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To prepare to shoot Disney+’s miniseries WandaVision — which follows Marvel characters Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) through a series of sitcom environments from various decades — British DP Jess Hall admits he watched a lot of classic television, even digging up film prints from the original negative of a couple series like Bewitched and having them projected.
In creating the nostalgia of these periods, Hall describes the look of WandaVision as a hybrid of very different looks, though also “something coherent because that’s one story.”
To do this, he chose to use one type of camera, ARRI’s Alexa LF (large format), to shoot the series and then “create the different looks by using other elements of the cinematography, a combination of lighting, color science, framing, all of that.”
Episode one, appropriately titled “Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience,” drew inspiration from The Dick Van Dyke Show (which initially aired from 1961 to 1966) and other period sitcoms that were lensed in black-and-white before a live audience. “We actually did, on that episode, shoot on a stage in front of an audience,” Hall explains, noting that he re-created the period-specific black-and-white, the 4:3 aspect ratio and even the approach to lighting. “I was looking at a lighting strategy that could really accommodate the actors. In that episode, there’s a lot of moving between the kitchen and the living room, the dining room, and because we’re doing it live, that all needed to happen in real time.”
With the desire to use the “vocabulary and period instruments” available at the time, Hall researched vintage lighting fixtures. “With my gaffer John Vecchio, we looked to the early Mole Richardson fixtures, and we found this [vintage] Softlite. We’d go around various kinds of old studio warehouses and collect enough of these,” Hall says, noting that overhead rigs were built to suspend these fixtures over the set to create even, soft lighting.
Hall also used custom lenses, created with Panavision and its vice president of optical engineering, Dan Sasaki. “We started testing a bunch of early lenses from the ’30s, ’40s … but they were very fragile and there weren’t very many of them,” the DP relates. “We ended up starting from scratch and basically rebuilding new lenses to kind of evoke the look of old lenses.”
The cinematographer also created a custom Look-Up Table (a sort of blueprint of how the color would be processed) that would allow him to monitor how the color images would look in black-and-white while shooting, and he adds that the final color grading stayed true to that intended look.
Each episode required this sort of care. Episode two (“Don’t Touch That Dial”) delivered a look inspired by series like Bewitched (1964-72). “Dick Van Dyke and series around the ’50s were shot on 5231 — a black-and-white Kodak film stock — which is kind of a low-contrast, softer kind of film stock, but they were moving into a high-contrast film stock in the ’60s, I think influenced a bit more by film lighting,” Hall says. “Particularly I think of Elizabeth Montgomery, who was kind of quite fetishized in [Bewitched]. It looks amazing. I was thinking about that in relation to Elizabeth Olsen’s lighting — looking at the vintage lighting, but a different kind of style of lighting.” He used a Big Eye 10K — “the main kind of lighting tool that I saw popping up in that period. So that’s what I used for my key light, but I kind of softened that with [period] diffusion because on the digital camera, it’s a little bit harsh.”
He notes that the nostalgia is disrupted in a couple of instances during this episode, such as the nighttime appearance of a beekeeper or when the ladies gather at the pool and a water glass shatters. “The camera starts to move a little bit and we go into a more cinematic mode. My influences were things like The Twilight Zone, the work of David Lynch.”
The looks continue to evolve with each period. For episode three (“Now in Color”), Hall devised an early color film look; later in the season he created a modern-day “familiar MCU” look, including through camera movement and framing. “We did actually modify the lenses to our specific requirements, but they’re similar to what was used on [Avengers: Endgame],” he says. “I liked this idea that, in a way, even if it was subconscious, when you saw the modern footage, there was something that the fans could connect to, that felt familiar.”
This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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