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Cinematography on ‘I Love Dick:’ Motion and Emotion

"We don't always need technical perfection. There are moments when Chris goes in and out of focus within a shot, but it works very well for the story."

By the time cinematographer Jim Frohna and showrunner Jill Soloway started planning the look for Amazon series I Love Dick, the two had already established a successful collaborative style. The pair had previously teamed on the series Transparent (also for Amazon) and on Soloway’s feature directing debut, Afternoon Delight. The cinematographer says of Soloway that, beyond any technical considerations, she wants creative collaborators to bring their gut feelings and emotions to everything they do, which is a key reason he finds it particularly satisfying to work with her.

Soloway is much more interested in capturing a sense of truth about the characters’ behavior and emotional state than she is in presenting highly structured actions and formally pretty photography, Frohna elaborates. While the Marfa, Texas, setting for I Love Dick offers the potential to shoot rich, beautiful landscapes, the series presents those types of shots sparingly. Instead, the majority of scenes are covered by handheld cameras, often operated very close to the actors.

Based on the autobiographical book by Chris Kraus, I Love Dick stars Kathryn Hahn as Chris, a filmmaker who is unfulfilled personally, professionally and artistically, and Kevin Bacon as the title character, a macho land artist whose enigmatic confidence seduces just about everyone in Marfa, Texas, where the series is set.

Frohna, who uses Canon EOS C300 Mk II cameras for the series, explains that he and Soloway embraced the Canon C series on the Transparent pilot more than four years ago. “We shot most of that first episode with [ARRI] Alexas,” he recalls. “This was before they had the smaller-footprint models [Amira and Mini]. For very intimate scenes, particularly sex scenes, we wanted something that I could just hand-hold and get in close to the actors without being obtrusive. So we used a stripped-down C500 for just those scenes. But when we saw the images from that camera, we decided to use the C500 for the whole show from that point on.”

He acknowledges that Alexa cameras can certainly help him attain “very handsome pictures, and it’s perfect for some shows, but there was something about the look of what we’d done with the C500 that worked very well for Transparent. I’m not the kind of cinematographer who can go into the scientific reasons why, but it just had more character and texture and took the images a step away from the very clean, digital look. Also the color palette reminded me of Fujifilm, which was a look I really liked.”

When it came time to prep for I Love Dick, Amazon had issued an edict that their shows had to be shot in at least 4K resolution. By this time Canon’s C300 MK II was available and capable of capturing 4K without requiring an outboard recorder, so they decided that was the way they’d go. The cinematographer adds, “But we didn’t want this to look just like Transparent, so I was thinking about ways we could give the images a somewhat different feel.”

The desire to differentiate the series’ looks ultimately led to his decision to go to Panavision’s Hollywood location and pick up a set of rehoused Super Baltar prime lenses—optics that were originally manufactured by Bausch & Lomb nearly 50 years ago. “When I was looking around at Marfa,” he recalls, “the character of everything is super vivid, very bold. That goes for the skies and clouds, the buildings, and also in a sense it describes the people. They just walk right up to you and get in your face. Not in an aggressive way—they’re just big, they’re characters.”

Frohna had worked with the Super Baltars before and felt they’d be a perfect complement to the kind of imagery he’d get from the C300 Mk II. He says the lenses yield “colors that aren’t hyper-real or oversaturated, but they are funky and bold and they add a [cool color temperature] factor to the overall look.” 

The DP notes that on I Love Dick, as on their previous work together, Soloway’s goal is to offer “a sense of witnessing something real happening in front of the camera.” In order for that to happen, actors need to have a significant amount of freedom to move around a set and even refine blocking as the cameras roll. The approach went even further in that direction as a result of director Andrea Arnold’s involvement. Arnold, who directed the popular 2009 indie film Fish Tank and helmed a number of episodes of I Love Dick, is a strong believer in allowing actors freedom to explore during a take. 

The operators for I Love Dick need to be able to act almost as though they’re shooting a documentary. Frohna is often shooting to quite shallow stops, which presents some challenges for the 1st ACs, who pull focus remotely working from monitors. “We don’t always need technical perfection,” Frohna explains. “There are moments when Chris goes in and out of focus within a shot, but it works very well for the story. She’s trying to figure herself out. ‘Who am I?’ ‘What do I want?’ If the image goes out of focus, that’s OK, but it’s never to declare some kind of style itself. It’s only to be a witness to what these characters are going through.”

The DP approaches lighting in as naturalistic a way as possible, both to create a sense of reality in the images and to allow the actors to perform “in the moment.” The pilot/first episode was shot entirely in Marfa with real locations, but much of the interior work moved to soundstages after that. “I lit all the sets like I would a real location,” Frohna says. “I didn’t have any lights on the soundstage in places I couldn’t put them in a location. I couldn’t light from a grid above even if I wanted to because every set was built with a ceiling. The idea was that even if we don’t see it in the show, the actors see it.”

 He lit these sets (always balanced for tungsten) with big, soft sources, such as ARRI SkyPanel LED units hidden away and standard 20K tungsten units configured as book lights—both bounced and through diffusion—generally through windows. He adds, “I really like it when people who understand cinematography ask me if a particular scene was shot on a stage or a location.”