The series David Makes Man follows a 14-year-old boy attending a prestigious magnet school and his formerly drug-addicted mother, who is relying on him and his potential to get them out of the rough Miami neighborhood they live in. David is torn between the streets he grew up on and the life he’s capable of living.
Written by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, an Oscar winner for co-writing Moonlight, David Makes Man will be premiere on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network on August 14. Along with McCraney, some of the show’s producers include Nantale Corbett, Mike Kelley, Michael B. Jordan, Oprah Winfrey. Dee Harris-Lawrence is a showrunner, along with McCraney.
The series depicts David’s two very different worlds — home and school — each of which McCraney wanted to have different looks. He called on cinematographer Todd A. Dos Reis, ASC, to help create those two worlds. We reached out to Dos Reis to find out how he accomplished this and his workflow.
Tell us about David Makes Man. How would you describe the overarching look of the film?
Early on in pre-production, showrunner Tarell McCraney and I came up with the idea to have our young protagonist, David, live in two worlds and give each world its own distinct look.
One world was The Ville, the Miami housing project where he lived with his mother and younger brother. David’s home life was unpredictable, and we wanted the viewer to be on edge as David was on a daily basis. The Ville had low-income families and drug dealers that ran their business out of the projects. The Ville would not have the typical lushness dripping with color that everyone is used to seeing in Miami. Our Miami would be a desaturated limited color palette leaning toward the cool blue side of the color wheel.
David’s other world was his middle school that encompassed a warmer tone, with natural lighting that you would see in the early morning and the late afternoon. David is a prodigy and excels in this world, so we wanted to make this environment more welcoming.
How did the director tell you about the look that was wanted?
In our initial meeting, Tarell McCraney, the EP, showrunner and writer, talked about Fresh (1994) and Juice (1992) being a good place to start when discussing the tone of the show. He said he wanted David Makes Man to be a 10-hour film versus 10 one-hour episodes.
We also discussed the works of artist Kerry James Marshall when looking at the blackness of a frame. In David Makes Man, we wanted to accept darkness as a point of expression versus a deficit. Director Michael Williams came in with an amazing look book that referenced images from Mother of George, Daughters of the Dust, Selma and Belly.
How early did you get involved in the production?
As soon as I got the call from producer Wayne Morris that I was their choice for DP, I made myself available for discussions with the showrunners Tarell McCraney and Dee Lawrence Harris. I had three weeks of unofficial prep in Los Angeles and three weeks of prep in Orlando.
It was shot in Orlando?
The story of David Makes Man takes place in Miami, but we filmed in Orlando. We were based at Universal Studios Orlando, where we built the interiors of The Ville housing project apartments (David’s family apartment and friend of the family Elijah’s apartment) and any swing sets that appeared in various episodes. There was one day of filming in Miami with a second unit.
How did you go about choosing the right camera and lenses?
There were many factors that I had to consider. First, how to visually create the two worlds of David. The Ville, where David lived, was going to be hand-held, subjective, wider lenses in your face, and more intimate and chaotic.
His school and outside The Ville world were going to be photographed on a stable platform, i.e. dollies, cranes and SteadiCam. This world was going to have a natural calming feel to offset his home life. I needed a camera that could be used hand-held, on a dolly and on a SteadiCam and switched back and forth quickly. I chose three ARRI Alexa Minis.
David’s two worlds were also enhanced by filming in both spherical and anamorphic. Discussions with the director of Episode 1, Michael Williams, led us to film The Ville with Cooke anamorphic lenses. Because many scenes in the story take place in David’s alternate reality, and I was going to be using the Lensbaby lenses to heighten David’s visions, the Cooke anamorphics created a great foundation to have under David’s visions. The spherical lenses, Cooke Panchro/i Classics, would be used to show the normalcy of David’s school and anything outside of The Ville.
Are there any scenes that you are particularly proud of or found most challenging?
Our most challenging scenes usually took place at The Ville. We built a two-story section of a housing project where some of the interior apartments were practical. For day exteriors in the ever-changing Florida sky and weather, we used a 40×40 quarter silk to cover the courtyard. We could have used an 80×80. Key grip Joel Wheatley and his crew managed the silk like a sail on a yacht, constantly trimming and adjusting for weather changes and shot selection.
Night exteriors at The Ville called for an array of lighting instruments. Working from the inner circle of the hallways, we built fluorescent housings to hang above the exterior hallways and hold two 4-foot cool white fluorescents with cyan 60. This would give our wide range of African American skin tones an unnatural and eerie color. The next circle of color is what lit The Ville courtyard and exterior.
Gaffer Marc Wostak bought safety lights at a local hardware store, and we gelled them with high sodium gel. We built four poles for inside the courtyard and hung the gelled safety lights on the outside corners of each housing project building. The final outside diameter of The Ville had a sprinkling of mercury vapor lighting (1/2 blue and ¼ plus green). To give moonlight ambience, we always used one or two helium balloons above the courtyard and parking area at The Ville. Because helium was a rare commodity on our budget, we usually hung the balloons without helium from 80-foot Condors.
Without giving any story points away, there were night interior scenes where there was no electricity and we were blocked out of any possible moonlight. Being a big fan of John Alcott, BSC, and the film Barry Lyndon, I took my impetus from here. Not having the fast T1.3 lens that Mr. Alcott used, I had the art department buy every three-wick and two-wick candle they could find in Orlando. I augmented the scenes with small china balls and LED Light Gear patches that I could tape to candles and hide behind objects in the room. In some scenes we had the luxury of a character carrying a flashlight, but that was rare.
The most challenging scene would have to be when two characters have a heated discussion with someone holding a Zippo lighter. We taped four dots of tungsten LED Light Gear to the back side of the Zippo and ran the cable down the actor’s wardrobe with my gaffer Marc Wostak walking and adjusting as the actor moved around the room. The choreography between camera operator Bob Scott, Marc Wostak and the actors was something out of a Bob Fosse film.
Can you talk about shooting anamorphic for The Ville housing project scenes?
We wanted to shoot David’s world at The Ville with anamorphic lenses because this is the place he did not want to be. One of David’s main goals in the story is to get out of this life at The Ville. I felt the anamorphic lenses would help isolate David from his surroundings and the drug dealers he didn’t want to be associated with.
The shallow depth of field that the lenses give you was a characteristic that we wanted to create visually. We wanted to show the emotions on his face that David was going through as well as heighten the tension of what was lurking around the dark corners of The Ville. The lenses also helped in giving us a more filmic quality and made all the episodes feel more like a feature film instead of 10 episodes.
How did you become interested in cinematography?
From an early age, I watched a great deal of TV and frequented the local movie theater to see any film that hit my small city of New Bedford, Massachusetts. It started with Disney films with my family, then went to Bruce Lee triple features and the Blaxploitation genre.
When I was 13, my grandparents bought me my first Canon still camera and I was fascinated. This led me to photography classes and running the TV studio at my high school. My love for the image grew, and I researched the best film schools for college. I ended up at USC Cinema. I started focusing on cinematography and learned that I could tell a story with just the visual image.
What inspires you artistically? And how do you simultaneously stay on top of advancing technology that serves your vision?
I am inspired artistically by the journey to be original. I am constantly trying to never repeat myself, and I never want to imitate anyone else in this industry. I use other DPs and directors that I admire as inspirations.
I try to stay on top of advancing technology that serves my vision by always educating myself and surrounding myself with artists and craftsmen who are willing to take chances and are not afraid of failing.
What new technology has changed the way you work (looking back over the past few years)?
I think all the advancements in the LED lighting category have opened up amazing opportunities for filmmakers. In productions where space is always a factor, there is always some nook and cranny to create beautiful, artistic or dramatic lighting.
What are some of your best practices or rules you try to follow on each job?
On every project, I use the script as my bible. What is the story? What is the auteur trying to convey? What is the emotion of each scene? My job is to visually collaborate with the director, showrunner or writer to get their vision to the screen. The rule I try to follow is that there are no rules in filmmaking. The more rules I can break, the more original I will be as an artist.
Explain your ideal collaboration with the director when setting the look of a project.
It starts with the script. I like to meet with a director as early and as often as possible. If a director is open to ideas that are not his/hers, then I know I am in a good place. Sharing ideas, watching films together and collaborating and experimenting on the set opens up my creativity.
What’s your go-to gear (camera, lens, mount/accessories) — things you can’t live without?
My most recent go-to gear is a set of Lensbaby lenses that my camera house, Otto Nemenz, created for me. I am also a big fan of Tiffen and Schneider streak filters. The lighting instrument that I can’t do without is a Source Four Leko. I would like to do a project with all Lekos, daylight and tungsten.
Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years.