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Hope is the Thing With Feathers: The Inspired Visuals of “Dickinson”

“The choice to make a period show was a way of writing a stylized version of the present.”

Dickinson, the new half-hour comedy series on Apple TV+, audaciously explores the constraints of society, gender and family from the perspective of rebellious young poet Emily Dickinson. Set in the 19th century, the series is a coming-of-age story that finds Emily to be the unexpected hero for our millennial generation.

Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Jane Krakowski, Toby Huss, Adrian Blake Enscoe, Anna Baryshnikov and Ella Hunt, Dickinson is written and created by Alena Smith, and is produced by Anonymous Content. Loosely based on the writings and biography of Emily Dickinson, the series crosses literary history with teen angst, adding a dash of feminism for good measure. Following the young poet’s creative process as it relates to her daily life, all 10 episodes are deeply grounded in Dickinson’s poetry, blending 19th century period details with contemporary life interwoven with flights of fantasy such as an ongoing flirtation with Death.

“Smartly, Dickinson doesn’t let its silly, absurd anachronisms be the only things driving the surreality,” Jackson McHenry writes for Vulture:

“Often it’ll find an intense scene between Steinfeld and Huss, or pick a moment when Emily’s most obsessed with the idea of her legacy, and use that to jump into one of its dream sequences. There’s one daydream in particular where Emily imagines herself as a published poet, and is both terrified and thrilled to realize she’s become a tattooed lady at the circus. Dickinson figures out how to take that seriously, while also being fully committed to the silliness.”

Noting the rise of the “female anti-heroine” in The Hollywood Reporter, critic Robyn Bahr calls Dickinson an “anachronistic black comedy,” noting Steinfeld’s “audacious turn as an acidic and rebellious teenage Emily Dickinson.”

Writing for Vanity Fair, Laura Bradley calls Dickinson a genuine success for Apple, noting the savvy moments in the series that seem tailor-made for social media:

“The trailers for Dickinson did not hide its wackiness, especially next to the polished, market-tested appeal of fellow Apple shows The Morning Show and For All Mankind. But the tech giant’s biggest gamble may also be its biggest success — in an overwhelming field of new streaming shows, Dickinson is a genuine breakout success. It’s already been renewed for a second season, and quickly earned a nickname around the internet — ‘Sexy Dickinson.’ Its fans call themselves Dickheads. And as Business Insider recently reported, it was the only Apple show to make a list of the 10 most in-demand original streaming shows.”

“We wanted the camera to feel alive, with more energy than a typical period piece, which can be overly classical,” explains cinematographer Tim Orr to Valentina Valentini.  “We didn’t want it to feel like you were just looking at a painting, but something younger, more vibrant, that a [younger] audience could relate to.

“We were trying to connect it not only emotionally, but also visually to a more tangible modern world. Some of that comes down to energetic camera movement, and then with lighting, it meant grounding it in a certain amount of realism, but still with a modern edge in terms of the actual physical look.” To read the full interview, click here.

Orr shot Dickinson on the Panavision Millennium DXL2 outfitted with a set of Primo 70 Series lenses with middle-range customization expressly designed to work with larger digital sensors, providing more consistency across the frame. “I’ve always been a fan of Primos,” Orr relates in an interview on the Light Iron blog:

“I knew we wanted a present-day look, but with solid performance in terms of color matching and flare characteristics. Primo 70s are reminiscent of the classic Primos in color, skin tones, and edge-to-edge sharpness. They keep the blacks solid, which worked well with our night scenes and flame sources. With the customization, even at the high resolution, I didn’t need to use much diffusion, and the skin tones look silky and beautiful.”

Orr worked closely with Panavision-owned post production facility Light Iron from the earliest stages of production, developing a set of custom LUTs to define the look of the series with colorist Sean Dunckley. Material was captured at 8K for maximum resolution and depth-of-field characteristics, switching to 6K as needed for higher frame rates or to mitigate the effects of a very wide lens.

Watch Orr discuss his approach to lighting a show that takes place before the invention of electricity in the Go Creative Show’s “Dickinson Cinematography and Apple TV+ (with Tim Orr)”:

Read more: “Success is Counted Sweetest”: Tim Orr on Shooting Dickinson for Apple TV+ (Light Iron)

Linda Maleh, writing for Forbes, calls Dickinson an “absurdist tragicomedy,” noting its status as a rising star of the fledgling Apple TV+ streaming service:

“The one person Emily seems to truly be able to talk to is her best friend Sue Gilbert (Ella Hunt), who is set to marry her brother Austin (Adrian Enscoe). Sue is not just Emily’s friend, however, she’s also her lover. This oft overlooked aspect of Dickinson’s life was also depicted in the 2018 film, Wild Nights With Emily (Rachel Handler at Vulture wrote a rather great article on this), and it’s an integral part of the show. The two understand each other like nobody else does, and are able to be fully themselves when they’re together, but Emily has to watch the love of her life marry her brother instead of her. One gets the sense that if Emily were simply born in a different time, her life would have gone very differently, which seems to be Smith’s entire point.”

Hailee Steinfeld in “Dickinson,” now streaming on Apple TV+.
Hailee Steinfeld in “Dickinson,” now streaming on Apple TV+.

Dickinson had its first public viewing at the Tribeca TV Festival, followed by a panel discussion with series creator Alena Smith and stars Hailee Steinfeld and Jane Krakowski. “If Emily wasn’t understood in her own time, maybe we can understand her in ours,” Smith commented during the event, according to Apple Insider’s Stephen Silver.

“The truth is that the choice to make a period show was a way of writing a stylized version of the present,” Smith said in an interview with Emily Zemler for the Los Angeles Times. “Why Emily Dickinson works as a figure to put at the center of this type of style is because Emily Dickinson was an artist who was ahead of her time and did not follow all the rules of her time and was certainly not appreciated in her time.”

Although Smith studied Dickinson extensively as a student, and while performing research for the series, her aim for Dickinson was never historical accuracy, she insists in an interview with Hilary Lewis for The Hollywood Reporter. “My concern with this show is not to give a book report on the truth about Emily Dickinson. It’s to use Emily as an avatar for looking around us at the world that we’re in today,” she said, adding:

“I don’t really have a specific number of seasons in mind, but I know that I do hope that we get to do it at least until we get into the Civil War because I really want to tell that story both as a reflection of where we are now, but also because those were really the most important writing years of Emily’s life. That was when her brain was basically on fire. She just wrote hundreds of the most incredible poems. For me it’s just really interesting to think about what it meant that such a sensitive and gifted artist living in such a volatile, combustible time. And people think of her as being so cloistered, but I really want to explore the idea that perhaps in subconscious ways, it was all getting to her. She was picking up on these frequencies of violence.”

Laura Bradley, writing again for Vanity Fair, calls Wiz Khalifa’s live embodiment of Death the show’s “wildest character,” noting that “the rapport between Khalifa and Steinfeld in their shared scenes is both odd and electric — a sort of off-kilter dynamic that makes clear exactly what Smith means. When Khalifa appears onscreen, it’s evident that he both stands apart from this world but is also able to ride its wavelength.”

“We kind of imagined Death as like a chill workaholic,” Smith said to Bradley. “He had to be larger than life. He had to somehow break some kind of wall when we saw him; we had to enter a sort of different dimension. And I think having a musician in the role helped to do that because he’s a presence. He’s a persona more than just an actor.”

Hailee Steinfeld in “Dickinson,” now streaming on Apple TV+.
Hailee Steinfeld in “Dickinson,” now streaming on Apple TV+.

Observing that it’s been a good year for Dickinson fans, IndieWire’s Jude Dry reached out to Wild Nights with Emily filmmaker Madeleine Olnek for her take on the new series. “I loved that it was a teen drama starring Emily Dickinson, because it’s exciting to think of teenagers watching it,” Olnek said to Dry. “My understanding is that’s how they intended it. There are so few representations of queer life that when something is done as well as they did it, it’s really very important and very special.”

Want more on Dickinson? In the video player below, watch Hailee Steinfeld discuss her role as Emily:

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