Writer/showrunner Issa Rae has struck gold again with Rap Sh!t, a dramedy following aspiring rappers in Miami. The show's second season just premiered on Max after being delayed by the strikes, and we're ready to jump back into the colorful world of Shawna (Aida Osman) and Mia (KaMillion).
While Season 1 focused on introducing characters through the perspective of social media, often showing the action via phone footage and live streams, Season 2 took a step back and filmed the characters in a slightly more traditional way. The person behind that development is Eric Branco, who also shot the 2020 Sundance hit The Forty-Year-Old Version and this year's Story Ave.
The show's visuals help show the characters' journey this season as they move out of their comfort zones in Miami and out into the wide world, which comes with the obstacles, dangers, and uncertainty of being new faces in a complicated industry.
We hopped on Zoom with Branco to learn more about the cinematography choices of the season and what his best advice for new DPs is.
Rap Sh!t Season 2 | Official Trailer | Maxwww.youtube.com
Editor's note: the following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: A lot of the first season was obviously the phone shots and perspectives. So how do you go about changing the look from last season to this season?
Eric Branco: Well, I mean, the idea of going from within the phone to more in the world of the characters, I think really actually happened toward the end of last season. We were introduced to the characters kind of through their social media. That's how they first blew up with their first song "Seduce & Scheme" in the first season. But by the end of Season I, there was already kind of less of that social media and phone stuff.
In Season 2, I feel like it was just kind of the natural progression of now that we know these characters really well, being in their lives and in their worlds and less on their screens.
In addition to that kind of social media aspect and getting a little bit further away from that, I think the challenge was maintaining the energy and feel that existed in that stuff and bringing more of that into their world. In Season 2, the camera moves a lot more. I think characters move a lot more. We have more walk-and-talks.
I think it's not just cinematography. I think it's also in the writing and also in the blocking. I think there was a kind of holistic effort to bring a little more energy to the way these characters are presented.
NFS: That might be part of the answer to my next question, which was that you're shooting a lot of handheld. So is that motivated by the energy?
Branco: Definitely. The first season is about them being kind of stuck in their lives and how to break out of those patterns. The cinematography had to reflect that. Season 2, it's really about seeing them actually making a go of it and going on tour and the struggles and the trials and the tribulations and all that stuff.
We shot a lot more handheld really to represent kind of the fact that their footing is not sure. So it's a lot more following them. It's a lot more a little less steady than ... The camera work is a little less steady and a little less sure of itself kind of in the same way that the characters are.
'Rap Sh!t'Credit: Erin Simkin/Max
NFS: One scene I did want to ask about is episode one, the poolside, where it's all these really bright neon purples, pinks, and blues. I'd love to know your thought process behind that scene.
Branco: You know. Always kind of subtle things happening with color. Right? Whenever I'm shooting anything.
So in this case, that tone of pink really pops up whenever Reina [Kat Cunning] and Francois [Jaboukie Young-White] are near. That's kind of like their bat signal. ... We were filming in an existing house, and we knew we had to kind of like "Francois" it up a little bit. Our amazing production designer, Adam Davis, built a wall within this kind of outdoor little, I don't know what it was, like a yoga studio or something, and turned it into a recording studio. But we had to figure out what we were going to do on the outside of that wall and how to bring some kind of Miami flavor to this exterior.
Adam and I, along with my gaffer, Ted Rysz, built in those kinds of neon tubes with pink, and then they worked perfectly for the pool scene because I knew how well that pink would contrast with the kind of cool blue of the water and all that stuff.
We lit up the pool so the water was blue and reflecting on their faces, and then you can see that pink kind of shimmering and reflecting on the surface of the pool. That was definitely a multifaceted way to kind of make it a little more Miami, make it a little more Francois, and also just make it a really kind of like pretty intimate scene sitting poolside.
NFS: Yeah. Now that you mentioned it, I also noticed it on the tour bus, so that makes sense.
Branco: The opening music video that they're shooting is pink, the tour bus is pink, and the studio is pink. When she's on stage, her kind of lighting mode is pink. Reina's lighting mode is pink. So it's kind of sprinkled throughout.
NFS: What's the motivation behind pink specifically?
Branco: I mean, I think we just went with pink specifically because such kind of like first idea no-brainer for this kind of like female rapper, kind of like Barbie-pink vibe. I feel like that's exactly what Reina is, is this like ... You know. Is going to go for like the first idea. Pink felt like the right color for her.
It felt so different from what Shawna and Mia, you know what I mean, from their vibe, that it was definitely a color that was not going to pop up in a lot of places in the rest of the season.
'Rap Sh!t'Credit: Max
NFS: I read that you moved more toward those LEDs as they were getting farther from home, away from tungsten. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Branco: So the idea was that in there... this is just something that I think kind of is pervasive in my work in general, but to me, kind of like warm tungsten just feels like a nice blanket. It feels like you want to just wrap up. It's so cozy. You know what I mean? All that stuff.
That was also a purposeful way for Maurice's house with Shawna is like very warm tungsten, and Mia's house with her daughter is very warm tungsten. And then they go on tour and the bus is all kind of like LEDs. The backstage in the second episode is all this kind of like garish, greenish fluorescent.
It was definitely for me about, not only with the camera work and the handheld of it all but also in lighting, showing their progression into a less comfortable zone. That's a great question.
NFS: What's been the most challenging sequence to shoot?
Branco: I think of the first two, it was probably the big performance scene in [episode] two. Just anytime you're dealing with that number of extras, choreography... I think we had four or five cameras that day trying to maintain the energy in the room. By the time it's the 20th time that the audience has heard that song, like, keeping them hyped into it. You know what I mean? And really trying to get kind of a variation of shots in a short amount of time and really make that stuff kind of pop and feel big, and be strategic in where you're placing your extras because even if you have, I think we have 500 extras and it's still not enough to fill that space.
It's about kind of knowing very clearly where you're going to see people and planning those shots. Any kind of big performance scene like that is very much like you plan and plan and plan, and then kind of take the brakes off and the train is going and you need to hope you planned well enough that it stays on the rails.
NFS: Do you have any advice for making those small crowds feel big?
Branco: In the size of things that I'm working on, crowd multiplication and replacement and duplication is a big [thing] ... Every time I think you've ever seen a crowd in something that I've shot or like the big wide, it's been duplication. There are ways to get around that.
In the shot from behind the three of them on stage looking out, the venue that we chose had like a big floor space and a mezzanine. I intentionally put a bunch of open-face tungsten units on the railing of the second-floor mezzanine so that ... the blooms and the flares from those lights really helped to obscure how many people were up in that mezzanine.
Strategically use units and flares to hide. I think we ended up having like half of the people upstairs that we would've needed to have upstairs if I hadn't hidden them within lights.
That was a trick for specifically that location. I learned that trick in the movie The Forty-Year-Old Version that I did. Same thing. There was a mezzanine in our location and I was like, "Well, if I just blow out the top, you won't see anybody up there."
NFS: That's amazing.
Branco: And it works pretty well.
'Rap Sh!tCredit :Alicia Vera/Max
NFS: What are common mistakes that you see beginning DPs make that they should avoid?
NFS: What advice would you give to someone just starting as a DP? What should they learn first?
Branco: I think being a DP, there's no set path. Right? So everyone kind of needs to find their own journey. I think it's about shooting as much as you can. There are things you can read about, and there are things you can learn in theory, but then really you need to take those things and put them into practice as soon as you can.
For me, for my path, I started as a gaffer. So for me, I was on set with really talented DPs, always watching what they were doing, always learning what they were doing, and then taking those to the student films and no-budget shorts that I was shooting on the weekends or when I wasn't working and kind of applying what I was seeing these much bigger DP doing. A lot of it worked, a lot of it didn't work, but it definitely helped me find my own style and find what works best for me. So I think that's just really, honestly, being on set as much as you can and shooting as much as you can is the way to do it.
NFS: What are common mistakes that you see beginning DPs make that they should avoid?
Branco: One thing that will derail you faster than anything else is comparing yourself to where other people are. I think it's very common, especially in kind of the social media Instagram world we live in that you constantly see other people working, especially coming out of the strike we were just in, it can be super disheartening to not have the phone ring for a month and be looking at your phone and you're like, "Everyone is working but me." That kind of thing is like a path to resentment and not enjoying your own work because you're always comparing it to, "It doesn't look as cool as this or looking cool as that."
I think, for me, I definitely suffered from that. I had to get over that in the fact that I shoot mainly features and TV and long-form things. And so there have been times where I've shot something ... I shot a feature once in February. It premiered at Sundance the following January and then came out in theaters the December after that.
That's two years of where I can't really show anything from that project. Meanwhile, other people are like, "Check out this commercial and this short and this music video." And there's just the quantity of work coming out is so much greater than someone ... than the quantity of work that a narrative DP can put out into the world.
I think it's important to put the blinders on and stay on your path while also kind of being encouraging to the people who are constantly working.
NFS: I feel like people also fall into that trap with the cameras that we don't have access to, and we think that if we can get that camera, it will look this or that way.
Branco: Yeah. I mean, it's like I have this camera, I have this lens. Am I going to ... What's better? A movie that is not shot on the latest and greatest camera or no movie? Do you know what I mean?
You just need to make a choice at some point to be like, "Am I going to work with the tools that I have or am I going to continue this path of like would've, could've, should've?"
Branco: They all look so good. It doesn't matter. Any camera you shoot on is going to look amazing. It's not the camera. It's you.