As director of photography on both The Magicians and Good Behavior, Elie Smolkin takes us behind the scenes to give us insight into what it actually takes to bring a show together.
Last week Hypable had the opportunity to speak with Elie Smolkin about his role as director of photography and what that position actually requires. As we spoke with him, we learned a lot about the technical aspects of filming and how those elements always have to come together to serve the story first.
What a director of photography does on set
“I translate what’s on the page onto the screen visually,” Smolkin begins. “So I’m in charge of the cameras, the lighting, the grip, which are sort of the engineers of the set. I’m in discussions and a big part of choosing color schemes and working with the art department on how the sets are going to look.”
It’s a hefty job once you start adding everything up: “In pre-production my job starts with deciding where the locations are, what they’re going to look like, where the window is going to be built into the set, what kind of practical lamps are going to be on set, what type of colors we are going to use. Then when we’re shooting, I work with the director and actors and tell them where the cameras are going to be, what kind of lenses we’re going to use, what shots we’re going to do, and also [how we’re going to] light the set.”
Which means pretty much everything you see on screen Smolkin has had a hand in.
Working with executive producers and directors
Smolkin explains that whether he works with directors or executive producers really depends on what type of project he’s working on. “When I do features or commercials, it’s really the director that I work with to define the look and plan out how we’re going to shoot it. On a TV series, because we have rotating directors, and because on our TV series there’s only one director of photography, I don’t get a lot of prep time with the director.”
It’s not just time management that factors in either. “We’re trying to make one show even though each episode [has] a different director,” Smolkin says. “So I work with our executive producers. We’ll get together at the beginning of the season and we’ll talk about the look.” From there, they adjust throughout. “Anytime something new comes up in the series, usually I’ll get together with the production designer, Rachel O’Toole, and we’ll talk about what we want that world to look like, what we want this new thing to look like, and then we’ll pitch it to the showrunners.”
The director of the episode is often part of that discussion, Smolkin says, but oftentimes he and the showrunners must address these issues before shooting even begins.
Collaboration and set building
Since Smolkin has such a crucial role in the look of a show, we thought it would be interesting to ask him how new sets get built. To explain, he spoke about the huge castle set that’s become a centerpiece for The Magicians season 2. “It’s a giant set. It’s like 6500 or 7000 square ft. How it works is, we read as many scripts as we have and we talk about what we need in the set. We need a big throne room in the first couple episodes — the whole throne scene — and we need a bedroom. We need a hallway, we need a dungeon… So those are the things that we practically look at. Like, ‘Okay, what are the pieces of the castle that we need?’ From there, the production designer, O’Toole, comes in with a bunch of ideas and drawings and samples. And we talk about [things like] what’s going to be outside the window? How are we going to light it? Do we want a lot of windows or do we not want a lot of windows? Do we want a ceiling?”
Ceilings are apparently a big deal during set design. “A lot of sets don’t have ceilings, but Rachel and I, we really like ceilings in sets because we like to be able to go really wide and to get the wide angle, to make it feel like a real location. We have to talk about how that works, though. Because a lot of times on a set — you put your lights above in a lighting grid — so when you make a ceiling, you’ve taken that option away. So we talk about where the windows go, what color the floor should be, what color the wall should be, because all of that affects the amount of light that can come into the set.”
After those conversations, O’Toole has a drawing (a rendering) made up that illustrates and takes into account the way Smolkin is going to light it. After that’s done a few times, eventually it goes to the executive producers for their feedback and subsequent approval.
The effect color has on ‘The Magicians’
Another big deal when it comes to the visual look of a show, especially for The Magicians, is coloring. “We knew that there was a lot of worlds in the show and that all of our characters were going to jump from world to world and it’s going to happen many times in an episode,” Smolkin reveals. “When I was putting together a pitch for the interview to get the job, I came in with an idea of separating the worlds by color and by lense and lighting. It clicked perfectly because that’s what John and Sara, our creators, had in mind as well.”
“We wanted to create a visual language that just told the audience right away where they are.” Which means each specific world needed its own set of rules and defining properties. “For New York,” Smolkin says, “it’s the place that has the least amount of magic. So the idea would be — we wanted it to feel as real and gritty and as imperfect as the real world can be. So we go handheld. We use wider lenses, so that you can see more of the city. Everything is kind of cold. It’s either blue or green and we use a lot of fluorescent lighting. We go with the idea that they’re in New York, so the tall buildings block out the sun, so it’s always soft light when you’re in Julia’s loft. You’ll never see a sunlight streak. It’s always sort of overcast, and that’s on purpose. It’s to make it feel kinda down.”
Brakebills, on the other hand, has a very different feel. Here, Smolkin explains, “You’re kind of in the Julliard of magic. You’re in the Hogwarts. You’re in this idyllic place where there’s a lot more magic. It’s safer and refined and so we used very new lenses that are glossy and clean. We never go handheld; we’re always on a dolly or a steadicam, and we use warm light. We try to approach it like it’s magic out. It’s very orange and caramel.”
They’ve even created shorthand to emphasize just how important these rules are: “We have a saying in New York called ‘Norange,’ which is ‘no orange.’ We try not to put any orange in New York so it feels different.”
The Neitherlands is a world between all the other worlds, so the tactic here is to go as devoid of color as possible without becoming black and white. “Color scheme-wise, we sort of reference an old film trick, which is called bleach bypass,” Smolikn highlighted. They also shoot everything at a dutch angle in this world. “We alternate which side goes up and which side goes down so that when you’re editing it, it cuts nicely.”
All of these strict rules are implemented for a purpose. “We try really hard to stick with all of those things so you know that when Julia is in New York and she goes to Fillory in the last episode [of season 1] there’s no question about where she is. I think that’s important to the storytelling and I also think it tells a lot about the world that they’re in.”
Rules are made to be broken
As Smolkin so eloquently put it, “Yes, rules are made to be broken. This kind of goes back to what we were saying about directors and executive producers as well. The first time we see Niffin Alice as part of something only Quentin can see — [she] kinda pops in and out of frame — was an episode where Chris Fisher was the director. Chris is also one of our executive producers, so that’s an example of where a director kind of sets a look that everybody afterwards has to follow.”
Of course, as director of photography, Smolkin was included in all of these discussions. “Chris and I talked a lot about how we could show that Alice is inside Quentin’s head and how we could show that she’s transformed. You know regular Alice, she doesn’t move very often; she’s very insecure and quiet. We knew by talking to Olivia that [Niffin Alice] was going to move a lot and she was going to have a lot more energy, so we wanted to show all that.”
Together they developed this idea to use a handheld moving camera when filming her — essentially breaking the previous Breakbills rule they had so consistently reinforced. The technical aspect of filming these scenes are as follows: “Basically how we have to do it is two fold. You have a camera operator who has to walk about four inches from Olivia’s face and move with her. Luckily, they’re both excellent at that, otherwise they’d would run into each other. Then we have to film the scene with both Quentin and Alice in a wide angle. Then we shoot the scene again, traditionally, where Alice isn’t there.”
All of these very technical rules and strategies are there to serve the story. Whether it’s something you understand on a subconscious level or not. “I think so far it’s been pretty effective. It stands out as not a normal thing that we see, in any of the worlds,” Smolkin says.
Individual projects trump genre
With all this talk about different worlds and Niffins, we had to ask if fantasy shows required a different mindset as opposed to more traditional projects. “In a way I approach all projects the same in that I read the script several times and then I try to find what the story is. What the arch of the character is. What the main characters are fighting for or what their main goals are,” Smolkin reveals. “Then I try to develop a look that tells that story. I think that’s the most important thing. I’m here to make stories and to do it visually. So that’s always the same. But every story is so different.”
This led us to the other show Smolkin has been working on recently, Good Behavior. “I work on another show called Good Behavior on TNT, and that is kind of, in a lot of ways, the opposite of The Magicians. It’s really only two characters, there’s really almost no VFX, and it’s rooted in very real and dramatic narratives. So I start off the same way, where we try and discern how we’re going to tell the story visually. But then it’s very different,” Smolkin stresses. “The Magicians has many more different worlds, so the look is always changing and it has an opportunity to do really big effects, which can be really fun. But Good Behavior, on the other hand, is fun because it’s about crafting frames that just let these phenomenal actors play within them. Both are challenging. Both are fun. But they’re so different.”
Read on to learn more about working as a DP and how ‘The Magicians‘ and ‘Good Behavior’ differ
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