‘WandaVision’ Cinematographer Jess Hall On Using “Every Element Of Cinematography” To Capture The Magic Of Old Sitcoms With Updated Technology

In a departure from the traditional Marvel Cinematic Universe style of filming, WandaVision cinematographer Jess Hall had to blend high-definition filming with the style of older sitcoms. Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) live through classic sitcom tropes together in an idealized suburban home in this Disney+ series. The cinematography changes with the setting, as the world around Wanda and Vision modernizes. While the tools to film in an old-sitcom style still exist, the low resolution and incompatibility with current technology led to a complex challenge. Working alongside director Matt Shakman, Hall was able to utilize the concept of the sitcom and replicate the evolving nature of it throughout the years.

DEADLINE: What was your research process like?

HALL: The research process was pretty massive. The task of the kind of sitcom-genre creation was daunting because we’re building seven different looks for the show. So, I had to understand each of those different genres and what exactly they would mean and, graphically, what the style would be and how that would be executed. So, there was a lot of reference for that looking at different periods within television, especially that idea of the family sitcom, the lineage of that, and how it had evolved over the decades, because that was going to be a huge part of what my work would involve. So, yeah, a multifaceted approach to the research and also some interesting reading material. Matt Shakman grew up in sitcoms as a child actor. So, working with a director who had that kind of knowledge was great because he also was able to guide me to some excellent books.

DEADLINE: How did you achieve the appearance of the older sitcoms while filming in high definition?

HALL: I think every element of cinematography was present in the final image that we see. It wasn’t a singular approach at all, it really came out of a number of factors. Whereas the camera itself was the same platform, the color science within the camera was built individually for each look. I looked at a lot of reference material and selected still images from each era that I was trying to represent, and then I would identify particular color palettes within that era or, if it was black and white, I looked at the tonal range that was being used to actually render the image. And so, I built the color palette or a tonal look for each episode and then I’d go into the color science of the camera and design individual looks.

So that was sort of the camera of science itself, but then the lensing was hugely important. I used 47 different lenses throughout the series and that was split into three different series. Series one was dealing with the first three episodes, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, that was a custom-built set of lenses that replicate the characteristics of an old lens. The first thing I did was start testing a lot of very old lenses, but it was going to be a real stretch to actually execute this on vintage lenses. Plus, they were very individual and quite fragile and I couldn’t really modify them because of the fragility. So, we actually developed a process whereby we rebuilt lenses using different elements, in order to replicate some characteristics in black and white particularly, but also into that early color period. And then, for the later lenses, we moved into mid-range lens, which dealt with ’80s, ’90s, 2000s. And then, we went shifted into anamorphic lenses, where we’re using similar lenses that were used on Infinity War and Endgame.

The lenses were a big part and then I was using a vocabulary of equipment that was actually present at the time when the actual shows are being made, to use period appropriate lighting in the ’50s, for example. I was using lighting that was used a lot during that period, like these big, heavy Fresnel lighting sources, and tried not to use any modern lighting until that I could pair it. So, each episode was built specifically around a set of tools in terms of lighting and grip equipment that would have been used during that period.

DEADLINE: You had all these vastly different styles of filming with the different lenses and lighting. How did you maintain a sense of overarching continuity in the cinematography so that each episode wasn’t too different?

HALL: That was, I think the hardest task on the series. Because, I didn’t want it to feel disparate and fragmented. And then the other factor that I had to take into account was, although the show starts with the fairly pure episode, which means it’s just located in one period, even by the end of that show you have a cut to a modern episode, and by the time you get to episode two, you’re inter-cutting and so on. And the more the series develops, the more inter-cutting between the different periods there is. So, it was really about creating a balance, which was a real task and what it meant was that I was constantly creating looks in reference to each other.

And so, I had these kinds of documents where I’d be like, “okay, this is episode one. How did episode one relate to, or not relate to episode four?” I had to make sure I wasn’t repeating myself and the differences had to be subtle and nuanced enough between, for example, the ’50s and the ’60s, that you could differentiate the style, but that if it inter-cuts from episode one to episode three, you would feel that the show was connected. And I think using the single camera platform was helpful for that, because it gave me a huge range of different styles that I could achieve. So that added a sense of a continuity of backbone to the style, but ultimately it was really about creating balance by looking at each look against the other and really analyzing the script and saying, “okay, we’re going to transition from, in episode two, a 1960s color palette, to episode three, early film.” What is going to create a dramatic, but not too abrupt, transition between those two periods and how can I use the colors, present in the early 1970s film stocks and the tonal range of that emulsion curve to actually compliment the work of the 1960s, so that it doesn’t take the viewer out of the experience which I think, as a cinematographer, is the essence of what you’re trying to do. Certainly, in my work, I don’t want that audience to be taken out of their experience because then you’re diluting the drama of the show.

I used a color analysis system where I could actually extract RGB [Red Green Blue] values from stills of the period, and then I could apply that in collaboration with the production designer and the wardrobe designer, so we could make sure we were using exactly the same color palette. So, we limit ourselves to about 20 colors within that period. We’d each have the RGB values, which had been extracted from original material of the period and we knew that we were living in a very coherent space and it really gave a lot of integrity, I think, to the image and an ability to work cohesively.


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