Cinematographer Bélanger describes the HBO series Sharp Objects as "a very dark story."
He says that he and director Jean-Marc Vallée, "knew for sure that it had to be a dark series, but a lot of times, when they go for a dark story, they go with contrast-y lighting that comes from film noir and German expressionism. That sort of film takes a lot of lighting and you close down your aperture and create contrast."
Bélanger and Valée carefully avoided that classical approach for Sharp Objects. "Since Dallas Buyers Club, we only shoot available light and handheld. We don't use artificial light, we use the practicals, windows, even in the studio." Given this, Bélanger is keen to credit the ingenuity of production designer John Paino and his crew. "Sometimes we changed the bulb of the streetlights to be stronger, or add a window to an existing house."
Observant viewers will notice that locations such as the karaoke club feature a lot of practical light both inside and out, including light behind the racks of bottles and colored fluorescent tubes on the canopy. "I ask [the production designer] to add things like that. The production designer is always very important."
Sharp Objects was shot on the ARRI Alexa Mini, using the ARRI Zeiss Master Prime lenses, with principal photography mainly in Los Angeles but also over three weeks in Atlanta. "On make-up tests, Jean-Marc said 'Yves, let's try to underexpose.' Normally, exposing in a safe way, you let the white go over a little bit and the blacks go a little bit... you try to expose in the middle. Now we're always exposing for the brightest object. I'm very proud because it was quite scary but I think we got a good look."
Bélanger took a straightforward approach to monitoring, using the Alexa's built-in Rec. 709 LUT and exposing by eye. "In the grading," he says, "we did nothing. We just matched the rushes."
Bélanger's approach is designed to avoid the hyper-reality of much mainstream filmmaking without being ostentatiously unconventional. "The problem with a lot of DPs, when they go into a studio, is that they start putting lights in places that are impossible, or too perfect. In real life you can't control everything. I try to to be imperfect always."