Season Two of NBC’s hit drama, Manifest, challenges viewers (and the production team) to soar outside their comfort zones.
By Pauline Rogers
“Manifest is a series that attempts to be both an intimate tale of relationships, dealing with the everyday struggles of contemporary life, as well as a fantastical science-fiction mystery,” explains producer Harvey Waldman. “We follow the lives of different people who have shared the same experience of having gotten on a normal airplane flight, only to discover, upon landing, that five and a half years have passed. But other than some strong turbulence, for those on-board, it was just an ordinary three-hour journey.”
While the series is based in realism, elements often veer in different directions depending on the moments. Season One became a test run. Guild Director of Photography Tim Norman, who rotated Season 1 duties with Brad Smith – both men building the look of the template set by Tim Ives, ASC, in the pilot – says “[show creator] Jeff Rake often stressed that the environment should never feel too polished, or staged. It was a very effective approach in making the mysticism that connected the passengers all the more believable.”
As Season 1 concluded, Rake and Executive Producer/Director Joe Chappelle decided to create a “look book” that would help define subsequent seasons. “Our goal was to give the series a cinematic grandeur without ever losing sight of the emotional underpinnings that drove our character arcs,” Chappelle explains. The visual roadmap was shared with new, rotating cinematographers Sarah Cawley and John Inwood, who shoot Season 2 using ALEXA Mini and Panavision lenses. “They each added to the visual vocabulary,” Chappelle continues. “For instance, before shooting the Season Two opener, we were looking for an interesting way to enhance ‘the callings [see below].’ Sarah brought a special camera lens [Lensbaby] that we tried out. Everyone liked the look, so it became part of our visual vocabulary for the rest of the season.”
Featured Image: Episode 206 – “Return Trip” – Operator Ryan Toussieng filming actor Josh Dallas on plane set / Photo by Will Hart/NBC
Inwood says the visual road map has helped the team approach each episode with clarity. “Joe talks about how we blend the classical well-framed compositions that emphasize the dramatic, especially in the master shots, as well as coverage and medium shots,” Inwood shares. “We are also aiming for blending beautiful masters or static-wide shots with cuts into coverage that will be handheld with wider lenses close to the subject or very long lenses in extreme close-ups. We wanted to find unusual and bold frames, like overhead Dutch angles or extreme low angles through foreground fences. And we’re always looking for ways to show off New York City.” As Cawley adds: “The second season uses a much more stylized approach to visuals.”
As Chappelle noted, ‘the callings’ are moments when characters slip into a mental time-warp of memories and horrific visions that, if not carefully interpreted, can lead them onto a path of destruction. With an eight-day shooting schedule, often complicated multi-location shots, and at least two days of tandem shooting, it helps that the two cinematographers have been friends for years and that each has an AD to smooth the way.
Cawley’s 1st AD, Kelly Mahoney, says it’s all about preparation and logistics. “To make tandems successful, the AD team and the camera team have to work very closely to make sure each unit has what they need based on the scenes shooting,” Mahoney explains. “Will both units need a Steadicam? Will both units be at the stage, or will one unit need the camera truck? If one unit is filming a ‘calling’ scene, and another is not, then we know where the Lensbaby needs to be on that day. If both units are filming a ‘calling,’ then we know we need to order an extra Lensbaby. It’s always better to know these things as far in advance as we can.”
Rotating directors of photography who are in sync allow for a stronger prep, as Inwood’s 1st AD Jane Ferguson explains. “In prep, both teams can make sure cast availability and storylines don’t intersect, so that we can concentrate on shooting,” she allows. “Many of our regular sets are on the sound stage, so for most episodes, we can shoot about 50 percent there, allowing us flexibility on locations. Early scripts allow cast to be prepared, so if we have to shift scenes on short notice, they have their work done. We have a fair amount of stunts and special effects, so working closely with those departments early is essential. We shoot with two cameras every day and sometimes even a third if there is a crane shot or limited daylight at a location.”
A-camera operator Carlos Guerraand B-camera operator Ryan Toussieng have also helped in building the complex schedules. Toussieng says that “working alongside a seasoned operator” like Guerra helped him “to better perform my duties on a tandem day.” For Cawley, Episode 207 was pivotal to this season’s dramatic arc. “It’s where the Stone family is lured to a nightclub,” she describes. “There’s a huge fire, and the place goes up in flames. Our characters are lost inside and desperate to get out. It’s a big episode for lighting because three locations had to look like one place.”
After reading the script, director Jean de Segonzac, production designer Ray Kluga, and Cawley teamed to find a real nightclub in Brooklyn. “The story starts with the club in full swing with moving lights and wall projection,” Cawley recalls. “The fire spreads quickly throughout the club, and after being lost in the dark, smoky maze, the family exits onto the street just before the club explodes into a fireball behind them.”
A duplicate set that would match the club was built on the burn stage. De Segonzac says safety was the uppermost concern. “We were careful to make sure things didn’t fall from the ceiling, to better protect our stunt people,” he recounts. “We needed a tremendous amount of smoke to make it look real. So, the set was built so that flames would go up to the ceiling [vented with fans]. We had a smoke person blast it away for every scene – and a studio expert with a device to measure air quality to limit the amount of atmosphere pumped into the set according to safety guidelines.”
Cawley and gaffer Jeff Niggemeyer pre-scouted the location to establish a color palette for the active club scenes before the fire, and then an entirely different one for “emergency” mode. “The fire effects had both LED lights and classic tungsten in different areas, which blended well,” Niggemeyer recalls. “The same for the explosion. Then we had to replicate it exactly on the ‘burn stage’ and our actual sound stage, where different sets were built for the specialty shots involving fire and lighting effects.
“For the exterior fire and explosions, we had lights on the roof, inside each window and out on the ground to help create the effect that the entire building was burning,” he continues. “That, along with police cars and fire trucks on the street and added police lighting effects, enhanced the look. There was a news article the next day about the shoot because residents had called the police to report a building fire needing an emergency response. I guess that means we were on the right track!”
Toussieng says the scene was one of the few times he and Guerra were handheld in Season 2. “The characters are bobbing and weaving within this maze of a burning and collapsing building, and we were following along the entire time,” he remembers. “We coordinated falling debris with the passing of the cameras and actors, so everything was done practically, adding to the value of what we were shooting. It was all very safe.”
Another key shot for Cawley’s team came in Episode 209, with a “calling” that revolves around a period pirate ship, built on-stage at Silvercup, with wind and rain effects. “The calling starts to take over the entire family,” Cawley explains. “It’s an ongoing hallucination in the form of a massive thunderstorm. We designed a series of camera moves that would provide an eerie feeling of sliding and tilting at the beginning of the episode. That feeling keeps building into rotating 360-degree camera moves, and disorientation takes hold. The hallucination culminates with the family transported to a Seventeenth-Century sailing vessel, at sea, at night. There were 270 degrees of bluescreen around the boat and a blue screen on the ceiling above. We did a Technocrane move around all four characters on the ship in the storm. It looked amazing, with SFX rain pouring into the shot as we looked down at the ship from above.”
Niggemyer says the pirate set was lit mostly from above with Arri SkyPanel S120 fixtures. “These lights were ideal for their spread and ability to do lighting effect,” he describes. “We set a base lighting effects and then added in different cues along with a bright warm glow at the end. All lights were on truss motors so we could raise or lower depending on the angle.”
For Inwood, the “callings” are some of the most creative elements he has ever filmed. “They can appear in many ways,” he reveals. “Usually with the use of the Lensbaby, which softens the world around the subject, and sometimes with a violent shaking, which we created with the Clairmont Image Shaker mounted on the camera.”
Season 2 took the “callings” to a heightened visual level, with Inwood bringing in a Phantom high-speed camera system for one episode. “Michaela is walking down Queens Boulevard, beside the elevated subway, when, suddenly, she is hit with a surge of energy that slows the world way down,” Inwood explains. “We wanted to mount the Phantom onto the Steadicam, but due to its weight and cabling, that was impossible. So, instead, we cut in front of her with the Steadicam at 24 frames-per-second and pulled her dynamically around the corner, which helps sell the ‘calling’ when she comes to a sudden stop.
“When we cut to her POV,” Inwood continues, “everything is moving incredibly slowly. We chose actions she would naturally see on the street and accentuate the slow motion. Like a store owner hosing down his sidewalk, a little girl blowing bubbles, and the banner of the bank on the corner. Michaela feels the last image beckoning her to the bank, where a robbery is about to take place involving a passenger from Flight 828.”
Inwood shot Michaela’s POV and her extreme close-ups at 1000 fps. As the team transitioned from the wide-angle 24-mm lens, normal-speed Steadicam walk, they cut to a long lens – 150 mm – at 1000 fps slow motion to strengthen the effect on the viewer.
“Shooting 1000 frames-per-second,” Inwood adds, “means you can only shoot four seconds of footage at any one time with so much data. The camera is processing the shot in rolling four-second intervals so that as soon as you cut, you will only have the last four seconds. You need to watch your action carefully, and as soon as you get the perfect performance and action you want, you cut immediately.”
Toussieng says another casualty of high-frame-rate capture is the loss of depth-of-field. “My first AC, Wesley Hodges, did an incredible job, especially knowing that he only had a tenth of an inch down to .02 of an inch to work with,” he states. “Wesley, dolly grip Chris DesRochers, actress Melissa Roxburgh and I all had to be in sync, with no room for error. It was one of the most fun sequences to shoot this season.”
“At 1000 frames-per-second, even with the sun shining clearly, it wasn’t enough level for John to be at the stop he needed,” adds Niggemeyer. “So we had an 18K HMI directly behind the camera and a 9K HMI PAR for fill. They shot these scenes on different corners and streets, so we used a van generator for power, which allowed us to quickly jump around to different shots with the same group of big lighting units.”
One of the most dramatic scenes in Season Two takes place on the wreck of Flight 828, where each character reconciles his or her new normal in the form of snow falling. (See end of Manifest Season 2 First Look Preview here) “Ben experiences it in his garage where he studies the lives of his fellow passengers,” Inwood describes. “He realizes that the snow is ash, and we flash cut to Ben in a dark world bathed in cyan blue light with the ash falling around him. We widen to see the wreck burnt and torn apart, covered with dead bodies, and all our characters are there standing in the aisles trying to understand what has happened.”
Inwood and his team floated the camera on a MovieBird 45-foot telescoping crane. One shot, done at the tallest stage at Silvercup Studios, with a grid set at 35 feet, travels past the ribs of the wreck to reveal the entire plane and the other characters. Lighting came from four or five ARRI S120 SkyPanels with Chimeras for a soft source that was color programmable. “The angle was very specific, because of the rib beams of the plane and where the characters were placed,” Inwood explains. “On the other side, a smaller SkyPanel rig for fill – with the same cyan blue. Finally, we added a 10K backlight to edge the characters just a little and separate them from the inky black background.”
Each episode of Manifest is a huge undertaking in logistics and new technology. It isn’t just a Lensbaby or Image Shaker, a Phantom camera, or a large crane. It’s also a device to measure air quality, and the tools 1st AD Kelly Mahoney uses to ensure safety. Lightning within New York City is a real threat. Anything within six miles requires lifts and cranes to come down, and outside power to be shut off. “We are no longer surprised by lightning flashes, which require the crew to take shelter for 30 minutes,” Mahoney describes. “Everyone can track it with apps on their phone. We can pinpoint where the flash was, how close it was, and even in what direction the lightning is going. This past season that technology helped us decide that it was more efficient to shut down a night of shooting than to try and wait out the lightning storm – safety is always first.”
Producer Waldman says Season 2 of Manifest will challenge the show’s characters to “determine if these ‘encounters’ have scientific explanations yet to be uncovered or remain outside of what’s rational for some spiritual faith they must embrace. Lurking within the heart of this family drama are questions that are at the core of the human experience,” he concludes. “Viewers on the journey are also challenged to draw conclusions from the evidence presented.”
Manifest – Season 2: Local 600 Crew
Directors of Photography: Sarah Cawley, John Inwood