The secretive Geist Group is still peddling memory erasing drugs in Homecoming but little else about season two of Amazon Prime’s series is normal.
The new series is an intriguing continuation of the last with Geist’s flower-powered drug at the center of the plot but with a new lead amnesiac character, Jackie (played by Janelle Monáe) and a story that overlaps with and extends the first series timeline.
The director and cinematographer for every episode in the new season are Kyle Alvarez and Jas Shelton who previously teamed for the indie features C.O.G. and The Standford Prison Experiment.
The filmmakers have maintained continuity with the first season in a number of ways, including using the signature floating camera moves and long takes that characterized the original.
One ambitious sequence at the start of episode 2 has the camera traveling with Jackie from the moment she gets out of her car, quietly breaks into a suburban house, hides from the house’s occupant owner (Hong Chau’s Audrey Temple) and tracks her quarry back out of the house and into the car again.
The eight-minute sequence was constructed to appear a single take: “The style of the shot was influenced by the sequence in [Hitchcock’s] Vertigo where James Stewart’s character secretively follows the heroine by car, all from his point of view,” Shelton explains. “We are tracking with Jackie’s point of view but the mystery is really what is going on in her head.”
The complexity of the shot required detailed storyboards, a special set house built with removable walls, and a precisely timed choreography. It is composed of several elements including practical exteriors shot on location in West Hollywood, an exterior backyard shot on stage at Universal and house interiors on another stage.
Shelton devised three stitch points to disguise the edit. The first occurs as Jackie reaches the house’s back gate and pushes it open. Until this point the camera has been on Steadicam, beginning in a high crane position followed by a step off to follow the character. Having passed through the gate, the sequence continues on a dolly track with the camera mounted on an Oculus gimbal.
“As she climbs in through the window we make a subtle zoom in so that we lose the window frame and feel that we are inside the house with her. Just before we see her inside, as the camera comes round the corner of the house, at this point we’ve made our second stitch.”
In actuality there was no window. The whole back corner of the home is constructed so that its walls were removable for camera.
The camera follows Jackie into the kitchen, traveling on a dolly allowing repeat moves to be made.
“We had to get the timing right for when her Temple enters the kitchen and Jackie has to quickly duck out of sight behind the kitchen counter.”
Jackie hears Temple slam the door of the house shut on leaving. She moves to the front window where Shelton pulls back to reveal the window’s reflection and the illusion of the outside of the house.
Window reflections were added in post. Shelton even shot a plate of Temple getting into her car and driving away to assist construction of one of the reflections.
Outside the house we are back to practical exterior on Steadicam which is then picked up by crane again and elevated in a mirror of the opening camera move.
“Jackie drives away underneath our camera out of shot as if to execute a three-point turn,” Shelton continues. “We have a second car of same make and model with stunt driver who then drives into shot to give the action a little more drama.”
To retain continuity with season one, the camera package is the same Panavision Millennium DXL 2 with G Series anamorphic. Shelton shot full resolution 8K from the Monstro sensor, compressed 7:1, sometimes dropping to 3:1 for scenes with heavy VFX, going through the DI at 4K.
“It was important to obtain the maximum information from the sensor and to cover the anamorphic glass which lends a 3D quality to the visuals,” Shelton says.
Both series episodes are tightly contained in around 30 minutes but whereas the original shifted aspect ratios from 16:9 to 2.35:1 to depict different storylines and ‘head spaces’, in part to work with viewing on mobile phones, here the filmmakers are more reliant on color design.
Explains Shelton, “We designed LUTs with Walter Volpatto at EFilm (he had graded season one while at FotoKem). We decided to keep anything that take place in Geist’s headquarters as sun-kissed and warm and made a different LUT for scenes with Jackie. This is apparent from the moment she wakes up in the boat and goes on her journey of self-discovery. It emphasizes dark blues, cool greens, a gothic palette especially in the first part of the show, with lots of fluorescent lighting built into the sets.”
With DIT Bret Suding, Shelton made frame grabs of every scene as reference to compare with the CDLs, both of which were taken into post to assist minute adjustments in the grade.
Several scenes take place at the rural retreat of Geist CEO (Chris Cooper), populated by fields of the red juiced plants. Production designer Nora Takacs Ekberg produced thousands of fake plants and spent weeks planting them:
“Nature has a very strong presence throughout season two,” she says. “Greens and plants, trees and wilderness show up again and again in different forms. The season starts in a forest, that motif reappears in a wallpaper in Alex’s motel room later.
“We see dangerous plants closed behind glasses, behind bars, feeling like they want to get out. We also find them as good old friends of Leonard Geist at his ‘office’ and his farmhouse. That motif, nature, was a very important base for the design of this season.”