Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Jessica Kender. In this interview she talks about the changes in the world of episodic productions in the last few years, being the guardian of the visual language on her productions, working with digital models, and willing to take more risks as time goes by. Around these topics and more, Jessica looks back at her earlier work on “Dexter” and “Medium”, and dives deep into creating the present and the past on Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere”, on which she did all the episodes.

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

Jessica: I got my start in high school doing stage crew for different theatre shows. The person who was in charge of our stage crew came from Broadway, and we would put on these huge productions unlike what I’ve seen for theater for high school before.

When I applied to college, I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do. I knew I loved doing stage crew, but I wasn’t sure if that was it. I remember standing there with two letters, one that was for Carnegie Mellon and one that was for Brandeis. Brandeis would have been more of a general BA, while Carnegie is a conservatory. I ended up putting Carnegie in. When I graduated, I didn’t have any other skills. It’s a conservatory, so literally all I knew how to do was set design for the theater.

I always wanted to do TV and I wasn’t even interested in features. As a little backstory, I grew up without a TV. My parents didn’t have one, so it was almost like a rebellion for me. It was that because we didn’t have one. When I would go to friends’ houses, no matter when, even in the middle of summer, I just wanted to watch TV. I didn’t care if it was a soap opera or something else. I just wanted to watch.

So when I graduated in set design, I had the skills to set design for theater, but I knew I wanted to get into television. So I worked in New York for two years doing theater and then doing industrials. And when I came out to LA, I was able to get into TV and I stayed there ever since.

Kirill: Would you say that most of your career so far has coincided with two big transitions in the world of TV, the first being the depth of storytelling, and the second being the transition to digital, high definition technology? If so, how has this affected what you’re doing?

Jessica: It’s fascinating. My first production design job was on “Medium”. There, we made the switch to high-def in the middle of shooting it. I remember people being terrified of how would the actors look. There was panic, and it 100% changed the quality of the work that we do.

When I originally started, we would put together flats. You would paint those flats and they would go up on TV. Once we switched to high-def, we did a plaster skim coat on every single set, because you didn’t want it to look like raw luan. And that translated for everything.

I was recently looking back at some of my “Medium” work. Some of it I’m very proud of still to this day, because we did a lot of fun stuff on that show. But from a set point of view, you can tell that’s an older show without even watching it. I’ve edited the pictures of those sets on my website and I’m still proud of that work, but when you go through them, you would see that it’s almost a more rudimentary or a slightly theatrical approach to production design and the way we built stuff back then.

Obsessive math professor’s apartment in “Medium”. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

You’re right that it tied in with the fact that TV was starting to become the medium that was a lot more respected. It wasn’t just the formulaic one-hour dramas. After “Medium” I did “October Road”, and after that was “Dexter”. We played around on “Medium” and did some interesting ideas like plane crashes and flashbacks. But “Dexter” was the beginning of that boom.

Before “Medium,” I worked as an assistant art director on “The Shield” in 2003, and that was an FX show. That was also around the time the TV started changing, doing things that people didn’t see before. “The Shield” was based on the Rampart Police Department that was full of corruption. It was one of FX first signature shows, and all of a sudden you had the antihero but on TV. You almost never saw the antihero on TV before that time. Our leads were all corrupt, nasty people and viewers were fascinated. It delved into all sorts of stuff we didn’t see, but it took a while until you started seeing that everywhere.

Then all the premium cable networks started coming out and that just elevated everything. You had stories that weren’t meant to appeal to the general audience. Old TV had that more neutral flavor, because it had to make everyone happy. But once you had the premium networks working, you didn’t have to appeal to everyone, and you had more money. So we have this high-def coming along, and all of a sudden we have the money to back up the stuff we’re doing. Everything started to change. Everything started to look better.

On my very first union show as a production designer I was one of four people. And my art department on our current show is 11 people. Just the amount of people that you need to staff with shows the change that has happened.

Kirill: As the shows continue with the yearly schedules, is this why we’re seeing much shorter seasons, down from 22-23 episodes to 10-12, or even sometimes as few as 8?

Jessica: “Medium” was my only production design that was 22 episodes. “Dexter” had 12 episodes in each season. I just finished working on “Little Fires Everywhere”, and that was 8 episodes in 9 months. Back when I was on “Medium”, we did 22 episodes in 10 months.

So yes, we are doing less episodes, but we’re putting more into it. “Dexter” was still on an 8-day schedule. “Little Fires Everywhere” was between 11 and 15 days per episode, but the amount of prep that you do now for shows compared to back then is significantly more. You have more time to flesh out what you’re trying to say, to build all your sets, to really sit with everybody and figure out what is the look of the show.

In those early days you would come in, and start running and gunning. I was lucky if I had 6 weeks prep, while on the latest show I was on until it was shut down we had 14 weeks of prep. People have realized that TV is a different world now, and are treating it that way.

Indonesian motel room in “Medium”. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

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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.

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Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleadure to welcome Meghan Kasperlik. In this interview she talks about changes in the world of episodic storytelling in the last few years, technology advancements and what they mean to costume department, conversations around creating costumes that tell stories, and what happens behind the glamorous curtain of these productions. Around these topics and more, Meghan dives deep into what went into the first season of the highly acclaimed “Watchmen”.

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

Meghan: My name is Meghan Kasperlik and I’m a costume designer for TV and film. I started out being fascinated with film when I was young, I loved watching movies. But back then, as a child, I never really knew that there was a possibility of working in the movies.

I grew up in the Midwest, so it wasn’t something that I thought was obtainable for a long time. When I got into high school, I became more interested in fashion and I thought I would be going into the fashion industry. When I was in college, I majored in fashion merchandising with a plan to go to New York. When I got to New York I was working in fashion PR and as a stylist assistant, working my way up to stylist for different projects, in commercials, magazines, etc.

I was styling and doing PR, and my roommate at the time said that a television show he was working on needed a costume production assistant. I asked him who was the costume designer, and not that I would have had much of a choice at the time, but it happened to be Patricia Field, the Costume Designer for “Sex in the City”. It was an exciting opportunity. I interviewed and I got the job as the costume PA. Since then I have worked my way up from the bottom.

I worked in the costume department with Patricia Field for 3.5 years, going from costume PA to the costume coordinator to the assistant designer. Then I started working with other people as the assistant designer, and then started designing.

Costume design for 7th Kavalry on “Watchmen” by Meghan Kasperlik.

Kirill: If you look back at your first few experiences in the TV and movie world, was there anything particularly unexpected or surprising for you?

Meghan: When I was on a photo shoot for a fashion spread, there’s a large number of people involved. But it’s an editorial, so it’s much more contained. There’s not as many people building the sets on-site or not as many camera people. So when I got to be on film production, just to see the amount of crew in each department was fascinating to me. I learned about a lot of other departments and what everyone was doing and seeing that was educational because I learned so much. I’m a person who tries to absorb as much as possible within the setting, and so that was fascinating. It made me more interested in TV and film.

Because I had a number of years of experience in the fashion industry, that definitely helped me work at a fast pace and understand the pace of TV and film. That wasn’t a struggle or anything, but I definitely was able to utilize that to be able to achieve what I wanted to within each project.

Kirill: Is there anything that still manages to surprise you when you join the new production?

Meghan: Anything is possible [laughs], but I don’t know if anything really surprises me anymore. You have to expect the unexpected. Sometimes projects are achieved with a lot of work. It might be a bit surprising at first, but the magic of television is pretty remarkable. Not much shocks me. I’m un-shockable [laughs].

Costume design for the flashback sequence on “Watchmen” by Meghan Kasperlik.

Kirill: You started in the TV world, then you were in the feature film world, and now you’re back in the TV world again. How much has this world has changed in the last 5-6 years?

Meghan: Television programming has evolved, and streaming services have definitely changed the game. So many more people are staying home to watch content that’s really interesting. It’s not just the Thursday night programming that was the must-watch. Now there’s must-watch television whenever you want. There’s a lot more content happening in television, especially with streaming services.

And there’s a lot more smart content happening. When I first started, it felt that people watched it to be entertained. But now I feel that much more of the content in TV now is making people think – and think outside the box. People are watching anything from dark comedies and dramas to documentaries, documentaries that are turning into features turning into miniseries. That is fascinating and there’s much more of a platform for a lot more ideas. That huge growth helped the industry, but it also made people aware of smart content – which I think is important.

Kirill: As technology evolves, viewers at home can afford getting much better and bigger screens, and the productions themselves are constantly pushed to use higher-resolution digital cameras. And on top of that, viewers are probably getting used to expecting that “cinematic” feel from the episodic shows they’re watching. Does that make your job more complicated?

Meghan: I’m looking at the last few years, and each year that I’m in this business it becomes more and more apparent that the costume has to be prepared to be seen at all angles. Just because it’s written a certain way in the script does not mean that that’s way the way that it will be filmed and shot for television or for film. I need to ensure that every angle that the camera could be on that costume has to have everything in place – the correct color, texture, fabric. All of it has to be able to be seen on camera.

You can’t say that they’ll never see that button or the back of the waistband of the pant. They will see it at some point.

So while I’m creating the costume and checking it in the fitting to see the angles, that is definitely something I have to be more aware of. It also makes it more exciting. Now we’re seeing design details that maybe we didn’t see 10 years ago because of the way that the television programming is being filmed – like you said in more of a cinematic element. So it is very important to make sure that it’s all looking like it should at all angles.

Costume design for Hooded Justice / American Hero on “Watchmen” by Meghan Kasperlik.

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Continuing the series of interviews with designers and artists that bring user interfaces and graphics to the big screens, it’s my pleasure to welcome Clayton McDermott. A multi-faceted portfolio highlights Clayton’s work in art direction, motion graphics, illustration and animation. He’s been with “Black Mirror” since the very first season when he worked on “Fifteen Million Merits” and “The Entire History of You”, as well as the now-iconic title sequence of the show. His work can also be seen in the later episodes such as “Men Against Fire”, “Hated in the Nation”, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” and the most recent interactive installment of “Bandersnatch”.

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

Clayton: I never really knew what I wanted to do growing up, I was interested in a lot of things and I still am. I watched a lot of animation, I played a lot of computer games, I was amazed by film and animatronics, I drew, I painted and generally just enjoyed anything art and design related. I think more than anything though I was fascinated by how stuff worked.

I had a decent enough computer at the time and although the internet was still relatively young I began exploring some of the things that interested me digitally. I started messing around with programmes like Photoshop, Director, Adobe Flash, even HTML and began to realise I could use them to make my own content. It was around that time that I realised motion graphics was a thing and how a program called After Effects was being used to make some of the stuff I had seen on TV as well as things like DVD menus etc. All the while I was looking into these things I was learning and teaching myself new skills, I enjoy it all as a creative process. I began to realise that maybe if I just did something I enjoyed as a career hopefully it wouldn’t really feel like I was working. That’s where my career began.

Screen graphics for “Men Against Fire” episode of “Black Mirror”. Courtesy of Clayton McDermott.

Kirill: Looking back at your first couple of productions, what was the most unexpected part of working on client projects?

Clayton: I don’t think anything really prepares you for your first job and although I’m not sure it was completely unexpected I think early on in my career I learnt not to be too precious or protective about that initial idea. Things often evolve or change over the course of a project and more often than not you will need to revisit or adapt ideas as things progress. Sometimes a client brief will change so much you need to pretty much start again. There are often a lot of moving parts, it is what it is.

Kirill: Do you worry about how your work will age / be seen in 20-30 years?

I think it’s hard not to think about, especially when you have grown up and are working in a time that has seen such rapid advances in technology. Whether or not it worries me, I’m not so sure. I’d like to believe that everything has its place in time and I can live with that. I suppose most of the projects I have been involved with also serve as a form of entertainment and I’m still entertained by things that now might otherwise seem dated.

Kirill: Between ideas in your head and deep knowledge of tools to translate those ideas to the screen, what’s more important in your opinion?

Clayton: I suppose without the idea the tools are useless. When pitching ideas there are often parts where you are unsure of how you will achieve them. I guess that’s also what keeps me interested in the process – the idea of learning something new or going about solving that problem. It’s usually a good or unusual idea that forces me to learn more or develop that knowledge of those tools further.

Kirill: Looking back at when you started, do you think it’s easier to get in this field today compared to back then (better software, more affordable hardware, …)

Clayton: I remember when I started I just had to fiddle with the software to figure out what it could do and how it worked. Nowadays the internet is full of tutorials or information about how to create imagery using a wide variety of programs. Software has also just become much more accessible, I can’t remember the last time I saw or used a CD to install anything. I’m not sure laptops even come with drives anymore. With the advances in cloud-based software and subscription it’s easy just to rent software even if it’s just to try it. Obviously the internet has also been able to provide way more information than I could ever get my hands on when I started. Hardware nowadays pretty much comes right off the shelf as well, I remember a time when I had to order a computer to be built before I could use it. So I definitely think you have more exposure to the field than I ever had, not to mention an increase in available roles due to the development of film, tv and interactive content.

Screen graphics for “Men Against Fire” episode of “Black Mirror”. Courtesy of Clayton McDermott.

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