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I’m grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to help create the visual language and style for HBO’s Insecure. From the beginning, I felt strongly that this show deserved a look and feel beyond a traditional comedy. The show is so specific, and its complicated relationships and grounded characters made me a fan in season one, before I even thought about joining the team. In my interview to take over the cinematography beginning in season two, I figured I’d be very frank about what I would want to do, and then if I didn’t get the job, at least it would be because my ideas weren’t the direction they wanted to go. But then I actually got the job.
Conceptualizing what I would bring to the show as a cinematographer, the important elements to me were creating a look where at its core DNA, melanin is seen and celebrated through lighting and style, supporting the intimate exploration in the show’s relationships. Even little things like keeping the actors’ eyelines close to the lens were vital so you can feel immersed in a performance. Incorporating the personality of the show into the visual language should be as specific as the show itself. There should be awkwardness, imbalance and intimacy, and the character that is South Los Angeles should shine.
For me, framing is everything. When the balance of a frame is right for the moment, I just feel a sense of immense joy, both as a viewer and as a creator. On the show, I wanted the framing to add to the viewer’s experience without them realizing it and to share some of that immersive joy. The story themes are around people doing the hard work of growing up, relationships breaking apart and sometimes coming back together. Making frames that bring you into these stories comes naturally, and it has become a part of how I think about the show.
When I first came onto Insecure, director-producer Melina Matsoukas and I talked about and explored different ways of framing conceptually. We have similar tastes, and the framing and lighting ideas came together easily.
The two episodes I’ve directed were really different from each other, and I approached them quite differently. Episode eight of season four — titled “Lowkey Happy” — was this beautiful, delicate script about two people who truly know and love each other, coming together after causing each other so much pain. It’s a bottle episode that takes place with Lawrence (Jay Ellis) and Issa (Rae) over the course of a night into the morning, and the pace is much slower than the usual Insecure episode. I thought of it as a piece of music being put carefully together. I just wanted to be deliberate with where the swells were and where the releases were. So it was just about finding the moments to create images, to let them hang in the air and piece them together like punctuation in music. The material in this episode really called for that.
There is a seven-minute scene at a restaurant where Issa and Lawrence finally say everything they’ve wanted to say for three seasons. The writing and performances were beautiful, and I wanted to shoot it in a way that could, again, be pieced together to create its own sense of time. We shot it over two nights, and I believe there are about 16 different shots, each one for a different mood they pass through, but only one shot that actually moves. It’s a push-in on Issa, where she tells Lawrence a very difficult truth about their relationship, and it has to be the climax of the scene. I checked in with the writer, Natasha Rothwell, and with Prentice Penny, the showrunner, about which beat to choose, and breaking it apart felt right.
My episode from season five — “Pressure, Okay?!,” episode three — is very different. Thinking about it again as a piece of music, it’s much more about discord than it is about harmony. Throughout the episode, Lawrence and Condola (Christina Elmore) are trying to understand how to co-parent, and it’s bumpy, to say the least. The script showed the least shiny parts of Lawrence’s character, and I was excited about that — it made him less perfect and all the more relatable. So I decided to let the disharmony lead the way as the story gets told.
Toward the end of the episode, there’s a fight where both Lawrence and Condola say the kinds of things you wish you could un-say. It was raw and intimate in an uncomfortable way, and the framing is handheld and rough by the standards of the show. At the end of the episode, however, there’s this beautiful moment where Lawrence and Condola finally connect.
We made complementary frames for a phone conversation between them, and my hope is that the viewer feels relief — both in seeing Lawrence and Condola finding common ground but also in finding the joy of landing in complementary and connective frames.
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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