A handful of Sundance alumni, including Local 600 Director of Photography Tim Orr, gather to contemporize a classic figure of American letters.
by Valentina Valentini / Photos by Michael Parmalee
Four out of the five directors and the cinematographer for all 10 episodes of the new Apple TV+ series Dickinson are Sundance alumni. It wasn’t a deliberate choice on creator/showrunner Alena Smith’s part, but it does make perfect sense – Sundance has always fostered experimental creativity in filmmaking and beyond. And Dickinson is nothing if not creatively experimental.
Starring Hailee Steinfeld as the rebellious 19th Century poet Emily Dickinson, the show is a period coming-of-age story with a strong modern twist – a psychosocial commentary on what it means to be a young woman, then and now. The series – one of Apple TV+’s first in their slate of original content – focuses on the posthumously famous Dickinson throughout her teen years, reimagining the cloistered 1850s Western Massachusetts life of a young woman as something unhinged, exciting, interrogatory. And because Dickinson presents the character with “a modern sensibility trapped in a pre-modern time,” says Smith, “we were always looking for how to define that tone and strike that balance without ever losing the sense of elegance.”
Smith, whose background is in theater and who was also a writer on HBO’s The Newsroom and Showtime’s The Affair, hired David Gordon Green to direct the first two episodes and to create the look-book for the first season; three more Sundance filmmakers – Stacie Passon, Lynn Shelton, and Silas Howard – along with Patrick R. Norris were brought on after Green to each direct two episodes. Green, who had his second feature, All the Real Girls (2003), and several more features premiere at Sundance in the early 2000s, brought in his longtime Director of Photography Tim Orr to help carry the established look from episode to episode.
“Tim was the perfect balance between the strong vision that Alena had and the strange playfulness that I have,” describes Green, who has had Orr shoot 11 of his 14 features, including all of his Sundance films. “Like any great cinematographer, Tim’s able to find that balance between the wackiness of the director and the wit of the words and the intelligence of the character; he’s as much a psychologist as an artist at times.”
ICG writer Valentina Valentini spoke with key members of the production team, including Smith, Green, and Orr, Production Designer Loren Weeks and Costume Designer John Dunn.
ICG:Production design and costumes for Dickinson essentially hewed to an 1850s rubric – how else was the look modernized?
Tim Orr (Director of Photography): We wanted the camera to feel alive, with more energy than a typical period piece, which can be overly classical. We didn’t want it to feel like you were just looking at a painting, but something younger, more vibrant, that a [younger] audience could relate to. We were trying to connect it not only emotionally, but also visually to a more tangible modern world. Some of that comes down to energetic camera movement, and then with lighting, it meant grounding it in a certain amount of realism, but still with a modern edge in terms of the actual physical look.
David Gordon Green (Director): Tim and I talked about Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) because it had a visual style that almost felt anachronistic – the use of low light and zoom lenses was something we wanted to employ. Alena, who had a very strong vision from the start, has a background in stage and theater, so she wanted to let the characters have an environment to explore while keeping her words very literal. Tim and I wanted to find nuance and elegance, so the camera wouldn’t be too “in your face.” There are a few shots in the pilot that I remember [Smith] rolling her eyes at. [Laughs.] Like Tim rigging a camera to the buckets that Emily was going to be carrying back from the water well early in the show. Alena would see us preparing these very stylized shots and wonder what I was doing, but then it would make sense in the edit and she’d be on board. I’m always trying to bring an experimental quality to everything I do.
Alena Smith (Creator/Showrunner): The most important concern was to have this balance of elegance and attitude, so we wanted the visuals – from the lighting to the costumes to the sets – to reflect that idea while being period accurate. So we infused that period correctness with unexpected color and flare. For example, we did a lot of research into what wallpaper and prints and fabrics would have been made out of and found all these crazy [palettes] that sort of shock the eye. They were accurate to the period, but it’s not what you’d expect to see in a period show. We always wanted it to look sumptuous and elegant and as truthful as possible to the era.
ICG: What equipment did you use to help to achieve these visual goals?
Orr: Apple has adopted a native 4K requirement, so I wasn’t going to be able to use my digital go-to camera, Alexa. This was prior to the mini LF coming out, and the traditional Alexa would not really suffice for the 4K requirement. I tested several cameras – Sony Venice, Panavision’s DXL2 – instead of going directly to the Alexa LF, as I felt it might be too heavy. We needed a camera with some freedom of movement because we were shooting a lot of handheld. Even though our interiors were on a set, we wanted to treat [the set] as a practical location, and that meant a camera that wouldn’t fatigue my A-camera operator, Arthur Scipio Africano, or the Steadicam Operator, Jeffrey Dutemple. I decided to use the DXL2, shooting 8K with the RED Monstro sensor to future-proof the project. Also, since we would be sticking to a period lighting palette with natural daylight, candles, and lanterns, I used Panavision’s Primo 70 lenses and detuned to a Noir 3, which softened [the lenses] without lowering the contrast. The Noir 3 detuning was heavy enough to enable me to hold rich blacks and still render beautiful skin tones, without it feeling overly diffused. It also helped with all the highlights from the candle and lantern sources. I didn’t have to use diffusion in front of the lens, which, of course, a lot of the time when you do that, especially with candles, you can create a double image, reflections, or what I would call “bad flares” that you just don’t want.
ICG: How did the other crafts complement the cinematography?
Loren Weeks (Production Designer): I always design with the camera in mind. I try to offer light sources, camera positions, depth, layers, and flow. You never know until you start shooting how that blending of the two disciplines will work, but I was extremely pleased with the outcome on Dickinson. In the mid-19th century, the light sources were candles, whale-oil lamps, and fire. Whenever a light was close to an actor, we used real candles and modified oil lamps that burned gas. Lights in the background were often electric with flickering bulbs, or the circuit was on “flicker.” Candles were usually placed in front of mirrors or polished metal to bounce the light back. Every room had a working fireplace. We did this both for authenticity, since this was the only source of heating for the home, and to provide motivation for supplemental lighting by [Gaffer David Skutch’s] electric team.
John Dunn (Costume Designer): We strove to give Tim a richly detailed world to photograph. While I won’t pretend it wasn’t nerve-wracking to choose wild colors and psychedelic prints in a period that is usually represented in a much more restrained way, the truth is that our Dickinson sets were often lit by actual candlelight and glowing hearths. This technique softened the rougher edges and allowed me free rein to be bold and expansive with color. And this seemed so right for this often comic retelling of Emily’s story.
ICG: Taking period stories and modernizing them is “on brand” right now. How did you approach it with Dickinson?
Dunn: I was intrigued and felt challenged by this fresh exploration of her early life in Amherst. The few but iconic visual images of Emily were of a person frozen in literary amber, so I knew I’d need to explore an unexpected vocabulary to break through to a deeper understanding of the formation of an American genius. After extensive photo research [a growing process in the 1840s and 1850s], the costume design team presented wide-ranging mood boards for each of the characters and principal settings in and around Amherst to David, Tim and the writers. This began a dialogue on the visual mood we wanted to capture. Of key interest were the actual use of bold colors and the juxtaposing of wild patterns – paisleys, stripes, and florals – in everyday clothing and home decoration. We decided to explore this avenue of design rather than the sepia-toned world we’ve come to expect from historical dramas. What was going on in Emily’s poetry was anything but sepia-toned! We rigorously toed the line concerning correct 1850s silhouettes. What brings the freshness is the bold use of color, which, in fact, is also quite accurate. You see the contemporary eye has been trained to a very different take on 1850 – one of somber, muted versions presented through the ages in art, photography and film. It just felt right to heighten the contrast of how the characters’ wardrobes presented accurately, sartorially speaking, while coming across in a more contemporary vernacular.
Weeks: We found the most opportunity [to modernize] in Emily’s fantasies. Each script offered its own unique set that gave me creative freedom. The inspiration for Death’s carriage came from Fred Astaire’s 1927 Rolls-Royce Phantom, which he upgraded around 1932. Henry David Thoreau’s cabin was decorated in a decidedly “hipster” fashion, and we created a 19th-Century version of a disco ball for the Dickinson house party scene.
Orr: We do take leaps from reality with the retelling of Emily’s teen years. But we were careful to always ground that in realism. What’s written on the page and what the actors are doing are outside of the period-appropriate sets, production design, costumes, and, to a large degree, the lighting. I never wanted the lighting to look overly stylized within the day-to-day scenes of the storyline, but there were several instances where we got to take a stylistic leap – scenes that are a little detached from reality, more fantasy-oriented. For example, in episode three with the party scene, we used a Victorian disco light with moving multi-colored lights that were realistic to the world, but in this instance, it all comes from Emily’s imagination. It’s the same thing with Death’s carriage – we’re in a heightened, fantasy-driven world. We teeter in both – the realistic, natural world that is stretched when we enter those fantasy sequences.
Green: There are a few things within the camera language that you wouldn’t find in a period piece that I thought would help the attitude of the characters and tell the story. Anything with the camera, I looked at how to [modernize the story] in service of the script. Everything is still authentic to the time period, so it felt like a believable world that we could invite younger audiences into with modern dialogue [and music]. There is also this internal conversation wanting to incorporate diversity. And if we’re dealing with Amherst in the 1800s, that’s a very limited topic. If there were chances to bring in ethnic and cultural diversity, we tried to utilize those opportunities. But Alena is so fluent with her research, it had to be precise. It’s funny trying not to be influenced by all of the movies and TV shows that have come before, of period subject matter, and, specifically, Emily Dickinson, and still try to bring a unique flavor.
ICG: There were five directors on the show – did Tim change his look at all with the perspectives?
Green: I brought on Lynn Shelton, who is a friend from Sundance, and then Alena brought on the others. This was the first time I’ve ever established a show and then watched other people take it on. We encouraged [the new directors] to bring their signatures but to still follow the template Tim and I set in the beginning. At least that’s the intention, and it’s not so mechanical of a process. We had the common thread of Alena and Tim, so there was a visual language that we’d established. Then the hope is – and this is what I love about the new streaming format – is that I can help even more stories get told and more directors from more genres get established. The goal is always to bring in other talented voices to expand the universe.
Smith: I was on set covering every scene as the showrunner/producer and the only other person who was there for every single scene was Tim. Hailee [Steinfeld] is in almost every scene, of course. But behind the camera, Tim and I were the constants. And, I have to say, for Tim to have that kind of endurance and still make every scene beautiful…I think that’s the special thing about where television is at right now, where the DP is essential – he or she provides an incredibly crucial connective tissue through the entire project.
Local 600 Camera Team – Dickinson
Director of Photography: Tim Orr
A-Camera Operator/Steadicam: Jeff Dutemple, SOC
A-Camera 1st AC: Greg Finkel
A-Camera 2nd AC: Emma Rees-Scanlon
B-Camera Operator: Arthur Africano
B-Camera 1st AC: Bradley Grant
B-Camera 2nd AC: Suren Karapetyan
DIT: Jessica Ta
Loader: Patrick McKeown
Still Photographers: Michael Parmelee, Barry Wetcher, SMPSP