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Character Studies: ‘Better Things’ Cinematography Captures “Human Truths”

"[The main character] is a very busy woman with a hectic life schedule, and there needs to be a sense of the pace from [camera] movement," says DP Paul Koester.

Pamela Adlon is probably most recognizable as the recurring character Pamela on Louis C.K.’s FX series Louie, but her acting career in movies and television goes back to the early 1980s, when she appeared as a teenager on shows including The Facts of Life, Night Court and The Jeffersons, and she’s been working ever since. Some of Adlon’s biggest successes have come from voicing animated characters on shows such as Bob’s Burgers and King of the Hill, where her work as Bobby Hill earned her an Emmy Award. But now, with Better Things, Adlon is the center of attention in the half-hour series she co-created and writes with C.K. Here she stars as Sam, a veteran actress and voice artist trying to handle the pressures of a fickle industry and the stresses of raising three daughters as a single mother.

As with Louie, which Adlon has also worked on as a writer, the parallels to real life seem to inform much of the action (she really is divorced and has three daughters), while occasional bizarre, almost surreal events creep in from time to time. The 10-episode first season of Better Things was shot by frequent C.K. collaborator Paul Koester (Louie, Horace and Pete) and veteran cinematographer Nancy Schreiber, ASC, in and around the Los Angeles area.

Sam and Duke (Olivia Edward), her spicy and adorable youngest daughter. Photo by Colleen Hayes/FX.

Koester shot the pilot on a RED Epic with Dragon sensor and ARRI Ultra Prime lenses. When the company reassembled many months later to complete the remainder of the 10-episode season for FX, Schreiber moved the show to ARRI Amira and Alexa Mini. According to Koester, the Alexa Mini was especially useful for Steadicam work.

Schreiber and Koester shot the additional nine episodes with Angenieux Optimo zooms. “Louis really likes primes,” says Koester, noting C.K.’s penchant for narrow depth of field, but the cinematographers felt zooms made more sense for this show. “I treat them as ‘variable primes,’” he adds. “It definitely can be more efficient. And these didn’t really add much weight, which is always a concern of mine.”

The show’s Amira and Alexa Mini record ProRes 4444 with Log C encoding. In keeping with C.K.’s preference for simplicity (on Louie, there’s never even a video village), the only on-set LUT simply translated Log C to Rec. 709 for operators and other creatives (there was a video village for Better Things). “Most of the work I do is naturalistic,” Koester says. “I don’t like to build a lot of looks in advance.”

Sam and daughters Max (Mikey Madison), Frankie (Hannah Alligood) and Duke (Olivia Edward) go through emotional turmoil, and Sam’s eccentric English mother (Celia Imrie), who lives across the street, complicates Sam’s world further while offering unwelcome commentary about her daughter and granddaughters’ behavior. Likewise, more than a few strangers find a way to express their disapproval of Sam in various ways.

Sam with Max (Mikey Madison), her eldest daughter. Photo by Colleen Hayes/FX.

As Koester explains, both C.K. and Adlon are interested in conveying the human truth of scenes, as opposed to showing off filmmaking technique. So quite a few setups on Better Things were shot as oners on the Steadicam, but those scenes were also covered from other angles. The aim was never to create a particularly ornate shot. According to Koester, Adlon told him, “’This is a very busy woman with a hectic life schedule, and there needs to be a sense of the pace from [camera] movement. There are these rare moments when the character finally has time to breathe.’”

The cinematographer continues, “I enjoy working with good Steadicam operators and shooting more extended shots, but I still want to do coverage. If you just do the oner, you’ve got no out, no way to stitch the front end of one take with the back of another. That can be OK in some circumstances, but if you commit to that, you might find yourself doing 22 takes to get this one perfect shot. And that definitely wasn’t the way we wanted to work on this show. There were a lot of times when the operators might keep rolling and let the scene go on past where the director intended, and as an operator myself, I want to always be ready for that, to know where I will move, how I will frame this part of the scene that we hadn’t planned on shooting. You can get some great moments that way, which is what I most like about shooting long takes.”

Lighting on Better Things is also designed to be naturalistic and practical. “That’s usually the way I like to work,” says Koester. “The more flexible the lighting, the less power required, the better. I love LEDs! The new [LED] ARRI SkyPanels are great, with built-in dimming and color control. I like things that are quick and flexible and don’t draw a lot of current. We did have a good grip and electric crew [on Louie], but on a lot of early Louie episodes we didn’t tie in for power at all, and the few times we had a generator, it was a little putt-putt. Even on this show we use as much existing light as possible. If I can plug a few units into the wall and not blow a circuit, that’s probably the way I want to go.”

Photo by Colleen Hayes/FX.

Noting that he also made use of Kino Flo Celeb DMX LED lighting, he adds, “The older Kino Flos are still out there—they do a nice job, too, but you have to deal with the ballast and cabling and humping stuff around. Having an infinitely variable dimmer and being able to shift the color temperature is great for me. I’ll also bounce lights off ceilings and walls. I carry some tungsten units, but the SkyPanels can give you 3,200°K too, and they pump out a lot more light with a lot less power. Then I’ll carry 1×1 LEDs and LED strips. LEDs are a big deal for me. They’re so efficient.”

Koester, who hasn’t carried a light meter for years, lit sets by eye using a regular HD monitor for reference, and he’d rely on DIT Ryland Jones to issue warnings if his waveform and vectorscope indicated that he was losing information that couldn’t be brought back in post. “I’ve worked with some very good DITs,” the DP says. “At first they’ll say, ‘You’re blowing out that small detail in the corner of the frame,’ but after I tell them a few times ‘I want that blown out,’ they understand what matters to me and what doesn’t and then I’ll let them fine-tune the iris.”

The cinematographer is definitely proud of the work he’s done for Louis C.K. on Louie, Horace and Pete and now Better Things, but he makes a point of not looking for ways to put a signature look on the shows he shoots. “I’m there to realize the creator’s vision,” he says, “not to impose mine. I have opinions, and if they want advice, I’ll give it, but my main goal is to put their vision on the screen.”