'Scream Queens': Fright and Delight

Cinematographers Michael Goi and Joaquin Sedillo reinvent scare tactics for the FX Series.
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Scream Queens, a FOX TV series from Glee and American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy, debuts on September 22. Set at a sorority plagued by a mysterious killer dressed like a devil, the series stars the “queen of scream,” Jamie Lee Curtis, as the university dean; Emma Roberts as Chanel, haughty president of the KKT sorority; and Abigail Breslin, Nasim Pedrad and Niecy Nash, among others.

In addition to Murphy, the series features behind-the-scenes writing, directing and producing talent from Glee and American Horror Story including Brad Falchuk, Bradley Buecker, Ian Brennan and Dante Di Loreto. Also an integral part of the series are cinematographers from both of those shows: Michael Goi, ASC, who shot seven episodes of Glee and is now on American Horror Story, and Joaquin Sedillo, ASC, who shot 57 episodes of Glee. Goi shot the first two episodes of Scream Queens, with Sedillo taking over when Goi went back to American Horror Story.

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Emma Roberts as Chanel Oberlin, president of the Kappa Kappa Tau sorority. Photo by Steve Dietl/FOX.

Goi says that when he got together with Murphy to talk about the look of Scream Queens, the conversation initially was about what it would not look like. “We were going for something that didn’t look like Glee or any season of American Horror Story,” he says. “Something with its own distinctive feel.” That played out as a mix of different looks: some scenes are very, very dark, while others are blazing with bright colors that pop. Goi says one of his influences was Italian director/cinematographer Mario Bava, known for his work on pioneering horror films including Black Sabbath and Blood and Black Lace.

“Balancing the technical issues and trying to create those looks became the next challenge,” says Goi. “It was going to be captured digitally, and most digital cameras are designed to see into the shadows. Sometimes I like to drop things off into complete, total black, which is getting very difficult to achieve.” Goi chose the Sony PMW-F55. “The contrast range and color space were much closer to what I felt would be the design of the show,” he says.

Although the Sony F55 is 4K-capable, the show is shot in Rec. 709 mode. “The 4K transition is still going on, and there is some apprehension about the larger data files,” Goi explains. “The show lent itself to Rec. 709 because of the more compressed contrast range and the lack of a huge dynamic range and the relative punchiness of the specific colors. We wanted the reds to be distinctive because there’s a devil who dresses all in red.” Another scene takes place in almost total darkness. “All it’s lit by is one character holding a flashlight in her hand,” says Goi. “We balanced the total darkness with the red devil appearing out of the shadows.”

Goi says the biggest challenge of the show was to establish distinctive characters in a “huge cast of young, talented people.” “We definitely surrounded Chanel with glamour, and that extended to her minions, the other Chanels, who follow her,” he says. “I wanted each Chanel to be almost like a cameo in darkness. It was fun mixing up the styles with things I love about fashion photography, which I did for eight years in Chicago.”

Goi also likes to mix up the lighting. Although he had what he calls a “standard package,” lighting interiors with tungsten and very few LEDs, his passion is to never light the same set the same way twice. “That goes against all the rules of TV,” he says, “but lighting the same way doesn’t represent the internal perspective of the characters at that moment in time.

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From left, Abigail Breslin, Emma Roberts, Billie Lourd and Ariana Grande as the Chanels. Photo by Steve Dietl/FOX.

“I really wanted this to be a world that didn’t exist in reality but that was eye candy nonetheless,” Goi adds. “You have these women who do incredibly evil things to each other, but you just love them because they’re so over the top and so committed to what they believe is right. Visually, no matter how evil they were, I wanted each one to have a certain level of dignity and confidence.”

When Sedillo took over for the rest of the season, he already had a handle on what Murphy and Goi had been shooting in Louisiana. That’s because the production used Prime Focus Technologies’ DAX dailies, which allowed Sedillo, in Los Angeles, to stay on top of the decisions made. “I’d log in each evening or wait until the weekend and scroll through dailies and see how the look evolved, with lens choices, color choices and how the lighting was placed,” he says. “What was great was that I was able to get a candid view of the cast and see how they act before camera cuts. You could see their personalities and playfulness.”

Sedillo decided to shoot with the ARRI Alexa. “I was more comfortable with it,” he says. “I’ve shot several series with it, including Glee. It’s a dance partner I’m comfortable with and Michael gave me his blessing. I’m very cognizant of being respectful of the look that Michael and Ryan worked so hard to create.”

For lenses, Sedillo relied on Angenieux Optimo 15-40, 28-76 and 45-120; Panavision PV Compact Zoom 19-90; Panavision Primo 10mm, 14.5mm and 17.5mm; and Panavision Primo Zoom 17.5-75 and 24-275, as well as a 6mm fisheye. “We tended to shoot a little more wide angle, both with masters and close-ups,” says Sedillo. “We wanted the environment looming around the characters, and those wider lenses allow us to bring the environment as a character.”

Sedillo describes Scream Queens as “bubble gum horror.” “There are these murders going on, yet we’re doing it in this silly way that makes them more accessible to a comedy audience,” he says. “It’s horrifying and scary, but it also makes people giggle. The audience feeds off of Ryan’s great imagination and extravagant energy.”

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Chanel #5 (Abigail Breslin, left) and new sorority pledges Grace (Skyler Samuels, center) and Zayday (Keke Palmer, right).

Although he followed the look created by Goi and Murphy, Sedillo added his own signature. One characteristic was his tendency to use big, soft sources. “I use the biggest light I can fit into a room,” Sedillo says. “Rather than adding skims to get it to the right f-stop, I just add more and more diffusion. From Veronica Mars to Swingtown and into Glee, I am focused on servicing the story and the needs of Ryan Murphy as well as making the actors—men and women—love how they look.”

Sedillo says that the biggest challenge in shooting Scream Queens is “the extraordinary amount of work.” “We have an incredible amount of dialogue and sometimes up to 15 characters,” he says. He credits his crew, which includes his “usual suspects” from Los Angeles—gaffer Shawn Shemanski, A-camera operator Spencer Hutchins, key 1st AC Kenneth Little and A-camera dolly/crane operator Corey Corona—as well as locals. “I was very aware of wanting locals on the crew,” he says. “And I ended up with two extraordinary crews. Every time I make a request, these guys fly through the set in such a professional way.”

“We’re on a great adventure and it’s a lot of fun,” says Sedillo. “The pride of getting through those six pages with three locations and two murders has really taken the edge off of being away from home. It’s almost like being on a Disneyland ride. Every day is a lot of fun, and we get to do it again tomorrow.”  

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