JP Wakayama's first networking series, Love, Victor, is top notch with the help of guild mentor Yasu Tanida and a think-on-the-fly production team.
by Pauline Rogers / Photos courtesy of Hulu
Season 2 of the Hulu original series Love, Victor (based on the groundbreaking film Love, Simon) continues the story of Victor Salazar (Michael Cimino), a half-Puerto Rican, half-Colombian American teenager who lives in Atlanta. While Season 1 focused on Victor's journey of self-discovery, his home challenges, and struggling with his sexual orientation, Season 2 explores the ramifications of Victor's coming out as he turns old and new friends and a new relationship into a possible love navigates interest, Benji Campbell (George Sear).
Says Wakayama, "The production decision to take on the season one team," including chief lighting engineer Adam Uyemura, the 1st for my own comfort and success. "/ Photo by Greg Gayne
When circumstances changed and Guild Director of Photography Mark Schwartzbard moved on after Season 1. The production was looking for a new pair of eyes. New cameraman JP Wakayama describes: “My mentor, Yasu Tanida (ICG Magazine February / March 2019) referred me to producers Issac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger. I had a lot of respect for the quality of storytelling and character development during season one, and the entire creative team wanted to push this forward in season two. I quickly adapted to EP / Director Jason Ensler's vision and producer Shawn Wilt gave me the resources and a wonderful crew to have an ambitious season during the pandemic. "
For Wakayama, Love, Victor stands out for his writing quality “and an amazing array of unique characters, each with their own well-rounded vulnerability and complexity. I love how the show explores each of these storylines with its arc and truth. It creates layers and depths that feel incredibly real and with which the audience can ultimately identify. "
One of the things that excited Wakayama was Production's decision to include the camera crew from season one in season two, which gave them seasoned talent who were familiar with this one-of-a-kind show but also had a group ready to do the Expanding a look that matched the story.
“Having a technical crew to support you is vital,” he says. “I've known Chief Lighting Technician Adam Uyemura since high school, and he knows how I feel about light. We have refined our workflow over the years and park our Inovativ cars right next to each other, and we both monitor the image separately and give notes over the radio. He can then remotely optimize all of the lighting during the recording if something is not working. It speeds up the process and gives the director more shooting time. "
Wakayama adds, “With the return of A-camera 1st AC Chris Geukens from Season 1, he gave me a lot of insight that helped me navigate the show and create and curate our camera package. Cinematographers Joseph Hernandez, who also flew Steadicam for us, Yvonne Chu, and Justen Hernandez were also key members of the front line masks and face protection team who were able to find the best pictures to tell our story share and build great relationships with our cast – with great support from B-Camera premieres Cameron Carey and Brian Wells. This experienced team knew the show, but was also open to changes. "
The team brought in Brian Wells and Cameron Carey from B-Camera 1st AC, A-Camera 2nd AC Genna Palermo, B-Camera 2nd AC Loren Azlein and Conner Daniels as loaders and Onyx Pearl Morgan as digital utility to complete the crew.
1st AC Chris Guekens says, “It can be difficult … trying to keep (a series) in the same world while you are giving it the hang of it. JP did an exceptional job of getting it into the look of Season 1 while expanding it as our characters' stories progressed. ”/ Photo by Michael Desmond
With the team in place, Wakayama began researching this Grow with Geukens. “It can be difficult to take on a show; try to keep it in the same world while you get to the point, ”offers Geukens. "JP has done an exceptional job of keeping it in the look of the first season while expanding it as our characters' stories progress."
The two decided to shift the look from slightly dreamy to a more down to earth approach to the real world. There was talk of switching to the ALEXA MINI LF “to distinguish the seasons while maintaining the tone and color of the ALEXA sensors,” recalls Geukens. “But we ultimately decided to keep our camera body as it was in season 1, ALEXA Mini rotates 3.2K ProRes 4444 XD framing for a 2: 1 image line,” explains Wakayama.
What has changed are the lenses – an addition to the Panavision SS, US and ZS series detuned by Dan Sasaki. “The camera tests introduced the team to the new prototypes of spherical lenses developed by the specialty optics group,” adds Wakayama. “In the end, we started with two sets of the prototypes and a couple of primes from the SS / US series. We can't thank David Dodson of Panavision enough for helping us get these lenses into work. I think we were one of the first series to take these lenses out for a long time. "
Wakayama says season 2 relied heavily on "our show LUT and lensing." I worked with SIM International's final colorist Kris Santa Cruz early on to create a production LUT that would get us close to the direction of our final color. I love spending time early perfecting this so I can be bold on set and be bold about contrast and color.
"Adam Uyemura and I calibrated our light meters to our show LUT so we knew where things were going," he continues. “Without a dedicated DIT, I had to keep an eye on the exposure and color balance with every shot – and with a continuous Show LUT I was able to adjust the color temperatures in the camera. As a result, every director / producer on set would see an exact version of what the daily papers would look like the next day. "
Wakayama wanted to push for a cinematic look and a formal shooting style. “I try to ground cinematography to story and character, and not to pay too much attention to it – to let the actors do the work,” he explains. “I love adding mood when a scene calls for it, and it was primarily with lighting and setting, but it's always motivated by what the actors are experiencing. There is subjectivity in these moments that we wanted to explore and give the audience access to this vulnerability. "
Uyemura and Wakayama decided to start from scratch when it came to lighting. “Knowing that a large part of my budget would be used for stage exteriors, we decided to keep the stage rigs simple and flexible,” recalls Uyemura. “Instead of going the traditional tungsten route, we opted for 18K HMI bounces from the floor and used M40s on trusses for directional, hard light. With fewer units, we could illuminate with around 70 percent of the first season's budget, get a few spending stops, and start with a cheaper daylight color balance. The interiors were mainly illuminated with practical elements and supplemented with SkyPanels, L-Series and LiteMat. "
Colorist Kris Santa Cruz (SIM International) “created a production LUT that guided us in the direction of our final color,” says Wakayama. “I love to spend time perfecting this so that I can be bold on set and bold about contrast and color.” / Photo by Patrick Wymore
Time was key for this second season to work. “Since our rigging crew had little time, all adjustments had to be made during the season with set lighting to light the set and illuminate our backings,” continues Uyemura. "We would supplement any hard sun with direct 4K in orange to achieve a further color separation."
For night work, it was decided to motivate them through indoor internships, with occasional lunar or sodium vapor through windows, depending on which side of the apartment they were viewed from in relation to the actual location. "We tend to play our internships brighter and shed light on the scene rather than dimming them down to unrealistic levels and adding overhead units," notes Uyemura.
COVID added a little complication to this interior design. “We needed to have floating blankets and as much ventilation as possible,” explains Wakayama. “Without the natural springback of the ceilings, we fought the waste and contrast deeper into the rooms. To do this, we have motivated the daylight from the windows with wirelessly controlled SkyPanels s60 to extend through an 8 x 8 T-bone with a light grille. We have always tried to keep the wrap minimal and make it feel like natural spring back. The COVID rules also excluded the use of atmosphere, so we generally carried a Tiffen Low Contrast filter in the box to allow highlights to bloom and add a touch of atmosphere to the room. "
"During the COVID spike, using wireless DMX was the biggest benefit 100 percent of the time, I would say," says Uyemura. “The guys could turn on lights or make adjustments and walk away right away. From there we had full control of our carts. That drastically reduced the time we had to spend on set in the bubble or around the cast and other crew. "
COVID affected equipment choices in other ways. “To keep people at a distance, we made extensive use of the Teradek Serv Pros so that those who had to see a monitor can see from their devices,” adds Guekens. “We also used a Sohonet ClearView Flex to allow encrypted live streaming of all cameras to anyone working off site. It was great to be able to work with the writer room and VFX team in real time without having to wait for the COVID testing cycle required to physically get to the set. ”
Uyemura says the best thing about COVID-19 security protocols has been using 100 percent wireless DMX. “We could turn on lights or make adjustments and walk away … while in full control of our carts. That drastically cut the time we were in the bubble or around the cast and other crews. ”/ Photo by Patrick Wymore
Although COVID was always in the back of my mind, Love, Victor's team tried to "expand" the story thematically and visually. Now that the arduous 2nd season is behind you – and the crew can look back – what stands out?
Wakayama's first thought is Episode One, in which Rachel Hilson's character Mia takes away at a Chinese restaurant and meets her love interest Andrew (Mason Gooding). “For the planning, it was best to recreate the street scene on the studio grounds,” says Wakayama. “We used FOX's famous New York Street, which was built in 1969 for the film Hello, Dolly. Production designer Cece De Stefano and art director Elizabeth Newton helped us put up neon signs and set up the surrounding shop windows with practical items as a base, and ACLT Noah Cruz worked with Adam (Uyemura) to come up with a plan for a 65-foot condor an S360 and an S60, both of which are wirelessly controlled for our backlight washes, supported by a generous irrigation of the street. On site, we completed and expanded practical exercises with a 12-way shoot-through and S60 to 4×4 for close-ups. "
The DP says he opted for studio mode instead of steadicam to keep a more formal setting, and laid a dolly lane for the final move Mia took from the sidewalk to her car to end the scene. "The idea was to keep the movement specific and minimal so Rachel Hilson could lead the audience with her performance and fear of this public encounter with her ex," he explains.
Recording at St. James Episcopal Church in L.A. Koreatown with a Chapman MiniScope 7 enabled operator Joe Hernandez to capture the entire scene in basic positions. “Joe is a problem solver and can adapt very quickly,” says Wakayama. "I trusted his instinct for creating ideas and the workflow." / Photo by Michael Desmond
Locations have always been fun. Take the big turning point for Victor, who accompanies his mother to church to hear her lead the choir. “We were at St. James Episcopal Church in Koreatown and had a lot of material to discuss,” recalls Wakayama. “To help with logistics, we lit the scene with two 4K tungsten units in a 7 by 14 foot tubular balloon and added texture through stained glass with S60s and M18s. It was a subjective moment for Victor, and we had to be physically close to him with the camera while allowing us flexibility in movement and coverage. Randy (Tambling) secured a Chapman MiniScope 7 operated by Joe (Hernandez) to capture the entire scene in just basic positions. Joe is a problem solver and can adapt very quickly. I welcomed his creative input and trusted his flair for the creation of ideas and the recording workflow. "
Deadline restrictions often inspired creativity, for example for an additional night driving scene in the season finale in which Andrew Mia drives to her mother. "We took the poor man's process off our stage and programmed it with a mix of Astera Titan and Arri SkyPanels programmed by Adam (Uyemura) in a chase," explains Wakayama. “Adam was able to preprogram a few sequences and play with them live. We misted up the windows slightly and added distant city lights with a horizontal pipe mount on a side dolly. The rig carried titanium tubes that we blackened and carefully cut holes in various places to give us a bokeh flavor.
“It was one of those scenes that we added at the end of the day,” he adds. “The A camera worked with a boom for corrections and subtle movements, while B camera operator Justen Hernandez took three-quarter shots along the hood. We were ready in time to shape our day. "
Operator Yvonne Chu says a relatively simple bar scene shows the trust that Love, Victor's camera team shared. “The director and JP had me set up this alternative way down in the bar,” Chu recalls, “… and I noticed a reflection of the torsos (the actors) in the bar. I knew when I had the lens at the right height , I could see their faces in the reflection. ”/ Photo by Greg Gayne
How could a story about a young man navigate? Doesn't high school touch corridors, classrooms or the school yard? Operator Yvonne Chu says she always liked “shooting the dance / band / basketball scenes. I like walking around with the camera and finding footage. The basketball scenes were especially fun and difficult. You're always trying to get in there to get the shot, but at the same time you're trying not to get hit by the players or the ball. I met Michael (Cimino) once (while he was holding the camera in his hand). Fortunatly nobody was hurt."
Wakayama says they tried to approach the basketball work by “watching our main character progress through the scene while showing the dynamism and chaos around us. We had two main setups that we used. The first was a long dolly stretch along the entire sidelines of the square that carried both dollys and cameras that tracked various actions of our Panavision zooms. The second was a mix of Steadicam, operated by Joe, while B-Camera, operated by Yvonne, added a controlled head vibe to capture beats in which Michael gained confidence and was supported by his teammates. "
There is a scene for Chu that illustrates the tremendous trust that Love's camera crew, Victor, shared. “Armando meets Simon's father in a bar,” she explains. “The director and JP let me set this alternative way down by the bar, and as I set it up I noticed their torsos were mirrored in the bar. I knew if I got the lens at the right height I could see their faces in the reflection. "Wakayama smiles and notes," I love using the B-camera on occasions on the days that aren't open the inclusion list or in preparation. I relied on Yvonne to help me improvise those moments that add depth, texture and mood. "
A scene in Victor's high school gym showed a side lane with both dollys "and cameras tracking various actions on Panavision zooms," recalls Wakayama. "The other setup was Steadicam, run by Joe (Hernandez), with Yvonne on B-Camera adding a controlled head vibe to capture the beats of Michael, who is supported by his teammates." / Photo by Michael Desmond
The mention of a pub scene spurs Geukens' memory. Victor takes Rahim (Anthony Keyvan) to a gay bar, much like Victor was taken by Simon's friends in season 1. “Our director Kevin Rodney Sullivan had a clear vision for the camera blocking in this scene,” says Geukens. “All of the light in the room came from LED tubes that were installed as practical spotlights, so that in the opening setting we can see almost the entire bar and move quickly for the reporting on Steadicam. The karaoke part was mainly done with a Chapman Miniscope, which enabled great camera movements within the small practical set. "
"I love every time our characters explore places outside of our school environment," adds Wakayama. “In this case we experienced a premiere with Rahim and wanted to take the audience on this journey. We treated the karaoke as a performance, but kept the subjectivity of the two who connected through the song. "
Love, Victor's season finale is key to the story arc, and the team had to use as much creativity as possible to make it through. "Here Victor attends a wedding of Mia's father and has a revelation about his relationship and who he wants to be with," explains Wakayama. "He runs through the neighborhood streets at night from the party and ends up on an unmarked door of the person he picks, a cliffhanger for season 3."
The guild's camera team shot the sequence in a series of shots that were used in different locations during a week of shooting. “We used an electric car with Joseph Hernandez, who uses Steadicam for running shots and a Moviebird 35/45 for a sweeping shot of Victor driving over a railway bridge,” Wakayama says. “The producers wanted to leave Victor's choice open to interpretation, so we deliberately threw any background clues out of focus and lit the scene in ways that weren't specific to the house he was in.
“It's so much fun when fans create online videos and blog posts about their theories of Victor's choice,” he adds. “One of the most pleasant things about working on the show is the fan base. I believe the positive response is due in part to the great writers, producers, talent, and my crew – who bring this show to life. "
When Victor took Rahim (Anthony Keyvan, right) into a gay bar for the first time, director Kevin Rodney Sullivan had a clear idea of the camera blocking. "All the light in the room came from LED tubes that were mounted as practical lights," explains Guekens "Which allows us to see almost the entire beat in the opening shot and move quickly on steadicam for coverage." / Photo by Patrick Wymore
What's next in season 3? “It was announced recently, so we don't have any plot details,” Wakayama concludes. “But after the second season, I expect the audience to get some clarity on some of the most anticipated cliffhangers. Exploring new relationships and challenging our characters is always a goal, and I really look forward to delving into the visuals to portray these areas. I want to thank my Local 600 crew for supporting me – and Yasu Tanida for his support and guidance during my first season. "
Tanida says that due to his longstanding work with Aptaker and Berger at This Is Us when they asked for a DP reference, he was thrilled to recommend JP, which he describes as "perfect."
"I spoke to Disney's producers and executives to let them know that JP's work on Youth and Consequences, which shot a young cast with limited resources, was very impressive," recalls Tanida. JP has hopeful energy and wanted the opportunity to prove that he could perform on a bigger screen. Our relationship – to this day – is about answering any questions or concerns: from technical matters to putting together a team to working with outstanding actors and crews. I was in JP's position on my first networking series many years ago, so I wanted to let him know how to overcome these challenges and calm him down. "
On a more personal level, Tanida continues, “We're both Japanese and American and it always feels good to advance someone's career, especially if they haven't had the opportunity. Most importantly, let JP know that it was okay to be yourself. He is uniquely different from any other DP with his style and ideas, and he should let those qualities shine through. After all, that's the one they hired. "
Guild DP Yasu Tanida recommended Wakayama (on top of Love, Victor Set) producers Issac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, as well as Disney executives. "The most important thing (my mentorship) was to let JP know that it was okay to be yourself," Tanida describes. “He is uniquely different from any other DP with his style and ideas, and he should let those qualities shine through. This is who they hired, after all. ”/ Photo courtesy of Adam Uyemura
ICG Local 600 Crew: Dear, Victor
Cinematographer: John "JP" Wakayama
A-Cameraman / Steadicam: Joseph B. Hernandez
A-camera 1st AC: Chris Geukens
A-camera 2nd AC: Genna Palermo
B-camera operators: Yvonne Chu, SOC, Justen Hernandez
B-Camera 1st AC: Brian Wells, Cameron Carey
B-camera 2nd AC: Loren Azlein
C-camera operators: Markus Mentzer, Chris Loh, SOC
C-Camera 1. ACs: Brian Udoff, Toby White
C-camera 2nd ACs: Steve Marshall, Conner Daniels
Loader: Conner Daniels
Digital utilities: Onyx Morgan, Morgan Gardiner
Still photographers: Michael Desmond, Greg Gayne, Patrick Wymore