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‘Difficult People’ Is a Show on the Go: Designing Location & Studio Scenes on a Tight Schedule

“For season 2 we made the conscious decision to mix in a bit of a studio look with the indie look,” says DP Jon Delgado.

The Hulu series Difficult People features fictionalized versions of real-life writer/comedians Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner as self-obsessed, misanthropic would-be celebrities who encounter equal helpings of failure and misery, mostly self-induced, in their search for fame and love in New York. The show goes into its second season retaining much of the “indie” style it had in its first, but with a bit more “gloss” in some portions, according to cinematographer Jon Delgado, who operated the first season for Steven Calitri, who’s since moved on to other shows.

“For season 2 we made the conscious decision to mix in a bit of a studio look with the indie look,” he says. The show’s principals and director Jeffrey Walker “thought a lot about the first season and everything we learned about shooting it the way we did, and then tailored a look specific to the series. The show got bigger. We fill up larger environments and we have more background artists. There are fewer locked-down shots and more shots on a dolly and Steadicam.”

Both seasons were shot with ARRI Alexa Plus cameras, with any of a number of Angenieux Optimo zooms and Zeiss Ultra Primes, always slightly diffused. (Delgado traded Calitri’s Tiffen Hollywood/FX Soft filter for a Black Pro-Mist this season.) Material is recorded to SxS Pro cards in 2K ProRes 4444 (Log C). Scenes are always covered by two cameras, operated by Chris Reynolds on A-camera and Yousheng Tang on B-camera and Steadicam.

Director of photography Jon Delgado (in North Face jacket) with Billy Eichner, James Urbaniak and Andrea Martin, who plays Julie’s mother. 

Delgado, who spent many years as a gaffer and operator, came to his DP duties with a lot of experience in lighting, which he says was essential when he was called on to light some of the fairly large spaces the season 2 scripts called for, but without the the Condors and other giant lighting instruments that “studio” budgets usually afford.

“Coming from a bigger-budget world, I think in terms of lighting spaces and letting the actors act within that space, rather than starting small on the actors as you might do in an indie film,” the cinematographer says. “We shot inside a theater in Washington Heights that seats maybe 10,000 with ceilings about 300 feet high and we were in the second tier level of the audience. We had about 30 extras. So the challenge was, how do we capture the feel of the space, light enough at one time so we can shoot in a timely manner but not give away how few people there are in the audience? That was a job for fairly big lights and wide frames, like a 12x with light grid cloth, far enough away to cover a big space but close enough that it falls off quickly behind the main actors. It gave us a beautiful quality of light that still fell off quickly so we didn’t have to flag the whole space.”

Julie Kessler (Julie Klausner) and her boyfriend Arthur (James Urbaniak) make clothes for a dog.Photo by Linda Kallerus/Hulu.

Delgado likes to push PAR cans for effects that a larger-budget show might look to a much stronger unit to accomplish. “For night exteriors, I’ll light my key area, but it really makes a difference when you can see some of what’s in the background, maybe down the block,” he says. “I like to use ‘firestarters,’” he says of his PAR 64 1,200-watt lamps, “and just pick out certain parts of a building in the background. You can shape the light well and get some nice accents on something up to 300 feet away. It’s a lot more economical than bringing in an 18K and a lift.”

Delgado’s approach to lighting is generally to use fairly soft light to create an environment in which the actors have some freedom of movement. While they don’t regularly go off script, it’s vital that when they do, cameras be in position to capture it. Director Walker blocks scenes so that the A- and B-cameras are always cross-covering to capture spontaneous moments from both angles. “So it wouldn’t make sense to have hard light and deep shadows,” Delgado adds.

From season 1 of Difficult People

The shooting schedule for Difficult People is fairly tight, working out to five days per episode, according to Delgado. “But we don’t shoot in order at all,” he says. “We shot the season over three months, with two weeks on soundstages and the rest on location.”

Part of the fun of the series comes from the surprise cameos in every episode. Season one featured Debbie Harry, Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen, Kathie Lee Gifford and others. “We had to schedule around their availability,” Delgado explains. “That really dictated what we could shoot when. In fact, we didn’t finish the first episode of season 2 until almost the very end.

“Some comedy shows look like they’re shot in a studio,” Delgado sums up, “and others are more indie-like, with characters walking and talking in real spaces. Without a lot of control over the elements, I think on Difficult People we’re able to achieve the best of both worlds.”

Season 2 of Difficult People premieres on Hulu on July 12.