By Randi Altman
There have never been more options to stream content than right now. In addition to veterans Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, Disney+ and Apple TV+ have recently joined the fray.
In fact, not only did Apple TV+ just launch last month, its The Morning Show — about what goes on behind the scenes on, well, a morning show — has earned three Golden Globe nominations. The show stars Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell and Billy Crudup.
Veteran cinematographer Michael Grady (On the Basis of Sex, The Leftovers, Ozark) was called on by frequent collaborator and executive producer Mimi Leder to shoot the show. We reached out to Grady to find out more about the show and how he works.
How early did you get involved on The Morning Show, and what direction were you given about the shoot?
I have worked with Mimi Leder often over the last 15 years. We have done multiple projects, so we have a great shorthand. We were finishing a movie called On the Basis of Sex when she first mentioned The Morning Show. We spoke about the project even before she was certain that she would take it on as the executive producer and lead director. Ultimately, it is awesome to work with Mimi because she really creates an amazingly collaborative and open work environment. She really allows each person to bring something specific to a project while always staying at the wheel and gently guiding everyone toward a common goal. It’s a very different process from many directors. She knows how to maximize the talents of those around her while staying in control.
Mimi directed episodes 1 and 2. They are essentially the pilot and the setup of the show. After her two episodes, there was a very seasoned and talented group of directors that did episodes 3 through 9. On episode 4, I worked with Lynn Shelton, who is truly an amazing director working with actors. She is one of the loveliest and deeply collaborative directors that I have ever experienced.
For episode 6, I had the pleasure of working with Tucker Gates. Tucker is a brilliant veteran director that I immediately felt at ease with. I adored working with him. We really saw eye to eye on the common ground of filmmaking. He is a director that is experienced enough to really understand all aspects of filmmaking and respects each person on the crew and what they are also trying to achieve. I thought that he directed the most technically challenging episode created this season.
Next, I had another decorated director to make episode 6. Michelle MacLaren has made some great TV in the past, and she did it again on her episode of The Morning Show. We had worked together on The Leftovers, and I loved the work we did together on that show and again on this one. She is a visionary director. Extremely driven.
How would you describe the look of show?
Well, Mimi and I looked at a lot of films as reference before we began. We settled in on a clean, elegant, classical feel. The look of Michael Clayton, shot by Robert Elswit, was a key reference for the show. We used a motif of reflections: glass, mirrors, water, steel, hard surfaces, and … of course, moving images on monitors. Both natural and man-made reflections of our cast were all sign posts for framing the look of the show. It seemed an appropriately perfect motif for telling the story of how America’s morning news programs function and the underbelly that we attempt to investigate.
How did you work with the producers and the colorist to achieve the intended look?
Siggy Ferstl at Company 3 is our colorist. Siggy and I have collaborated on well over 10 movies for the last 15 years. I think he is, without question, the best colorist in the movie business.
The show has a rich, reserved elegance about it. On a project like this, Siggy needs very little guidance or direction from me. He easily understands the narrative and what the look and feel should be on a show. We talk, and it evolves. He is amazing at identifying what you have created in the shoot and then expanding upon those concepts in an attempt to enhance and solidify what you were attempting in image acquisition.
Where was it shot, and how long was the shoot?
We shot in LA on the Sony lot, all over LA and then also in New York City and Las Vegas. We shot for five months. The shoot ran November through the middle of May. I began prep a month or so before.
How did you go about choosing the right camera and lenses for this project? Can you talk about camera tests?
We opted for the Panavision Millennium DXL2 with Primo 70 lenses — Apple’s specs required a 4K minimum. We tested a few systems and ended up choosing the Panavision for its awesome versatility. One camera does it all — Steadi, hand-held, studio, etc. At the time, there were few options for large format. There are many more now. We tested quite a few lenses with Jenn, Reese and Billy and ultimately chose the Primo 70s. We loved the clean but smooth look of these lenses. We shot them clean with zero filtration. I really liked the performance of the lenses for this show.
Can you talk about lighting?
Obviously, lighting is everything. Depth, contrast, color and the overall richness of the image are all achieved through lighting and art direction. Planning and previsualization are the key elements. We tried to take great care in each image, but this Panavision camera is groundbreaking in terms of shooting raw on the streets at night. The native 1600 ASA is insane. The images are so fast and clean, but our priority on this show was how the camera functioned within the realm of skin tones, texture, etc. We loved the natural look and feel of this camera and lens combo. The DXL really is an awesome addition to the large-format camera choices out there right now.
Any challenging scenes that you are particularly proud of or found most challenging?
We had an episode that took place in Las Vegas, and we shot for one long night. All mostly just grab and go. Very guerilla-style. Most of the sequences on Las Vegas Boulevard are all natural … no artificial light. Along the same lines as above, the camera performed on the streets of Las Vegas beautifully. The images were very clean, and the range and latitude of the DXL were amazing. I am shocked at how today’s cameras perform at low-light levels.
You’ve also shot feature films. Can you talk about differences in your process?
I don’t really see huge differences any more between features and high-end TV like this show. It used to be that features were given more time, and then more was expected. Well, you may still get more time, but everyone expects feature-quality, cinema-like images in dramatic television.
We have three huge international movie stars; I treat them no differently than if their images were to go up on the big screen. One-hour drama shows are the single most difficult and demanding projects to work on these days. They have all of the same demands as feature films, but they are created in a much tighter window. The expectations of quality seem very much the same today. Further, I think that the long grind of episodic TV also makes it tougher. It’s a long marathon, not a sprint.
Now for some more general questions …
How did you become interested in cinematography?
I was always an art student. I studied painting and drawing mostly. Later, I studied philosophy and business in college. I took private lessons from local artists growing up and also spent a lot of time playing sports (football). But I always loved movies. I found this to be the perfect job for me. It combines all of those elements. To me, telling stories with pictures requires the many skills that I learned from both sports and art.
What inspires you artistically? And how do you simultaneously stay on top of advancing technology that serves your vision?
I used to be inspired by photos and art and other cinematographers’ work on films and shows. Of course, those things still inspire me, but people inspire me so much more now. The inspiration of reality seems far more interesting to me than abstractions today. The real emotions of people are what actually inspires movies to attempt to be art. Emotions are what movies are truly about. How can an emotion inspire an image and how can an image inspire an emotion? That’s the deal.
Technology and I don’t really get along very well. To me, it’s always only about storytelling. Technology has never been all that interesting to me. I stay somewhat aware of the new toys, but I’m not very obsessed. My crew keeps me informed also.
That being said, how has technology changed the way you work?
The film-to-video transition was obviously the biggest technological change in my career. Today, I think that the insanely sensitive cameras and their high native ASA ratios are the biggest technological advantages now. These fast cameras allow us to work in such low-light levels that it just seems a lot easier than it was 20 years ago.
The incredible advances in LED lights have also really altered the work process. They are now so powerful in such a compact footprint that it is increasingly easier to get a decent image today. It’s all smaller and not so cumbersome.
What are some of your best practices or rules you try to follow on each job?
Over the years, I have gone from obsessed to maniacal to relaxed to obsessed again. Today, I am really trying to be more respectful of all the artists working on the project and to just not let it all get to me. The pressure of it affects people differently. I really try to stay more even and calm. It really is all about the crew. DPs just direct traffic. Point people in the right way and direct them. Don’t give them line readings, but direct them. You just must be confident in why you are directing them a certain way. If you don’t believe, neither will they. In the end, the best practice a DP can ever have is to always get the best crew possible. People make movies. You need good people. You are only as good as your crew. It really is that simple.
Explain your ideal collaboration with the director when setting the look of a project.
Mimi Leder is my best example of a collaborative director. We have a shared taste, and she really understands the value of a talented crew working together on a clearly defined common goal. The best directors communicate well and share enough information and ideas with the crew so that the crew can go and execute those ideas, and ultimately, expand upon them.
If a director clearly understands the story that they are telling, then they can eloquently communicate the concepts that will bring that story to life. The artists around them can expand a director’s ideas and solidify and embed them into the images. We all bring multiple levels of detail to the story. Hopefully, we are all inserting the same thematic ideas in our storytelling decisions. Mimi really allows her department heads to explore the story and bring their aesthetic sensibilities to the project. In the end, real collaboration is synonymous with good directing.
What’s your go-to gear? Things you can’t live without?
Lots of iced lattes and cold brew. I really don’t have a constant accessory, short of coffee.
Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years.