Jules O'Loughlin is a cinematographer who knows a thing or two about creating great shots grounded in both hyper-real and naturalistic worlds.
There are many pieces that have to fit together for a television series to work properly. Everyone on the production works together to bring to life some of the most compelling stories that the audience has ever seen. Having a strong cinematographer on these projects can help shape the visual storytelling which heightens the greatness of the series storytelling.
Luckily for Marvel’s Ms. Marvel and Hulu’s The Old Man, the series finds a balance that highlights the beauty of the shows’ unique worlds thanks to their director of photography, Jules O'Loughlin. Whether he is working with the VFX team while planning for a superhero fight sequence or finding the right lighting to ground the world in realism, O'Loughlin is a master at crafting a shot that heightens the depth of beauty of whatever world he is in.
No Film School spoke with O'Loughlin about his work on Ms. Marvel and on The Old Man. If you are an aspiring cinematographer, you will want to learn from this DP.
Editor's note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: How did you get started as a cinematographer?
Jules O'Loughlin: I'm the youngest of 10 children. I grew up in Sydney, Australia, and I was a mad keen photographer from a very early age. My father gave me a camera when I was seven. We went on a family holiday, it was a bit like the Griswolds’ trip. It was like a European vacation with about eight or nine of us headed off to Europe. I started taking photographs then, and I've taken photographs ever since. When I was in my twenties, I didn't go into filmmaking. In fact, I didn't know much about the filmmaking process, but I knew that I loved photography and I loved watching films. I started watching quite sophisticated films from an early age. I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey in a movie theater on my own at the age of nine, had no idea of what was going on, but it did affect me in a profound way.
But when I left school, I actually started doing other things. I put myself through law school, I worked in finance, and it wasn't until my mid-twenties that I kind of started to put two and two together about filmmaking and photography, and there was someone on set called the cinematographer who photographed the film. Once that penny dropped, I became really fascinated by the art and craft of cinematography.
Then in my late twenties, early thirties, I actually threw my career in financing away and ripped up my law degree, which I had at that stage, and I went to film school. I got into a small government film school, and then I was lucky enough to get into the national film school, which is the Australian Film, Television, and Radio School. It was very prestigious in those days. They only took four students in each category, so they'd have four cinematographers, four producers, four directors, four production designers, and so forth. I was lucky enough to get in, and that's my path to the film industry.
NFS: I read in your 2022 interview with AFTRS that you were drawn to dramas and action-filled thrillers. What draws you to those genres as a cinematographer?
O'Loughlin: I've actually shot a lot of different projects. I've shot up underwater action films, I've shot a Western, I've shot dramas, I've shot horror. I think the only thing I haven't shot is science fiction, but I'm kind of doing fantasy at the moment. I love genre filmmaking, and I love watching it, but the thing that appeals to me the most and the thing that affects me the most profoundly as a cinematographer is drama.
It's seeing two really great actors going at it, you know what I mean? My son asked me something years ago, he goes, "Dad, I know you often... you've got a second unit that shoots the big car chases and the big fight scenes and stuff like that. Don't you want to shoot that stuff?"
And I said, "Well listen, it depends on the project. I often do shoot that stuff, but I much prefer to shoot an actor giving a great performance." That to me is the greatest thrill as a cinematographer is seeing fantastic performances from really fine actors. So to that end, I think drama is the thing that I love the most, and that I look for in a project.
NFS: What is it about Marvel and Ms. Marvel that caught your attention and made you interested in working on this project?
O'Loughlin: There were three things about Ms. Marvel that drew my attention. The first thing was that it was Marvel, and Marvel is so much part of the zeitgeist, that's so much a part of this world that we're living in as far as entertainment is concerned. Certainly, insofar as my industry, Marvel is huge in the film industry, so to be a part of that was appealing.
The second thing that drew me to Ms. Marvel was the character of Kamala. She's a 17-year-old, female, American-born Muslim of Pakistani heritage. That was really unique, I just thought, "Wow, that is super cool." You know, I've done a lot of traveling over the years through the Middle East. I spent time in Pakistan, I loved Pakistan, and I loved the people so that immediately got my attention, this actual character. It's a superhero that we hadn't seen before, and a character that we hadn't seen in a Marvel movie before. So, that really drew my attention.
Then the third thing was the director, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. When I delved into the work that she had done, I was very impressed with her as a filmmaker. She's a two-time Oscar-winning, seven-time Emmy-winning documentary director. But it wasn't just her documentary work, it was also her social work, the work that she does with women in Pakistan. She was really highly respected, not only as a filmmaker but as a person in Pakistan doing really wonderful things for their society. I was intrigued about working with her and in the end, it was a dream come true. She was a fantastic collaborator and a really amazing human being, and I love her dearly it was such a great experience working with her on Ms. Marvel.
NFS: Your episodes for Ms. Marvel were shot in Bangkok, Thailand. What was that like for you?
O'Loughlin: We filmed episodes four and five in Thailand. Episodes one to three and six were shot in Atlanta and it was Atlanta for Jersey City, that's where Kamala lives. Then in episode four, Kamala goes to Karachi, modern-day Karachi, to visit her extended family. And of course, in episode five, she's still in Karachi, but we flashback to the partition of India, which is between 1942 to 1947. So, we needed somewhere to film in the world that would evoke the feeling of Pakistan and India.
At the time, it was quite difficult because of COVID. COVID was really rampaging around the planet, and there weren't that many places that were safe to shoot in, as far as COVID and perhaps be kind of crowd scenes and whatnot. We needed the locations as well and Thailand, and specifically Bangkok, ticked a lot of those boxes. They have a very experienced film industry there, fantastic locations, and COVID was being handled really well by the government at that stage, so there was very little COVID in the country. It became an obvious choice for us to go there and we did, and it turned out really well. I think Bangkok was just the location we had there was a fabulous fit for Karachi and India.
NFS: It's a superhero show, so there's a lot of VFX. How did you work with the VFX team while planning for a shoot?
O’Loughlin: With Kamala of course, she's a superhero and so she has powers. Her powers are based in telekinesis, I guess you could say. It's about energy and it's about lights and it's about those two things coming together to create this kind of physical, on-the-screen crystalline structure that emanates from her fists and her body. So how do we render that and how do we shoot that?
Just in basic terms, Sharmeen and I would shot list the specific scene... well, we shot listed the entire two episodes, but, specifically, to do with VFX scenes and action scenes, we'd shot list those scenes, and then we would have them storyboarded. Then from that process, they would be pre-vised. A pre-visualization would be done by the VFX team, which is like an animated version of your storyboards.
There would be long and detailed discussions with myself and Sharmeen and our VFX supervisor, Aladino [V. Debert], about what we were shooting and how we would shoot it. The challenge for me was all the interactive lighting that I had to utilize with Kamala. As she uses her power and as it's rendered on screen, it comes with a whole bunch of interactive light. The challenge was, how do I light those scenes and how do I get those lighting units onto a set and not have them in frame? And what kind of lighting fixtures do I have to create?
You know, we can use movie lights for a lot of that interactive purple and blue light, but a lot of it has to be in her local vicinity. It's got to be in her hands or on her person and using LED strips and so forth. How do we hide those units on set so it doesn't become a massive financial paint-out for the effects? So, it was dense, but it's a lot of planning.
NFS: How did you end up hiding some of those LED lights on the actors?
O'Loughlin: Yeah, I mean, hiding the interactive light was difficult. We'd create LED strips that we could use on her arms and on her hands, then you would hide fixtures behind various things on set, like dressing or parts of the set. Occasionally you couldn't avoid having those lighting fixtures in frame.
There's a scene that takes place at Karachi train station, where Kamala is having a fight with the Red Dagger [Aramis Knight] and she runs away from him and she builds these light platforms and she has to step onto those platforms.
For that scene, we had to create a perspex platform. You'd use stands and you'd put perspex plates on them, and make it all very safe so that she could walk on those specific plates while she is on a harness. Underneath the perspex plates, I'd have the Sputnik lighting fixtures that would light up as she hit the plates. In a situation like that, you have to paint that stuff out in post so it becomes the actual telekinetic kind of lighting platform that she creates. So, yeah, there were times where you just couldn't help, but have those fixtures in the frame.
NFS: The Old Man has such a different style, and a completely different tone, it's extremely grounded compared to Ms. Marvel. What are the technical elements that help define the show's look?
O'Loughlin: If Ms. Marvel was kind of hyper-real and it's got a superhero, The Old Man is like the polar opposite. The Old Man is deeply grounded in reality. It had to feel real. Our audience had to watch the show and believe to an extent that what they were seeing was not a documentary, but was steeped in reality. It had to have a real naturalism to it, it had to have a naturalism specifically to the lighting. Everything had to feel as though it was motivated by real light. There's nothing kind of overly showy or movie-like about it.
As a cinematographer, when you're confronted with a scene and you've got a lighter scene that you've—for me, anyway, I always feel as though there's got to be some form of motivation for the lighting. For a day scene in an interior, I would look to motivate the light through windows, night scenes through practicals on set, that kind of thing. The other thing about The Old Man that we had as a stylistic choice was much more controlled, with slower camera moves, and had less cutting. So we wanted to show to have a more rhythmic feel, I guess, to the cut.
So, throughout the show there, there are very long takes. That was a style that we came up with early on in the piece, and I think it works well for the show. It kind of helps with that sense of naturalism that the show has.
NFS: There is a long take in episode three when Zoe [Amy Brenneman] is trying to get her car to leave and walks up to the window to see a fight sequence happening. Can you walk me through that shot?
O'Loughlin: There were three main camera moves to that sequence. We wanted the sequence to feel as though it was one continuous shot. When she walks out of the house in a Steadicam move, we take it to the car and we do a wipe into the car. Then, we pan off to see the dogs, we come back to her, and then she steps up out of the car and moves towards the house, and that's on a dolly track and a jib. When we get to the window, we go into handheld.
We took the glass out of the window, in the kitchen, and we also took the glass out of the window in the car, not only the windscreen of the car, but the back of Chase's car, where we see the dogs, because reflections were an issue, right? In the old days, we used to call that trick photography. That's the term, no one uses that anymore.
Sometimes when you're shooting windows, you get very strong reflections that can cut the image of what's inside or not allow you to see what's happening inside either a house or a car. Now, the windows of the house, the big issue there was seeing ourselves seeing the camera. So what we had to do there was remove the window, and with all of these windows removed, we then shoot plates, and then the VFX them will overlay a VFX window with the plate shots. So effectively the reflections of what that window would see.
There was a bit going on there, it was a real dance of actors, camera, VFX, and stunts. It took quite a bit of planning and it always does take quite a lot of planning to pull a shot like that off. But I think we must have done the job because there are a lot of people talking about that shot. It seems to be one of those things that's like, "Wow, how did you do that?" and often it's the illusion of filmmaking. You think it's one continuous thing, but often it's a series of shots. There are a lot of other things going on to help with that illusion.
NFS: In both series that you worked on, you're filming later episodes, and so there's already an established visual language. How do you incorporate your own unique visual style while still paying homage to what came before?
O'Loughlin: TV is very different from shooting movies. I've done a lot of both, and on a movie, as far as the visual language is concerned, it's you and the director, you come up with that visual language and you execute it. A lot of your own personal styles. On a TV series, it's a little different because often, especially on the big TV series, the ones that I've shot apart from one series, I've always worked with other cinematographers. You've got to put that visual roadmap together with a bunch of other people.
Other people are involved in that. It's the showrunners who are like the director on a movie. They're the guys that you've really got to work strongly with at first to put that visual roadmap together. What happens then is that you’ve got this visual style that you want to execute, but there could be a couple of cinematographers that are having to pull that off.
You are aiming towards the same target. Now, you may have different ways of doing that, but you are essentially executing a brief that you have put together, or maybe it's an originating cinematographer, director, and showrunners that have put together. We are cinematographers, that's what we do. We have a story and we have an idea and we have a brief, and we execute those ideas.
Now, what also happens on a TV series is that you often you've got your own personal style that infuses your particular episodes. On Ms. Marvel, you can really see that at play with episodes four and five. We had a brief that was set up in episode one of Ms. Marvel, but Sharmeen and I wanted to infuse our episodes with our kind of style, and to that end, we lend into Sharmeen's documentary work a lot. Ms. Marvel's a great case in that, in modern-day Karachi, the partition of India called for a different kind of visual approach to, say Jersey City. We did that, but I think in the end, you'd still say that the main building blocks of what Ms. Marvel were, we stayed true to those. So it's not a different show that you're looking at, but it's a slightly different visual approach.
And the same goes for The Old Man. I think that my episodes are very tightly aligned with the episodes that the other two cinematographers shot, but there are certain aspects of my style, I think, that are infused in those episodes. The way I light actors, the way I approach a scene, the lensing that I use, and the coverage that I employed in those episodes. If you break it down and analyze it is different from the other episodes, but it's the same show.
That's the important thing, I think for any cinematographer doing TV series is, you want to make the same show, but you want to give it your touch. I think that's really important, for us as artists, but also for the show as well, to keep the show interesting.
NFS: What advice would you give to up-and-coming cinematographers?
O'Loughlin: The advice I always give is listen to your gut, follow your heart, and trust your eye. And get yourself a really good pair of shoes.
As a cinematographer, you are one of the few people on set, that you are constantly on, you're constantly working and you're constantly on your feet. So the shoe advice is—that's a really important piece of advice. But listen, it's to follow your dreams and to trust yourself. You go into this for a reason, because you're passionate about cinematography and storytelling. Once you've been doing it for a while, you just got to back yourself, and you got to believe in yourself. That's the most important thing, just believe in yourself and follow your dreams.