Life with 'Louie:' Cinematographer Paul Koestner Continues His Collaboration with Louis C.K.
In addition to starring in his own FX television series, comedian Louis C.K. serves as writer, director and, for the first two seasons, editor on the show. Even before he found success in stand-up comedy, he aspired to produce movies and television shows.
“Louis turned down many offers where he wasn’t guaranteed script control,” says cinematographer Paul Koestner. “He comes from stand-up, where he wrote, tested and refined his own material. In many ways, comedians are alone, and they are often responsible for their entire act. He has always been very protective of his material.”
Koestner says that C.K. is hands-on about everything regarding the making of the show, down to the choice of lenses and cameras. “In fact, he bought his own RED EPIC camera, and he now owns two sets of lenses,” says Koestner. “He’s very knowledgeable about the subtle effect these choices have on the images.”
Koestner and C.K. met in 1990 on an A&E series called Caroline’s Comedy Hour. In the course of a week, 13 live-to-tape shows were shot before live audiences at Caroline’s, where C.K. was a rising young star. Koestner shot brief skits that served as bumpers for the show, and C.K. sometimes wrote and directed. Eventually, that led to a short film called Caesar’s Salad.
C.K.—the C.K. is an English approximation of his actual surname, Szekely—kept moving up the ladder, working as a writer on shows starring Chris Rock and Dana Carvey. He financed and directed a Super 16 black-and-white feature film called Tomorrow Night, and brought Koestner on as cinematographer. Koestner also oversaw multiple cameras on Hilarious, a performance event shot on RED cameras at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Critics noted an intimacy about Hilarious despite the big venue. Koestner eschewed grand, sweeping movement and shot with the main camera on a jib hovering close to the star, augmented with on-stage handheld and Steadicam angles.
Eventually the call came from FX, and Louie went into production. “Louis trusts me,” says Koestner. “The show comes largely out of his head, and I try as hard as I can to channel him. FX leaves him alone, and he treasures that.”
Louie follows a fictionalized version of the comedian, a newly divorced father raising two daughters in New York City. Vignettes depict events from his life, and these are interspersed with stand-up comedy, often shot in a tiny club.
The show has a loose aesthetic that sets it apart from most television series. C.K. has been quoted as saying, “Every episode has its own goal, and if that messes up the goal of another episode, I just don’t care.”
The show has always been shot on RED cameras. The first season was captured with a RED ONE with Zeiss Master Prime lenses; that camera’s chip was upgraded to a Mysterium-X sensor for the show’s second season. The RED EPIC was introduced prior to the show’s third season, and C.K. purchased one.
“We are a small show,” says Koestner. “We don’t have a lot of personnel, time or money. FX airs our show at 720 lines, not the full 1080. But Louis looked into the future, and pointed out his hope that the show will be seen for generations to come. He saw the 4K capability of the RED cameras and decided that this was the way to go.”
C.K. is also fascinated by lenses and insists on using primes, not zooms, except for the long-throw comedy club shots, where there’s not much choice in terms of camera placement and lens-swapping is limited. There, an Angenieux Optimo 24-290mm often comes in handy. C.K. personally owns a set of Zeiss Ultra Primes and a set of 1960s vintage Bausch & Lomb Super Baltars.
“Louis really understands how focal length affects field of view, but he also sees the emotive possibilities of compressing or expanding space,” says Koestner. “A short lens placed close to a subject might render the same subject size as a long lens situated further away, but with an entirely different impact on the viewer. Cinematographers understand this, but Louis gets it, too, and uses it in the show.”
In terms of production style, the show is very spontaneous. Skits and segments are shot according to a rough script, but the crew is often unaware of which episode a particular scene will appear in. Those decisions are made during editing. The schedule is elastic, but each 22-minute show is completed in roughly three days.
“We don’t have any conversation prior to the start of the season, or day to day, for that matter,” says Koestner. “Typically, I will know the 22- or 25-page script. It can be confusing—how it begins, how it ends and how it comes together. But I see it as a movie in my head. We have to adjust things to work in the locations that have been chosen. More often than not, Louie has not seen the location, as location scouts are cost- and time-prohibitive for us. It can be frustrating for crew members who are used to a more conventional method, but that’s how it works.”
Koestner says that C.K. is hands-on about the lens choice, camera position and blocking. “We do not rehearse,” he says. “If the actors start doing something, we roll. We make our mistakes and then we make our corrections. I used to do some conventional lighting, but he has insisted that I pull back, and in many ways he is right—the less lighting there is, the freer people are to move.”
Koestner does keep light sources on stand-by in case a touch-up or correction is needed, but if C.K. likes what he sees, that’s how it’s shot. “I think that’s one reason we’ve worked together for so long,” says the cinematographer. “He usually gives himself and his actors enough takes so that we get something interesting.
“Louis sees a certain amount of sloppiness in life,” says Koestner. “I think he hates artifice. He shies away from things that are too choreographed. He might use a shot even though there’s another where we nailed focus better.”
The camera is often operated handheld, but Koestner also uses a custom dolly made by an old friend, Douglas Underdahl, who is well known as a designer of motion picture equipment.
“When you’re on a shoestring, you can’t bring in a PeeWee dolly,” says Koestner. “Doug makes a wonderful little dolly that runs on PVC tubing. One person can take the dolly and 20 feet of track and walk down the street with it. He also has what he calls a 7-Jib, which is extremely handy, and very quick and easy to set up. We don’t need to make ornate moves, but when we need to drop four inches to make the shot work, we can do it in an instant.”
The show is shot at 4K resolution with 8:1 compression. Koestner usually rates the sensor at 800 ISO. DIT Clint Litton backs the cards up to twin RAID drives and makes ProRes files immediately available to Louie for editing on his souped-up Apple MacBook Pro—although prior to the third season, C.K. announced that he had fired himself as editor and hired Susan E. Morse, best known for her 20 films with Woody Allen, for the job.
The third season is slated to premiere on June 28. Louie has garnered two Emmy nominations, one for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series and one for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series. Koestner says that Louis C.K. is a serious filmmaker, and that the success of the show is no joke.
“Louis is a truly a student of filmmaking,” he says. “It’s a mistake to see him as solely a joke-teller. He is a self-taught filmmaker who makes interesting things happen.”