FX is in a very good place as fall premieres kick off. Better Things premieres tonight on the network, and it’s a series you should remind yourself to watch. The same goes for Donald Glover’s Atlanta.
While both are being dubbed comedies, they’re more than that. They’re grounded in an authenticity that makes you point to the ‘big four’ and say, “This is television. This is how you do it.” Pamela Adlon serves as co-creator, executive producer, and lead on Better Things. Aiding her in the visual storytelling was cinematographer Paul Koestner, a name you might recognize from the FX show Louie.
The series hits its stride around episode five as Adlon’s character, Sam Fox, starts to realize the importance of being there for her three daughters—Max (Mikey Madison), Frankie (Hannah Alligood), and Duke (Olivia Edward)—instead of centering the choices she makes around her acting career.
“Louis is self-taught and things happen very intuitively for him when he gets to set. He doesn’t storyboard."
Directed by co-creator Louis C.K., the week-long pilot was shot in Los Angeles on practical locations using multiple RED Epics. Both director and cinematographer have shorthand where storyboards or shot lists don’t come into play. “I’ve been in the business for 35 years, and my history prior to Louis' having put me on the map was doing all kinds of documentary and industrial work. Things you have to figure out on the fly,” says Koestner.
“Louis is self-taught and things happen very intuitively for him when he gets to set," Koestner continues. "He doesn’t storyboard. He doesn’t write down shots, and we rarely discuss any other work that might influence us. It’s interesting, with Louis, you have this single intellect who’s dealing with it all. There’s no video village. There’s no one around him who’s questioning what he’s doing. It’s a rare situation in our industry where he’s been afforded this autonomy by a forward-thinking network, and so lives and dies by his own choices. Pamela has a similar intellect, I think, and has taken lessons from her experience on Louie and applied it to her own show. ”
"It’s almost startling to let the camera sit and allow things to happen in a static frame.”
The pilot opens up with Sam sitting on a mall bench messaging on her phone, while her youngest, Duke, cries next to her over six dollar earrings she won’t buy her. The scene doesn’t cut and the frame doesn’t move. It’s a type of visual storytelling that doesn’t get in the way of what’s happening in the story. You immediately understand this parent has been here before—that she’s juggling her life—and that she clearly doesn’t give a damn about the woman ogling her crying daughter. We learn all about her from one shot. From 30 seconds of dialogue.
Keeping a controlled frame was something the cinematographer was cognizant of. “We’re in an era where there’s so much camera movement used. It’s almost startling to let the camera sit and allow things to happen in a static frame,” mentions Koestner. "And while we may cover scenes conventionally, Louis will often choose to sit on a shot for the duration of a scene, which is obviously an editorial choice."
Cinematographer Paul Koestner on setCredit: FX Network
From an economic point of view, production also had to move quickly. "I’ve done a lot of handheld in my career and it certainly has its place, but the fact is, our eyes are attached to a remarkable image stabilizer called the brain. We used a Steadicam to move within scenes, and I think it generally does a better job telling a visual story. It’s something I personally like to use when the budget allows, and we put it to good use on Pamela’s show, I think," Koestner says.
Steadicam operator Luke Rocheleau worked alongside A camera operator Colby Oliver to create the energy of Sam’s life. For speed, Angenieux Optimo 15-40mm T2.6 and 45-120mm zooms were paired with Zeiss Ultra Primes. “We were on the T2.6 zooms and since we were shooting on such fast sensors I didn’t feel like we were lacking in any way,” recalls Rocheleau. “The speed of being able to move around focal lengths helped us move in the docu-style environment much faster than primes. We didn’t want to over rehearse the actors, which we recorded, so having the ability to pop in or out during them proved invaluable.”
As we see Sam’s life become more chaotic, the operators utilized whip pans and handheld “energy” to enhance the experience of stepping into her world. “Paul really gave us the freedom to create and feed off the performers,” notes Rocheleau. “He taught us to be flexible towards the talent and Pamela was always so compassionate to the crew. She always went the extra mile for us which made us want to return the favor that much more.”
Sam with daughter Duke (Olivia Edward)Credit: FX NetworksWhile the pilot was shot using RED, when the series went to order, cinematographer Nancy Schreiber took on the prep and moved to ARRI Amira and the Mini. “As an East Coast guy I wasn’t expecting to work on the series," says Koestner. "I was actually shooting Horace and Pete at the time Better Things started production, and I had no idea when Horace and Pete was going to end, but when we wrapped, Louis asked me to head to LA.”
Two days later, the cinematographer was on a plane prepping eight scripts. “Nancy and I have worked together in the past, and it was a relief to me that she agreed to handle Pamela’ project indefinitely. She would have done a great job carrying it the whole way but we ended up splitting episodes and I went with all the gear she chose for the production.”
The location heavy show has a few mainstay sets, one of them being Sam’s home. “On the pilot, we shot at a different house than what was used on the series. We spent three days there but it was not really a practical location for the long term,” says Koestner. “For the series, Pamela wanted to find a location that felt comfortable for her character and that would be more practical for production.”
Sam with her oldest Max (Mikey Madison)Credit: FX NetworksTo light the sets, a healthy mix of lights was used including ARRI Skypanels blended with M18s, Jolekos, tungsten ellipsoidals, and 1x1 LED panels. “We shot clean glass on the pilot with no filtration, to keep a reality-based feel,” notes Koestner. “I also encouraged the other directors who came on to consider staying with a single camera, as I find throwing in a second one can be a false economy when time is a consideration. Everyone knows you will be compromising the lighting and framing because the cameras are fighting for territory and it’s also frustrating for sound. So—to use a term I’m not completely comfortable with—we tried to keep it cinematic. We wanted to make lovely images instead of this thing where we were piling on light and neutralizing any type of artistic effect.”
To keep production at a steady pace, Koestner used lights he could stick on a dimmer or use with a battery. “The SkyPanels are incredibly efficient. They punch out a lot of light. They are kind of hard but kind of soft, like the 2K zip lights of days gone by. You can dial in color temperature—they have built-in dimming. All the stuff speeds things up. When we needed more punch, the M18s worked great and we used Pancake fixtures for overhead lighting. Anything with a battery or that has color balancing without gelling moves production along. I don’t want the actors to be waiting while we fuss around with all our stuff.”
"We did play with some diffusion at various points, but we didn’t want to turn it into a gauzy, Sex and the City look."
The cinematographer did make sure his leading ladies looked good on screen—but not artifically good. “On Louie, Louis will hardly want to be touched with makeup, but this show is different. We did play with some diffusion at various points, but we didn’t want to turn it into a gauzy, Sex and the City look. We wanted it to come across as a real woman dealing with real world situations,” says Koestner.
Even when it came time to color grade, Adlon called the shots. “Pamela asked me to be there but I was onto another project and told her that you don’t need a diploma to do it. You just need your eyes and instincts. If there’s a good operator at the desk they’ll give you the images you want.” This way the grade was dialed into Adlon’s taste instead of his own.
'Better Things' premieres September 8. 2016 on FX.