A murder mystery is both the perfect and a slightly odd sandbox for a TV show. “The Afterparty” delights in playing different genres off of each other in each episode, as the audience and Detective Danner (Tiffany Haddish) watch each new potential suspect’s “mind movie” of what happened the night media phenom Xavier (Dave Franco) was murdered at his high school reunion afterparty. Different personalities get to take over the same set of events, retelling their version of the night through the lenses of everything from romcom to action flick to animation. But when the truth is finally revealed in the season finale, “The After Party” must create a final visual style: the truth.
Cinematographer Carl Herse spoke with IndieWire about creating a progression for the seven looks of the show with series creator/director Chris Miller, before uniting them in Episode 8. “We want it to all feel different, but you also want to feel like a progression,” Herse said. “We go from wider aspect ratios at the beginning of the season to taller aspect ratios by the end. But then when we got to Episode 8, Chris and I started scratching our heads.” The solution, they found, wasn’t to create a new look, but to blend the styles they’d already spent time establishing. “We found that it was important to start bleeding the different genres into one another. So [in the finale] we’ve got Yasper (Ben Schwartz) moving through an environment, but it’s lit and color corrected in the more de-saturated tones that you saw in the [thriller episodes].”
Herse and Miller also started blending approaches to camera movement in the finale, so that even within individual scenes it feels like the voices of the characters, each with their own very stylized and defined visual identity, start to clash. “Anything where Danner is holding court is shot in a very formal studio mode with tableaus and all the cast standing in depth. Whereas whenever you’re with Aniq [Sam Richardson] and Yasper, it’s handheld because they’re kind of scrambling around in the background,” Herse said.
The more static shots of the end sequence were referred to by Herse and Miller as “Danner-Vision,” which makes sense given the way the camera centers and obediently moves with her from snack bar to snack bar as she reveals the clues that led her to the murderer. After seven episodes of letting genre trappings guide the look and feel of the show — including her own gritty police drama backstory in Episode 7 — Danner is shot to appear fully in command of the proceedings. In flashbacks prompted by Danner’s Poirot-esque explanation, too, the lighting and color from different episodes begins to blend with Danner’s, and therefore the viewer’s, understanding of what really happened.
The other strategy Herse and Miller employed to show the truth was a little bit of magic blocking, made all the more impressive because the series was shot out of chronological order and needed to keep minute track of each episode’s look. “We had kind of a cheat sheet for each genre that would say, ‘Okay, now we’re in this format, we’re at this ISO, we’re using these lenses, this filtration,'” Herse said. But, he added, “We would always end by going to this wide shot. And then in the lighting and the tone and in the format, we would return, and we had little invisible marks laid out in the set.”
Herse took special care to match the camera’s mark as well as the actors, noting the height and angle of the lens, and figured out how to make a shot that worked across the show’s different aspect ratios. The shots match up perfectly when they’re seen one after the other in the final reveal, which feels to the viewer like incontrovertible evidence of the truth. No matter how many different ways we see the action and no matter how many different genres get draped over it, the way the actors line up is gloriously, joyfully the same.
“The Afterparty” would be a neat experiment if all it was doing was riffing on different genre looks, but it’s able to bring them all together — completely different and entirely the same. “What I find to be so gratifying about that final episode,” Herse said, “is that you’re really seeing the range of the series [all in that one shot].”