Cinematographer Tim Orr has worked on films including Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (directed by Lorene Scafaria), Joe and Manglehorn (directed by David Gordon Green), Z for Zachariah (directed by Craig Zobel) and Poms (directed by Zara Hayes). He also worked on the (highly recommended) Amazon TV show Red Oaks (whose directors included David Gordon Green, Amy Heckerling, Hal Hartley and Nisha Ganatra).

We chatted with him about Apple TV’s 2019 TV show Dickinson, which stars the Oscar-nominated Hailee Steinfeld as a young Emily Dicksinson, Ella Hunt (Anna & the Apocalypse) as Emily’s best friend and lover Sue, Toby Huss as her father and Jane Krakowski as her mother. Oh, and of course, Wiz Khalifa as Death. The show is young, fresh and modern in many ways, but also has carefully-researched and historically accurate production and costume design.

How is working on TV different to film, in terms of having to quickly get used to working with different directors? So, in this case, there was David Gordon Green, Stacie Passon and Lynn Shelton, amongst others.

It’s definitely different because you’re working with different personalities, different styles. You sometimes find yourself, especially in the later episodes, after things have been established, that you are the glue that holds the visual end of the show together. I’ve found that you end up with the input of the cinematographer (which hopefully is always welcomed and appreciated) being relied upon a little bit more, in terms of maintaining the established aesthetic of the show. I was lucky with Dickinson, it’s one of the best things I’ve been involved in, everyone was fantastic and that certainly goes for the directors I worked with. Everyone was very inspired and enthusiastic and came with great ideas that still fit into the language that David and I started out with.

Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickinson, sat reading at a table by candlelight

How do you cope with shooting nighttime scenes where ostensibly, the light is supposed to be provided only by candles or lanterns, especially when it’s a crowded scene such as the party in Episode 3? It must be difficult to figure out how to light scenes appropriately in which you have so many people packed into a small space?

Yes, the lighting in the show is certainly challenging but it’s one of the things that I enjoy the most. The period aspect of the show really dictates a lot – we’re only talking about two sources of light – natural daylight, or at night – candles, lanterns or fire. And there are some scenes where slightly exaggerated moonlight can play its role. It is tough, with the crowd scenes, a lot of people packed into a room. We shoot on sets, which are fantastic, but I try to approach them like a practical location, I don’t like to pull walls. I don’t like taking the time, I like to keep moving. This show is grounded in a certain amount of realism, the costume design, the production design are all true to period. The lighting, I tried to keep in that vein also. Thankfully, the digital cameras are very light sensitive, for low-light performance – we used Panavision DXL2 cameras with 1600 ISO. On some occasions, I am relying only on the candles, but that is very seldom, that’s only really in a situation where I cannot really do anything else, where I can’t hide any lights. But, otherwise, it’s using small LED sources, like mattes and Astera tubes and where I can afford it, I usually use a bigger source for a key light, if I can get away with it. We rig lights from the ceiling, as some subtle back-lights, just to add separation, but other than that, everything is hidden in place on the floor.

Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickinson sat looking shocked across the table

The other thing, as well as lighting issues, is that the vast majority of the show is filmed in that one set – the Dickinson home. How did you deal with the physical constraints that the house brought? And how did you go about making it visually interesting, when you were quite contained for the majority of the show?

That’s a good question because SO much happens in the same house and often in very similar rooms and you can start to think “oh we’re in the kitchen again,” which was the most difficult room in the house for me because it was the one room with low ceilings. It was really hard – night scenes in there were very difficult just because it’s very hard to hide anything.

And as for making it visually interesting, this is where working with different directors can be welcome because they can bring a different perspective or point-of-view. So we’d try not to get into a rut of doing the same thing in every scene. So if it’s a dinner table scene, in the dining room, everyone is sitting, it demands a certain amount of similar coverage. But we tried to break it up in terms of camera style, the show has a wide variety of it. So when it’s appropriate to the emotional content of the scene, we can go from very composed, static shots – to handheld – to steadicam – to dolly moves – so we really tried to employ the full arsenal of camera language to keep things interesting.

Two characters looking up at a solar eclispe

I want to ask you about Episode 9, which is probably the most visually interesting AND challenging, because it has an eclipse.

First of all – the eclipse itself, was any of that in-camera or was it all after-effects?

You know when I read that script, I was like “oh my goodness, an eclipse, that’s cool, that’s an amazing thing to write about in terms of story” but I was also thinking “how am I going to do this?” It wasn’t just a brief moment, there are several cutaways and it lasts for quite a bit of time and we had to pull off a somewhat believable eclipse when we were shooting on different days. The biggest scene, out on the field with the whole town, was shot over one full day and obviously the light changes tremendously. So, I went in knowing that this would be in tandem with the VFX assistance, which played a very big role in selling the effect. I tried to keep everything up to when the eclipse was at its full effect, I tried to keep that as normal as possible, which means keeping everyone back-lit before the effect really starts to happen. Other than that, it’s about controlling the light, we’d have a couple of Condors with solids and heavy silks on them to soften and control and take away the absence of sunlight. The rest of that was done in colour grading to give that odd sense of dusk light or twilight and then VFX. Working very closely with our VFX supervisor for Molecule, they did a great job throughout the show – Charlotta Forssman, she was fantastic. And this is one of the best things about TV and filmmaking, it’s the collaboration, working together to solve problems. I do what I can in-camera and then VFX enhances it.

I really like the barn scene in Episode 9 as well, where Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) is talking to the Irish maid, Maggie (Darlene Hunt). You’ve got beautiful light coming in through the slats in the barn – how did you achieve this?

Whenever we scout or discuss the episodes/scenes, I will always request that certain scenes be shot at a certain time or in a certain order, for lighting purposes. When I can win those battles, it makes the work a lot easier. So one side of the barn, it was done with 18 keys, in terms of filtering softer light through the slats of the barn. And for Emily’s angle, it’s one of those occasions where I was fortunate, I had a light ready to use, to introduce a more sunlit feeling, but I really had the timing work out very well and that was all natural sunlight that was back-lighting her. And then it’s just introducing soft key-lights inside, so it’s one of those things where you get lucky with the light you’re given naturally sometimes and it makes the scene what it is.

Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickisnon, sat resting her head on her friends shoulder

Also in Episode 9, you have one of the Death Carriage scenes. What were the challenges involved in shooting in the Death Carriage?

The Death Carriage is one of the more interesting sets that we shoot in, even though it’s so constrained. It’s the one place, for me, that can be slightly different, look-wise. Even though it still riffs off of a lantern-lit interior. The contrast between the walls and the upholstery in Death’s Carriage, in contrast with the amber light that I introduced, was really what I would call an instant win. That colour contrast is something that I particularly really like. But it’s definitely challenging because it’s a very small set and this is certainly one where we could pull it apart to get all the angles that we needed. It’s shot obviously on a stage with green screens, so we shot plates for the exterior which I think married very well. I used a lot of smoke and haze, particularly when Death’s Carriage is first introduced, to really enhance the atmosphere. A lot of that stuff was shot handheld.

I can imagine a cameraperson crouched down on the floor of the carriage, kinda squeezed in there…

It’s not comfortable, for sure, but that comes with the territory.

Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickson stood in a greenhouse surrounded by plants and flowers

The last thing I want to ask you about is the Finale, which has so many different elements – it has a wedding, it has Emily envisioning her own funeral, it also uses the greenhouse set, which I love.

How was filming in the greenhouse?

So that was attached to Edward’s office. On the one hand, it wasn’t that difficult, lighting-wise, all the scenes were day scenes. I used diffused 360 sky panels outside to introduce soft window-light, soft sunlight. But the challenging thing about it was that there were so many beautiful plants in there. This was another set where it was very small, we didn’t pull any windows or walls, but what we would do is we’d have to move a lot of set-dressing, in this case, a lot of the plants to have room for camera. With a set like that, which is confined, your angles are restricted, but we’d try to make as pretty a frame as we could within those constraints and then really dress-to-camera some foreground foliage. It was pretty time-consuming, with a small set, it can take more time than if you have a lot more room. So, here we really took the time to carefully dress the frame, to make sure everything was visually fun and beautiful.

When Emily is envisioning her funeral, the set is very beautiful and the lighting is very blue, how did you go about creating that?

Loren Weeks, the production designer, did a great job with that re-envisioning of the parlour, just really luscious. But it was quite dark and if I remember, I think there were black sheers. There are several things in the show where it’s from Emily’s imagination, so I certainly took a leap, I made it a little more fantastic, an escape from realism to a certain degree and I wanted to keep it pretty dark. Usually a TV show has got quite a warm palette, so I usually tend towards warmer light for night interiors and also day interiors for a warmer look. But this was one where I went for a much cooler vibe, in terms of the window-light, have it feel a little surreal and a twilight feeling. But I contrasted that with warm light on the faces and I was very happy with it. As a cinematographer, a lot of the time, the production design can really play a big role in it and in that scene, it certainly did.

Head back tomorrow for our interview with Dickinson Production Designer Loren Weeks!