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Once Upon a Time in “Hollywood:” The Lights, Camera(s) and Action for the Netflix Series

“Ryan wanted the obvious glitz and glamour but also to pull back the gilded curtain of Hollywood and expose the darker side of sex and power yet with a modern perspective,” says Simon Dennis, BSC

“What if you could re-write the story?” poses the tagline for Hollywood, the Netflix drama that pays homage to Tinsletown’s golden era at the same time as it lifts the veil on the abuse of power and rampant prejudice that rattles the industry to this day.

“This is almost an alternative reality of what Hollywood could have been,” says Simon Dennis, BSC, the British cinematographer who collaborated with Ryan Murphy executive producer and co-creator (with Ian Brennan) on the seven-episode project.

Read more: Everything Netflix’s Hollywood Rewrites About Reality

Dennis has worked with Murphy previously on The Assassination of Gianna Versace, Pose and The Politician. At the time Hollywood was announced they were shooting upcoming Netflix series Ratched.

“I had my fingers secretly crossed he’d ask me to be involved,” Dennis says. “I knew it would be a dream project for a cinematographer.”

He elaborates, “Ryan wanted the obvious glitz and glamour but also to pull back the gilded curtain of Hollywood and expose the darker side of sex and power yet with a modern perspective on the marginalized LGBT community working there at that time.

From the series “Hollywood,” courtesy of Netflix

“The discrimination, decades-old power dynamics and biases across race, gender and sexuality and what the entertainment world might look like are deconstructed. It defiantly has the ‘underdog vs the system’ angle as well as capturing the boulevard of broken dreams. There’s also a distinct feeling of optimism that I know was so key for Ryan.”

Murphy took the director’s chair for the pilot with directors Dan Minahan (Ep2), Michael Uppendahl (Ep3&5), Janet Mock (Ep4&6) and Jessica Yu (Ep7) taking over duties, with Dennis lensing them all and helping to keep the show flowing from episode to episode.

A key singular inspiration for Hollywood’s look was the work of George Hurrell, portrait photographer to 1930s/40s stars, especially his bold work with actress Anna May Wong who is one of the key real life characters in the storyline.

From the series “Hollywood,” courtesy of Netflix

“When I went to visit [Senior Vice Presnet Marketing] David Dodson at Panavision to discuss camera and lens options, I noticed that along their reception corridor are full size prints of Hurrell’s work including little plaques that explain the lighting, stock and exposure details,” Dennis relates. “His work really knocked me out so I ran with that.

“Sometimes you only need one key image or person to guide you through a project, especially one that’s as sprawling and dense as this one.”

Early tonal descriptive pointers from Murphy were widescreen (they shot in 2.20:1), “nostalgic, kinetic, optimistic, natural, wholesome in a harvest tone palette,” Dennis describes. “The challenge for me was to deliver a show with a golden hue yet one that could also live in a world of color ‘separation’ as I felt I didn’t want to use any kind of ‘sepia’ look.”

From the series “Hollywood,” courtesy of Netflix

He drew on Barton Fink and Hail, Caesar! (the Cohen brothers’ studio system features photographed by Roger Deakins ASC BSC with the harvest hues Dennis was seeking) as well as seminal movies from Casablanca to Notorious and darker material like I Walked With A Zombie. The 1947 noir Dark Passage provided clues for shooting the show’s black and white movie-in-production Peg (later renamed Meg).

From the series “Hollywood,” courtesy of Netflix
From the series “Hollywood,” courtesy of Netflix

“We also dipped back into the 1930s, for which I proposed a more powdery, separated color palette like old Technicolor.”

For the screen tests that feature heavily in the show, Dennis and Minahan drew on iconic screen tests of the era, notably of Marlon Brando and Audrey Hepburn. An early concept was to shoot these with vintage MGM lenses yet for insurance purposes it wasn’t possible. Instead, these sequences had an applied film stock.

Dennis devised Look Books for each of the key storylines (central drama, Technicolor, black & white) and presented them to MTI Film. This still left questions to solve ranging from how to simulate the film stocks of that era as well as Technicolor 2- and 3-strip.

When visiting MTI he caught a glimpse of another TV show in post lensed by Larkin Seiplea on Sony Venice. Dennis says he was “knocked out” by its filmic texture.

“It felt like it had the latitude of the [ARRI] Alexa but what surprised me most was its tolerant and filmic color space. Our show was definitely going to lean into color so that was a huge selling point if not the deal breaker.”

He tested the camera at Panavision” “The internal ND filter system from .3 to 2.4 was a great sell as well as the Duel ISO system. It also seemed that color space latitude, when working between the duel ISO up to 2500, was mostly unaffected which I would say is not always the case with other cameras push that far.”

Panavision serviced the show and helped Dennis settle on Primos (which he’d used on Peaky Blinders) mainly due to their older but not quite vintage filmic contrast ratio: “I knew this would help give the show its grit as well as gloss thanks to our chosen filtration [Schneider Hollywood Black Magic]. I did consider period lenses yet the sheer scale of the show’s needs (including second Units) led me to keep things pragmatic and simple when it came to glass. I know where I stand with the Primos. Focal length-wise knowing from past shows Ryan’s love of the wider FL’s we ended up shooting between 21mm and 40mm for this show with occasional portrait work at 50 or 65mm.”

Production on the Netflix series “Hollywood.” Photo by cinematographer Simon Dennis.

The Venice can capture 6K which would require upscaling the Panavision 35mm Primos to Large Format but due to the need for a second unit and with three cameras covering most scenes, Dennis felt that shooting 4K with straight 35mm Primo lenses would be more pragmatic.

They took advantage of the camera’s latest Firmware 3.0 to shoot in Sony’s new RAW codec recording format X-OCN XT. “Basically this meant we could shoot RAW while maintaining ProRes data levels which was another great factor with this camera,” he says.

Andrew Mitchell and Dave Chameides operated ‘A’ Camera, Brian Garbellini was B Camera Op; Mark Lakoswsky – C Camera Op with Dave Donoho the Key Grip.

“Ryan often uses three cameras which often includes ‘juggling’ them ahead on location or onto the next stage and it requires a little physics/math and timing yet I enjoy the challenge of it very much.”

Production on the Netflix series “Hollywood.” Photos by cinematographer SImon Dennis.

Camera work was aided on Hollywood by a custom designed DOP village supplied by Spencer Shwetz. It consisted of a pop-up 55″ 4K OLED screen that quad-split into 4 x 27-inch images—three for each camera and the fourth used as a reference image from past set-ups for color and lighting continuity.

A Preston Iris Control and a Remote per camera allowed Dennis to quickly change exposure and data control from the base ISO to the internal ND filter which kept the on-set camera workflow efficient.

“The additional huge benefit of having one larger monitor is the consistency of the color between cameras and knowing it’s matching before things go to post,” he says. “A very useful gadget that Spencer added was the Stream Deck, a simple box that has all the LUTs pre-loaded as simple buttons. Which for me, not being much of a technician, was great to use!”

The same 55-inch monitor model was in the color bay at MTI to tie in calibration. “Once we knew we had our look down for a scene, reference stills were sent by Spencer to intermediate dailies colorist Carl Braz who would recreate the look and send on stills by the morning for me to approve. Carl was excellent so it was rare to have a second pass. I’ve never been happier with how seamless the color design was translated from set to post to online thanks to the Sony Venice’s color space.”

The online grade was done at MTI by Tanner Buschman. “When it came to the online, Tanner could either draw from the offline—which was a direct reference of how I imagined a scene should look or from the Look Books, especially when it came to specifics like the noir ‘Meg’ movie or flashbacks to the 1930s.”

He adds, “If a cinematographer doesn’t have a way to be in the room with an online colorist for whatever reason (which was the case with this show) this is a foolproof way to control what you intended before you come in to ‘review’ an episode. The fantastic post supers Todd Nenninger and Scott James made changes based on my ideas in the room or ones that came to me later on reflection of a scene’s look.”

Given the production’s very deliberate choice of costume and set/design colors the DP only felt it necessary for push exposure LUTs to control and preserve the exposure.

“I’m not a fan of fresh crisp exposures. I like density, richness and texture in the raw image even if we later intend to smoke that a little. So, we created a range of five push exposure LUTS at Panavision (normal, half-stop push, full stop push, one and a half stop push, two stop push). These were all based in the 709 color space with a concentration on keeping the contrast sharp and skin tones accurate.”

ACES was discussed in prep but they didn’t go that route. “Considering that this was our first project with the Sony Venice we wanted to make sure we ironed out the issues before switching the pipeline to ACES.” ACES is being considered for the next project, he says.

Lighting-wise the show’s main challenge was to shoot the central drama with as much power as possible with a huge nod here and there towards “Hollywood Glamour” lighting.

“These moments were so much fun to replicate,” Dennis says. “We decided to keep hard ceilings on most of the key sets (as a way to keep them as real as possible). My talented Gaffer Jeff Chin and I relied daily on LEDs (Titans, Lite Tiles, LiteMats, Skypanels) to retain the freedom and immediacy to try out color ideas from scene to scene.

“We were drawn to lights that were low power or battery, lighter weight and able to be controlled wirelessly back to an operations board. We could rig them anywhere and make changes from the DP village without sending guys into super cramped sets and invading actor privacy.”

Day interiors required putting lights outside that had the flexibility to go hard source raking in or soft source pushing in and sometimes just a burning hot window in the background. Night interiors were all about color outside, and LEDs inside to supplement practicals.

“We also had a lot of fun with pre-existing period lights for the sound stage scenes. Most were arcs gutted to just produce a fake glow which we simulated off-camera with large Fresnel units. For some scenes I actually used 2K Scoop lights from the 1940s that emitted a beautiful soft key for the actors.”

Production designer Matt Ferguson created many builds for the show at Sunset Gowers Studios including a Commissary, Shwabbs pharmacy, Sound Stages and most of the studio world interiors and offices. A central recurring and actual existing location was a repurposed Gas Station in Atwater Village in LA. Since it is entirely south facing, careful planning of the sun’s path was required for scenes shot there. Night sequences shot there were helped by LED lighting installed in the structural lines of the building to make it “glow like a beacon” which felt very apt considering the subtext of what it stood for (a storyline about a pump attendant who secretly ‘services’ often closeted movie stars and producers).

Hollywood’s ACE Studios was modelled on MGM Studios and built on the Paramount lot.

Perhaps the most challenging sequences was the design of the pseudo noir black & white movie Meg which required recreating the Hollywoodland sign where 24-year-old British actress Peg Entwistle, jumped to her death in 1932.

“We had this colossal ‘H’ built on stage with the notion of CGI extension. The challenge came when we were left with only 6-feet from its tip to the studio’s perms leaving little room for lighting. After much back and forth and brainstorming and thanks to our rigging gaffer Dave Gamerman and key rigging grip Gary Louzon we worked out a solution by placing LED Spacelights in an oval layout along with large teasers and black and white sails. I then requested for the design team to re-create the section of the H so we could shoot dramatic close-ups safely near ground level. Huge thanks to them.”

The look of period shows like this can’t just be identified with the cinematographer. It’s the fusion of all department heads including production design, costume (Lou Eyrich, Sarah Evelyn) and hair/makeup (Eryn Krueger Mekash, Kim Ayers, Michelle Ceglia, Barry Lee Moe).

“In some ways this show was very easy to capture as their work was so accurate and beautiful.”