By Randi Altman
Netflix’s The Baby-Sitters Club, based on the best-selling book series by Ann M. Martin, follows a group of entrepreneurial middle-school girls as they start a babysitting business in the town of Stoneybrook, Connecticut. There are dad dilemmas, crushes, Halloween spookiness and more. The show stars Sophie Grace, Momona Tamada, Shay Rudolph, Malia Baker, Xochitl Gomez, Alicia Silverstone and Mark Feuerstein.
The cinematographer on The Baby-Sitters Club is Adam Silver, founder of the Santa Monica-based production company National Picture Show, which creates content across multiple platforms. Silver’s recent DP projects include Pen15, Into the Dark and the Valley Girl remake. He also served dual roles as director and DP on the TV adaption of Heathers and producer and DP on the films Daddio and A Deadly Adoption. Proving his ability to move between types of projects, Silver also works shooting commercial campaigns, such as those for Bud Light, 3M and Meta.
His most recent endeavor, The Baby-Sitters Club started streaming on Netflix on July 3. Here Silver talks to us about the show, his process and inspiration.
How early did you get involved in planning for the season? And what direction did showrunner Rachel Shukert give you about the vision she had for this new series?
I came onto the project with about six weeks of prep before we started shooting in Vancouver. I’d known EP/director Lucia Aniello socially and had seen a lot of her comedy work. I had also watched Rachel’s work on GLOW and other shows. It was exciting to do a project with both of them.
From the outset, Rachel and Lucia envisioned a look that was naturalistic and felt real but also poppy and fun to look at. So, I took this initial guideline and then got to run with it and hone it to a specific set of aesthetics and grammar, all while creating space for each director to come in and personalize it. Working closely with Lucia, I put our ideas into a visual presentation for the EPs, studio and network. They loved it, so we were off and running.
Can you talk about developing that happy and bright look?
I felt the coolest version of the show was something grounded in naturalism and realism — something that felt truthful and authentic. We wanted to enable the audience to connect emotionally with the characters, but balance that with something visually dynamic and fun to watch. We wanted something that had a sense of childlike whimsy and playfulness to serve the comedy and was inherent in the book-to-series adaptation.
How much did the books the show is based on play into the look of the show, if at all?
We were very inspired by the spirit of the books. Lucia and Rachel were superfans to put it lightly, and we all wanted something that felt like a compelling friendship/adventure story — for and about girls.
As I was doing visual research in prep, it was very easy to find references set in the world of boys — I had grown up with films like Goonies, E.T. and Stand By Me. Now there’s Stranger Things, etc., but it was surprisingly hard to find visual references or an equivalent series for girls. Which is of course what the books are, and which meant that this was such a great time to make this show.
We wanted the visual style to capture a sense of excitement and adventure and I felt there were ways to reflect that in the photography — with a dynamic camera, sense of playfulness, a richness and vibrancy to the color all while staying grounded in realism. And I really wanted to stay away from the type of old-school kids show that is too cutesy or bubble gum; I think kid audiences are way too sophisticated for that now.
There’s also an iconography associated with the original books from the cover art and other renderings. For example, the classic cover of the five main characters framed in Claudia’s room, sitting around the rotary telephone, which is another iconic device from the books. We wanted to keep those very much alive in the Netflix version, but with a modern twist.
How did you work with director Lucia Aniello and Light Iron colorist Corinne Bogdanowicz to achieve that look?
It always starts with story and what the show is about at its core. The drama and comedy of this show are born from the relationships between the five main characters. I thought a lot about how to visualize these relationship dynamics and how to use the frame to help tell this part of the story.
Lucia and I really liked the idea of a widescreen aspect ratio that could capture four of five kids in the same shot, and felt a wider frame could help articulate themes about group vs. the individual, together vs. alone, etc. I find the wider frame works well to isolate a character feeling alone.
While 16×9 didn’t feel wide enough, traditional anamorphic 2.40 actually felt too wide for the streaming format. We felt it might lose a sense of intimacy. I had gone through a similar process on Heathers (Paramount TV) and suggested we do some tests and find our own proprietary frame that felt right to the show. I got the network and post team to approve the idea, and after testing we settled on a ratio of 2.1:1. Very specific, but I liked it, and that’s what felt right to Lucia so we made it happen!
Working with Lucia, our general process was to hone the look using visual references, then I proposed a couple different lens and camera options to test during prep. She came into Sim Camera (our camera partner) with me and we went through a few setups. Then, using our test footage up in Vancouver, I did a remote color session with colorist Corinne Bogdanowicz, who was in LA working on the FilmLight Baselight.
Huge props to Light Iron’s Katie Fellion for setting that up and figuring out the tech. Corinne helped create a show LUT and some looks, which were very helpful during production. Throughout prep, in addition to exhaustive location scouting, Lucia and I went on to shot-list most of her episodes, which was key for production efficiency, especially given the limited hours with the kid cast.
What was it like shooting in Vancouver, and how long was the shoot?
It was fantastic; we had some of the best technical crews I’ve ever had: 1st AC Mikah Sharkey, who was the anchor of the camera department; operators Mikey Jechort and Brett Manyluk; gaffer Mark Alexander; and key grip Amrit Bawa.
But the town also had its challenges. We were one of 70 or 80 TV productions working at the time, which put a strain on resources. We also had tricky situations with the weather and shooting outdoors. For scheduling reasons, we had to shoot some of our summer episodes in the fall when the weather had turned, so rain became a regular part of our production. We tried to embrace it as much as possible, and Rachel and the writers did an amazing job of adjusting the scripts to incorporate the rain.
How did you choose the right camera and lenses for this project? Why was this the right combination of tools?
I’ve traditionally been a huge fan of the ARRI Alexa Mini for fast-paced TV production, but with the Netflix 4K requirement, I took it as an opportunity to try some new stuff. I hadn’t shot Red for several years but had heard great things about the Monstro chip and was excited to test it.
I paired the DSMC2 Monstro with a couple different lens packages, including both spherical and anamorphic. We liked the feel of the anamorphics right away; they captured the wider aspect ratio. We also liked the bokeh and rendering of an out-of-focus background. Even though we weren’t using its full width (essentially chopping off the extreme sides of the frame for a 2.1:1 finish), there was something about the bendiness on the wider anamorphic primes when framing a group of actors in close proximity that we felt encircled the viewer, drawing them into the group. Though I love the Cooke anamorphic/i primes, I thought this show needed a bit more crisp, clean look. After testing both, we went with the Arri/Zeiss Master anamorphics.
When testing the Red Monstro, I paid close attention to its color rendition, since my preferences for the Alexa were a lot about the color science, the system’s filmic color rendition and smooth skin tones. I ended up really liking the Monstro’s color.
DIT Mason Denysek helped to keep our color consistent with his live grade on set and into dailies. Then in final grade at Light Iron, I was able to dial it in with Corinne, most of which I was able to supervise directly.
Any challenging scenes that you are particularly proud of or found most challenging?
Overall, the trickiest part of the production was having enough time with our amazing kid actors. All our young leads were so professional and prepared, but because of their ages we had very limited hours with them. Each day became both a race and a math puzzle to figure out how to shoot all their scene work before we had to wrap them. Our producer Meg Shave and the AD team worked some magic with scheduling and other tricks to give us what we needed.
How did you become interested in cinematography?
I started in the business in New York, moving there after college and working on set. I spent four or five years coming up in the lighting and grip departments. I had studied still photography in college and always liked the visual side of filmmaking.
After a few years working in the industry in New York, I went on to graduate film school. I mostly trained in writing and directing, but because I brought a lighting and photography background, I gravitated to cinematography, shooting dozens of my class mates shorts. These days I’m a director as well, but I will always be a cinematographer; I truly love the craft and it’s in many ways the backbone of filmmaking.
What inspires you artistically?
I’m often driven by wanting to work with a particular artist or filmmaker and will go after projects that have interesting people attached to them.
How do you keep up on new technology?
I’m not the kind of DP that attends gear conferences or anything, and I’ve never wanted to own equipment. I stay on top of it by being as truthful as I can to the story: the story will create a need for a certain type of approach or technique or grammar or style, and if it’s something I haven’t done before I’ll be forced to learn the tech of it. Prep is key, it’s where all that research happens.
Any best practices that you try to follow on each job?
The longer I do this job, the simpler my lighting gets. I also feel a sense of duty to the idea of truth. That may sound amorphous and it can mean a lot of things, but just one example is in lighting. There is truth in lighting the way it is in writing or performance.
Not long ago, I was shooting Pen15, and that’s a great example of this. The creators (also the leads) Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle wrote the show based on their very personal experiences from middle school, and they have an infallible barometer for truth. If anything in the show feels inauthentic, including the lighting — they immediately flag it. I love this. It keeps all of us honest and it’s one reason the show is so good.
Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years.