Trying to create natural, flattering light in the middle of the night on an island can present a slew of challenges.
Lighting the night is one of the most complicated, yet satisfying challenges that a cinematographer can face. For cinematographer Anka Malatynska, working with the darkness is one of the most satisfying aspects of her work.
Known for her work on Hulu’s Monsterland and Breaking Fast, Malatynska breathes new life into the new Amazon series, I Know What You Did Last Summer. The series follows a group of teens who are being terrorized by an unknown killer after the accidental death of a friend the year prior. No Film School spoke with Malatynska to ask her how she created a rich visual language with limited lighting throughout her time on the show.
No Film School: How did you get started with the reboot of I Know What You Did Last Summer?
Malatynska: I had worked with Craig [William] Macneill on Hulu’s Monsterland. We did an episode together, and collaborated really well, and stayed in touch. He was the first person to sign onto the project, and contacted me to meet the showrunner, producer, and for me to be submitted for the project. Then, I met Sara [Goodman], and I felt like I understood her vision and her sense of humor which shows in episodes three and four.
Horror, in general, is an allegory, and horror and fantasy can carry a lot more truth than if we did a drama about teenagers whose parents are fucked up and don’t support them. The series itself speaks a lot of truth to what a lot of young people are going through. It’s this unhinged world where adults are severely fucked up and making these wrong decisions while trying to parent these kids. I think there is a lot of truth to that in our world.
NFS: That translates in the visual language of the show. Is that something you talked about with Sara and the show’s writers?
Malatynska: It’s a collaboration between the pilot director, the showrunner, the producing designer, and myself while actively listening to the wants of the studio. We wanted to embrace a lot of handheld cameras to make it feel like you're on a journey with the characters, and not observing a perfect world, but one that is messy and chaotic.
A big inspiration was Andrea Arnold’s American Honey and that handheld world where you are following the story. By the end, we did mix it up a little and it was about 60% handheld and 40% studio, but the handheld was meant to be emotionally reactive. The camera feels the emotion of the characters. We also used a 35mm lens a lot, [even] on the handheld close-ups when the characters are emotional. That means we are maybe a foot away from the actor’s face. We are really in there with them. It creates a very different feeling.
NFS: Did you take any inspiration from the visual language of the original I Know What You Did Last Summer?
Malatynska: In many ways, our approach to the accident, and our cliff resembles the original. That was the biggest inspiration. Then, the idea was to take this generation on a different trip with the twins which I think is a great thing.
NFS: One of the striking parts of this project is how you separate the past from the present with a very specific visual language.
Malatynska: We wanted to lean into subtlety to separate the two times. In post, we [decided] to make the past much more saturated and warmer to establish this idea that things were brighter, better, happier before that accident.
NFS: I know that DPs can be very particular in the way moonlight is created. Do you have any specific ways you like to create moonlight?
Malatynska: In general, especially on that cliffside road [scene], I like to use a moon box. A moon box is several lights that are rigged in an 8x8 or 12x12 formation with a layer of silks underneath. It gives you a nice, top ambient light as if it is coming from the moonlight. At night, it is better to use bigger pieces of equipment rather than use a bunch of little lights. For that accident that was 8-minutes on screen, we shot it over two nights, and it was a tricky location to work with because it is a cliffside road with a mountain on one side and a cliff on the other side, and we are not just worried about our characters and cameras but our company of 100 people.
The idea of the moon box is to give the actors as much freedom of movement within that space, so they are not constrained by lighting or technical limitations. We are freeing up the stage in a sense. I think nights are a place where cinematographers can get very expressive. We wanted I Know What You Did Last Summer to be naturalistic, to feel like a real world. We didn’t want it to feel fantastical or theatrical in any kind of way. Amazon, at the last minute, said they wanted things to be bright, poppy, and lean into moments of darkness.
NFS: Did Amazon studios have any technical specifications that they wanted you to follow while filming?
Malatynska: Right before we started, they wanted to elevate everything to feel like aspirational horror. It was like presenting a perfect, pretty world that is dismantled throughout the series. Our showrunner didn’t want the lighting to be very theatrical, but for the night exterior, it gets tricky when you’re in a cave. There were a lot of conversations about how much light needed to be added or taken away.
NFS: How did you light the cave scenes?
Malatynska: What was great [was] that we used a little bit of film light, but in the end, our approach to the cave became the flashlights. What you’re not seeing that is lighting up their faces is this piece of reflective muslin, so when they shine their flashlights, it reflects that light. In the cave, we needed to adjust as much as possible. As we progressed, we turned [the lights] down until we were relying on the flashlights.
NFS: What scene from this project are you most proud of?
Malatynska: I was rewatching episode 4, and I liked that sequence before the kids meet at Snak & Stuff when Riley (Ashley Moore) is on her bicycle, riding by Lyla (Fiona Rene) is looking at Johnny’s (Sebastian Amoruso) decapitated body, then Clara (Brooke Bloom) driving up. I think that was beautifully done. The entire opening to [episode] four is interesting. It is opening up on Alli’s OnlyFans page, but I like the way it all sequences into the story, and how it flows into the next thing. The way we handled the sex scenes on set was appropriate, and not uncomfortable. Those scenes were directed by a woman [Logan Kibens], and I would operate those scenes in a way that made the space safe and comfortable for everyone.
NFS: There is a difference between a voyeuristic gaze and a respectful gaze.
Malatynska: In the past, there are shows where the woman is always shot from a higher angle which is some acceptable way of beauty, but it doesn’t necessarily make everyone look good. When I see that, I think, “That is so [the] male gaze.”
Our girls were all tiny, and that was the discussion all the time on set because our camera operators were so much taller than them. I would say, “No, you can’t stand and look down at her. Get a butt-dolly, get an apple box. We need to be right below their eye line. We need them to look powerful.”
They are the protagonist of their own lives. They are not these little, dainty girls that we’re observing or objectifying.
NFS: There is one scene I keep coming back to near the end of episode two where Allison (Madison Iseman) and her father, Bruce (Bill Heck), are in the shed. It’s dark, but you can still see the emotions on the character’s faces.
Malatynska: I like leaning into darkness, but there is a fine line between leaning into darkness and still being able to read emotion on a character’s face. I think in season two of The O.A. when it takes place in this very dark mansion, it looks like they just turned off all of the lights and called it dark. That is the tricky thing about darkness. You still have to see what is happening.
NFS: That is the challenge, and, in your case, filming on an island without any practical street lights can be challenging.
Malatynska: We thought at one point about putting street lights up just to have some sort of motivation for the light, but decided against it. It is pitch black out there with no streetlights, lights, nothing. Nights can have such artistry, and you can have so much fun with nights as a cinematographer.
NFS: Is there anything you’d like to add that I didn’t ask you?
Malatynska: I do actively mentor the next generation of filmmakers and cinematographers. In early 2022, I am planning a workshop that is exploring darkness, nightwork, and different kinds of approaches to nightwork. It is going to be a four-part workshop that is going to be in-person, and available later on Teachable.com.
My site will also have a republished section with the workshop for anyone who wants to learn from a working DP.