Snowfall Cinematographer Tommy Maddox-Upshaw on Making
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Tommy Maddox-Upshaw Makes His Perspective Seen

Alex Kurtzman says "The Man Who Fell to Earth" sheds the cinematographer's talent in a whole new light.

cinematographer Tommy Maddox-Upshaw

Tommy Maddox-Upshaw

Benjamin Eades

At the start of “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” the character we come to know as Faraday (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is introduced as an extraterrestrial being, albeit one in humanoid form. In these early, dialogue-free scenes, the visuals propel the narrative by putting the audience in Faraday’s shoes. Extreme, close focus, widescreen close-ups capture in startling detail the disorientation Faraday feels. As Alex Kurtzman, co-creator of the Showtime series, aptly puts it, “He comes blinking into reality and is taking in absolutely every detail at a visual and aural level.”

The cinematography is as breathtakingly precise in how it captures Faraday’s arrival, but what is equally impressive about the series’ first three episodes is that director of photography Tommy Maddox-Upshaw brings this same exacting touch to completely different worlds and subjectivities. Like Faraday, the viewer is left piecing together the different threads, but we are always visually grounded by Maddox-Upshaw’s lens.

“He is a very emotional storyteller,” said Kurtzman, who with “The Man Who Fell” gave the cinematographer his first chance to build the world of a TV series from scratch, as the two collaborated for months of pre-production creating the look and language of the complex sci-fi series. It was an opportunity that Maddox-Upshaw was more than technically ready for after carrying a bulk of the DP load on series like “Snowfall.” But his collaboration with Kurtzman went beyond utilizing his experience and sharpened skills to delineate storylines and create striking images. “The Man Who Fell To Earth” supplied a canvas for Maddox-Upshaw to bring his POV as artist to the storytelling.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in "The Man Who Fell To Earth"

“The Man Who Fell to Earth”

Showtime

Before Maddox-Upshaw — whose other television credits include “Empire” and “On My Block” — was hired to shoot “MWFTE,” he interviewed with Kurtzman for the DP role on the “Star Trek” spin-off “Strange New Worlds.” “He didn’t get the project because the minute I met him I knew I wanted him to be available for ‘Man,’” said Kurtzman.

“Let’s call it what it is,” he said. “I was a white director of a story about a Black family with a largely Black cast. So, I knew going in, that to be authentic, I needed to surround myself with people of color who could tell me when something felt inauthentic. Aside from the fact that Tommy is a uniquely gifted cinematographer he also has life experience that connected perfectly for ‘Man’.

In the video below, watch Kurtzman and Maddox-Upshaw discuss their approach to shooting “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”

Upon his induction to the American Society of Cinematographers in 2020, Maddox-Upshaw remarked that he is “a reactionary artist.” Elaborating on this descriptor in 2022, he said, “I understand that my choices about creativity come from certain social dynamics that I’ve been exposed to. My emotional reaction to things informs my ideas about light and color or why a character should be lensed a certain way.”

On “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” Kurtzman sought to foster an environment where Maddox-Upshaw felt comfortable expressing such ideas. “He might say, ‘I’m going to light it this particular way because I know what it felt like when my family would get together at the table and pray before dinner.’ So, we lit all of that according to Tommy’s memory.”

“Snowfall” co-creator/showrunner/executive producer/writer Dave Andron calls Maddox-Upshaw “a genius of lighting.” His work on that show was another indication to Kurtzman that the cinematographer was the man for “Man.”

“I saw what Maddox did with ‘Snowfall’ and knew he had less of a budget than DPs on other shows I’d researched, but I could tell how precise and specific his lighting was,” Kurtzman said. “I had an instinct that even though he had never done anything of this scale before he was going to kill it.”

Damson Idris as Franklin Saint in Snowfall

“Snowfall”

Ray Mickshaw/FX

Raised in the Boston neighborhood of Mattapan, Maddox-Upshaw attended school in the more affluent Massachusetts suburb of Newton. “My home life was very good,” he said. “My parents own their home, in this Black context of middle class — but at the same time I’m bused to a neighborhood that has the owner of Reebok and [professional] basketball players [living] around the corner from the high school.

“I grew up understanding how to float between this dual dynamic: white suburbia and figuring out how to survive in that context socially from an early age, to growing up to be this Black male.”

He credits his family with giving him the movie-going bug and later opening his eyes to the possibility of making it in the business. “Dad would give me an allowance and the first thing I’d do was go to the cinema and spend my $5 on matinees in Boston. My first babysitter — my aunt — was into these weird B-movies like ‘The Stuff.’ They introduced me to cinema, then hip-hop showed me I could actually do it.” Maddox-Upshaw’s sister, a casting director, got her teenage brother jobs as intern and PA on New York-shot promos for director Hype Williams and hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy.

Tommy Maddox-Upshaw on the set of Snowfall

Behind the scenes of “Snowfall”

courtesy of Emmanuel Bates Communications

Later, DPs Alan Ferguson and Daniel Pearl took Maddox-Upshaw under their wing. He drew influence from DP Cliff Charles (for whom he gaffered on Spike Lee’s 2006 HBO documentary “When the Levees Broke”), the distinctive style of music video masters like Malik Sayeed, and the still photographs of Gordon Parks and Barron Clairborne. Working with Matthew Libatique in various roles on “Iron Man 2,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “The Circle,” and “A Star Is Born” showed Maddox-Upshaw how to lead as a cinematographer.

“To see other Black and brown people making images gave me a tangible goal to reach,” he says. “I’d ask questions of the crew; they taught me how to get started in this craft.” The way these image makers avoided a uniformity of skin tone increased Maddox-Upshaw’s determination to tell stories that are not color blind.

“I am sensitive to brown skin tones because of my own cultural hue,” he said. “When I look at shows, a lot of the Black folks look monochromatic. And that’s not right. I have four sisters and we are all different hues of brown. I am a different complexion to my daughter.” He extends this sensibility universally. “People in the UK have a different skin pigmentation from Caucasians in South Africa or the Mediterranean. All digital cameras interpret skin tones a certain way but my take is that I should be the one in control of manipulating skin tone if I want to.”

cinematographer Tommy Maddox-Upshaw on the set of "On My Block"

Behind the scenes of “On My Block”

Nicola Goode/Netflix

Maddox-Upshaw has gradually built his investment in the creative over successive jobs. For Season 2 of “On My Block,” the Netflix teen comedy set in South Central LA, he switched camera systems to Sony Venice and paired them with customized Zeiss Super Speeds to lend additional flare. Joining “Snowfall” — also set in LA, this time amid the emergence of crack cocaine in the 1980s — in Season 3, he also changed camera systems and helped reconstruct the show’s LUTs in line with that choice.

“Both shows deal with Black and brown kids in an urban context,” Maddox-Upshaw says. “I felt the visual language wasn’t matching emotionally what the characters were going through or what the script was trying to say.” His vision was embraced: Maddox-Upshaw was invited into the “On The Block” writers’ room by showrunner Lauren Iungerich, an opportunity to gain insight into character and story that carried over to “Snowfall.”

“He came to our offices and sat with us and asked me to go through the arcs of every character for the season,” Andron said. “He wanted as much information as possible about where they came from and where they were going to go. It’s generally not something a DP does. He wanted to know so he could visually help tell that story in the best way possible. He was able to take what we had set up, put his own spin on it and really help ground the show.”

Tommy Maddox-Upshaw and Alex Kurtzman on the set of "The Man Who Fell To Earth"

Maddox-Upshaw and Kurtzman on the set of “The Man Who Fell to Earth”

Rico Torres/Showtime

On “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” Kurtzman and Maddox-Upshaw bonded over shared cinematic affinities, digging into why and how certain scenes were lit, or what the filmmakers were trying to communicate to their audience through composition or their choice of lenses.

“I think it is because as children we both disappeared into the emotional experience of sitting in a dark theater and watching those stories unfold,” Kurtzman said, “All these movies branded on our brains and in some way on our identities. So now, making our own films, we’re able to pull from the movies that have inspired us to create our own version of something like it. That requires a collaboration that goes beyond your ability to technically do a job. You have to care for each other.” 

Talking over Zoom ahead of “The Man Who Fell To Earth” — they wouldn’t meet in person until principal photography commenced in London in spring of 2021 — Maddox-Upshaw and Kurtzman devised a way of showing that their characters cared for one another. Scenes between Faraday and Falls were shot with large-format spherical lenses customized for close focus, their budding connection signaled by a warm color palette. 

Man Who Fell To Earth BTS Tommy Maddox Upshaw Chiwetel Ejiofor and Naomie Harris

Behind the scenes of “The Man Who Fell to Earth”

Aimee Spink/Showtime

“What we really wanted was to create a subjective intimacy where we were shooting the storytelling from the inside out, not the outside in, aligning the camera and therefore the audience with our character’s points of view and devising very specific methodologies for each character,” Kurtzman said. Further complexities are introduced when the heroes interact in the same space with the morally dubious Hatch Flood (Rob Delaney) and CIA special agent Spencer Clay (Jimmi Simpson), whose own scenes are characterized by blues and greens and framed more clinically, via anamorphic glass lenses. 

“When there’s a scene with both sets of characters and the scene is controlled by Hatch/CIA then I would record it in a third LUT somewhere between the two and in anamorphic,” Maddox-Upshaw said. “I’m trying to have people emotionally react while I’m switching these LUTs simultaneously per scene. 

Kurtzman commended the way the DP “attacks every single detail” using his “encyclopedic mind” to execute exactly what they’d discussed.

“That for me is an unbelievable comfort because we were essentially shooting movie coverage on a TV schedule,” he said. “You need a partner who is going to be there for you every second, and then give you something extra in the moment.”

They still talk about movies and life now, even though both have moved onto other projects. Maddox-Upshaw subsequently shot “American Wake” for director Maureen Foley and is prepping “Fort Fight” for Jodi Hans.

“I try to make myself as vulnerable as possible when I interview,” he said. “I let the director and producers know that my Black urban gaze is what I’m lensing through and that that’s the motivation for my decision making at times.

“If that limits me to certain type of shows then so be it.” —Adrian Pennington

Tommy Maddox-Upshaw

Credits: "The Man Who Fell To Earth," "Snowfall," "On My Block," "Empire"

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