WandaVision Cinematographer Jess Hall On Unsettling The Audience With Just Camera Work
WandaVision is one of the most visually striking television shows we’ve had in a very long time.
Blending different genres, time periods and tones, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first small-screen foray is undeniably incredibly visually ambitious.
So, who’s the person responsible for this mind-bending mix of different visual techniques? Well, that’s Jess Hall, an incredibly talented cinematographer who’s worked on everything from feature films like Hot Fuzz to adverts for Apple.
We had the opportunity to speak to Jess earlier this week and we jumped at the opportunity to pick his brain and chat a little about how he brought the world of Westview to life.
UNILAD: For those of our readers who might not know, can you briefly outline what it is a cinematographer does?
Jess Hall: Cinematography encompasses everything to do with the camera and lighting effects. So as director of photography you’re in charge of the lighting department, the camera department and everything that moves the camera.
Obviously, that job involves a lot of intense collaboration with the director on shot lists, but you also work a lot with the production designer and set designer.
UNILAD: So how is it you ended up working on WandaVision?
Jess Hall: So I took an interview with Matt Shakman (WandaVision’s director), he was looking for a cinematographer with some diversity in scope, in terms of the projects they’d worked on so they could navigate their way through this incredibly complicated series that he was cooking up, which involved drama, action, comedy, romance, and sci-fi.
I think [Matt Shakman] had a certain cinematographer in mind and my resume meshed with that, so we took a meeting and hit it off.
UNILAD: You mentioned there the scope of this project, I can’t think of another show that encompasses so many genres in sometimes just twenty minutes of television. When you read the scripts and worked out how you were going to shoot it, what were your initial thoughts?
Jess Hall: It was overwhelming at first to think about how to navigate through not just all these different looks, but also the tonality that’s involved within those genres.
It’s a very big scope, so I had to be very meticulous, not getting overwhelmed, and really breaking down each episode, each script so I could work out how I was going to navigate my way through and use the tools of cinematography to tell this really complicated story and render these genres.
You know the devil’s in the detail I guess and my cure for the scoop of the task was to really focus on the detail, and I had a lot to figure out technically.
I’d try to make decisions that simplified some of the processes, like using one camera platform throughout, and also I deliberately limited some of my choices in some regards to simplify things, otherwise it could have become a bit of a mess.
UNILAD: The added challenge on a show like this is, you’re not just shooting a ninety-minute movie where the first minute looks like the last. The nature of the show means the format constantly changes; you’re shooting black and white for the first two episodes, can you just run us through the challenges involved?
Jess Hall: Yeah it’s an incredible challenge, apart from anything else your master is 4k-HDR which is the highest mastering quality Marvel has ever done.
Traditionally, the movies would not be finished in HDR, they’d have a HDR conversion because most theatrical distribution just isn’t 4k-HDR.
So normally that’s part of the post-production work, but we built it into our on-set workflow, so you’re starting with this incredibly high technical goal, and then you’re reducing that image to a 1950s, low-resolution film look.
On paper, they seem quite incompatible so we had to work out how to achieve that [1950s] look. For me, it came down to being a good student of cinematography, so I went back to look at the tools available in the 1950s and seeing what they’d use to light a shot, what instruments they used, what are the characteristics of that film stock and how can I make our 4k footage look like that.
It was really in-depth work, and fascinating to do.
UNILAD: Do you have a favourite scene or episode that you shot?
Jess Hall: I’m really partial to the transitions and how we move from one period to another.
I also really like the tonal transitions where we’re able to disrupt the comfort of the sitcom bubble and add a sense of menace and unease.
Those moments were really interesting because we’d built up this limited language of storytelling in camera and then we’d unsettle [the audience] by using a more modern camera movement or adding colour [to a black and white shot].
I think I like the sequence in episode one where we shift into a more noir-ish tone at the dinner table when Mr Hart chokes, I like the sequence with the beekeeper in episode two, or when Monica is ejected from the hex and we suddenly switch aspect ratio and all of a sudden it’s very sci-fi.
I liked those moments because they allowed me to be creative and crossfade between different styles.
UNILAD: There have been 23 MCU movies released so far, so general audiences have an idea of how this world is ‘supposed to look’, how much creative freedom did you have to put your spin on the world?
Jess Hall: It was a very free process; we did so much work building up the period episodes, and like yourself, I wondered if the modern stuff would have to fit in a certain template, but I never heard that from the studio.
Obviously, you want to respect the legacy, it’s an incredible body of work you’re stepping in the footsteps of, and there are certain elements you have to respect.
You know you don’t want the colour of Vision to suddenly change, we know what the Scarlet Witch’s magic looks like, so you have to keep those consistent so you’re inheriting some characteristics, but there’s a lot of freedom within that.
It was more about building on a legacy and a lineage and using that as an attribute to push us a little further.
New episodes of WandaVision stream exclusively on Disney+ every Friday.
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