Rebooting a series can give filmmakers the opportunity to expand on the visuals of the genre, and that's what this cinematographer did.
I grew up during the heyday of Pretty Little Liars and experienced the chaotic teen energy surrounding the memorable series. The show was all anyone could talk about, and in some ways still is with YouTubers making hours-long videos talking about the show’s plot and history.
Now, Pretty Little Liars is back, but in a new, visually exciting way.
Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin is a love letter to the original series and the horror genre, choosing to showcase more camera movements and interesting visuals that set it apart from its predecessor. The moody lighting and split diopter shots introduce a new generation to the staples of horror cinematography, and behind many of these choices is cinematographer Anka Malatynska.
No Film School spoke with Malatynska to talk about how she lights up the haunted town of Millwood, the collaborative medium of television, and how filmmaking is all about “making a plan, then breaking the plan” to get the best shot possible.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: What made you want to join Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin?
Anka Malatynska: After shooting the pilot and the first block, they were looking for another DP to continue the series. They reached out to me, knowing that I had shot I Know What You Did Last Summer. I think they were looking to get somebody on board fairly quickly, and they wanted somebody who had experience with the genre. The showrunner expressed to me that the show was “...a very female empowerment story, and you've seen in all the behind-the-scenes, it's a bunch of women that made this."
I think they were also really excited about having a female voice contribute to the visuals. So they reached out to me with all their warmth and excitement, and I saw the daily stills and I read the scripts and I met with the team and I loved their energy. It felt like a shoo-in, a perfect match.
NFS: When you were first in pre-production, what were the conversations around the look and the feel of the world?
Malatynska: I feel like with our production designer, Neil Patel, we always described it as a non-descript, vintage time period where all of our characters still have cell phones and computers and live in the modern world, but Millwood is a creepy town and it's falling apart and all the cars are old. That's part of it makes it so special—that it's this very particular production-designed and photographed world that capitalizes on the falling apart and that The Creeper could be around any corner. It's also so quaint and cute, but it's a Cabin in the Woods kind of creepy at the same time.
NFS: Just watching it in the first couple of episodes, I was like, "Oh yeah, this feels very reminiscent of the 60s and 70s horror," especially Italian slasher films. Did you reference any of those when you were planning for the shoots?
Malatynska: Constantly. I think you see in the writing and the storylines of the series that we are constantly referencing classic horror. In every episode, we reference different horror movies. I would go back, I would watch those movies. I would steal shots from those movies. So very, very much so. It's almost like, I don't know, in a way, I feel like just by watching the series, you can learn so much about the horror genre because it self references itself all the time, then visually references itself.
When I looked at the original lookbook that Lisa Soper put together and she's a super die-hard horror director, horror fan, amazing imagination, and everything that was referenced in the original lookbook that was presented to the network very much Carrie, 1970s horror, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Jaws, very much so.
I love that you say that it had a 70s feel. I never really thought about that because to me sometimes our Millwood bus would be from the 50s, we made sure all of the cars that you see in the picture are old cars, and it feels like this old vintage world. Then, we use a lot of that orange warm light, almost overly so. And that, to me, adds to the comfort, but something is disquieting about it.
NFS: Was there a favorite shot that you did that was a homage to one of your favorite horror directors or horror cinematographers?
Malatynska: I don't know as far as an homage specifically, I will say that I have so many favorite shots in this series. Every single episode has a shot that is one of my favorite things that I've ever shot. I loved the attention to detail and the visuals and the particularity of the visuals. Maggie Kiley and I, in episode three, built a really nice sequence that really referenced Jaws where The Creeper almost reaches for Imogen's (Bailee Madison) foot. It's such a classic horror moment and I feel like we pulled it off well.
Another sequence that was super exciting to shoot, because I've never done anything like this before, was the hall of mirrors in episode seven with Alex Pillai. We stole some shots from It. Specifically, the shot where she's banging on the end of a hall of mirrors and we jump out to this black space and we see her stuck in the little hall of mirrors. That took a lot of planning and technical preparation when there are some tips and tricks on how to approach a hall of mirrors.
NFS: How did you light the hall of mirrors?
Malatynska: One of the things that will definitely help the hall of mirrors is to have all of the mirrors on a gimbal so that you can take out as many reflections as possible so that you're not just relying on visual effects to take out reflections. I feel like we successfully minimized all the reflections, and there was only a little bit of VFX removal that had to be done. It could have been also really cut around if we wanted to cut around it.
I feel like the lighting is simple. The lighting should always be simple but powerful and to the point of the story. So those were just LED spotlight bulbs in between. Our hall of mirrors was encased in kind of pillars, and then we had these recesses where we put the lights, and they were basically just hard spot LED bulbs, then we put a bunch of smoke in there. That was it.
On rare occasions, I brought in an extra little light to give Mouse [Malia Pyles] some eye light, but other than that was it. That's part of the use of smoke. That smoke really augments and picks up the light that you're using, which is why it's such, at a technical level, an effective tool when shooting really dark things. But it also really contributes to that specific vintage [look].
I feel like smoke makes digital cameras look a little bit more film-like. It's tricky to work with, but we used a lot of smoke and I feel like that contributes to that art house look that you're referring to.
NFS: What cameras and lenses did you use for the series?
Malatynska: We use the Panavision DXL2 with a Monstro 8K body from RED. I had just shot this camera right before PLL: Original Sin on an independent film that I shot for Steve Buscemi, and I fell in love with this camera. I feel like it's one of the most natural-looking sensors right now. It has this soft creamy [look]. I used it by accident because I was on a low-budget film, and Panavision had the DXL large format camera available, and I was like, "Great, let's use that." I got to play with it and I was so happy with the results.
I was super happy when I inherited the camera package for Pretty Little Liars. I was like, "Oh my God, this is exactly what I would've chosen."
Then we use the PanaSpeed 70-millimeter primes, which also contribute a little bit more to that vintage kind of look. We shot an 8K camera with 8K lenses, but we shot it at 5K, which makes all of our lenses a little bit tighter.
We did live on the wide end of our focal lens for a lot of the series. I think that also subliminally contributes to the look. We were doing close-ups on a 24-millimeter lens on Tabby [Chandler Kinney], which has that feeling of the camera being right there with the character as opposed to being far away and observational and lensed in.
When you look at our medium shots and group shots, the camera is right there with the characters. You're not five feet away. You are literally three feet away from our characters on a two-shot, on a three-shot.
NFS: It looks fantastic. I don't want to dig at the original series, but Original Sin is so much more interesting visually.
Malatynska: I love that you said that. People are like, "Were you trying to emulate the original series?"
NFS: I think the approach is completely different from traditional TV. Do you feel like there's a lot of freedom when it comes to shooting a series for a streaming service like HBO?
Malatynska: Yes and no. I kind of feel like in some ways—I don't know if that's a true statement that streamers are so different from traditional TV. I still think all TV, even streaming TV, is a writer's medium. It's not a director's medium. Part of it being a writer's medium, even in streamers, is that they always want the singles on the characters.
I'd say that the difference is that in streamers, there's a lot more new indie directors coming in. They're like, "Ah, I want to protect the edit. I don't want to give them that single," but there's a deeper reason for that single.
There's also a deeper reason why directors shouldn't fight so hard to protect their edit because to a showrunner—and this is from conversations that I've had with my showrunner friends that I've worked for—the director's cut is the first cut. It's never going to stay the director's cut.
Honestly, at this point, all of the shows that I've been involved with run long on the screen. On Original Sin, some of the first cuts were coming in at 80-90 minutes. So really that episode it's a mini movie on its own, but you still have to get it down to 50 minutes. The way that you do that is through editing the storyline and editing the writing. It's really hard to cut out some of the writing and manipulate the storyline unless you have those singles on the characters, spitting out whatever those lines are.
I will always push for the best visuals. I will push for those special shots. I don't care if you chop up my special shots, which they even do in Original Sin. When I saw the third episode, I was like, "All the beautiful shots we shot and I should have just shot medium shots of the characters."
Now that's not true for the whole series. I think we really lean into beautiful visual moments and they're there to be leaned into, and I'm saying this because I'm working on a network show right now, and it's the same thing. The early cuts run long and you have to single out the characters or what happens is that we had a director who really pushed for staying in two shots and in medium shots. We had to do a lot of pickups for her episodes, a lot of pickups, and a lot of reshoots.
To me, I felt like one of the reasons was that by denying certain coverage, we make the material less malleable. As much as I hate giving that coverage because I want to keep the director's special shot, I am not where it ends and the director isn't where it ends. It continues onto the writers and from the writers, it continues on to the network. I'm constantly pushing for those big visuals to be beautifully developed shots.
It's funny because the directors I've been working with they're like, "It's so cinematic. It's a movie shot." I'm like, "It should be. And I don't care if you don't use it in the end, but you have that availability." Everything should be beautiful and cinematic, to me.
NFS: It's really about just providing the coverage for the editors and writers, and also offering a cool shot for them to use if they want to or can.
Malatynska: Yes, exactly. Some writers love the really cool shots and other writers are like, "Ugh, that cool shot takes me out of the story. And I just want to be in the story with the characters."
I would say it's not that different in the sense that it's a medium that doesn't end with the director. It's a medium where the director is a step in the process. Then, it's the writers that hold the story in their souls. I always feel like there's the head creator and they have an instinctual kind of connection to their material. They oversee the big picture of the material. And in TV, that's usually the showrunner, the head writer.
I always try to put myself in their shoes because they sat with it in a room, they imagined it, they really have been holding that vision and walking into a set and, "Oh my God, it's not exactly what I imagined."
NFS: As you said, I feel TV is a very collaborative space. So if you are dead set on a certain visual or a certain look that you want and it's not happening, I can see how feelings can get hurt or how people are like, "No, we're not there."
Malatynska: I think that's true of actually working in the film industry versus making your indie film that will start to get you working. It is a collaborative medium. I feel like one of my personal keys to success is that I offer endless ideas, but I don't get hurt if you don't use my ideas. I'm like, "I'm an idea bank, take it or leave it. Ideas for free today."
When working with large groups of people, what are we doing? We're actually really just moving energy. We're moving energy, and in leadership positions, how do I show up in a way that motivates my team to work?
It's always a funny dichotomy because I feel like in technical cinematography, we try to be as prepared, as dialed in, as possible and I feel like in that technical world, the pivots sometimes for some people get painful, but I feel like that's what it's about. It's about making a plan and then breaking the plan and getting something better than what was planned.
NFS: Is there anything that I didn't ask that you would feel would be that you feel would be valuable to include or any advice for any aspiring cinematographers?
Malatynska: I'm going to the Venice Film Festival with an independent film directed by Steve Buscemi called The Listener, starring Tessa Thompson. It's actually a great case study of how to make that indie film. We shot it in six days in one location, 90-page script in Los Angeles, and we're going to Venice with it. It's a beautiful little film that we made for pennies with very few resources, and it's one of those beautiful examples of you can make that little thing and it can go far.