Cinematography of "Poker Face" by Jaron Presant

Cinematography of “Poker Face” – interview with Jaron Presant

August 28th, 2023
Cinematography of "Poker Face" by Jaron Presant

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Jaron Presant. In this interview, he talks about how the industry is changing with evolving technology, what he looks for in this collaborative medium, the balance between the art and the technical side of things, and our need for storytelling. Around these and more, Jaron dives deep into his work on the first season of “Poker Face”.

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

Jaron: I was always fascinated with film as a kid and how it can take you into this other world. When I was 12, I got really interested in still photography, and at the same time I was fascinated with special effects in movies – how they did monster makeup and things like that. So when I got a driver’s permit, I interned with a special effects artist that worked out of his garage in Burbank. I thought he was the greatest thing since sliced bread.

One day he said that if I want to get into this, I should be sculpting. So I went home, got some clay and tried to make a hand. And I remember it was so bad, that I was thinking that I had no talent in this, that I should give up now. But I was also doing photography, and when I got onto a set and saw what the cinematographer was doing, I saw that it was so much like the photography I loved. To me, still photography at the time had seemed lonely as a career, and cinematography seemed to hit all of the areas I was interested in but in such a collaborative environment. I started interning with the cinematographer, Tom Richmond, and then began working in the camera department. I also went through the electric department learning lighting, and I went from a film school. I did all of the paths you could possibly take to get to be a cinematographer.

Kirill: So how do you feel the industry around you has evolved since you joined it?

Jaron: There was the obvious change from film to digital, which was slightly inconsequential since although it replaced one medium with another medium – the concept in the process is still the same. If you’re in control of your process as a DP, understanding the latitude you’re working with of your medium and lighting for that latitude, the medium change isn’t all that impactful.

The thing that has changed tremendously is the concept of feedback loops, and how we get feedback from sets and from the process of filming. It used to be that the director of photography was the only person who understood the image at its core – and arguably, that is still the case. But the process now is open, because we can see the final image so much quicker. It opens the door for so much more feedback from people who traditionally either didn’t have input or the input was at a much later point where it wasn’t as impactful, and that has changed how the process of filmmaking happens. You get more feedback quicker, and it’s exciting. It means we can iterate and make changes, which is a process I hold dear. The process becomes one of way finding and prototyping.

That’s how I approach imaging, and it’s how I’ve approached imaging since it was on film and I was with a still camera. I snap lots of photos and fine-tune my eye through the process of iteration. Now, with digital imaging and the process being opened up to more people that can have input, this process is faster and more present.

Camera mount on the process trailer for “The Hook” episode of “Poker Face”, courtesy of Jaron Presant.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as too much feedback?

Jaron: Absolutely, a hundred percent. That goes back to having our own discipline. We choose to say that we don’t roll the camera all the time. We choose to dictate that we start and stop the camera, that we reset for takes – and that’s a discipline. And in much the same way, figuring out who the people are that are having input, and how we manage that input – that is a discipline. If you set up the system well, the rewards are extraordinary.

I use a viewfinder that attaches to an iPad called the Artemis Prime, and it’s a bit clunky to be honest. But the reason I use it and the reason it is great is because I don’t need to rely on somebody else to line up a shot after we’ve marked the spot. You don’t need to hope that you’re getting this tree on the right side of the frame, or that you’re getting the composition that you want. You can physically put it in front of the director and myself and sometimes the production designer, depending on who we want involved. You can look at things and discuss them. You can make changes quickly and take the image to a place where it wouldn’t have gotten to without that kind of feedback.

Jaron Presant on the set of “Mr. Corman”.

I did a show called “Mr. Corman”, and it had long takes that highlighted acting and let the actors play in a space. The camera was very present, and it would react to what the actors were doing, and it would follow them around at times. Using that viewfinder system on the show allowed us to have 2-hour rehearsals, with just me and the actors – Joseph Gordon-Levitt being both one of the actors and the director. Joe and I would go over the major blocking pieces beforehand, and then as we went over the camera movements, we saw things revealing themselves organically. The actors could not only see where the camera is, they could also see what the camera sees. And they can adjust where they are, and where they are looking. It allowed everything to evolve in a really fun and organic manner.

This change in feedback is happening at every level of the digital pipeline. We just talked about lining up a camera. But once we do the shot, it exists on the monitors that a bunch of people are watching. It’s a different interaction when many people have that access.

I worked with one director Lucky McKee who would sit on the front of the dolly and watch the actors. When you do that, your response to a scene and the acting is going to be different compared to watching the final image on a monitor. But he loved that kind of feedback. He would see nuances in performance that way. He’ll see it again when it’s projected in a theater when we’re watching the dailies, but when it’s sitting on a small screen, you might miss some things.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as good versus bad art? Can anybody be an artist?

Jaron: I would say conceptually anybody can be an artist. Now, whether or not I like what they do or you like what they do – that’s where the subjectivity comes into play. Good art and bad art is the judgment side of it, but anybody can be an artist.

Camera mount on the process trailer for “The Hook” episode of “Poker Face”, courtesy of Jaron Presant.

Kirill: When you choose your productions, what are you looking for?

Jaron: I love people I’ve collaborated with. I feel like some of the best work that I’ve known and loved over the years, and things that are inspiring to me, have come out of long standing working relationships. That’s always been something that I’ve strived for – to create those of long standing relationships. I feel like the deeper the relationships get, the more complex and interesting the work becomes.

We’re faster through the prep process. We understand what each other’s aesthetics are and what everyone means when they say certain things. We’re already working from a place of all this pre-established foundation of reference. We don’t have to spend all the time figuring out what does this mean or what does that mean when we’re talking about things. We have a shared reference library.

Beyond that, the first thing is the material and whether or not I respond to the material. You need there to be something at the core of what you’re making that inspires you, so that then your work can make the project live on a higher level. If the script is uninspiring, I can polish it as much as I want, but it’s still going to be this uninspiring thing. I want the underlying core of what we’re working on to be inspiring.

The next level is who are the artists involved, and are they inspiring to me. So you’ve got the script and the material, and then you’ve got the people involved. You put all the pieces together, and that is what I look for.

Kirill: Somebody who wants to start in this field now, and they are not sure if they should be focusing on the art part of the storytelling, or on the technical part of taking an idea and being able to make it into reality – what can you tell them? Is there a balance between the two? Or perhaps one is more important than the other?

Jaron: It’s a total balance between the two, especially if you’re talking about cinematography. Moving images at their core are a technology-based medium. Understanding the technology goes a long way to how you can implement whatever art it is that you’re desiring to create. It doesn’t do you much good if you have all these visions, but you have no concept of how to implement them.

It’s a collaborative medium, but you’re trying to tell a story with a single voice, as you mentioned. And the way in which you do that is by having a common vernacular and a common language to talk through the things and understand what each other means. By doing that, you create this back and forth where the thing that you thought you were making becomes much bigger and better than it could have been by yourself. That’s the place that we’re all trying to get to, the place that feels the best on set and that yields the best results.

Shot list for “The Orpheus Syndrome” episode of “Poker Face”, courtesy of Jaron Presant.

Kirill: And then you are also managing people, managing budget, managing schedule. Do you find these parts to be a little bit boring or aggravating?

Jaron: They seem aggravating and boring at the beginning, but as the projects get larger, they become a bigger part of the job, because the job is about trying to achieve something. At some point you know how you can get to the end result, and the challenge of how do we make this thing happen becomes less of an issue. What becomes more of an issue is how do we do it in light of these other giant moving pieces.

When you’re first starting out, you just want to try to make something exist that’s in your head. And the challenge is, how do I make that thing in my head? But as you get further along, the challenge is, how do I make this thing in a week with half the money that we should have. It’s because what you are striving for keeps growing. You may have the biggest show in the world but you’re also trying to achieve things that have never been done before. And every show of every size has limitations.

That’s where creativity comes into play. That’s where you start trying to solve problems creatively. That’s where the collaboration comes into play. If everyone on a project has the same vision, and everyone is using their creativity towards solving that problem and moving towards the end goal amidst these challenges, then it becomes a creative and collaborative process where we do lean on each other for achieving the end result.

Shot list for “The Orpheus Syndrome” episode of “Poker Face”, courtesy of Jaron Presant.

Kirill: Getting closer to “Poker Face”, what brought you to it?

Jaron: I’ve known Rian Johnson for many years. We went to college together, and I’ve worked with him on almost everything he’s ever done. I started as a gaffer on “Brick”, and did some second unit photography, and then became the second unit DP for all of his movies. So when he told me that he was doing a TV show, I was happy to be involved. He’s an amazing collaborator.

Kirill: This season has three cinematographers, but it very much feels like it’s told with one voice. What did you do to have that continuity?

Jaron: It’s Rian’s voice that comes through in all of the episodes, including those that he didn’t direct or write – since the conceptual core of the entire show is his. We approached each episode as a little movie, and Rian’s movies were the foundation to which everybody referred. Steve Yedlin and I worked with Ryan for years, and we referred to the same thing that we’re always referring to – making it like we make any other of Rian’s production. And then you have other directors coming in, looking at the material and aligning themselves with that style.

We were trying to tell the story as efficiently as possible, but still have it designed in its format. It’s not a show where you have five cameras pointing from different angles with 300mm lenses. You don’t have the shotgun approach of covering everything and figuring it out later in edit and post. It’s a show designed from its core. It is a show about details. It is a show about slowly revealing to the audience the information that we want to reveal. On a show like this, the concept drives what it’s going to look like.

Kirill: Going back to what you just said, it felt like every episode could have been a full length movie. Was it challenging to pack this much and to still be able to gradually reveal the clues, be it for the first viewing, or for more?

Jaron: It was immensely challenging – given the schedule – to get everything in and to be as efficient as we could. Television schedules are so compressed, so how do you design things and make them compelling, while still doing it efficiently without a ton of cameras.

The key is to do a lot of your work ahead of time, to figure out what is it that’s really important, and what is it that’s not important. Once you have that, you only do the important things. That’s what allowed us to succeed in the schedule and succeed with the density of the scripts. You’re almost editing yourself in that initial planning phase. There isn’t any time to be inefficient on set.

Cinematography of “Poker Face” by Jaron Presant.

Kirill: How much time did you have on your episodes?

Jaron: Each episode had 10 days to shoot, and they tended to have one day of pickups where we would do inserts and such. A couple of Rian’s episodes had some more time, but generally they were 10-day episodes. And then each episode would have two weeks of prep before.

Kirill: Do you have a preference to shoot it in chronological order, or to shoot it based on the limitations of the production and the availability of sets?

Jaron: The easiest thing for the actors is to shoot it chronologically. “Poker Face” is a bit of an anomaly it is elliptical storytelling, looping back around to earlier in the timeline halfway through the episode. So oftentimes we’re shooting Charlie’s pieces of the scene in addition to the scene itself. So you end up shooting it diegetically chronologically, but that’s not the way it’s revealed to the audience.

If you can keep things in chronological order for the actors, it benefits everybody. The more honest they feel, the better their performance is. The better their performance is, the better the shots are. Everything gets better based on how comfortable you can make everyone on the team.

Kirill: As I was watching it, it felt to me that if you removed their phones, it almost looked like it’s happening in the ’70s. Was that the intent with the visual language?

Jaron: That is absolutely by design.

Kirill: Do you feel that we have a certain unbridled nostalgia toward the ’70s?

Jaron: I don’t know if it’s unbridled, because there’s plenty of crap from the ’70s too [laughs]. But we definitely have a lot of love for some of ’70s cinema and some of the TV that came out at the time. In many ways, it’s a little bit of a love letter to all of that.

Cinematography of “Poker Face” by Jaron Presant.

Kirill: Looking at individual episodes, how was it for you to reconnect with your early love of the special effects and all those creatures?

Jaron: The Orpheus Syndrome was the greatest episode. When I was growing up, Phil Tippett was a hero of mine. He’s a stop-motion king, and it was incredible to have him on that episode. I’ve been fortunate to have so many experiences in this career that have harkened back to my childhood, and to cross paths with the influences that got me interested in this business at my very core. That episode was a definite highlight.

Phil got right into the thick of it. He designed some of these creatures and then brought them out on the set. And as we’re shooting them, we’re all trying not to break them. But he gets in there with his hands and starts cranking on the little characters. He ended up becoming Nick Nolte’s hand double because he was so good at moving the things. All the tiny inner workings that Nick’s character does with these creatures, that’s all Phil. He loves the process so much, and it was so inspiring to be around that creativity. We had the creatures that he made for us. We had creatures that he had from “Mad God”. And then he had creatures from his shop. It was just so incredible. And Natasha as a director was just incredible on that episode. It was absolutely a highlight of the season for me.

Cinematography of “Poker Face” by Jaron Presant.

Kirill: Did you have much VFX on the show? Do you try to capture as much in camera as possible?

Jaron: We tried to do as much in camera as we could, mainly because of the TV schedule and the TV budget.

There’s a big problem we have in the industry at large where VFX is a bad word. A lot of directors want to get it all in camera, and feel that if it’s not, it’s not real. But at the end of the day, the whole thing is not real. There are so many things that we can do with visual effects that are cheaper and more efficient and actually better than we can do in camera.

We leaned on VFX for the sequence when he jumps over the ledge – that was on a blue screen, because we’re shooting in the Hudson Valley, but we want it to look like Northern California. That’s a geographic limitation.

Kirill: How was it on “Exit Stage Death” where you were exploring the vertical space, if you will, above and below the main stage?

Jaron: We looked around for a long time to try to find a stage in an actual theater to shoot in. At the end of the day nothing quite had the right pieces. One of the difficulties of “Poker Face” is that the scripts are quite dense and intricate. They’re like interlocking puzzles. If you change one piece, it affects another piece down the way.

For that episode we needed a high vertical theater with a catwalk up above and a basement down below. We also needed the back of the theater to be the maze of dressing rooms and things, so that people could interact and see each other going in and out. All of the little details and nuances of the script had to be taken into account. So at the end of the day, our production designer Judy Rhee ended up building the main theater. We had a basement set, we had the theater set, and we had a catwalk set. Each one was separate, and we stitched them together with creative coverage. We would get a high shot looking down that was a POV, and then we would get the reverse on the other stage that was looking up at the catwalk. We have enough connecting shots for the audience to end up buying that the whole thing lives in one space.

Cinematography of “Poker Face” by Jaron Presant.

Kirill: Was there real barbecue? Was that distracting to be around?

Jaron: We had a local barbecue legend. He came out and he was making barbecue all day, so that we had enough. And honestly, there was only a little that we needed for the shots, but it was about having barbecue for all the extras in the background of all the shots. There was so much barbecue [laughs]. I ate really well that in that episode [laughs]. We had a little bit of fake stuff in the walk-in freezer, but for most part it was real barbecue. It was all eaten, and nothing was wasted.

Kirill: How about the finale to bring it all together back to the casino?

Jaron: Janicza Bravo was the director on it, and she’s fantastic. She and Natasha are good friends, and we ended up prepping the finale at the same time we were prepping up Natasha’s episode. Natasha’s time was obviously a little bit more in demand, and that stretched out her prep time intermittently for about four weeks. That meant that I was prepping with her at the same time I was prepping with Janicza for the finale, because we shot the finale before we shot Natasha’s. I would jump between the meetings with them all the time [laughs]. We had to be efficient with prep time and then shooting time.

Kirill: You talked about making a show with Joseph Gordon-Levitt on which he was also the director, and here you had an episode directed by Natasha. Is it a bit more hectic when the same person moves between being behind and in front of the camera?

Jaron: It can be, but I actually love it quite a bit. One of my favorite things is working with actor directors. It depends on how strong a sense they have of what they’re doing, and both Natasha and Joe are extremely creative directors who have a clear vision of what they’re trying to make. It’s important to have as they jump from the director chair into the actor chair. If they can’t have an awareness of what’s happening as they’re doing the scene, everything becomes way less efficient because they have to come back and review. So I work hard to create a rapport where I can at least give them one layer of review before they have to stop. If something didn’t feel or look right, we could go again – instead of them having to review every time.

You get into a rhythm where once when it does work, they know it and everybody knows it. Then they can review that one piece.

I really love working with actor directors. It feels intimate. There was one montage piece in “Mr. Corman” where we had to do around 96 shots in one day, and everybody was panic stricken. But Joe and I were calm, telling everybody that it was going to be fine. We had this tiny little set, and the two of us with the sounds guy standing on a ladder with the boom coming in over the wall. And we just kept just going shot after shot after shot. It felt so intimate and so simple, like back the days when you were doing student films with your buddies, moving stuff around the same room. We had a couple lights in there. I would move the lights, then grab the camera, and by that time he’d be in the next position. It was so much fun. That kind of intimacy is so rare and special.

Cinematography of “Poker Face” by Jaron Presant.

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

Jaron: I have a soft spot in my heart for “The Orpheus Syndrome”, but I love them all. They’re all great, but that one was special.

Kirill: What’s your worst nightmare on the set?

Jaron: The thing that is always a concern is that you’ll find out on the day that everyone’s creative visions are completely misaligned, and there’s no trust and there’s no rapport between anyone. That can break everyone’s soul quickly [laughs].

That’s why I do a lot of work in prep on the relationships that we’re building, on how we interact and how we communicate. I want to avoid the situation where we’re on set and we’re miscommunicating. When I was starting out, I would spend prep working on how we were going to execute this one thing. I still spend a lot of time on that because the complexities are bigger. But I also spend a lot of time on making sure that people feel heard, and that people feel that we’re communicating well, and that we’re all striving for the same end goal.

Cinematography of “Poker Face” by Jaron Presant.

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

Jaron: I love colors. I light using chromaticity coordinates. I have a handheld spectrometer, and I take readings of different lights, whether they’re practicals or sunlight that’s coming into a window or whatever the color may be. I also have this little library of different chromaticity coordinates for different weird lights that I’ve seen over time. When needed, I’ll go back to them because I can call them back up and put them into any light that I’m using.

I don’t have one that’s a specific favorite. I have different ones for different things. There were these crazy weird warehouse lamps in this one stage in New Zealand that I have a coordinate for. There’s this broken metal halide on the side of a Van Nuys building that I have a coordinate for. You start getting this little library of things, and you use them for certain situations. But I don’t have a go-to one color for everything.

In the end, part of the interpretation is to make something evocative. You want the color and the light to resonate with the story. And to do that, you have to be open to what the story is, and not to like foist your preconceived notions on it.

Kirill: When you go to your friends’ house and you see their TV calibrated to the maximum contrast or whatever it might be, how painful is it? You obsess over your colors and lights, and almost nobody at home sees it the way you intended.

Jaron: You do what you do for the people that will appreciate it. It is a commercial art form, and people are going to appreciate it in their own way. To be brutally honest, most people will probably watch this entire thing on an iPhone.

I make the images for people who are going to digest them in the best possible way. But they’re also digestible for people who digest them in other ways. And it can be misleading sometimes. We could get into a whole discussion about a viewer’s field of view. I can hold my phone close to my face, and it is going to be a big part of my field of view, in many ways bigger than how lots of people have their TV set up across their living room at home.

Cinematography of “Poker Face” by Jaron Presant.

Kirill: Does it feel that the industry is almost going back to what it used to be before Covid, or do you see longer term changes that might be persisting?

Jaron: It definitely feels that it’s headed back to what it was before. There’s definitely an appreciation of different processes that could be useful to us. We may be more aware of when things could be done remotely or when they can’t be. But by and large, at the moment production is a location-based system, and it feels like it’s headed back towards where it once was.

Kirill: Do you worry about what kind of an effect generative AI might be having displacing some of the physicality of these productions, or maybe on the human involvement in different departments?

Jaron: It’s inevitable that it will change the labor breakdown at some point. Whether or not we make laws to change the timeline of that, I think that the writing is on the wall, and the forces are already in motion.

At the end of the day, I can see a world where what I do is impacted by it as well. It’s not inconceivable to say that we’re going to light everything flat, and that we’re going to use software that can distinguish people from spaces, that can understand depth and create depth maps. It all exists in different places at this point. It’s not inconceivable to say that we have systems that can do color correction on windows and faces, and change the way light flows through that room later. But the process is still one that will require input at some point. I can easily see a new system where the job I do is the same job, but it’s not done on set. Instead, it’s done in post.

Coming back to feedback loops, that’s exciting to me. There is the potential to iterate. It can open up some amazing possibilities. The real question is how can we use the technology to not replace jobs, but create jobs. And the jobs that are created may be different from what we know today. It’s hard for people to wrap their heads around thinking about what kinds of jobs might exist in that world. At a higher level, how do we set up a world where we have more people working and collaborating? That’s where it gets interesting.

Kirill: In the meanwhile, while we’re waiting for that world to come around, what is your perfect production?

Jaron: It’s one with large challenges that have to be faced by a collaborative group, a group that is in good sync and very supportive of each other. It’s a production where you’re getting deep into the creativity of the process. I’ve been lucky enough to have some of those projects, and I hope for more.

Cinematography of “Poker Face” by Jaron Presant.

Kirill: Do you think that the need for storytelling is biologically wired into humans?

Jaron: It’s a hundred percent socially wired, because we’ve lived in storytelling societies for so long. The process of that storytelling has changed, but it’s still a storytelling social structure. I don’t know what it is in our brains biologically that that taps into, but certainly there’s some sort of biological response that makes us enjoy storytelling – because it’s become a main part of every social structure.

Kirill: If you could use a time machine to jump back to when you were starting out in this field, what piece of advice would you give to your younger self?

Jaron: My immediate response would be to say you should travel more, but I traveled quite a bit. I could say that I could have travelled more, but the things that I did were things that brought me to this place – and I really enjoyed it all.

Maybe I would say to be kinder to myself, to be more understanding of the process of growth. When I talk to my students now, I tell them to look at your career and to see where you want to be five years from now. That’s the ambition you should drive with. When you analyze what you’ve done, you should look at where you are today from five years ago, because everybody comes a long way, and we rarely give ourselves credit.

Maybe I’d tell myself to have patience to enjoy both the successes and the downfalls. We often hate the pitfalls in the moment. I worked on one movie that was quite challenging. Every day was a chore, but I have some of the best stories from that job [laughs]. I would say that you should see the wonderful parts inside of every job, focus on that and always grow.

Cinematography of “Poker Face” by Jaron Presant.

And here I’d like to thank Jaron Presant for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of cinematography, and for sharing the supporting materials. “Poker Face” is streaming now on Peacock. 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.