(Left to right) Tabby (Lovie Simone) Frankie (Gideon Adlon) Lily (Cailee Spaeny) and Lourdes (Zoey Luna) take a selfie before leaving for the party in Columbia Pictures' "The Craft: Legacy"

Cinematography of “The Craft: Legacy” – interview with Hillary Spera

November 8th, 2020
(Left to right) Tabby (Lovie Simone) Frankie (Gideon Adlon) Lily (Cailee Spaeny) and Lourdes (Zoey Luna) take a selfie before leaving for the party in Columbia Pictures' "The Craft: Legacy"

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Hillary Spera. In this interview she talks about the hidden complexity of what goes on behind the scenes to bring these stories to our screens, digital vs film, the current production landscape as the Corona-related restrictions are being slowly lifted, and her life-long passion of capturing images. Around these topics and more, Hillary dives deep into her work on the recently released “The Craft: Legacy”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and what drew you into this field.

Hillary: I didn’t know early that I wanted to be a cinematographer, but I was always inspired by and interested in still photography. As a kid, I always picking up a camera and took photos whenever I could. It was my favorite way to get out into the world and experience it, through a lens. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was really compelled by it.

When I went to college, still photography continued to be my passion. I did it on my own as a hobby, as I was never formally trained other than a class in high school. There was a lot of trial and error. That college didn’t have a photography program that I was interested in, so I stumbled into cinematography as a way to make images, to tell stories visually. That’s when I found my love for it. It was really fun, I also loved the aspect of collaboration, being part of a team. I ended up shooting everything I could get my hands on, always being present for that, taking every opportunity and never saying no. That’s what took me down the road to being a cinematographer. I never went to grad school for cinematography. I learned from just doing it, from being on set and shooting everything that I could. Making a lot of mistakes and learning from them. And continuing to shoot still photography as well.

Kirill: If you look at the evolution of technology, do you feel that it would be easier for you to get into the field today, as cameras become more affordable and some people are even shooting on their iPhones?

Hillary: I’ve thought about this a lot. I don’t know if I’d be as motivated to get into it now. I love making images. I’ve always made images and I always will. Even on my days off I’m shooting. But I came from film and I love the physical celluloid aspect of it, the tangibility of that. I’m not sure I would have gotten into it if the door had been through an iPhone instead of through film. That said, I do want to think that a love of making images would have prevailed, somehow.

I love that it’s easier now than ever, that it is accessible to pretty much everyone who has an interest. You see so many talented people shooting all kinds of stories, so many viewpoints. It’s also easier (somewhat) to make films now, and there’s more avenues to show them. You have a million streaming platforms, so many film festivals, all these places to put things out into the world. But if I’m talking about myself, I fell in love with this analog way, and I don’t know if I would have the same relationship to it without starting that way. I learned by splicing 16mm movies together [laughs], and I feel that is what taught me so much about the craftsmanship of it, about understanding light and exposure and just the respect for the process.

(Left to right) Lourdes (Zoey Luna) Frankie (Gideon Adlon) Tabby (Lovie Simone) and Lily (Cailee Spaeny) perform rituals and talk about being cautious with their gifts in Columbia Pictures’ “The Craft: Legacy.

Kirill: Would you say that the field of cinematography is losing something significant as the medium film is fading away?

Hillary: It’s our challenge and responsibility to bring that to the digital world. At least from my perspective, the challenge is to always make it feel like it has the same weight to it as the films we leaned from, those often shot on film. We work hard to take the digital edge off and make it, at the very least, feel like a hybrid between the two worlds. The tangibility. Often the reference is the look of 35mm, what we did for “The Craft: Legacy”. We wanted to feel like it had the tangibility and texture of being shot on film, to feel that grain, to feel those values.

I don’t know if it’s losing something. I’d like to think that the spirit stays alive in the process and the collective references we all seek and possess. I think it’s our responsibility to continue the traditions. Visual storytelling is visual storytelling, and the medium almost doesn’t matter. It might be shot on iPhone, or on the biggest large format digital sensor, or on 35mm film. Our responsibility as cinematographers is to tell the story through images.

Kirill: How do you talk with people about what you do for a living?

Hillary: I have a lot of people in my life who are do not come from a film background. It’s a good question.

On the base level, cinematographer is involved with everything visual about the project, and that part is one of my favorite things about the craft. The collaboration with directors, production designers, costume designers, gaffers, key grips, camera team, sound effects, visual effects, stunts, etc – that is all involved and part of my responsibility as a cinematographer. Anything that relates to the image.

Getting deeper into it, my responsibility is also to watch, to listen and to interpret vision. That’s the fundamental part. There is this collective vision for the project, and my job is to interpret that and bring that visually to the project. And so much of it is managing, getting everyone on the same page to be working towards the same goal, and that collaboration. It always vacillates between the technical/managerial and the creative.

(Left to right) Lourdes (Zoey Luna) Frankie (Gideon Adlon) and Tabby (Lovie Simone) need a fourth to complete their coven in Columbia Pictures’ “The Craft: Legacy”.

Kirill: Between the technical and the creative, is one more important to you, or does it require striking a balance?

Hillary: They have to go hand in hand. You’re not doing your job well if they don’t co-exist. Even though I know the technical side thoroughly, my heart speaks from the creative side. I believe you have to understand both and to find that balance. I never want the camera language to speak louder than what it’s representing. I never want to call more attention to some cool camera move than the story. That camera move has to be integrated into the story it’s trying to tell, otherwise it’s not doing it service.

Kirill: Would you say that your job is well done when the viewers don’t say anything about how it was shot?

Hillary: That’s exactly right. If people are noticing the cinematography first and foremost, you have likely failed a little bit. It all needs to work together seamlessly. People need to be invested, to be a part of what they are watching in a way where it all seems to happen concurrently and invisibly.

Kirill: So if you had somebody talking about one of your productions, and they said that it was beautifully shot, would you consider that a compliment or a distraction?

Hillary: I’ll obviously take that as a compliment, but I always want to hear it as the second thing they say. I want the first thing to be that they enjoyed the watching the film itself, that they related to it.

“Beautifully shot” can mean so many different things. There are some films that I’ve considered beautifully shot, and then I go back and watch them, and realize that maybe the cinematography wasn’t perfect. But there’s that feeling that it left with me, and that is something that I would consider success.

Kirill: Getting closer to “The Craft: Legacy”, how do you approach choosing your next project and finding your collaborators? Are you looking for people with similar artistic sensibilities?

Hillary: Absolutely, that is critical. You have to have that foundation, or at least (ideally) a collective intuition. While it is my job to find that collective vision, and a way to communicate it, having a common language and place to start in a collaborator relationship is really key.

Zoe Lister-Jones and Hillary Spera

This was my third collaboration with Zoe Lister-Jones [the director and the writer], and I think it’s safe to say that we felt this one right off the bat. The first time we worked together (on “Band Aid”) we had a lot of similar inspirations and references, which continued for Craft. I have so much fun working and collaborating with Zoe because we can build off each other’s ideas and instincts. It’s a safe creative place of support, where it really feels as if there is no wrong answer or idea. I am very grateful for that.

When you start from that place, you can continue to build on top of it. One of Zoe’s many super powers is that she empowers her collaborators around her. She’s open to people’s ideas and thoughts. She herself has her own distinct vision, but she’s really great at fostering collaboration. So from this aspect, “The Craft: Legacy” was easy to start imagining. We had a great common language that we shared, and I felt that I had freedom and support to think outside the box, to really challenge ourselves in creating the visuals for this movie. And, we have a lot of fun while doing it.

Kirill: How much time did you spend in pre-production to find that language?

Hillary: We spend a lot of time together in prep, which I really feel lucky for. I strongly believe that all of the hardest work on a movie happens in prep, and if you haven’t done that homework, you’re probably not fully ready to get on set.

We spend nights, weekends, whatever time we can. We have a lot of fun, which certainly never makes it feel like “work.” There were a lot of variables on this project, and many technical challenges and things that we wanted to make sure we represented well in the film. We watched a lot of references and talked a lot about how they were relevant.

I always find that inspiration can come from such different and often random places. It’s not just about movie references. It’s photography, music, art, painting, colors. We spent a good while just absorbing it. We were in Toronto for the production, and our prep was about a month and a half, but we had been speaking months before that as well. Pretty much most of last year was dedicated to this film, which was awesome.

(Left to right) Lourdes (Zoey Luna) Frankie (Gideon Adlon) Tabby (Lovie Simone) and Lily (Cailee Spaeny) practice their rituals in the woods in Columbia Pictures’ “The Craft: Legacy”.

Kirill: Do you find that you sometimes have to justify why so “much” time needs to be given to this pre-production phase? Do some people think it only starts when that camera starts rolling?

Hillary: I think people do understand. I have a hard time not putting my whole heart and soul into every project, so I’d be doing that prep regardless of being on the clock for it.

Good collaborators recognize that and I find everyone kind of comes from the same place… it’s just part of working on in this industry, if you are lucky. A lot of passion and dedication meets commerce. Producers are doing the same work around the clock with the same energy. I find it’s an easy conversation to have, since you just sort of live in it while you’re making the project. I don’t really know how to do it any other way. You subconsciously know that you’re going to put a lot of yourself into it. I feel like I am in a serious committed relationship with every project I do for that amount of time that it exists in my life [laughs].

Kirill: How did you connect this film visually to the original one?

Hillary: There aren’t that many similarities visually. There are a couple throwbacks we did which were fun and exciting to do. The iconic “light as a feather, stiff as a board” scene, which I was so excited for. We did the classic Craft slow-mo walk through the cafeteria which is burned in my brain from the original. Also some of the overhead shots were a throwback to the original movie. Those moments were obliquely referential visually, but there wasn’t a distinctive visual style of the film that we referenced. We really took our own path with that.

Zoe and I looked at a lot of ’70s thrillers, at more classic horror and thriller movies, as we wanted to bring that to the table. We also looked at a lot of photography to give it a modern, fresher take while also having a root in more classic cinema. I don’t know if any of that was necessarily referenced in the first film, but certainly the spirit was alive and well. I’m a huge fan of the original movie and its spirit was certainly right there with me the whole time in every way.

(Left to right) 2nd AD David Lester, Gideon Adlon, writer/director Zoe Lister-Jones, Cailee Spaeny and sound utility Jason McFarling on the set of Columbia Pictures’ “The Craft: Legacy”.

Kirill: Speaking of the overhead shots for the ceremonies, did you feel that you were constrained by the choices that were made in the original?

Hillary: Not at all. I loved the use of overheads in the original.

What I think had worked for us in the ceremonies that we did in our movie was that you capture the changeover, magical realism moment where everyday life becomes more mystical. There was something about getting overhead, spinning and showing them as part of nature and part of the world that they were in, and then their ability to harness these elemental powers. It felt right to be overhead and watching from this omnipotent viewpoint. It also felt fun. The idea was to see it from a different place, from within and without.

Kirill: What was your process of working with VFX people on this production?

Hillary: They were all heavily discussed during pre-production. We had a VFX supervisor on set, and all of that was constantly considered. It was important for Zoe and I to make it feel that the visual effects were grounded. We didn’t want those moments to become something out of a Marvel movie. We wanted things to be rooted in the real, to make something that people could relate to. The VFX were often integrated with practical SFX, so that there was a live element to the effects.

Cinematography of “The Craft: Legacy” by Hillary Spera.

Kirill: How do you make a story like this feel believable for me as a viewer?

Hillary: The world we intended to create was believable. These are girls who are living in the world, they’re finding themselves in their identity and their power through friendship and as women. Then this magical thing starts to happen to them.

That was the world that we wanted to show. We wanted the situation to be relatable. They’re representing a time and a place where these very real things are happening to them within their friendship and world they are in. Their identity and friendship and power through that unity, that is related to the magic that is happening – magic that is rooted in the power of their friendship, From there, it also starts to exist on this fun, metaphysical witchier level.

Our visual plan for that was based on both experiential ideas and tangible human things. We wanted the magic to feel as if it was based on nature and elements. If you were to develop this magical power tomorrow, what would it be from your own universe and the things you know.

Kirill: One thing that interests me in these contemporary productions where you have such everyday locations as the high school, a suburban neighborhood with a couple of houses – is how do you make it interested for the viewer. How do you find the balance between elevating some visual elements without making it too over the top?

Hillary: I’m really interested in the use of natural light to feel real, but elevated to a place where you’re subconsciously aware that it’s not necessarily exactly as you would see it in the world. While I’m interested in it being relatable but also evocative of a memory, something a little intangible yet familiar.

Maybe it’s a lens flare. Maybe it’s a little bit of a sun hit or a backlight that feels a little bit stronger or slightly out of place. It’s something that feels a little bit amped up from reality. I’m a fan of moments of magical realism. They exist in real life… sort of those moments when you turn a corner and the sun will hit in a certain way and it all of a sudden changes a whole perspective.

Kirill: Is this how you go about your day, finding light forces everywhere?

Hillary: I do spend a lot of time watching light and creeping around taking pictures [laughs].

(Left to right) Tabby (Lovie Simone), Lourdes (Zoey Luna), Lily (Cailee Spaeny), and Frankie (Gideon Adlon) deep in conversation in Columbia Pictures’ “The Craft: Legacy”.

Kirill: Does it ever get annoying when people see what you do and the first question they have is what kind of a camera you use?

Hillary: Not at all, although it is kind of the first question. I do love geeking out about the technical. We shot on Alexa cameras, anamorphic, on really fantastic Panavision lenses. We shot a mix of some older and newer glass, really wanted the slightly less sharp quality reminiscent of film and the more traditional cinema.

Kirill: Are the digital cameras good enough these days, especially in low-light conditions, to give you what you’re looking for?

Hillary: I don’t tend to rely too heavily on high ISO and low light capabilities of cameras. I still feel that you have to light it, that you have to create that relationship to light. If you rely too heavily on the digital, it feels a bit ungrounded to me. Slightly artificial.

It’s a wonderful thing to be able to shoot with less things and be more conscious, but I think that you need to keep it in a place where you’re still creating relationship with light.

(Left to right) Lourdes (Zoey Luna) Frankie (Gideon Adlon) Tabby (Lovie Simone) and Lily (Cailee Spaeny) sit at the back of the classroom during sex ed class in Columbia Pictures’ “The Craft: Legacy”.

Kirill: Do you usually have enough time to set up all your lighting?

Hillary: If we’ve done our homework in prep and we know what we’ll need and being honest with that, yes. It’s just about making a plan and having everyone on the same page.

I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with incredible collaborators in my career so far. An incredible crew family, in a lot of different places. I feel very grateful for that. Nothing more invincible than the feeling of like minded people all working towards the same goal. You feel that you can take on any challenge together, like anything is possible. We’re only as good as our team.

Kirill: There are so many screens in our lives today, from the big screens in movie theaters to the tablets and phones to those scratched small screens in the back of the airplane seats. What screen do you have in mind when you’re shooting?

Hillary: I shoot for the the back row of the biggest screen in a theater. I don’t know if there’s really any other way? Every story is big and cinematic, even when it’s a small story… and I feel like that’s how it has to be considered and created.

If it does end up being on an iPhone or an airplane screen, then so be it. People hopefully can relate to it regardless of how they watch it, that’s the goal. I’m grateful that people can see it now in ways that they weren’t able to before, but it does not change my approach. I always aim to shoot it as big as possible, because I feel like that’s what the stories deserve.

Kirill: As the time goes by and you go through different experiences in your life, do you find that your approach to telling stories is changing?

Hillary: I think naturally it does. I’m always motivated by the same thing, that it is a privilege to be able to tell stories and have people watch and experience them, and that is the part that connects me first and foremost. For me it is about getting into the gut of what each story is, tearing that heart out a bit and putting it on the screen in the most considerate and loving way possible. Each story is different, needs different things and wants to be told in a different way visually. I hope, at least.

As I live in this world and grow with more opportunities, it morphs and evolves my eye and relationship to images and storytelling in an undeniable way. And that is exciting. I think that is why I could never get bored with what I do, and why I love it so much. There is always a different way to see and a different challenge how to tell a story.

Adam (David Duchovny) and Helen (Michelle Monaghan) punish Lily (Cailee Spaeny) in Columbia Pictures’ “The Craft: Legacy”.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as your favorite color?

Hillary: I don’t know if there is a favorite. That’s like asking about a favorite song, or a favorite movie. Too many things to love for too many different reasons.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as your favorite type of light source?

Hillary: That’s also tricky to answer, because you use different things for different purposes. One of my favorites is end-of-day long light. I love candlelight. It’s a fun challenge and a beast that’s hard to wrangle and do well. Night exteriors are challenging in a great way.

Making things feel as if they’re not lit is probably my favorite thing. It’s the thing that I feel most proud of when we achieve it.

Kirill: This is the second time you touch on the subject on making something feel effortless even as a lot of work went into it. Do you want people to know how much work went into it, do you want the viewer to enjoy the story, or is it a mix of the two?

Hillary: I really want them to enjoy the story. If people are noticing how hard something was, then it’s taking them out of the experience – and I don’t want that. But I do think that people that are astute, people that have some sort of inside knowledge on what it was to achieve, they will inherently recognize the process – maybe not in the first viewing, but possibly once they think about it later.

For me, the satisfaction exists in the doing. I know that it was done and that’s enough. I’m proud of the crew and the effort that went through, and that’s the experience that we shared in creating it. But that’s a separate experience to the viewing experience and I’m good with that.

Adam (David Duchovny) greets Helen (Michelle Monaghan) when she and Lily (Cailee Spaeny) arrive at his house in Columbia Pictures’ “The Craft: Legacy”.

Kirill: Looking at your earlier productions, something that you did 5-10 years ago, what stays with you? Do you have a rosy filter where you only remember the good parts?

Hillary: It all lives inside me, every inch and minute of each project… and they’re all so different. The thing that usually stands out the most is the collaboration and the effort of creating with with the crew and team. Every project has its own life, its own little idiosyncrasies, its own heroic moments, hard moments, failures, and victories. That’s the best part, couldn’t have any of it without all of it. When I think back on it, it’s the flood of that collective experience.

The biggest feeling that sits with me and stays with me is the pride and gratitude that I get to create and share those moments. I feel so proud of every project that I’ve done. In some way, they’re all some version of my children [laughs]. They’re out in the world and I’m very proud of them. It fills me with a lot of warmth and a lot of a lot of happiness knowing that they have their own life now. They’ve left the nest and gone to college. There kind of are no bad parts.

Kirill: Do you have any time between productions, and if you do, what do you do?

Hillary: Freelance life is interesting. I’ve been fortunate to be busy, and I do love what I do so much.

But I also love the time in between. I hope to always be learning, furthering that education. I do take photos constantly. I try to be out in the world experiencing it as much as I can. I feel that I can’t tell stories about the world if I’m not out there experiencing it. You have to be a part of it and within it. I take a lot of road trips. I wander a little bit. I let myself go out there and find new adventures whenever I can, just keeping the other eye open. I watch a lot of things. I catch up with friends and family.

Filmmaking is so tricky. When you’re working, you’re cut off from the world a little bit. So I try and reintegrate as best I can and really get back there and ground myself so I can go back out again.

Kirill: How did Corona treat you? How weird has it been so far in your professional life?

Hillary: It’s definitely weird, that’s for sure [laughs]. When we were all in lockdown, it was nice to have a moment to pause and recalibrate my head. At that point I came off a long run of non-stop work, and I went up to Vermont where my family lives. I spent some time in the woods and it was nice to be in nature again. It was also nice to reconnect to people, on phone and through email, some that I had missed and hadn’t had the chance to talk to in so long. We’ve all been running so hard, so it was nice to have that beat to get things a bit more connected.

Then I went back to work in August on a TV series in New York. Working on set with COVID in mind is definitely a different world. I am proud that everyone’s taking it so seriously. It is all about being safe and informed, and I think that’s the way that we move forward, because none of us know how long this is going to last.

It’s a different world. I feel grateful to be surrounded by people who are communicating and working safely, while still maintaining the integrity and not compromising the work. It’s an interesting new normal.

Kirill: Would you be interested as a viewer to watch a movie or a TV show centered around this, or do you think that most viewers will want to pretend it never happened?

Hillary: I’ve been thinking about this so much. Inevitably it has to be, right? It would start to be weird if we keep putting out content that ignores it.

I do feel that it is important to represent our realities as we move forward. That is the whole point, right? Probably the best way to do it is as we’re all experiencing it – where it’s become part of our experience. We would see characters just start to be wearing masks, being aware as we are by being out in the world. I guess it would be strange if as filmmakers, we didn’t eventually adapt and have the reality of COVID show up in the work.

Kirill: You spoke about the camaraderie and the friendships you make on the set, but on the other hand you do spend long stretches of time away from your family and friends. What keeps you going? What keeps you coming back to tell more stories?

Hillary: I can’t really get enough of it. I love what I do. I don’t think that I’ll never feel as if I’ve told all the stories or that I’ve checked all the boxes as a cinematographer. It’s fairly limitless.

This is what excites me about being a DP. It’s a life-long craft. There are always new ways to see, new ways to show things and make them. What keeps me coming back so often is that hunger and that drive to do that. For new challenges. Every film and every project is a new experience with new people, and those new relationships and bonds. Kind of like new chemical reactions each time. It’s addicting, and I love it. I truly do, and I would be doing this regardless of whether or not it was my job.

Kirill: Do you think that you will ever run out of stories to tell in your lifetime?

Hillary: I never will. It’s not possible, and that’s an exciting thing. I feel very fortunate for that.

(Left to right) Lourdes (Zoey Luna), Frankie (Gideon Adlon), Lily (Cailee Spaeny) and Tabby (Lovie Simone) practice their powers in Columbia Pictures’ “The Craft: Legacy”.

And here I’d like to thank Hillary Spera for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of cinematography, and Nathalie Retana for making this interview happen. You can see more of Hillary’s work on Instagram. “The Craft: Legacy” is available for streaming on a variety of digital services. 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.