In the latest of a series of interviews with crew members behind some of the best looking Netflix shows of the last year, including Russian Doll and GLOW, we spoke with the cinematographer behind The Umbrella Academy. This graphic novel adaptation has a unique look and successfully translates the comic-book style to the small screen, which is at least in part down to Scottish cinematographer Neville Kidd.
What were some of the challenges involved in adapting the distinctive visual style of the comics for the screen?
Because it already had such a strong visual style in the graphic novel, the challenge was then in trying to create a new visual style for the Netflix television version. For me, the challenge was to make that world believable with a nod to the comic books as well. I think it was a fantastic challenge to make a world that clearly doesn’t exist, to make it exist and to make the characters real for the audience, so they could genuinely care for them.
As well as making it distinct from the comic-book version, you may have also felt a pressure to make the look distinct from all of the superhero stories that we’ve seen an awful lot recently, in terms of movies and TV shows. We have a bit of saturation at the moment of superheroes – how did you feel about wanting to make this distinct and your own?
Yes, we were very aware of the huge amount of superhero TV and films out there. I think we definitely wanted The Umbrella Academy to have its own unique visual style. I think it was a combination of making the sets 360 – so we could film them in all directions. So, we were having to light it in different ways to traditional television, so we didn’t have any lighting rigs up top, we put all of the lights outside, which I think gave the sets a very real believability and feel to them. So the Hargreaves mansion is like a real place, when in fact its in a studio.
That neatly leads me onto to my next question, in fact! I wanted to ask about the Hargreaves mansion and the challenges of shooting in that set. It’s so well lit – you use windows and archways so well, with the light streaming in – how did you achieve that?
There were a lot of lights! We had a huge amount of lights outside. Steve Blackman was incredibly supportive in making the whole world come alive – the showrunner. And we spoke through all the various ways to light the world and I think it cost a lot of money and it was a very distinctive style, but the studio were very supportive and I think it helped make a different programme. It helped create a world that nobody really had seen. We weren’t making it the traditional television way, we were making it so the actors could move anywhere within that world and it felt like a real space.
I want to go through some of the best scenes, which stood out for being well-shot and visually striking. Let’s start with Episode 2 and Five running through the apocalyptic wasteland – how did you achieve that?
So basically we shot that in two different locations, we had the location where we filmed the street and everything and then we had a studio backlot where we made the apocalypse. And then we matched the same shots, so when we did the big long tracking shot, he comes out of the house and he runs up the road. The tracking shot we matched exactly, we really carefully measured it and then we remade the same track on the apocalypse set we just matched the two shots together. And same with the steadicam shot which runs with Five as he running out, we matched the same height, the same lens, everything we matched. And we shot slightly wider so that the effects could realign and get the precision to the shot. So you felt like it’s one shot when he’s running up the street, when in facts it’s lots of locations, cutting back and then you end up with the whole thing sewn together into one believable scene where he’s going from one scene to another time-zone, to another season and then he ends up in the apocalypse. So basically everything you see next to him is real, but everything beyond that is effects. So the burning house is a real thing, the burning cars and lampposts were all real, but everything beyond twenty feet of Five was visual effects.
Also in Episode 2, the department store scene, with its fantastic blue lighting – it’s also an action scene with Hazel and Cha-Cha shooting down narrow aisles – how did you stage and film that complex scene?
It’s funny because while we were discussing it, Steve Blackman really wanted to make the world dark – a shutdown department store. When Hazel and Cha-Cha come in, they’re being lit by their gunfire – he wanted to make them a very intimidating duo. So we had a Catch-22 situation where you’re going to have a ‘TV’ dark world, but it can’t be 100% dark because obviously you’ve got to see something (take note, Game of Thrones!) but you’ve got to feel like the department store is in shutdown mode. So I chose a blueish light – it’s kind of a security light – they just leave a couple of lights on, but you feel that the department store is in shutdown, so that he (Five) can come in and he can get his flashlight and search for the love of his life….who is a mannequin. [Both laughing] It’s such a great scene! One of the great moments was the part where Hazel and Cha-Cha are firing and they’re being lit by all their explosions from their shotguns, we did that for real. We had a camera that was kind of lined up on our grip, who had to pull the dolly to a safe distance – with a helmet on and all the protection, while they’re firing away – we got a fantastic shot.
In Episode 6, you introduce the world of The Commission – some favourite shots from here are the wide shot of the huge room with the banks of desks (ah, the infinite room! – NK) and the long corridor shot of the pneumatic tubes. I’m guessing that at least some effects were involved again – how much was VFX and how much was practical?
A lot of it was practical and then obviously the infinite perspective view of the desks was effects. But we had a fantastic location, which was an old observatory and it played in perfectly with the whole feel of The Umbrella Academy. Combined with all the production design, we changed it, it felt like the perfect place for The Handler and for Number Five to work. One of my favourite scenes is the loo scene, when they’re in the toilets together. I think it’s a combination of finding good locations with being able to light them in a way that makes it feel like it’s a real place. I think I wanted to make it feel like those buildings are alive slightly, that they have a personality in themselves. That was one of the main things, that the Hargreaves mansion – to make it feel like the kids had happy memories and they had sad memories. We wanted to make the audience believe that the kids cared for the house, but it had been kinda let go since they’d left.
Also in Episode 6 (probably the best episode), there’s also the woodland stand-off with Hazel and Cha-Cha. It’s filmed a bit like a Western stand-off. I’m guessing shooting outdoors has different challenges, again, especially with how you light it.
You have to be very careful about the direction of the sun. All the exterior locations were very carefully chosen, we had to keep a close eye on the weather as well, so if it’s going to be particularly bad weather, we would maybe try a covered set, we’d stay in the studio and then wait for the weather to change to go outside. That was such a fantastic location, that was very dependent on the sun coming – streaming through all the trees and everything. I think it added to the weird juxtaposition of the innocence of Hazel enjoying his new love of nature with Cha-Cha contemplating killing him and vice-versa. And I’m a big Western fan as well growing up, so I got to indulge in all my Sergio Leone influences, I got to make my Western tribute in the forest.
In Episode 7, there’s a fantastic sequence in a nightclub which uses neon and UV lights heavily – I can imagine that is incredibly challenging to film?
The rave scene is one of my favourite scenes, the amount of lights you use is huge. But it’s got to be a convincing rave and I think we tried to make it as believable as we possibly could. It was so much fun to film and I think all the extras and the crew enjoyed it because you felt like you were at a rave.
Is it true that there’s no music though? I’ve always heard that when that they are filming scenes like that, there isn’t really any music?
Well what they do is they put music on to start everybody. To get everybody dancing, they start the music and then they fade the music out and then everybody can come in and do their dialogue. So everyone’s got the beat in their head to dance to.
The nightclub scene leads into the amazing purgatory/after-life sequence where it’s all in black and white, apart from Klaus’ shirt – which is in colour. How did you achieve that?
We actually shot in colour, but we knew it was going to be seen in black and white at the end. But we had to shoot colour in order to get the coloured shirt, so VFX had to paint out every frame to bring out the shirt, but make everything else black and white. I loved it and I thought it’s that little bit of Klaus that’s hanging in there. He’s not truly dead, there’s a little bit of hope. Even though he’s happy to go, which I thought visually paid off very well.
I have to ask you about the finale with Vanya and the whole sequence in the concert hall. It’s an incredibly long sequence – how long did it take to shoot and what were the challenges?
The big challenge for us was we had a lot of days in the Icarus Theatre and then we had a lot of green screen days as well and then had to weld the two together. The biggest challenge is just making sure that everything matches, so at no point do you ever believe you’ve left the theatre. We had a lot of vortex lighting, so we had so many different vortex lights that had to go on the stage and were hanging up in the roof and then we had portable ones that we could move around for each of the characters to maintain that kind of power surge that she (Vanya) was pumping out as she was playing. But that’s all real – they were real interactive lights that we created so when you were there at the time, you felt like there was one big central source of power on the stage. And I think it worked really well.