Michelle Lawler, local 600 Director of Photography, and her close-knit Guild camera team help Lena Waithe create a new cinematic iconography for BET's 1920s.
by Margot Lester / Photos by Ron Jaffe / Screengrabs courtesy of BET
Lena Waithe is no stranger when it comes to breaking new ground. The actor, writer, and creator was the first black woman to win an Emmy for outstanding writing on a comedy series for Master of None's Thanksgiving episode. Her latest project, Twenties, is the first prime time vehicle with a masculine black woman and the first BET show to be directed by an LGBTQ + character. Justin Tipping, one of the series' executive producers and director of four episodes of the first season, explains: “The twenties created unprecedented space on television for a generation of young queer black women to act as protagonists with agency in their own narrative on the screen to see exploration of universal subjects within their specificity. The story doesn't fetishize black pain and trauma – instead, it's about Hattie and her two straight black friends navigating love and friendship in the land of dreams. “Tipping, who was nominated for the 2020 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Directing in a Comedy Series (Showtime & # 39; s Black Monday), had previously worked with Waithe on Showtime & # 39; s The Chi.
And although the plot of the 1920s sounds familiar, its execution challenges the long-standing Hollywood convention. The show plays Jonica T. Gibbs as Hattie, who wants to be a screenwriter; Christina Elmore as Marie, a studio manager; and Gabrielle Graham as Nia, a former child actress who is now a yoga teacher. "By showing Hattie and her two black friends how they manage to find each other in their twenties while they all struggle to make it into spaces where they often don't feel like they belong," adds Tipping Show the Range of the human condition in all its forms. The show pushes the normality of these images and representations into the mainstream so that we can work to redefine the status quo of majority culture to be more inclusive. "
Local 600 cameraman Michelle Lawler, Anyone who worked on the first season of Waithe's BET series Boomerang says that while the show is entirely location-based, it shot four and a half days per episode. "It's easy to get stuck if you just get coverage and set up the day with that kind of schedule," she notes. “But Lena inspires you to improve your game. She always asks, "How can we move the camera?" And "How can we do it differently?" And "How can we visually convey what is happening emotionally for this character?" For me, that's the fun part of sliding past the automatic standard and going deeper. And there were many ways to do that on this show. "Michael Wilson, operator of A-Camera / Steadicam, adds," Lena’s approach is a great way to encourage your creativity, collaboration and communication. You're exposed to far more than typical TV blockages. "
Twenties was recorded on an ARRI LF with ARRI Signature Primes and Rota-Polas for skin tones. Jacqueline Stahl, 1st AC of the Guild, says, “The rota-polas that Michelle and I received from Ava Berkofsky (Local 600 Director of Photography) while we were all working on Insecure help smooth out darker skin tones and lighten that absorb more light. It gives the skin a special, unique shine. "
Stahl notes that the AC team in the twenties did a group work led by "B-Camera 1. AC Scott Johnson and B-Camera 2. AC Nick Nikides, who, as Stahl explains," set up an engine on the Pola that can work with the Pola single-channel Preston. By using the auxiliary port on the Preston we were able to connect a separate motor over a single channel for Michelle and (DIT) Peter Brunet to have full control of where and how the Pola can be adjusted without stopping the flow of the set . That way, they didn't have to ask anyone to stop doing what they were doing to adjust. You can just do it quietly from the DIT control station. “Having Michelle dial into the DIT tent (the Pola look) was a great addition to our AC team,” added Shelly Gurzi, SOC operator at B-Camera.
DIT Peter Brunet's setup included an upright deploy cart with a 25-inch Sony OLED monitor running Pomfort, Livegrade and Silverstack. "Wireless video is very important, especially with a show that is mostly location-based and has a high number of pages every day," continues Stahl. “We used Teradek Bolt 3000 for every camera. Eliminating the need to run cables every time makes the recording process easier. This will help my team and I better accommodate Michelle's needs in setting up the recording while maintaining the video signal for everyone else. "A wireless Preston FIZ and Light Ranger system enabled Stahl to safely give the camera and operator space with the actors without getting in each other's way.
Waithe's script was a huge influence on the look of the show. In the pilot, the three friends visit All About Eve in Cinespia (Hollywood Forever Cemetery). The scene shows a clip by Margo Channing (Bette Davis) about being a woman in Hollywood. "That moment defines the aesthetics of the show," explains Lawler, whose award-winning résumé includes indie feature Wildness (Outfest Grand Jury Award) and Rust Creek. “We wanted to restore the opulence of old Hollywood films, but with black women at the center. We wanted to create frames in which they could take up space in the spaces they occupied. "
The tip was also inspired by The Big Lebowski and Punch Drunk Love, "both unusual drama set in LA with those deliberate blooms of style that created a quirkier or magical realism while still grounded," he notes.
There are more literal references to cult films, notes production designer Sammi Wallschlaeger. "We gently remind the viewer that straight white men with cis sex have dominated film and television for over a century, and this is a new time for new faces and voices," shares Wallschlaeger.
An example of this is Episode 2 directed by Tiffany Johnson in which Hattie receives her studio safety badge. She leaves the building, puts on her headphones and we hear Frank Sinatra sing: "I have the world on a string." The music swells up and we are swept into a music number with Wilson on steadicam that was filmed as "Oner". Hattie dances on the property, interacts with extras, and spins around a lamppost reminiscent of Gene Kelly's legendary twist on Singin 'in the Rain.
Careful viewing also brings a victorious running moment like the legendary Rocky and a museum moment reminiscent of Ferris Bueller's Day Off. In the finale of the first season, Hattie and her boss Ida B (Sophia Brown) reenact a moment from The Graduate in a dream sequence. "When you get the reference, that's great," says Tipping. "And if not, it's a new iconography reference point, which is usually a cis-straight white man seduced by an older white woman who is now associated with a masculine-presenting black lesbian being seduced by a strange black woman. " It's a remix. "
Twenties has a little bit of everything including a stunt driving sequence. In Episode 6, Nia and Hattie are driving down the street when Ida B calls Hattie with an urgent request to return to the office. Nia steps on the emergency brake and makes a U-turn in traffic. "I thought it would be fun if we turned it into a massive action sequence for no other reason than to get a few laughs," says Tipping. Lawler, who was taped in about 45 minutes at the end of the day, says, “We started about five pages of dialogue with the process trailer and then switched to an outside MovieBird crane with the car doing five stunts on a country road a 180 makes cars and drivers that had delicate stunt choreography. "
“We were on a crane,” explains Gurzi, “with Michael on the pan and tilt and me on the horizon. We started with the wrong car in the frame and when the car made its U-turn it is under the crane. I had to land the horizon at the same time, which was exciting. "
The shot was taken on the second shot, with the sequence then going down the street to the second body, the handles of which were pre-assembled with a hood mount and rear seat camera. A stunt camera had been safely placed in the street. Nia and Hattie's reactions were recorded separately at 300 fps, Tipping says, “to give the illusion that our girls are spinning like in The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift. They were really on go-jacks, moving as fast as the handles could turn the car in a parking lot. The higher the frame rate, the less you know how fast the car is turning. They focus on the actors' reactions, which are funny. "
Twenties, like its characters, is big and brave. As Wallschlaeger describes: “We did not shy away from patterns, colors and visual stimuli. I kept coming back to (the producers) with ideas that some might find too fancy, too bright and colorful, or too much pattern, and I would say, “The entire room is almost pink and there is this wallpaper that I like. What do you think? "and they would say:" Do it! "Pink and blue play a prominent role throughout and combine gender stereotypes of masculinity and femininity."
Film techniques added to the impact. Tipping describes how to "make extreme dolly movements or fly in with the steadicam and use time-speed ramps, almost like pump fakes in basketball," he says. "That's how I described it to Lena while pitching. A pump fake that prepares the audience for something monumental, and it's just Hattie reading a book. We'd be leaning on an exaggerated movement if we knew we were one Use extensive Hollywood score mixed with contemporary hip-hop and nostalgic titles like Whitney. "
Lawler says that the unmotivated camera movement brings a certain melodrama. "They increase the experience the character has," she notes. "Justin loves to press a character in the face quickly for an emotional boost that visually enhances the comedy. I grew up with motivated camera movements, so I enjoyed breaking out of it and making an emotional beat."
Quick push-ins get the audience into the moment with the characters, like in Episode 7 when Marie finds out that her archenemy Ben got the promotion she wanted. The sequence starts with tight settings on the email conveying the messages and then cuts off to a medium setting before Marie quickly pushes for her reaction. "With the camera up, it's like the news is coming down on her, and when the camera lands in medium close-up, Marie turns around and says into the camera," Ben got the promotion, "Lawler says tell the audience before telling her boyfriend who is sitting across from her! She confides in us. "
Stahl says the non-traditional combinations kept her busy. "They force me to stay sharp and know what is needed for each specific camera package," she says. “In preparation, I want to create a cohesive build for all possible camera scenarios. This helps my crew and me to be more efficient, smooth and mostly unnoticed. "
As befits a Hollywood romance, Los Angeles is portrayed as a different one Character, with crooked furnishings and interim shots of the city scattered all over the place. "Every time we weren't near the Paramount backlot or Ida B's mansion," says Tipping, "we tried to stick to the Hollywood we knew in our 20s for cinespia and improvisation clubs Santa Monica Boulevard. " The characters of Marie and Chuck also organically made us film a lot in and around West Adams. "
The extensive use of convenient places added texture and character. Lawler, Tipping, and Wallschlaeger, who all met at AFI, spent hours in a van exploring coffee shops, grounds, and other locations. You would imagine where certain scenes might be and how they would play out. Lawler ran lighting tests on different colors and fabrics to see how they were read on camera. One of the last completed locations was Ida B's You Go Girl production office, where Hattie works. Unable to find a suitable space, the team decided to use Tipping's actual offices in Sherman Oaks, which Wallschlaeger describes as aesthetically challenging. “We brought all the new carpets, painted, papered, built a wall, added curtains and shadows, frosted the windows, moved in all new furniture and office suits. It has been completely transformed from that dingy room into the candy-colored home of Hattie's new dream job. When she walks into You Go Girl for the first time, you feel that it is a special place with a lot of energy and movement. "
That creativity was free in the twenties as many crew members were already familiar with each other from AFI or were working on Issa Rae's award-winning Insecure for HBO. (Lawler made five episodes in season 4.) Shorthand enabled the team of the twenties to live their ambitious days.
“The work ethic on set was very familiar, we were already friends, and there really is nothing better than being able to be on set and work with friends around the world,” concludes Wallschlaeger. Tip Agrees: “The stars seemed to align as we brought the team together to realize Lena's vision. No matter what the schedule threw at us – time, budget, or whatever obstacle we had during production – Michelle always knew the solution because she is a master of history. Her craft is reproachable and her ability to maintain a calm and safe space despite the chaos around us definitely sets her apart. According to Tipping, “Lawler invests in and promotes a sense of community”. "In this business you have to find your employees."
Twenties: Local 600 camera crew
Cinematographer: Michelle Lawler
A-Cameraman / Steadicam: Michael Wilson
B-cameraman: Shelly Gurzi
A camera 1. AC: Jacqueline Stahl
A-Camera 2. AC: Rafiel Chait
B-camera 1st AC: Gretchen Hatz and Scott Johnson
B-camera 2nd AC: Nicholas "Nick" Nikides
DIT: Peter Brunet
Utility: Amanda Hamaday
Still photographer: Ron Jaffe