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Collision Course: How the FX Series ‘Snowfall’ Depicts Intersecting Stories

The FX series "Snowfall" portrays the crack cocaine epidemic in early 1980s Los Angeles like an epic novel.

The FX series Snowfall portrays the crack cocaine epidemic in early 1980s Los Angeles like an epic novel. The 10-part series has multiple storylines, each densely packed with characters from different worlds and connected by the drug, its rapid adoption and the lives it affected.

From an idea that filmmaker John Singleton had been developing for years, the series, created by Singleton, Eric Amadio and Dave Andron, follows the stories of young entrepreneur Franklin Saint (Damson Idris), who brings what was considered a rich person’s drug into his South Central neighborhood; CIA agent Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson), who is intent on financing Nicaraguan rebels with an enormous stash of drugs he stumbles on, and finally there’s Lucia (Emily Rios), who plans with her cousin Pedro (Filipe Valle Costa) and a Mexican wrestler (Sergio Peris-Mancheta) to rob her powerful drug lord uncle. Not surprisingly, complications ensue.

Shot by John Lindley, ASC (Legion), and Jeff Greeley, Lindley’s frequent camera operator, the series bounces quickly from one through-line to the next. Distinctive looks for each thread serve to set the appropriate mood and orient the audience to their place in the complex tale. The pilot, which was directed by Adil El Arbi (@AdilElArbi) and Bilall Fallah (@BilallFallah) and shot by Robrecht Heyvaert, helped define some of the overarching visual ideas. After it was shot, Lindley worked with the show’s creators and department heads to fine-tune the visual styles for the series.

Snowfall follows multiple characters involved in the introduction of crack cocaine to Los Angeles, including Franklin Saint (Damson Idris)
Photo by Ray Mickshaw/FX

“We had the African-American portions that we gave what we called ‘jewel colors,'” Lindley explains. “If something is red, it is ruby red. If something is green, it looks emerald green, or if it’s yellow, it has a golden feel. The Latino story is influenced by Caribbean themes with a lot of turquoise and pinks. It’s still colorful, but not as much. Then the CIA agent’s storyline leans towards cooler, bluer [hues], and it’s less saturated overall.”

Lindley likes to do research and pre-build looks with colorist Pankaj Bajpai (see sidebar “Versions and Visuals: Setting the Look”) so that everyone is on the same page during the shoot. With the look files, the on-set monitors show footage with a close approximation of the final look applied, and editorial is able to work with dailies that maintain the agreed-upon look.

Lindley and Greeley, who shot alternating episodes, worked with ARRI Alexa SXT cameras from Keslow Camera, capturing to ProRes 4444 in Log C. The optics package consisted of a complement of Angenieux and ARRI Alura zooms and Cooke primes.

“I try to shoot wide open or close to it,” Lindley notes. “That’s a challenge for the ACs.”

Sergio Peris-Mencheta plays Gustavo Zapata, a Mexican wrestler caught up in a crime family’s power struggle.
Photo by Prashant Gupta

Generally covering the action with two cameras at all times, the A- and B-camera ACs pulled focus remotely, one on a cmotion cvolution and the other with the FI+Z from Preston Cinema Systems. “In this climate with fewer rehearsals and lenses are that are so sharp, it’s really hard on the ACs, but they did a very good job.”

Lindley generally rates Alexa cameras at ARRI’s recommended EI 800, but he notes that “I wasn’t afraid to go up to 1600 if I needed to. I’d be less likely to do that for a feature film because of the noise, but for TV, you won’t notice noise as much.” The cinematographers used Convergent Design Odyssey7Q+ OLED and Transvideo RainbowHD LCD displays to monitor picture and waveform.

The DPs made extensive use of LED lighting for the show, with Ice Lights from Westcott and Matchbox remote phosphor lights from Cineo Lighting. Lindley also uses Sourcemaker LED Blankets, which are ideal for lighting hard-to reach interiors. For night exteriors, he used a lot of ADJ Dotz TPARs, which can use tungsten or metal halide bulbs. “You can light up a city block with these without using a lot of cable,” Lindley says of the TPARS. He also let regular streetlights play in shots, sometimes augmenting them for a period look.

Teddy McDonald (center, played by Carter Hudson) is a CIA operative in Snowfall. Also pictured are Sergio Peris-Mencheta (left) and Emily Rio
Photo by Ray Michshaw/FX

“When we did the African-American story, we used sodium vapor streetlights,” he recalls. “Most streetlights today are white or slightly bluish LEDs, so I had the grip department make what we called ‘pillowcases.’ Imagine a regular pillowcase, but the bottom is a combination of yellow-red gels. When we were doing night shoots, we’d have a crew member on a Man Lift or Condor come during the day and slip those pillowcases onto the streetlights to make them look like sodium vapor.”

Camera movement and coverage for Snowfall was entirely director-dependent. The show’s producers gave the directors considerable freedom in that respect. “Sometimes we’d do circular Steadicam moves around characters, or it could be more masters, overs and singles, depending on who the director was for that episode. I like working that way. It’s easy on a series to fall into a kind of rut, shooting everything the same way day after day. It’s nice to know you’re going to be working with somebody who will want to do the next episode completely differently.”

Despite the directors’ diverse approaches from one episode to the next, the look maintains a level of consistency in great part because Lindley and several collaborators worked on the whole season, Lindley explains. “We had the same colorist and the same production designer,” he notes. Production designer Tomás Voth “had a very strong point of view and he fought hard to protect that point of view for the look,” Lindley says. “He really served the show well. Sometimes designers alternate. I’ve seen the art director take over. Tomás was a real collaborator. Obviously, that’s important. In the end, we’re taking pictures of the sets and people in the clothing.

Emily Rios as Lucia Villanueva, the daughter of a Mexican crime lord
Photo by Prashant Gupta

“I think what informs the look as much as anything else is the time period,” Lindley sums up. “It’s a funny period because it’s a bit amorphous—it doesn’t have the kind of distinct character you associate with the 1960s or the 1990s. But it was fun to figure that out and make it work, especially on a TV budget.”  

Versions and Visuals: Setting the Look
John Lindley, ASC, likes to work out the visual approach for shows with collaborators before he ever walks on set. The cinematographer started building the visual treatment for Snowfall with Pankaj Bajpai, senior colorist at Deluxe’s Encore in Hollywood, well before shooting began. He and Bajpai have used this same work method for more than five years, recently for WGN America’s Manhattan, on which Lindley alternated with Richard Rutkowski, ASC.

Lindley will shoot stills and bring reference photos to Bajpai’s suite, where they design looks based on specific visual concepts. The process ends with the creation of ALF2 (look files) in FilmLight Baselight, which are used internally in ARRI digital cameras. During filming, Lindley applies the relevant file in camera so that directors and crew see what’s being shot in a way that’s close to what the graded show will look like.

From left, Malcolm Mays as Kevin, Damson Idris as Franklin and Isiah John as Leon
Photo by Mark Davis/FX

This information, carried via metadata in the ProRes files, is then applied to dailies using Encore’s automated and non-destructive workflow, which preserves the original ProRes 4444 Log C file. The two started to work this way when ARRI first introduced the tools and have perfected the approach over multiple shows.

The look files “must respect the natural camera response,” Bajpai stresses. “We could make a very high-contrast look or an extremely ‘poppy’ look or whatever we want, but if these files start altering the camera’s output from its sensor’s optimal response to exposure, it will create problems when John is actually lighting the scene. He has to be able to know what he’s actually capturing at any given time.”

He adds that Lindley likes to augment these looks by adjusting the camera’s parameters such as color temperature and exposure index, refining them as ideas present themselves during the shoot. “He can start with a look—for Snowfall, we called one ‘CIA Look 3,’ for example—and then adjust his camera in whatever way his inspiration takes him,” Bajpai elaborates. “Our proprietary tracking system lets us keep the chosen look and all the camera metadata together throughout the entire process to the final grade.”

As ARRI has expanded the scope of its look files, Bajpai and Lindley have further refined their approach to creating these looks. Bajpai says, “In the Amira and SXT models, ARRI has increased what we can manipulate in terms of secondary and tertiary color adjustments, and we made considerable use of those capabilities for the looks in Snowfall.”

Download the September 2017 issue of Digital Video magazine