By Randi Altman
Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere stars Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington as, well, frenemies? Maybe? It’s hard to describe their relationship, other than a powderkeg covered with a fake smile. From the minute Washington’s Mia, a wandering artist and single mom, pulls into the upper-class Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights and meets Witherspoon’s Elena, an uptight and OCD mother of four, you know the close-knit town won’t ever be the same.
Set in the 1990s, this limited series, based on Celeste Ng’s book of the same name, puts a microscope on just-under-the-surface racism combined with your everyday, run-of-the-mill mother’s remorse.
We reached out to DP Jeffrey Waldron to find out about the look of the show and how he worked with his alternating DP Trevor Forrest, the directors and the EPs.
How early did you get involved on the show?
I was brought on with the other DP Trevor Forrest several weeks before principal photography began. We hit it off in an initial meeting that included the pilot director and the executive producers.
Can you talk about the look they wanted for the show?
My initial instincts for the show, based on the book and the first two scripts, turned out to be really in sync with what they’d been discussing. In the early stages we were all bringing visual references to the table and deciding on the overall visual arc of the eight episodes.
Ultimately, the visual ideas we landed on held that the character of Elena represented a sense of order — tight control of her life and family — and that Mia represented chaos. She’s a strong mother and a wandering artist, but there’s a lot we don’t know about her, and that’s where much of the early tension comes from.
Can you talk about the different looks?
Sure. The other key visual idea was the changing of the seasons, from August to December — which we represented through color in lighting and LUTs — warmer to cooler. In the late summer we see warmer highlights and maintain a bit of cyan in the shadows. But as the days grow shorter, they also grow bluer in the shadows, and the lighting becomes darker and more edgy, and the camerawork starts to loosen and become more reactive.
You mentioned the novel earlier. Did the look described in the book translate to the show?
There’s nothing super-specific to the novel that plays a big role in our approach to the look. But I have now done a couple of book adaptations as limited series and I do try to absorb the author’s prose style to see if there is a visual equivalent. The “voice” of the dialogue is most easily brought to life in a script, but the descriptive style of the novel is an interesting place for the cinematographer to look for tonal cues. What’s the tense? Who’s point of view? Is the narrator omniscient? Is it told loosely? Formally? Beautifully? Gritty? I feel that we did bring a sense of this voice to the show’s look — even if subconsciously.
It takes place in the 1990s. How did that affect how you shot it?
The ‘90s played into every aspect inside of the frames — the amazing production design, cars, costumes, hair and makeup — so there wasn’t a huge responsibility for the look of the show to scream 1990s.
That said, the combination of all of these elements and a more neutral, soft, formal style for Elena — especially in the first couple of episodes — does result in an overwhelmingly ‘90s vibe that we start to undo as her life gets tangled up with Mia’s. You’ll start to see darker, moodier, bluer lighting and a more handheld sense in the camera work as the plot thickens!
Where was it shot?
The show is set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, but we shot in Los Angeles. This brought the challenge of finding locations that looked right for the written scene, but also for the 1990s, and Ohio. As mentioned, the story begins in August but ends in December, so this meant bringing in rain and snow and giant silks to create overcast-feeling skies.
How did you go about choosing the right camera and lenses for this project?
The DP for Episode 1, Trevor Forrest, and Panavision magician Dan Sasaki had customized a few versions of Panavision’s Sphero 65 primes to differing strengths of flare, veiling glare and diffusion characteristics.
We tested them on the Alexa LF and ended up really loving the heaviest strength — tasking Panavision to create us an extended set. As we ventured into flashback sequences and ultimately the sixth episode, we brought on a mix of Panavision T and C series anamorphic primes to establish a different feel for seeing “memory.”
Any challenging scenes that you are particularly proud of, or ones that you found more challenging?
Every day is truly a challenge on a television schedule — even scenes that don’t look technically difficult can be Herculean to pull off when you see what else has to be shot on the same day.
All of the homecoming dance scenes in the third episode had to be shot in one day. When you consider the size of the space, the amount of extras and the limited hours of the minor actors, it was quite a task. We built two giant soft boxes that we could control on the lighting board allowing us to create contrast by turning sides of the boxes on and off as we moved the camera around the gymnasium. We had a Technocrane that allowed us to move the camera around the gym quite easily. Even if we weren’t using it for a high-angle crane-style shot, we’d use it like a Steadicam for moving masters. These tools definitely help to make the day.
Who did the color grade on the show?
Company 3’s Stefan Sonnenfeld using Blackmagic Resolve.
Now, moving away from the show, how did you become interested in cinematography?
As a kid I was obsessed with animation and wanted to be a hand-drawn animator. In fifth grade I joined an animation club. My mom would drop me off at their studio, you’d pay like $20 a month and you could use their 16mm camera and everything. This got me wanting to know more about film, which led me to still photography and ultimately to live-action film cinematography. I still love animation!
What inspires you artistically?
The work of other great cinematographers in the episodic realm really does inspire me. I know we share limitations of budget and time, and when I see incredibly beautiful and consistent imagery across a show, I’m excited to learn from them. Right now in episodic, it’s Igor Martinovic’s work on The Outsider. I’m also always excited to see whatever Christian Sprenger or Tim Ives is up to.
What about keeping up with new technology?
I’m not the most camera tech-y DP — my world is generally more affected by advances in the lighting realm. A new set of lenses is always interesting to me, but how it affects my work? A super-versatile new lighting instrument is far more likely to help my craft.
What new technology has changed the way you work over the past few years?
The cameras have obviously changed a bit, but these advances don’t usually change the way I work. The Sony Venice has to some extent — the ability to swap NDs so quickly and the dual native ISO, allowing a 2500 base ISO, have impacted how I put scenes together on set.
Lighting instruments like LiteMats, Astera tubes and SkyPanels have probably had the bigger effect on how I work, making it easier (and cooler) to create soft sources, choose colors without the need for gel and dim without affecting color. The ability to dim everything alone is such a game changer versus Kinos and hot lights.
Care to share some of your best practices?
I have an ever-growing personal list of best practices — many super-specific to situations I’ve found a good solution for in the past or things to avoid. But the big thing for me is starting the day with some personal time at home to journal about the previous day’s work and the work ahead, and taking some deep breaths and thinking about the challenges coming up.
A film set can be a stressful place, so I try to set a calm and fun vibe and let people know I appreciate them. I honestly have so much fun on a film set; it’s long hours, but the time just flies for me. I love my crews, and I love creating with them.
Does your process change at all when working on a film versus an episodic or vice versa?
On a show like Little Fires Everywhere, with alternating DPs, my process is exactly the same as it would be on a feature. You intimately prep with your director, visiting locations together, craft your specific approach; work with your AD to assure the timing makes sense and meet with the production designer to look at plans.
On a show without an alternating DP, it’s quite different. You treat the first episode or episode block like a feature, but then you start shooting… and you’re juggling future episodes as you shoot. You’re generally not visiting locations with the director, instead relying on your crew to help relay the pertinent information. It’s different, it requires a bit more improvisation to pull things together on the day, but I actually love it too.
Explain your ideal collaboration with the director when setting the look of a project?
The ideal collaboration is one where it quickly becomes apparent that you have similar instincts — this allows you to run with your best and most ambitious ideas, knowing that they’ll be met with a sense of co-ownership and excitement.
With solid pre-production, shared instincts give way to a shorthand on set that just makes things come together more easily and more beautifully. It’s a lot harder when you’re not on the same page. You may read the same scene and have opposite ideas for what it should look like or how the blocking might look or what focal lengths might feel right. In these situations, it’s all about remaining flexible. I’ve had great collaborations with wonderful directors where we weren’t in sync visually, and we did wonderful work by finding a balance, but it’s harder.
What’s your go-to gear — things you can’t live without?
I don’t have any go-tos really. I love prime lenses of all sorts — getting to know their inherent strengths and flaws and exploiting them to tell the story is an exciting part of the job. I love ARRI cameras, and I’m also a big fan of Sony’s Venice camera. There isn’t anything I can’t live without camera-wise — I really feel that amazing images can be made on any of the common cameras and lenses that people are using.
I feel there are lighting tools I can’t live without: LiteMats, Astera tubes, SkyPanels — easy tweaks of color, everything is dimmable. It’s truly amazing the extra trouble we used to go through in lighting. I wouldn’t want to go back.
Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years.