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Gorgeous Lighting for Gorgeous Ladies: Revisiting (and Referencing) the 1980s for Netflix’s ‘GLOW’

A little-known, low-budget female wrestling television show from the 1980s might not seem the most likely premise for Netflix's next breakout hit.

A little-known, low-budget female wrestling television show from the 1980s might not seem the most likely premise for Netflix’s next breakout hit, but put the women who created Orange Is the New Black behind it and you have the recipe for a show with all the right comedic, dramatic and action-packed moves—both inside the ring and out of it.

The 10-episode seriesGLOW (which stands for Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) centers on Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie), an out-of-work actress who answers a casting call for a wrestling show in a last-ditch effort to keep her career afloat. Executive produced by Jenji Kohan (creator of Orange Is the New Black) and Tara Herrmann, and co-created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, the show shares OITNB‘s groundbreaking directive to focus on the individual stories of a large, diverse group of female characters. It also features many women behind the camera, including directors Kate Dennis, Sian Heder, Melanie Mayron, Claire Scanlon, Lynn Shelton and Wendey Stanzler.

The show’s director, Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), and the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Sam is a B-movie director who reluctantly takes on GLOW in hopes it will lead to financing his dream project.
(Photos by Erica Parise/Netflix)

Netflix’s GLOW is inspired by the low-budget TV series Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, a primetime all-female wrestling show that ran for four seasons in the late 1980s. Cinematographer Christian Sprenger (Atlanta, Baskets) cites the 2012 documentary GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling as piquing his interest to take on this project. “It’s an insane story that perfectly captures the pop culture, political and social climate of that time in America,” he says of the original series, which combined wrestling matches with comedy sketches and behind-the-scenes reality show segments. “I had never shot a full period piece. As a child of the ’80s, the idea of creatively existing in that era again felt like a fun and exciting challenge.”

Despite the visual draws, Sprenger’s goal was to make a show whose look didn’t mimic the stereotypical 1980s aesthetic. “From my first meeting with the creators, I knew we were all on the exact same page about making this a very grounded show,” he explains. “The main factor inspiring this visually grounded approach is the fact that the series is based on a true story. It was important to me that the audience felt connected to a simple, matter-of-fact world, mostly seen through the eyes of Ruth, instead of making it all a big spectacle. Ultimately it’s a story about being an independent woman, about complicated friendships, about making it on your own, and I didn’t want a bunch of flashy or high-concept lighting and camerawork distracting from what is a very human story.

On the left is Rhonda (Kate Nash), a kind, naïve Brit who becomes brainy “Britannica” in the ring. And on the right is Ruth (Alison Brie), an out-of-work actress who takes on wrestling in a last-ditch effort to keep her career afloat.

“Production designer ToddFjelsted and I had this motto that we never wanted to cram the time period down the audience’s throat—we just wanted the story to exist in it,” Sprenger adds, noting that he pulled references from Network and Peggy Sue Got Married as “visually elegant films of that era.”

The exception to this rule was a cocaine-fueled fantasy sequence at the very end of the pilot episode in which the show’s director, Sam (Marc Maron), imagines what the TV series might ultimately look like, replete with the bright colors, outrageous costumes and flared lights that most of the rest of the series eschews. “We have to have a little fun!” Sprenger exclaims. “The first idea I pitched when I initially sat down with creators Liz and Carly was that I was going to bring back the star filter. If you go back to the pilot of the original GLOW TV series, the entire episode is shot with an extremely heavy star filter. When I started my research and realized that, I made up my mind that I would have to reference that look.” Ultimately, this fantasy sequence proved to be the perfect place to do it. “Breaking our own aesthetic rules not only lined up perfectly with Sam’s cocaine fantasy, but I think it also promises the audience that this show is not going to be what they expect.”

The show’s 1980s style is not as overt as it could be.

For most of the show, Sprenger shot with a RED Weapon in 6K anamorphic mode and with Cooke Anamorphic /i prime lenses, which he felt provided precise optics while still performing like vintage lenses. “Lenses have gotten so precise and flawless, but in some situations, like an ’80s period piece, ‘perfect’ might not fit,” he says. “These lenses, on the other hand, have just the right amount of character to help transport the audience back to a time when things were a little rougher around the edges.”

Certain sequences are presented as footage from the original show or behind-the-scenes footage shot from Sam’s video camera. For those, Sprenger relied on 1st AC Justin Watson, who retrofitted a 1980s Sony television camera with modern technology that allowed for tapeless recording. “It is a personal pet peeve of mine when I see modern technology treated in the edit room to appear to be from a different time period,” explains Sprenger. “So my camera team and I went to great lengths to stay as period-appropriate as possible when the script called for it.”

DP Christian Sprenger went all out to depict the 1980s in all their spandexed glory in one fantasy sequence.

Sprenger’s lighting package consisted almost entirely of LED fixtures that were built into elements of the set, allowing his crew to make precise adjustments while still moving quickly between setups.

Colorist Ian Vertovec of Light Iron L.A. finished the series, ultimately delivering a 4K Dolby Vision HDR final version as per Netflix’s requirements. “Ian was integral in the process of transforming our cutting-edge 6K footage into a retro-feeling series using film stock LUTs and film grain scans appropriate to the story and time period,” Sprenger says. “I will fully admit I was on the fence when it came to mastering in HDR, but by the end of the season DI, I much prefer how the show looks in HDR.”

GLOW premiered on Netflix on June 23. 

Kia Stevens plays Tamee/”Welfare Queen” and Sydelle Noel plays Cherry Bang/”Junk Chain.” Stevens is the only cast member with real-life pro wrestling experience.

In the Ring with Teradek
The GLOW production team employed several technologies from Teradek to streamline the shooting process and deliver the series’ cinematic visuals cleanly and efficiently.

Bolt 2000
For GLOW, a large production with lots of moving parts, director of photography Christian Sprenger was able to simplify shooting by deploying Teradek’s Bolt 2000, a wireless video transmitter that sends zero-delay HD feeds from camera to video village monitor up to 2,000 feet away. The Bolt’s SDI output sent the RED Weapon camera feed to his director’s monitor, while its HDMI output pushed the same feed to a Cube 655. This setup helped reduce the number of cables coming out of the camera while also giving the camera operator more freedom to move around on set.

Cube 655
Cube is an on-set iOS monitoring device. With it, members of Sprenger’s team were able to see the same shot he saw using their iPads and iPhones as individual field monitors. They were also able to monitor multiple camera feeds simultaneously, helping to reduce crowding in the video village, allowing members to be mobile while monitoring, and keeping every department on the same creative page as the DP.

Rather than seeing an undersaturated raw feed, Sprenger and his team wanted to preview the final color grade during filming. Using Teradek COLR, DIT Chris Hoyle was able to adjust the color of the image to simulate a final color grade, allowing Sprenger and the production crew to see a simulated version of the finished look and make adjustments to their roles accordingly.

Download the July 2017 issue of Digital Video magazine

Netflix’s Glow on Twitter: Follow @GlowNetflix

Christian Sprenger on Twitter: Follow @CASprenger

Tara Herrmann on Twitter: Follow @taraherrmann

Liz Flahive on Twitter: Follow @lizflahive

Lynn Shelton on Twitter: Follow @lynnsheltonfilm

Sian Heder on Twitter: Follow @sianheder

Melanie Mayron on Twitter: Follow @melaniemayron52

RED Digital Cinema on Twitter: Follow @RED_Cinema

Cooke Optics on Twitter: Follow @Cooke_Optics

Light Iron on Twitter: Follow @light_iron

Dolby on Twitter: Follow @Dolby

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