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Doing Time: Inside the Netflix Original Series ‘Orange Is the New Black’

As its title suggests, Orange Is the New Black is not exactly a typical women-behind-bars TV series. Based on Piper Kerman’s 2010 prison memoir and executive produced by Jenji Kohan (Weeds), the show is a dark comedy. It’s also the latest in the growing list of Netflix original series rollouts, which means all 13 episodes of the first season will be made available simultaneously, albeit only via streaming, to Netflix’s 37 million subscribers in 40 countries.

Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman, in orange jumpsuit. Photo by Jessica Miglio/Netflix

Prior to its July 11 launch, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos has been making it clear that this will not be your father’s sitcom series, not too subtly underscoring the point that—like cable and other non-broadcast content—his ubiquitous streaming service does not fall under the censorial eye of the FCC. Sarandos has noted the show’s “no-holds-barred humor” and describes Jenji Kohan as “fearless” and “uncompromising.” Kohan wrote the first and last episodes of the Lionsgate Television series.

Based on a bestselling book, Orange Is the New Black follows the true-life, quirky, potentially dangerous antics of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a Brooklyn woman whose long-term relationship with a drug runner (Laura Prepon) results in her arrest. She receives a one-year sentence to a federal penitentiary, where she’s forced to swap the good life in New York City with fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) for an orange jumpsuit and a baffling new set of rules (both the prison’s and the inmates’) that she must live by. The gang of eccentric inmates includes Kate Mulgrew, Natasha Lyonne and Lea DeLaria.

Photo by Barbara Nitke/Netflix

Co-executive producer Michael Trim directed five of the 13 episodes, joining fellow guest directors Jodie Foster and Andrew McCarthy. Trim says his crew’s biggest technical challenges for the premiere season involved lighting and the episodes’ tight shooting timeline. “We needed to be fast because of the schedule, and I wanted to be able to see the ceilings in shots, so most of the lighting on the sets was from the floor … large, soft lights that were easily wheeled around quickly. We had some large sets that needed to be lit mostly by practicals … hanging fluorescents, for example.”

Trim says his director of photography, Vanja Cernjul, and the grips devised a workable skirt system for the lights, allowing them as much control of the overhead as possible. For interior shooting, Trim and Cernjul worked on a prison set devised by production designer Michael Shaw at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, N.Y. Most exterior shoots took place up and down the Hudson Valley north of New York City.

Photo by Ursula Coyote/Netflix

Cernjul, who shot with available light as much as possible, picked cameras that would accommodate his style. “We decided to use two ARRI Alexas with Cooke Optics S5 lenses. The cameras were normally set between 800 and 1280 ISO and the lens aperture was around 2.8 most of the time, which allowed us to shoot with very low light levels,” says the Croatian-born DP. “As Michael [Trim] noted, we had hard ceilings over the entire set, and the result was a very realistic looking image that was still kind to our actors.”

Trim says the crew used the handhelds exclusively for the interior prison scenes. “We deployed an ‘in-studio mode’ for everything outside of the prison … typically using dollies and a Steadicam,” he says.

As for Netflix’s very deliberate strategy of offering an entire season of original content simultaneously—thereby enabling a wide range of consumer-centric viewing choices, notably binge viewing—Trim says this new paradigm of video content distribution “did not influence our shoot of Orange in any way.”