Michelle Lawler, local 600 Director of Photography, and her tight-knit Guild camera team help Lena Waithe create a new cinematic iconography from BET in the 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 for a comedy series – for the "Thanksgiving" episode of Master of None. Her most recent project, Twenties, is the first prime-time vehicle to feature a masculine black woman and the first BET show to be led by an LGBTQ + character. Justin Tipping, one of the series' executive producers and director of four episodes of the first season, explains: “The 1920s created an unprecedented space on television in which a generation of young queer black women acted as protagonists with agencies in their own stories on Canvas can see researching universal topics within their specificity. The story doesn't fetishize black pain and trauma – instead, it's about Hattie and her two straight black girlfriends navigating through love and friendship in the land of dreams. “Tipping, who was nominated for the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Direction in a Comedy Series (Showtime & # 39; s Black Monday) in 2020, had previously worked with Waithe on Showtime & # 39; s The Chi.
And although the storyline of the 1920s sounds familiar, its execution challenges the longstanding Hollywood convention. The show plays Jonica T. Gibbs as Hattie, who wants to become 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 themselves in their twenties, while they all struggle to make it in spaces where they often don't feel they belong," Tipping adds Show The Range of human condition in all its forms. The show pushes the normality of these images and representations into the mainstream so we can work to redefine the status quo of the majority culture to be more inclusive. "
Local 600 cameraman Michelle Lawler, Anyone who has worked on the first season of Waithes BET series Boomerang says that the show, despite being completely location-based, shot four and a half days per episode. "It's easy to stall if you only get coverage and schedule 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 pushing past the automatic standard and going deeper. And there were many options for this on the show. Michael Wilson, operator of A-Kamera / Steadicam, adds: “Lena’s approach is a great way to promote your creativity, collaboration and communication. You are exposed to much more than just typical TV blocks. "
Twenties was shot on an ARRI LF with ARRI Signature Primes and Rota-Polas for skin tones. Jacqueline Stahl, 1st AC of the Guild, said: “The rota polas Michelle and I received from Ava Berkofsky (Local 600 Director of Photography) when we were all working together on Insecure to help smooth out darker skin tones and brighten that absorb more light. It gives the skin a special, unique shine. "
Stahl notes that the Twenties' AC team did group work under the direction of "B-Camera 1st AC Scott Johnson and B-Camera 2nd AC Nick Nikides", which, as Stahl explains, built an engine on the pole that could work with the Pola single channel Preston. By using the auxiliary connector on the Preston, we were able to connect a separate motor through a single channel for Michelle and (DIT) Peter Brunet to have full control over where and how the pola can be adjusted without stopping the flow of the set . This way, they didn't have to ask anyone to stop what they were doing to adjust. You can just do it quietly from the DIT control station. "Having Michelle in the DIT tent (the pola look) was a great addition to our AC team," added Shelly Gurzi, SOC, B-camera operator.
The setup by DIT Peter Brunet included an upright deploy cart with a 25-inch OLED monitor from Sony, on which Pomfort, Livegrade and Silverstack are executed. "Wireless video is very important, especially for a show that is mostly location-based and has a high number of pages every day," Stahl continues. “We used Teradek Bolt 3000 for every camera. If you don't have to run cables each time, the recording process is simplified. This helps my team and me better take Michelle's needs into account when setting up the recording while maintaining the video signal for everyone else. "A Preston FIZ and Light Ranger wireless system allowed Stahl to safely seat the camera and operator with the actors without getting in each other's way.
Waithe's script has greatly influenced the look of the show. In the pilot, the three friends visit All About Eve in Cinespia (at Hollywood Forever Cemetery). The scene shows a clip by Margo Channing (Bette Davis) about being a woman in Hollywood. "This moment determines the aesthetics of the show," explains Lawler, whose award-winning curriculum vitae includes the 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 LA-style drama with these deliberate style blossoms that created a more bizarre or magical realism while still grounded," he notes.
There are more literal allusions to cult films, notes production designer Sammi Wallschlaeger. "We gently remind the viewer that heterosexual white men of cis gender have dominated film and television for over a century, and this is a new era for new faces and voices," says Wallschlaeger.
An example of this is Episode 2 directed by Tiffany Johnson, in which Hattie receives her studio security badge. She leaves the building, puts on her headphones and we hear Frank Sinatra singing: "I have the world on a string." The music swells and we are swept up with Wilson on Steadicam into a music number that was filmed as "Oner". Hattie dances on the property, interacts with extras, and turns around a lamppost reminiscent of Gene Kelly's legendary twist on Singin & # 39; in the Rain.
Careful viewing also results in a winning moment like in the legendary Rocky and a museum moment that is reminiscent of Ferris Buellers Day Off. In the finale of the first season, Hattie and her boss Ida B (Sophia Brown) replay a moment from The Graduate in a dream sequence. "It's great when you get the reference," says Tipping. "And if not, it is a new reference point for iconography, which is usually a white cis-hetero man seduced by an older white woman, and who is now associated with a masculine-presenting black lesbian being seduced by a strange black woman. " It is a remix. "
Twenties has a bit of everything, including a stunt driving sequence. In episode 6, Nia and Hattie drive down the street when Ida B calls Hattie to return to the office. Nia applies the emergency brake and turns around in traffic. "I thought it would be fun if we made it a massive action sequence for no other reason than to get a few laughs," Tipping says. Lawler, who was recorded in about 45 minutes at the end of the day, says: “We started about five pages of dialogue with the process trailer and then moved on to an external MovieBird crane in which the car was on a country road with five stunts a 180 makes cars and drivers who had a delicate stunt choreography. "
“We were on a crane,” explains Gurzi, “with Michael on the pan and incline and me on the horizon. We started with the car upside down in the frame and when the car turned, it was under the crane. I had to land the horizon at the same time, which was exciting. "
The shot was taken at 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 bracket and a rear seat camera. A stunt camera had been safely placed on the street. The reactions of Nia and Hattie were recorded separately at 300 fps, says Tipping, “to give the illusion that our girls are spinning like in The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift. They were really on go-jacks and 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 reactions of the actors that are funny. "
Twenties is tall and brave like his characters. As Wallschlaeger describes: “We were not afraid of patterns, colors and visual stimuli. I kept coming to (the producers) with ideas that some might find too fancy, too bright and colorful or too much pattern, and I would say: “The whole 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 all play an outstanding role and combine gender stereotypes of masculinity and femininity."
Film techniques contributed to the impact. Tipping describes how to “make extreme dolly moves or fly in with the steadicam and use time-speed ramps, almost like pump fakes in basketball,” he says. "That's how I described Lena pitching. A pump fake that prepares the audience for something monumental, and it's just Hattie reading a book. We would lean into an exaggerated movement if we knew we were one extensive Hollywood score mixed with contemporary hip hop and nostalgia titles like Whitney. "
Lawler says that the unmotivated camera movements bring a certain melodrama. "They increase the character's experience," she notes. "Justin loves to quickly push a character in the face to experience an emotional upswing that visually enhances the comedy. I grew up with motivated camera movements, and I enjoyed breaking out of it and doing an emotional beat."
Fast push-ins bring the audience into the moment with the characters, like in episode 7, when Marie finds out that her nemesis Ben has received the promotion she wanted. The sequence begins with tight settings of the email that carries the messages, then cuts to a medium-sized setting before Marie quickly urges her reaction. "Since the camera is high, it is as if the news is coming down on it, and when the camera lands in a medium close-up, Marie turns around and says to the camera," Ben has the promotion, "Lawler says." You tell the audience before telling her boyfriend who is sitting opposite her! She trusts 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. “When preparing, I would like to create a coherent build for all possible camera scenarios. This helps my crew and me to be more efficient, smoother and mostly unnoticed. "
As befits a Hollywood romance, Los Angeles is portrayed as another Character, with crooked furnishing and intermediate shots of the city that are scattered all over the place. "Every time we weren't in the Paramount backlot or Ida B's villa," says Tipping, "we tried to stick to the Hollywood we knew in our 20s, cinespia and improvisation clubs on Santa Monica Boulevard. " The characters of Marie and Chuck also made us organic to shoot a lot in and around West Adams. "
The widespread use of practical locations added texture and character. Lawler, Tipping and Wallschlaeger, who had all met at AFI, spent hours in a van exploring coffee shops, outdoor facilities, and other locations. They would imagine where certain scenes could be and how they would play out. Lawler did lighting tests with different colors and fabrics to see how they were read on camera. One of the last finalized locations was Ida B's You Go Girl production office, where Hattie works. Because the team couldn't find a suitable space, they decided to use Tipping's actual offices in Sherman Oaks, which Wallschlaeger describes as aesthetically challenging. “We brought all new carpets with us, painted, papered, built a wall, added curtains and shadows, frosted windows, moved in all new furniture and office suits. It has been completely transformed from this grubby room into the candy-colored home of Hattie's new dream job. When she enters You Go Girl for the first time, you can feel that it is a special place with a lot of energy and movement. "
This creativity was free in the 1920s because many crew members were already familiar with one another from AFI or were working on Issa Rae's award-winning insecure for HBO. (Lawler made five episodes in season 4). The shorthand allowed the 1920s team to spend their ambitious days.
"The work ethic on the set was very familiar, and we were already friends, and there is really nothing better than the opportunity to be on the set and work with friends around the world," concludes Wallschlaeger. Tipping agrees: “The stars seemed to align when we brought the team together to make Lena's vision come true. No matter what the schedule threw at us – time, budget, or whatever obstacle we had during production – Michelle always knew the solution because she's a master of history. Her craft is unreproachable and her ability to keep a calm and safe space despite the chaos around us definitely distinguishes her. “According to Tipping,“ Lawler invests in a sense of community and promotes it ” "You have to find your employees in this business."
1920s: Local 600 camera team
Cameraman: Michelle Lawler
A-cameraman / steadicam: Michael Wilson
B-cameraman: Shelly Gurzi
A-camera 1. AC: Jacqueline steel
A-camera 2. AC: Rafiel Chait
B-camera 1. AC: Gretchen Hatz and Scott Johnson
B-camera 2nd AC: Nicholas "Nick" Nikides
DIT: Peter Brunet
Utility: Amanda Hamaday
Still photographer: Ron Jaffe