You wouldn’t be able to guess it while watching the visually complex and highly detailed “WandaVision,” but the Marvel Studios series on Disney Plus was cinematographer Jess Hall’s first time working on a television series. The cinematographer credits his experience with shooting Cannes Gold Lion and Silver D&AD award-winning commercials and his long-form work on films such as “The Spectacular Now” and “Hot Fuzz” as making him versatile enough to incorporate multiple cinematic styles throughout the show.
Hall utilized 47 different lenses (some custom modified) to recreate seven different sitcom eras in “WandaVision,” and went through a lot of literature and viewing to carefully craft lighting style, composition and camera movement.
Ahead of the penultimate episode of “WandaVision,” Hall talks with Variety about channeling David Lynch for the series, using different lenses for MCU continuity and being moved by the love story between the titular odd couple.
How did you incorporate your commercial shooting experience with the production of the 30 and 60-second meta-spots in “WandaVision”? Which advert was your favorite to make?
I think I’ve always used commercials as an experimentation platform for my longer-form work because they are such a visual medium in some respects. I’ve used [commercials] to try out different technologies, different lenses, different lighting styles, and sense of experimentation was something that stood me in good stead when it came to creating all of these different looks because I knew which lenses I could use to create certain looks, and so on. I think my favorite [“WandaVision” advert] is the Strücker watch commercial in Episode 2. That one was a lot of fun, because the lighting had already gone a little bit more towards cinematic lighting from Episode 1 to Episode 2: it was more dramatic and high-key. Matt [Shakman, director] allowed me to go even further with that commercial — I got to into a noir-ish film look.
What was your research process like for capturing the aesthetics of every era explored in the show?
It started with looking at literature about the history of sitcoms and then I went into watching a lot of sitcoms: what were the filmmaking techniques, what was the filmmaking vocabulary of the era across different sitcoms from each area? I was trying to figure out what tools filmmakers had at their disposal which influenced the decisions they made in terms of lighting techniques, which film stocks were available, what kind of camera platforms they were using, etcetera. I had this master document, which I’d send [Matt Shakman] at the end of the day that would say, “OK the 1950s: we’re going to use this film, start with this type of lensing, this aspect ratio, this type of lighting, and then reference stills from different shows in the period.” I would collect stills from different shows of the era, and then I would analyze the color values, tend to the RGB values, and build a 20-color palette. We had absolute color values that could be translated across the art department and across the wardrobe department, and therefore, we could build a lot of coherence within the episode to get this authentic period look. Alongside that was always a lot of camera testing. I was testing vintage lenses, vintage lighting and starting to work with the color side with the camera. [Working] with Josh Pines at Technicolor, I tried to build a high-level 4K HDR mastering quality and then, in a sense, reduce it down to a 35mm 1950s film look so it would look slightly in congress. There was a lot of color science that went into the camera.
How did you differentiate between one era and another in transitional moments in certain episodes?
We built this coherent sitcom bubble — a nostalgic, comfortable place for the audience and then we would disrupt that to cause moments of dramatic tension. And they happened throughout the series. As a cinematographer, those were some of the most interesting moments to me when you get a glimpse of the atmosphere shifting. There’s more contrast, a little bit of camera movement, and you get a sense of something sinister happening. In Episode 3 there was a big one, where we ejected Monica and she goes from daylight and lands at nightfall with emergency lighting and the helicopter. They’re always quite well-planned, but there were interesting technical challenges, especially when we were transitioning from one complicated color palette into another. I had to think about how I wanted to contrast but didn’t want to take the audience out of the experience. It’s hard to be nuanced as well as dramatic.
In moments where viewers are transported back to “the real world,” that reality looks a lot like the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies or even episodes of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” How much did you reference earlier Marvel movies? Did Marvel Studios have any suggestions for what to do in terms of shot style?
I rewatched what I felt were the key Marvel movies in relation to our show. The studio never said anything about that to me. I think they trusted that I was going to respect the lineage of the work. I was certainly aware that there needed to be continuity within the characters. For example, Vision had to look like Vision, and Wanda’s magic had to look like a certain color. Having this massive legacy of material to draw from was an asset. You’re building on the dramatic tension that has been involved with these characters, that people have seen in the movies. I was moved by the scenes between Paul [Bettany] and Elizabeth [Olsen] in “End Game” and “Age of Ultron.” That’s what partly made me want to do this project because some of their scenes were the most emotional that I had seen in the MCU. But, I also knew that it was going to be important for the audience to know where they were when they landed in the MCU and that it wasn’t just another confusing stylistic element. One of the things that I did was that I used the same lens as the Ultra Panavision lenses that were built for “Infinity War” and “End Game,” as well as 1.3x Anamorphic lenses. I was sort of encoding that kind of Marvel work with a look that fans would be slightly familiar with, probably not consciously, but somewhere in the subconscious. It was important to me with such a complicated show that there were elements of continuity.
What were some of your outside inspirations — David Lynch? “Pleasantville”?
Aesthetically, there were obviously some connections there [to “Pleasantville”]. But, I’ve always been a huge Lynch fan, and Lynch combined with “The Twilight Zone” was sort of the feeling that I wanted to get with the unease that was created when this sort of “Pleasantville” bubble of sitcom discomfort was disrupted. It was Lynchian, it was dark, it was disconcerting and a little bit more cinematic. I looked at a lot of “The Twilight Zone” as well. I enjoyed the tone they struck in earlier episodes.
A lot of fans began to notice that the color purple was attached to Agnes, which led them to the Agatha Harkness theory. How did you make sure that there was still an element of mystery in the show, but that there was some sort of differentiation being conveyed through the photography?
The color purple is quite a difficult color to get on digital. We did a lot of experimentation with that to pick up on just the right color. But, I think Kathryn Hahn is a fantastic actress, and she treated that performance with so much subtlety. I’d love to take credit for the way in which the reveal is engineered, but I think a lot of the work is what her and Matt did in terms of how she plays [Agnes] because she had to be subtle with what she was revealing in a particular moment. And, I think Matt as well was very careful with how he threaded that performance. I think on paper it was always a difficult thing to achieve: how do you not give it away for a fanbase who has read all of those comics? Because she’s a very familiar character. But, it seemed to work because people didn’t really pick up on it until quite late.
Were all the “Agatha All Along” inserts shot all at once, or piecemeal with each episode?
We did them piecemeal because there was so much shifting around of product design. We would normally, at the end of period scenes, switch modes and go into the “Agatha All Along” song. Those shots were all quite engineered because they were single shots that generally landed on a close-up of her doing some hilarious expression. There were very specific shots that often required to keep a piece of more modern filmmaking technology that would be appropriate for that episode in general. It was a little bit of a shift in gears, but we did it on almost all of them. Only a couple of them were done together, out of sequence. When I shot Kathryn I always tried to be quite neutral. I never did anything that I wouldn’t do on a normal character that would give any signals, so I always tried to give her a neutral treatment lens-wise, which hopefully didn’t give anything away.
“WandaVision” streams new episodes Fridays on Disney Plus.