Often with low-budget filmmaking, the tendency is to reach for cinematography with a realistic look that’s rooted in the use of natural light sources. That description, though, has never applied to indie legend Gregg Araki and it certainly didn’t apply to his first foray into a TV, “Now Apocalypse.” It was something cinematographer Sandra Valde-Hansen discovered working with Araki on two features, “Kaboom” and “White Bird in a Blizzard.”
“I was two years out of AFI and getting the opportunity to work for Gregg opened up my visual world,” said Valde-Hansen, who appear who appeared at IndieWire’s Consider This FYC Brunch. “He introduced me to a world where, given the limited resources, we can actually play with color and light and still come under budget and limited time frame.”
While Valde-Hansen, who was mentored in more of a doc-realism approach to cinematography, had always used her favorite street photographers for references, Araki is visually inspired by high-end fashion photography, which played a particularly important role in establishing the look of his 10 episode series for Starz.
“For ‘Now Apocalypse’ Gregg wanted to create two different worlds within the same show,” said Valde-Hansen. “He wanted things to be bright and poppy and saturated and glowing. We called this the ‘Sex and the City’ world and I took references from high-end fashion magazines that incorporated color, [the work of photographers] like Steven Klein and Mario Testino.”
Valde-Hansen jokes that with the show’s beautiful cast playing 20-somethings in Los Angeles it wasn’t hard to make them look like they were walking out of the pages of a fashion magazine. Yet it’s a visual reference that stood in sharp contrast to the second part of Araki’s vision for the show.
“The other world is this Lynchian dark mysterious world,” said Valde-Hansen. “[It] represents what he perceives going through taking these drugs, but then having these apocalyptic hallucinations and encounters that he can’t even figure out who is real and who is not. He wanted that to be very dark and cryptic and hidden, where you are trying to see into the shadows.”
What would unify the two very different visual worlds would be the way Valde-Hansen used and blended the show’s saturated, poppy color scheme. For a show that would shoot 400 script pages in just 40 days of production and working only 12 hour days, the cinematographer knew she would have to rely on the latest in LED light technology. You can watch Valde-Hansen talk about her use of the portable, compact, adjustable RGB lights below:
The cinematographer admits there were times she worried Araki’s vision might have been too big for the limitations of the show, but that fear only drove her to work harder in pre-production to create a plan that maximized its resources. Part of the solution came from having one cinematographer and director throughout the 10 episode arc and being able to block shoot, where the production would shoot out a location for the entire season, instead of having to keep returning for each episode.
Another part of Valde-Hansen’s effective pre-production planning was her close collaboration with production designer Todd Fjelsted. You can watch her talk about the show’s production design and cinematography worked in tandem to give the on-location show an elevated sense of style:
Sandra Valde-Hansen is eligible for “Now Apocalypse” in the Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series (Half-Hour) category at the 2019 Primetime Emmy Awards. All 10 episodes are available to stream on Starz.