A handful of Sundance alumni, including Tim Orr, Director of Photography at Local 600, gather to present a classic figure of American letters.
by Valentina Valentini
Photos by Michael Parmalee
Four of the five directors and the cameraman for all 10 episodes of the new Apple TV + series Dickinson are Sundance alumni. It wasn't a deliberate decision by creator / showrunner Alena Smith, but it does make sense – Sundance has always encouraged experimental creativity in filmmaking and beyond. And Dickinson is nothing, if not creatively experimental.
The 19th-century show with Hailee Steinfeld as rebellious poet Emily Dickinson is a growing up story with a strong modern twist – a psychosocial commentary on what it means to be a young woman then and now. The series – one of the first from Apple TV + in its original content list – focuses on the posthumously famous Dickinson during her teenage years and introduces the life of a young woman at the Western Massachusetts Monastery in the 1850s as something awkward, exciting, and interrogating . And because Dickinson "gives the character a modern sensibility trapped in a pre-modern era," said Smith, "we have always sought to define that tone and find that balance without ever losing our sense of elegance."
Smith, whose background is in the theater and who also wrote in HBO's The Newsroom and Showtime & # 39; s The Affair, commissioned David Gordon Green to direct the first two episodes and to create the look book for the first season. Three other Sundance filmmakers – Stacie Passon, Lynn Shelton and Silas Howard – and Patrick R. Norris were hired after Green for two episodes each. Green, who had his second feature film All the Real Girls (2003) and several other feature film premieres at Sundance in the early 2000s, hired long-time cameraman Tim Orr to carry the established look from episode to episode.
"Tim was the perfect balance between the strong vision Alena had and the strange playfulness I have," says Green, who made Orr shoot 11 of his 14 films, including all of his Sundance films. "Like any great cameraman, Tim is able to find this balance between the madness of the director and the wit of the words and the intelligence of the character. He is sometimes as much a psychologist as an artist."
ICG author Valentina Valentini spoke to key members of the production team, including Smith, Green and Orr, production designer Loren Weeks and costume designer John Dunn.
ICG: The production design and costumes for Dickinson essentially corresponded to a rubric from the 1850s – how else was the appearance modernized?
Tim Orr (cameraman): We wanted the camera to feel alive, with more energy than a typical piece from time that can be too classic. We didn't want it to feel like you were just looking at a painting, but something younger, more alive that a (younger) audience could identify with. We tried to connect it not only emotionally but also visually with a more tangible modern world. Some of this is due to energetic camera movements, and then when it came to lighting, it meant anchoring them to some degree of realism, but still with a modern advantage in terms of the actual physical appearance.
David Gordon Green (director): Tim and I talked about Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975) because he had a visual style that felt almost anachronistic – using lenses with low light and zoom was something we wanted to use. Alena, who had a very strong vision from the start, has a background in stage and theater, so she wanted to give the characters an environment to explore while keeping their words very literal. Tim and I wanted to find nuances and elegance so that the camera wasn't too "on your face". There are a couple of shots in the pilot that I remember (Smith) rolling her eyes. (Laughs) As if Tim was attaching a camera to the buckets that Emily would bring back out of the water at the start of the show. Alena would see us preparing these very stylized shots and wonder what I was doing, but then it would make sense in editing and she would be on board. I always try to achieve experimental quality in everything I do.
Alena Smith (creator / showrunner): The main concern was to achieve this balance between elegance and attitude. That is why we wanted the visual elements – from the lighting to the costumes to the sets – to reflect this idea and be timely at the same time. So we mixed this period correctness with unexpected colors and reflections. For example, we did a lot of research into what wallpaper, prints, and fabrics would have been made of, and we found all these weird (palettes) that shock the eye. You were accurate to the period, but it's not what you would expect in a period show. We always wanted it to look lush and elegant and as truthful as possible.
Showrunner Smith says her most important concern is a "balance between elegance and attitude". From the lighting to the costumes to the sets "we wanted to reflect this idea and be timely," she explains. "So we added unexpected colors and reflections to this period correctness."
ICG: What equipment did you use to achieve these visual goals?
Orr:: Apple introduced a native 4K requirement so I couldn't use my Alexa go-to digital camera. This was before the Mini LF appeared, and the traditional Alexa wouldn't really be enough for the 4K requirement. I tested several cameras – Sony Venice, Panavisions DXL2 – instead of going straight to the Alexa LF because I thought it could be too difficult. We needed a camera with some freedom of movement because we photographed a lot of handhelds. Even though our interiors were on the set, we wanted to treat (the set) as a convenient place, and that meant a camera that my A-camera operator Arthur Scipio Africano or the steadicam operator Jeffrey Dutemple wouldn't tire of. I chose the DXL2 and recorded 8K with the RED Monstro sensor to make the project future-proof. Since we would stick to a contemporary range of lighting with natural daylight, candles and lanterns, I used Panavision's Primo 70 lenses and tuned in to a Noir 3 that softened (the lenses) without reducing contrast. The detuning of Noir 3 was severe enough to maintain rich blacks and still reproduce beautiful skin tones without feeling overly diffuse. It also helped with all the highlights from the candle and lantern sources. I didn't have to use diffusion in front of the lens, which of course happens often when you do this, especially with candles, you can create a double image, reflections or what I would call "bad torches". That you just don't want to.
ICG: How did the other crafts complement the cinematography?
Loren Weeks (production designer): I always design with the camera in mind. I try to offer light sources, camera positions, depth, levels and flow. You only know when you start filming how this mix of the two disciplines will work, but I was extremely happy with the result at Dickinson. In the middle of the 19th century, the light sources were candles, oil lamps and fire. Whenever there was a light near an actor, we used real candles and modified oil lamps that burned gas. The lights in the background were often electric with flickering light bulbs, or the circuit flickered. Candles were usually placed in front of mirrors or polished metal to reflect the light back. Every room had a working fireplace. We did this both for reasons of authenticity, as this was the only heat source for the house, and as a motivation for the additional lighting by the electrical team from (Gaffer David Skutch).
John Dunn (costume designer): We have endeavored to offer Tim a detailed world for photography. While I won't pretend it isn't nerve-wracking to choose wild colors and psychedelic prints at a time that is usually much more reserved, the truth is that our Dickinson sets were often lit by real candlelight and glowing herds. This technique softened the rougher edges and allowed me to use color freely and boldly. And that seemed right for this often funny retelling of Emily's story.
Cameraman Tim Orr says, even though Dickinson's interiors were on the set, "we wanted to treat (the set) as a convenient place, and that meant a camera that wouldn't tire my Jeff Autemple / A camera operator (SOC, top) ) or our B-cameraman Arthur Africano. I chose the (Panavision) DXL2 and recorded 8K with the RED Monstro sensor to make the project future-proof. / Photo by Barry Wetcher, SMPSP
ICG: The recording and modernization of historical stories is currently "on brand". How did you deal with Dickinson?
Thin: I was fascinated and challenged by this new exploration of her early life in Amherst. Emily's few but iconic visual images were of a person frozen in literary amber. So I knew I had to research an unexpected vocabulary to gain a deeper understanding of how to make an American genius. After extensive photo research (a growing process in the 1840s and 1850s), the costume design team David, Tim and the authors presented comprehensive mood boards for each of the characters and main settings in and around Amherst. This started a dialogue about the visual mood we wanted to capture. Of central interest were the actual use of bold colors and the juxtaposition of wild patterns – paisleys, stripes and flowers – in everyday clothing and home decorations. We decided to explore this path of design and not the sepia-colored world that we expect from historical dramas. What was going on in Emily's poems was anything but sepia! We rigorously followed the line regarding the correct silhouettes of the 1850s. What brings freshness is the bold use of color, which is actually pretty accurate. You see, the contemporary eye was trained on a completely different view from 1850 – one of the dark, subdued versions that have been presented in art, photography and film over the centuries. It just felt right to increase the contrast, as the characters' wardrobes were portrayed precisely and factually, while coming across in a more contemporary vernacular.
Weeks: We found the greatest opportunity (for modernization) in Emily's fantasies. Each script had its own set that gave me creative freedom. The inspiration for Death's car came from Fred Astaires Rolls-Royce Phantom from 1927, which he upgraded around 1932. Henry David Thoreau's cabin was decidedly "hipster" decorated, and we created a version of a 19th century disco ball for the Dickinson house party scene.
Orr: With the retelling of Emily's teenage years, we are making a leap from reality. But we took care to always justify this in realism. What is written on the page and what the actors do is outside the contemporary backdrop, the production design, the costumes and, to a large extent, the lighting. I never wanted the lighting to look overly stylized in the everyday scenes of the plot, but there were several cases where we had to take a stylistic leap – scenes that are a bit detached from reality and more fantasy-oriented. For example, in episode three of the party scene, we used a Victorian disco light with moving multicolor lights that were realistic for the world, but in this case everything comes from Emily's imagination. The same applies to the chariot of death – we are in an elevated, imaginative world. We fluctuate in both – the realistic, natural world that expands when we enter these fantasy sequences.
Green: There are some things in camera language that you wouldn't find in a historical piece that I thought would improve the character's attitude and tell the story. Everything with the camera, I looked at how to (modernize the story) in the service of the script. Everything is still authentic for the period, so it felt like a credible world to which we could invite a younger audience with modern dialogue (and music). There is also this internal conversation that wants to include diversity. And when we deal with Amherst in the 19th century, that's a very limited topic. If there were opportunities to create ethnic and cultural diversity, we tried to use these opportunities. But Alena speaks so fluently that it had to be precise. It's funny to try not to be influenced by all the films and TV shows that have been released before, by historical topics and especially by Emily Dickinson, and still try to give it a unique taste.
According to production designer Loren Weeks, the first-class opportunity to modernize the story emerged from the main character's fantasies. "Each script had its own set that gave us creative freedom," Weeks says. "The inspiration for the chariot of death (above) came from Fred Astaires' 1927 Rolls-Royce Phantom, which he upgraded around 1932."
ICG: There were five directors on the show – did Tim change his look at all with the perspectives?
Green: I brought Lynn Shelton, a friend from Sundance, and Alena the others. It was the first time that I started a show and then watched other people. We have encouraged (the new directors) to bring their signatures, but continue to follow the template that Tim and I set out at the beginning. At least that's the intention and it's not such a mechanical process. We had Alena and Tim's common thread, so there was a visual language that we had established. Then the hope – and that's what I love about the new streaming format – is that I can help to tell more stories and establish more directors from more genres. The goal is always to bring in other talented voices to expand the universe.
Smith says she and Orr (far left) were the only creatives on the set for each episode and scene. "I think that's what makes TV so special and where DP is vital," she concludes. "He or she delivers an incredibly important connective tissue throughout the project."
Blacksmith: I was on the set and covered every scene as a showrunner / producer. The only other person who was there for every scene was Tim. Hailee (Steinfeld) can of course be seen in almost every scene. But behind the camera, Tim and I were the constants. And I have to say that Tim has this kind of stamina and still makes every scene beautiful … I think that's what makes TV special, where DP is important – he or she offers an incredibly important connection between tissues through the entire project.
Local 600 camera team – Dickinson
Cameraman: Tim Orr
A-cameraman / steadicam: Jeff Dutemple, SOC
A-camera 1. AC: Greg Finkel
A-camera 2. AC: Emma Rees-Scanlon
B-cameraman: Arthur Africano
B-camera 1. AC: Bradley Grant
B-camera 2. AC: Suren Karapetyan
DIT: Jessica Ta
Loader: Patrick McKeown
Still photographers: Michael Parmelee, Barry Wetcher, SMPSP
Publicist: Julie Kuehndorf