Shifting Focus: Cinematographer Yves Belanger Finds the “Truth” in HBO’s 'Big Little Lies'

Used to often shooting entirely on-location, the DP admits he had to change his working style in order to light the show's soundstage sets.
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Used to often shooting entirely on-location, the DP admits he had to change his working style in order to light the show's soundstage sets.

Focusing on the travails of affluent families and how their interactions lead to strife and ultimately to murder, novelist Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies debuted at the top of the New York Times bestseller list after its publication in July 2014. The HBO series adaptation that began airing in March of this year transplants the book’s characters from Sydney, Australia to Monterey, California, which gives the episodes a certain “grounding,” as the coastal town and its bay are crisscrossed with earthquake fault lines.

Much like the local geography, most of the characters are dangerously overstressed and destabilized beneath an otherwise tranquil surface. A trio of mothers figures prominently in the storyline: Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) and Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) are both well-to-do stay-at-home moms, while working-class Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) is a newcomer who carries a secret trauma.

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Madeline and daughter Chloe, Jane and son Ziggy, Celeste and twins Max and Josh. Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle.

Witherspoon and Kidman were so impressed with the source material that they lobbied for its adaptation and served as executive producers on the series, which was produced for HBO by Blossom Films, David E. Kelley Productions (Kelley himself scripted the series) and Pacific Standard. Witherspoon had worked in successful collaboration with director Jean-Marc Vallée on a feature adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s autobiographical bestseller Wild, and subsequently recruited the filmmaker to helm the limited series, which also reunited her with Vallée’s regular director of photography, Yves Belanger, CSC (Dallas Buyers Club, Demolition).

Throughout his association with Vallée, Belanger has shot entirely on location for both interiors and exteriors. “That approach feels honest to us,” Belanger states, “and it means using existing light—natural sunlight and in-frame practicals—rather than doing things in a more traditional light-it-up Hollywood way. But it was only when I came to prep this that I realized a large percentage of the show was going to be done on stage back in Los Angeles [where a number of exteriors are also shot]. For me, that meant a change to my working style in that I was going to have to re-create that natural location lighting from the Monterey shoot, and do it with traditional lighting units on constructed sets.”

In all, production shot just 20 out of 88 days in and around the coastal town, but they made the most of the location. Scenes captured included Del Monte beach, Garrapata State Park, Monterey Bay Aquarium, neighboring Pacific Grove and Big Sur. Belanger’s second unit helped embellish that sense of locale, picking up views of the coast and ocean, plus vehicles traversing the scenic Bixby Creek Bridge.

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The Mackenzie family: Abigail (Kathryn Newton), Chloe (Darby Camp), Ed (Adam Scott) and Madeline (Reese Witherspoon). Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle.

The exterior and ground floor interior of Celeste’s home were shot in nearby Carmel, but the upper floor—“Where all the kinky stuff goes on,” the DP remarks—was handled on a stage using greenscreen windows and location plate work. The interior of Jane’s house, represented in exteriors by a Pasadena residence, was entirely a stage build.

“I went very basic and commonsense with re-creating the location look. I overlit from outside the set so Jane would be illuminated by what came through the windows, and added accents with practicals. We’d deliberately mix different color temperatures between the practical sources and re-creations of sunlight.”

Belanger works without a DIT on set and doesn’t rely on a LUT to determine his look, preferring instead to achieve his effects in camera. “The way I rate the image and use color temperature comes out of what I see as we prepare to shoot,” he reports. “That is probably for the best because the whole food chain for processing digital rushes is at times difficult for me to even understand!”

Other in-camera tools that serve as go-tos for the cinematographer include polarizers and ND filtration. “I use polarizers to control contrast and reflections on skin, often even on nights and interiors—when possible, that is,” he remarks. “The ND is often needed to take down depth of field. After looking at the image on a big monitor, I would sometimes change the depth of field so as to feature only the most important characters in sharp focus. Jean-Marc likes letting the background go soft, how it draws the eye to our people.” This approach is on display during a scene involving many parents and children outside a school, where only the leads are in sharp focus, suggesting that this world literally revolves around them and them alone.

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Renata Klein (Laura Dern) and her daughter Amabella (Ivy George). Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle.

Belanger’s preferred camera and lenses—ARRI Alexa courtesy Otto Nemenz International, and Zeiss Super Speeds—again proved their worth. “Zeiss lenses have a rich old look that really cuts the HD modern look,” he says. “And at 1.3, they are fast enough to use in nearly every situation. When I am operating the camera, I love using them because the aperture is at the beginning of the lens instead of out front. I like to have the ability to change the aperture during a take, and I can do that with my fingers very easily with the Zeiss. Most other lenses have the aperture at the far end, so your hand obscures the frame.”

He kept the Alexa rated at 800 for most scenes. “In the past I’ve gone as low as 150 or 160; on Wild there were times when I needed to do that in order to see some real detail in the blacks and shadow areas, but as always, it is a choice made in service of the story and the locations. With Big Little Lies, we had a big night party sequence that included slow-motion scenes, so I rated the image way up, about 1600, but that was a very unusual circumstance.”

One would think that with a number of actors needing to be portrayed in the best possible light, Belanger would be using silks for the day exteriors, but he avows that he would never employ them. “Not only that, but never would Jean-Marc want this kind of approach taken,” he emphasizes. “We have a feeling about the truth that comes from available light—plus, on our 88-day schedule, we have enough time to make the most of our days. Sometimes we might make a very modest adjustment for an actress to put her in the best light, but we were very lucky in the choices of performers we had. Reese and I are close, and Laura Dern [who plays nemesis Renata] as well. And when you’re at a party with all of them, it doesn’t take much to keep everyone in a good mood. We’re talking together in between the takes, so the women were very in control of that shoot in some ways.”

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The mothers of Monterey. Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle.

A café on the wharf known as The Blues Bar is an oft-featured locale in the series, with the ladies usually meeting on a terrace outside. “That was one exterior we built as a set on stage,” Belanger reveals. “To make that work and seem natural, my lighting had to incorporate a large amount of bounce and the blue color of a sky. Plus, when we weren’t supposed to be showing a cloudy day, we needed a strong sunlight/shadow effect, which I achieved with 20K Fresnels. [VFX supervisor] Marc Cote of Fake Studio [a.k.a. Fake Digital Entertainment of Montreal] has been with Jean-Marc and me since Dallas Buyers Club, and he did great work on the café exteriors, fooling people so completely that they don’t realize this was done on stage with greenscreen.”

VFX-related image concerns led to ARRIRAW capture. “Data-wise it was more expensive, but capturing in raw aided the post processes,” says Belanger, who relates how invisible VFX facilitated editorial directives. “Jean-Marc likes to play with the timings on scenes during editing. We might have an over-the-shoulder of a character speaking where he chooses to take a second out of the pause between lines being spoken. That required VFX to not only mini-morph the in-focus character speaking to cover this cut, but also to do work on the foreground character, since that person was moving a bit. And as usual we’re shooting handheld, so there’s movement of the camera during this edited-out piece of time that has to be corrected for. Doing that kind of work for TV is kind of rare but very much worthwhile when you see the finished project.”

Postproduction took place just five minutes from Belanger’s home in Montreal. “It’s very easy for me to look in on the grading with the colorist [Marc Boucrot],” he explains. “Plus the light in California was always good, so when you get into post, we’re not having to change things because they didn’t look good to begin with. Right from the start, HBO was very straightforward and helpful, and that continued throughout. In many ways this was just like shooting a very long movie, where they just let us get on with making the thing.”