Netflix's live-action adaptation of Eiichiro Oda's long-running manga and anime series One Piece hit the streaming service on Aug. 31 after years of waiting. One Piece follows the journey of a young pirate named Luffy, played in the live-action series by Iñaki Godoy, who sets out to sea during the Great Pirate Era, a time when an influx of pirates are searching across a stretch of the ocean called the Grand Line in search of the "one piece." With his Straw Hat Crew, which includes Zoro (Arata Mackenyu), Nami (Emily Rudd), Usopp (Jacob Romero Gibson), and Sanji (Taz Skylar), the crew encounters different enemies in their search.

While anime has notoriously been hard to adapt to live-action, the showrunners, directors, and cinematographers worked tirelessly during the development process to deliver a show that was faithful to Oda's vision while giving new and old fans of the series something fresh to bite into.

Working alongside Episode 1 and Episode 2 director Marc Jobst, cinematographer Nicole Hirsch Whitaker sits down with No Film School over Zoom to talk about the development behind the live-action adaptation of One Piece, establishing a new yet familiar visual language, and finding a camera package that highlights and grounds the vibrate, colorful characters into a genre-bending world.

Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: Congratulations on One Piece being out for everyone to watch. How did you get started with this project and what made you excited to join it?

Nicole Whitaker: I had done another Netflix show with the same director [Marc Jobst]. He reached out to me when he first got the scripts about three years ago, and we worked on it probably for about a year before we actually went to Africa to start prepping for the actual shoot. It was a long process and lots of fun. It was during COVID-19, so we were kind of just able to talk a lot in Zoom and figure out what we were going to do and design the look and come up with an idea to make it the show that it is, which was really fun.

NFS: One Piece is an anime that has been running for many years and has so many episodes and the manga itself is just as long. What was your approach when you were bringing this property to live-action?

Whitaker: We wanted to make sure that we stayed true to the canon, the manga, and the anime. We knew that the fan base was really loyal, especially since it had been around for 25 years, and [Eiichiro] Oda was very, very specific about not wanting to make this into a live-action for a long time. When it came to Netflix, then to Tomorrow Studios, then to the showrunners, then to my director, then to me, it was really important to all of us to honor the original story and the original show, but also to bring something new so that you could also get new fans. It's a new age. There's a whole new generation that's going to find One Piece now even though it's very, very popular. I've traveled all over the world. I was just in Hungary doing a movie. I came back a couple of days ago and not that many people actually know about it. So this is going to bring it to a whole new audience, so it'll be fun.

NFS: What did the pre-production process look like for you when you were talking to the director and setting up what the look of this series would be?

Whitaker: When we first started talking, obviously I read the script. I'm very familiar with One Piece. My son was obsessed with it. So growing up I watched probably 400 or 500 episodes and read all the manga with him. I was the geek parent who knew everything about One Piece. There are One Piece posters framed on his walls. It was really easy for me to get involved because I am familiar with the complicated thousand-plus episodes and a hundred-plus manga. To be able to know the whole story for anyone would be really complicated. I felt really lucky that I understood at least some of it.

We started talking about how we would translate this into a film project, just spitballing, sending imagery back and forth to each other, talking about film, photography, artists, and anything that we could think of visually to come up with a lookbook, basically that the two of us, he made a lookbook. I made a lookbook. They were really long, the longest I've ever done. By the time we got to Africa, where we had four months of prep before we started shooting, we already knew what the look of the show was going to be. We just started doing tests with the wigs and the wardrobe and visual effects and prosthetics and things like that. We were really lucky. I think in any other circumstance, we probably would've both been busy on other projects, but because of COVID-19, better or worse, we had a lot of time to think about it. It was cool. I mean, actually, I did do another project before this. I was in Ireland, so I came straight there from Ireland, but it was sort of the same process because I'd already talked about one piece for so long.

NFS: When you were looking at your camera package for this production, what were you keeping in mind?

Whitaker: We talked a lot about lenses. [Jobst] and I had used a certain set of lenses on another project that we really loved. When we talked about this project, we originally wanted to shoot anamorphic, and we realized that we wouldn't be able to do that with the close focus and the wide angles and being able to create that feeling of manga, which is very close and wide. We actually went to Hawk and they built us a set of lenses from scratch to basically allow us to do what we needed to do because there really wasn't a large format lens out there that we could do the same type of photography with if they hadn't have built us those lenses. I knew I wanted to shoot ARRI large format, and there is not a lot of large format glass. Basically, they went to the drawing board and built them for us. Netflix got on board [since] they had to pay for them. It was a big deal. We had to do a lot of convincing, but everybody was really cool and allowed them to get made. Hawk got the lenses delivered, and they had my name on them. It was really fun.

NFS: Oh, that's so exciting. I'm glad Netflix was on board with it because everything in the frame looks beautiful. The skin tones look gorgeous, even with the colorful hair. It looks fantastical but is grounded in reality.

Whitaker: One of our main influences was a photographer who had done a lot of work in Africa. His name's Jimmy Nelson. When we saw his work, we just loved the color palette that he had created in his work. We went to my Colorist, Michael Hatzer, who's at Technicolor here in Los Angeles. We sent him all the images, we sent Hawk all the images. Then Mike came up with these beautiful LUTs that were something that would be colorful, still retain the color of the wigs, and would not be too over the top, but as you said, still feel grounded and realistic, but at the same time, a little bit of fantasy, a little heightened reality. I think originally we were less saturated and then ended up adding more color back into it, and I think it was better for the story in the end.

Colton Osorio as Young Luffy, Peter Gadiot as Shanks in season 1 of One Piece

'One Piece'

Courtesy of Netflix

NFS: I want to talk to you about how you navigate the constant shifting of genres in this show. What do you keep in mind when you are jumping from genre to genre?

Whitaker: Someone else asked me this the other day. They were asking me if I approach different types of moods and different types of scenes differently. It's funny, I never thought about it before because I don't really mean, obviously, stunts are filmed differently than drama or dramatic scenes, but I find when you come up with a way that you want to shoot a show or a film, you just want to keep the thread throughout. Of course, there are certain scenes that dictate more drama or less drama in terms of lighting, but in terms of the camera, I find that if you come up with a language and you stick to it, then the audience doesn't get bumped and feel like they're not in the same show. It's tricky in TV especially because I only got to shoot two episodes of this, and so you really hope that all the other cinematographers and directors maintain the same language.

I haven't seen all the episodes yet, but from what I've heard from other people, there's a nice thread that they kept throughout. So that's also a really important part of setting up a show. I've obviously followed other DPs on shows as well, and I'm cognizant of what they've designed or what I've designed. Then, of course, everybody has different ideas about things. You don't do everything exactly the same way, but I think that it's a really important thing in television just to be respectful of how the show has been set up. I mean, could you imagine Stranger Things if someone came in and made it a totally different show, people would be like, what were they thinking? But still, each season was slightly different, but it still had a feeling to it.

Obviously, in post, some of the things might've been a little bit different. However, the showrunners and my colorists were able to bring them back into our world and our color space. So I think from what I've seen, I think it all flows really nicely.

NFS: From a cinematographer standpoint, what is the most important thing for you when you're setting up the visual language of a show like this where you don't get to work on every single episode?

Whitaker: I think getting the crew on board, having consistency of a crew the whole way through because I get to hire the camera operators, the gaffer, the grip, the colorist. I'm working really closely with visual effects and stunts and everything on the ground. Production design, caution design. As a group, when you start something, you come up with a language, and even if I leave, all those people are still there. They stay on, so they can pretty much keep it pretty much intact as much as possible. Yeah, sometimes it's still hard. Sometimes they call me and they're like, oh, we just did something really different than you would've done. I'm like, well, if it makes sense for the story, that's okay. And the directors too. Sometimes a director has a different idea if there's a very different storyline. I know in One Piece, Episodes 3 and 4 were almost their own little story, so they did. It was much more dramatic, kind of almost like horror film lighting, and it was really cool. I love what they did.
Buggy, played by Jeff Ward, laughing in 'One Piece'

'One Piece'

Courtesy of Netflix

NFS: I'm a big fan of horrors. I love under-lighting so much for Buggy the Clown. It's not the most flattering light to do, but really great cinematographers can find a way to make it flattering and terrifying.

Whitaker: Buggy deserved the skip bounce for sure. He was so creepy, but sometimes he was kind of sweet-looking, so you had to kind of find a balance with him. Jeff [Ward] is also, if you ever see him without his makeup on, he's a very sweet-looking person. So I loved that. The first time I met him, he came on set and he was in his wardrobe and makeup. So it made me relate to the character as opposed to relating to Jeff.

NFS: Are there any other characters that you have specific lighting motifs that you've created that you hope to carry on throughout the rest of the show?

Whitaker: Not really. We were really going for something very naturalistic with the straw hats. Definitely, of course, when Luffy's moods would change or when Zoro was having his first fight with Mr. Seven and different things like that. But for my episodes, I think Buggy was the penultimate in terms of doing extreme lighting and changing the lighting as his character changed, as well as he starts off as the ringmaster, and then he gets more and more evil as he starts to go down the pipe with killing and mayhem.

NFS: Speaking of Zoro and his fight sequences, how do you go about setting up for these fight sequences where your camera's moving around and you want to make sure everything looks evenly lit?

Whitaker: We were really lucky on this show because we had a lot of prep time. We were able to hire a camera operator, George Amos, who's wonderful, actually. He's a second-unit DP and a DP, as well. He was dedicated to stunts. So the stunt team would basically choreograph the stunts, and show them to the director and me. We'd sign off on the pre-vis, then the stunt team with the stunt doubles, and George would go off with a crew and basically shoot the whole scene, come back, cut it together, and show it to us, so that way we didn't have to have any second unit. We could fold them into our main unit. On the days that we did stunt work, they would come, George would become our operator, and if we needed an extra camera, my crew would step in. Doing it this way meant that way I was able to focus on lighting, and I knew ahead of time what the camera was going to be doing, so I could also figure that out as opposed to a lot of time figuring it out on the day, or if it's second unit, they don't have time or necessarily completely follow what you'd want to do. We were super fortunate that we had almost 70 days to shoot, and we were able to fold all the stunts into our regular schedule, which was great. Really made a big difference. I would love to do that again if I could.

I\u00f1aki Godoy as Monkey D. Luffy, Morgan Davies as Koby in season 1 of One Piece. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix

'One Piece'

Courtesy of Netflix

NFS: This is a pirate show, so we must talk about filming in the naturalistic settings of a lot of sunlight, the water, and using starlight to create light for the night scenes. How do you factor in these elements when you are crafting a shot or thinking about lighting??

Whitaker: I was definitely nervous about the show because there is so much daytime and so much natural light and being in the tanks with the ships and the ships, a lot of them were dry docked in parking lots, so you can't spin them. So you're facing one direction, you have to constantly be losing the light, creating the light. It was very complicated. We had a lot of machines and a lot of overheads. But my favorite sometimes is just when we were in the tanks and we had some of the small boats like the ship or Luffy's dingy, you could just spin. We had frogmen in the water and they would literally just spin the boats, and chase the sun for us, we would do small little overheads or small, small rags. It was just using the light as it is. When we were in some of the tanks, like in Windmill Village, we had giant blue screen walls around the boats.

It was a lot of big machines. I'm just happy that it doesn't look like it was as complicated. It's funny, I actually read a review today of someone saying that it looked like we didn't have enough money to do what we needed to do. I was like, it was actually the opposite. It actually made me happy that it didn't look like we overdid it, that it did look like it was naturalistic and grounded, even though we did light every single shot. So that actually made me happy. I was like, oh, that's great. It doesn't look like it was overblown or overproduced, which was great. Obviously, buggies tent is super overproduced and crazy,

NFS: The best compliment you could ever give a DP is when someone says, "Oh yeah, I didn't even notice the lighting."

Whitaker: It's appropriate for the story and it tells the story. The cinematography should never supersede the story. You can make the most beautiful film in the world, but if it doesn't serve the story, then it's pointless.

NFS: I'm curious if there was a learning curve for you when you were working in all these tanks and thinking about visual effects and the post-production process when creating these shots.

Whitaker: I'd done a lot of visual effects work before on shows, but this was definitely different in terms of working in the tanks. Sometimes I thought we would need more blue screens and other times I thought we would need less. I was always sort of surprised with visual effects. Sometimes they'd be like, "Oh, don't worry about it." Other times, they'd put up 40 meters of blue screens. So sort of learning with water and these characters and the boats and all of the rigging and all of that, which I hadn't done before when they wanted things done and when they didn't. I still don't totally understand it. I'm not actually in the room doing the visual effects, but it always amazes me when they say, "Oh, we'll just roto that." Sometimes, you just have someone's head against the sky and they're like, you have to put up a giant screen. So it has a lot to do with hair flyaway colors of hair. But every time I do a job, it always is a new experience. Every visual effects supervisor is different as well.

NFS: For One Piece, what was your favorite lighting setup to create and what are you most proud of from those two episodes that you've worked on so far?

Whitaker: Oh, Buggy's Tent, a hundred percent. I mean, that was huge. We rigged that for a couple of months, and then we did a lot of pre-lighting, designing, and lighting cues. Everything that you see is on camera. With most of the sets, I tried to keep the lights off the floor so that the actors could have a stage to work in, especially with Buggy, because he's all over the place and he is doing crazy moves, and then there's fight sequences. We designed all the lighting in the ceiling and then the visual effects incorporated it into the tent. It is tricky. I don't know if you know this about One Piece, but nobody really knows where electricity comes from there. There's not like there's a power plant and they're all on islands. I know because, like I said, I've seen so many of the episodes. It's a spoiler, but I know where the electricity comes from. But we had also to be cognizant of the fact that there technically isn't really electricity. When you set up big movie lights and you see them in frame, you also have to imagine that there's something behind the scenes that's creating that. We had to think about all those story points as well.
Jeff Ward as Buggy The Clown in season 1 of One Piece.

'One Piece'

Credit: Casey Crafford/Netflix

NFS: Is there any piece of technology or a lesson that you learned from this production that you're going to take with you onto your next project?

Whitaker: I don't know if I'm allowed to talk about it really, but Scanline, who was one of our visual effects companies, created a new technology actually that we used for Buggy when his head was not on his body when he was talking. We shot everything live, but they shot the scenes where his head was not on his body here in Los Angeles on stage. Basically, it's all real as opposed to in the past it would've been CG or face replacement. So it's a new technology that they created, and they've used it on a few movies since then, but I think it's still pretty private and under the radar. So that was really cool, and I got to watch that. It was nice too because it meant they were using my lighting. They weren't replacing anything later, so his face was lit the way that I had lit it, which I loved.

NFS: Oh, that's so awesome that we're preserving the cinematographer's goal and the vision that they had. We love innovations in filmmaking.

Whitaker: When they're in a good way. It's like sometimes it can go the other way where there are too many visual effects. I find doing more the most you can in camera always is the best, but there are obviously things we can't do on camera.

NFS: Is there any advice you want to give to any cinematographers who want to play in something as fantastical as one piece?

Whitaker: I love what I do and I always have fun, and I think it's a really hard job. The politics are really complicated. I think the easiest part of my job is shooting. I'd say the politics are the hardest part. And knowing when to fight and when to not and what to fight for, when to compromise. We all have to compromise at times, and that's something that you don't really can't teach. You can't really tell anybody. You have to learn. I think it took me about 20 years of shooting to really figure it out. I thought I knew everything when I was younger, but it really took a lot of work, a lot of work in the field to really learn about how to balance all of that out. So I think if you're going to go into a project that's this big, there's so many moving parts and there's so many producers, and there's a lot of opinions.

You have to have a thick skin and also appreciate the fact that you don't necessarily get to make all the decisions. You're part of a group. It's very different than film when you go into a movie. I just finished a film. It was myself, the director, and the visual effects supervisor for sure. It was a big visual-effects-heavy movie, but it's like a little trifecta when you're working in television, you have showrunners, you have producers, and you have a studio that's already attached. It's much more of a moving parts kind of machine. It's still a wonderful experience. It's just you're also not doing it from start to finish most of the time. So especially something this big, I never could have done more than two episodes. I was there for eight months doing two episodes. It's like it gets to a certain point where you have to get home and see your family. But I would've loved to have done more. It was just too long. I would've been there for a year.

I\u00f1aki Godoy as Monkey D. Luffy, Emily Rudd as Nami in season 1 of One Piece. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix

'One Piece'

Courtesy of Netflix

NFS: Hopefully, they get a Season 2, and then you get to come back to the first two episodes.

Whitaker: I definitely would love to do more the next time. As I said, we did so much research and development that we wouldn't need as much prep this time. We were trying to figure out how leafy stretched and how buggy broke apart and so many different things, and just the whole world itself. It was a big undertaking and so many skeptics. I'm really, really happy that people are enjoying it and seeing that it's fun. It's like, don't take it too seriously. It's just a really fun show. It's light, it's witty, it's also dark. So I think that they found a really good balance in putting the show together. And my director was just a huge part of that in terms of finding the cast and being so supportive of me as well. And what we did together. We had so much fun. It was hard, but we had a really good time.

NFS: That's what matters. It's so strange that people have this weird negative feeling toward anime that's becoming live-action. But I think there's something very special about One Piece that kind of gives new life to this very long-running series that's been around and has this kind of daunting presence for people who want to try to dip their toe into that water. I think this will reach a whole new crowd. And even a crowd that might've been afraid to touch a thousand-episode running series.

Whitaker: Exactly. That's kind of what I think. It's like, there's not many people probably now that would dive back 25 years of material and start from scratch. But you never know. I mean, it was interesting for me when Cowboy Bebop came out, I started watching Cowboy Bebop anime, and I'd never seen it before, but it introduced me to that and some of the other shows that have come out. I think, as you said, I think this one is more accessible, I think because it's about family and it's about young kids. A lot of people can relate to just searching for friends and searching for family. I think I talked about this recently, this is very deep, but just in terms of social media and how a lot of teenagers don't really spend time relating to each other in person. Because there's no technology in this show and there's no technology in their world, they have snail phones. It's a very different type of show that even though it's not on earth still, it's, it's grounded in terms of it could be realistic. It's not so far out. I mean, except for when you start getting into the fish people. But I feel like just the straw hats themselves, they are just kids.

One Piece is now streaming on Netflix.