balance, and that’s hard. If you’re going to have a family, you got to find a partner that understands the deal. Hopefully you’re lucky enough to find that person that understands it. It’s definitely different from working in office job. It’s different from most jobs. It has to be kind of an obsession for you if you want to work on cool projects. You really have to commit everything, and if you want to have a family, you have to have someone that’s willing to go down that road with you – or else you’re in for trouble.

I chose to move out of New York City, and that is weirdly backwards. I chose to move out so that my life could be less expensive, so that I could be more selective about jobs I’m taking, so that I could see my family more. But I do have to travel for every job. There’s no work where I live.

It’s a calculated thing. There’s not a framework or structure that works for everybody. You don’t have the regular 9-to-5 job. You have to accept the traveling circus aspect of it. You should not be fighting against it. Embracing it leads to happier and more successful life.

Cinematography of “Briarpatch” by Zachary Galler.

Kirill: What do you feel is the “role” of entertainment in our life, especially during the time of this pandemic? Does it feel a bit surreal to be watching “Briarpatch” and seeing something as simple as going out to eat or attend a party, and not being able to do that in your real life for a while?

Zachary: So many people are working and writing stuff now, and the big question is how do you address it? Do you have all your characters wear masks? Do you ignore that this pandemic ever happens? It’s an important question. I think some people are going to have to walk the plank with figuring it out before we see how we all are psychologically after this.

I do think that entertainment is more important than ever. I spend a full day trying to keep my kids motivated to do school stuff over Zoom, and it’s really relaxing to be able to escape to watch something. I just rewatched “Star Wars”. I’m finding myself wanting to escape more into it, and I think it’s a huge stress reliever in a way to forget about how stressful and crazy this whole thing is.

After this is done when hopefully we can get back to work, I think it’s going to be really interesting. I don’t think people are going to want the sort of bleak, dark stories that a lot of people have been telling. I really think you’re going to see a resurgence of escapism – both in bizarre world and also fantasy stuff. I don’t think anybody’s going to talk about this virus anymore. Or at least nobody is going to want to watch anything about being quarantined.

The escapism possibilities of entertainment are more important than ever. I think we’re all going to lean into it after the first couple weeks when everybody goes out and enjoys company again – if they ever do. It’s going to be different, but right now entertainment is more important than ever. I think it’ll be reflected in the shifts that everybody seems to be anticipating coming from the business perspective.

Cinematography of “Briarpatch” by Zachary Galler.

Kirill: You talked about finding a partner that understands that you need to be away from your family for long stretches of time. What keeps you staying in this field of visual storytelling?

Zachary: As I get further in my career, I seem have access to stories that are more fun and interesting to me. Being able to be a creative part of telling these stories is incredibly fulfilling to me.

Aside from the aesthetic, creative and storytelling aspects of it, I love the logistics and I love the people. Having done so many different jobs on set, I feel like I can relate to my crew. I’ve been so lucky so far that I just love film people. I love working with them and I love being on set. It feels the most natural to me, and it’s the thing that outside of my family I crave the most. It’s definitely an obsession.

Cinematography of “Briarpatch” by Zachary Galler.

And here I’d like to thank Zachary Galler for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of cinematography. The first season of “Briarpatch” is available for streaming on a variety of digital platforms. And if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.