Víctor Tadashi Suárez has a lauded career in documentary film and TV. He's a two-time Emmy award winner and a 13-time Emmy-nominated director of photography who has worked on projects with Al Jazeera, Frontline, the New York Times, and more.

He brought those talents to the recent viral hit docuseries, Quiet on Set, which explored the predatory, sexist, and racist experiences of child actors and crew members in the heyday of Nickelodeon's variety and sitcom programming—think All That, The Amanda Show, and Drake & Josh.

The series tells those stories primarily through interviews with those sharing their experiences. Suárez was tasked with setting up and capturing those interviews and establishing the visual tone of the series, ultimately leaning on Nickelodeon as inspiration. Suárez told us about his experience in the nonfiction space, tips for intimate sets, and more.

Quiet On Set: The Dark Side Of Kids TV | IDwww.youtube.com

Editor's note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: I’d love to know how you got into cinematography.

Víctor Tadashi Suárez: I did not go to film school. I went to Columbia University, but I didn't study film. I studied economics and philosophy. I was self-taught, like many people. I just grew up making films with friends, my parents’ Handycam. The time I was in school was when the SLR revolution was coming about. So I got a Canon Rebel T2i, and I was super stoked on how that looked straight out of the box.

In college, in the summers, I would gig off of Craigslist, just working on really random film projects, but learning that way. When I graduated college, I did the same, I worked off of Craigslist as a DP. I had a little Sony FS100 then, which I thought was so exciting.

And then one day, randomly, a producer from Al Jazeera on this show called Fault Lines did a Google search, I think, for “DP in New York City" and “[Canon] C300,” which I had at the time. They emailed me, and they asked if I shot documentaries. And I said, “Absolutely, yes.”

I barely knew what Al Jazeera was at the time, and I really didn't have any interest in documentaries. I worked for that show for the next six years, traveling all over the world. It was like a precursor to Vice, HBO, Showtime shows—one correspondent, me, and a producer in the field. It was very run-and-gun, but we were trying to do something that felt not like the news, that felt like an immersive documentary, more like narrative language than doc language.

And that was a great way to learn about the world and how to light stuff, shoot stuff, coverage. After that, I worked for Nat Geo Explorer for a bit, and then someone noticed my work at Left/Right, this production company that ended up doing the New York Times' weekly documentary program. I developed the look for that with them. It was that same showrunner that launched this company, Maxine, that did Quiet on Set.

NFS: It's kind of wild that they just emailed you out of the blue, and that ended up being your path. Right answer, though, just say yes.

Suárez: You always say yes, and you get that SEO right from the beginning.

NFS: What are the challenges of working in the nonfiction space? You mentioned it being a lot of run-and-gun.

Suárez: I think the main challenge is always just time and resources, and trying to make something that looks as premium and filmic as possible with very, very big constraints on time.

[And] working with small crews, sometimes. I mean, for all of Fault Lines, there was no sound person, and I was just learning. I had no idea what was normal or was not normal. I learned how to run my own sound, and for better or worse, today, for a lot of the projects I work on, I still run my own sound. I did it for Quiet on Set. A lot of the vérité stuff. Which is good, because it has its benefits, keeping a small footprint.

For the vérité stuff, trying to get those intimate moments is a challenge. You get one chance to capture them properly. And if it's a good documentary, these moments are intimate, and the access is precious. It's all about trying to capture these intimate, spontaneous moments on the very first take with the best cinematic language that you possibly can.

The other challenge I feel is in interview settings, the language of documentary is so rigid. We're always trying to advance the language or borrow more from music videos or other genres. But on the whole, if you're doing something that has interviews, and it's for a streamer, let's say, it's very rigid, the conventions. So it's one main challenge that we're always coming up against, how do you shoot these frigging interviews in a way that looks not like everything else, that feels new? And how can you push it just enough where it feels like its own thing?

Lately that's been just the most challenging thing, just trying to hit your head against the wall. How do you make this feel like something new and not just the same old stupid stuff?

V\u00edctor Tadashi Sua\u0301rez working on Quiet on SetVíctor Tadashi Suárez working on Quiet on Set
Provided/Víctor Tadashi Suárez

NFS: You mentioned the importance of those intimate moments. So what, if anything, do you do as a DP to create a sense of safety and vulnerability on a set?

Suárez: It's very hard, as well, because one way of doing that is just building trust, which takes time. But the challenge is sometimes you get dropped into a place, especially if you're just the DP, maybe the director and producer have been building a relationship on the phone or whatever for a couple of weeks, but the first time I'm meeting them, maybe we have one afternoon with this person. Maybe we have one day, maybe we have a couple of hours. You're often getting dropped into this very intimate moment. How do you do that with no time? There's no magic way to do it. I think just respecting people and just being a nice person.

You show up with all this massive gear, and it's scary. I would be freaking out if I were them. So you just want to just treat people very gently. It helps. I think having a very small crew for the intimate stuff. That’s why it's good sometimes running your own sound, because you don't have to have all these different people touching you and doing all this crazy stuff.

And also for covering scenes, build up to the close stuff. Starting wide, letting people get used to your presence, and then just very slowly working your way around, maybe from the back, just creeping around to the more intimate moments. Just your whole vibe just being like, "I'm so sorry. Thank you so much. Everything's good. Thank you so much.”

NFS: I did want to talk about your setups on Quiet on Set.

Suárez: Mary Robertson, the creator and executive producer, approached me about this project that was looking at these Nickelodeon shows that I grew up on, All That and The Amanda Show—I watched those every day. When she approached me for this, the idea was for this series looking at these shows that were so foundational to my consuming of TV as a child. I'm looking at them in this 2024 lens. I was very excited at the creative possibilities for it, and scared for what it meant about who I was as a person growing up on it.

Like I said before, the thing that we knew right away was what we didn't want it to look like, which is every other premium streaming show out there, and we didn't want it to look like a trashy true crime series—and it could have very easily been both of those things.

With those two things in mind, we developed this look that was sort of “Nickelodeon noir.” We took as our starting point the shows themselves, the color palettes from the shows. If the shows are sort of this hallucination of primary colors and high key lighting, then the look for this series was the inversion of that, the comedown or the bad trip in front of the camera.

We use the same color palette, but we changed the lighting entirely and made it super moody and made it feel dangerous. It’s a lot of archival, interviews, and some [re-creation], but so much of it's going to be interviews. We wanted to tell as much as we possibly could story-wise in the interview setups themselves. So the idea of this whole show is these behind-the-scenes stories, taking them and literally putting them center stage, literally shining light on these spaces where these traumatic events happened.

So that was the idea. We built these sets that look like behind-the-scenes support spaces of these shows. The writers’ room, the hair and makeup room, the wardrobe, the green room for parents. We built these worlds for our interviews, making it not look super premium and glossy. We wanted to stay away from something that looked super digital and clean. And because we're cutting against the archival material so much, which was in the ‘90s and 2000s, we wanted the interviews to feel a little bit dirty or filmic.

We shot on two Alexa Minis, and we underexposed by a stop. We pushed the grain. … We also used the Alexa Mini in Super 16 mode with a vintage Canon 8-64mm lens for some of our recreations and present-day LA stuff. That Super 16 combo, I think that worked really well with the archival stuff.

Behind the scenes of Quiet on SetProvided/Víctor Tadashi Suárez

NFS: Was that the main lens you used?

Suárez: Most of it was shot on Angenieux Optimo zooms, the 28-76mm and the 45-120mm, and then we had that Canon lens for our modern-day LA visuals, and we shot that at the highest ISO on the Alexa. We just tried to break that image apart entirely, and it was so satisfying.

That's what's so fun about this project, we were trying to just do things that were not what you would expect. Trying to break down the image. The lighting is super weird and dark, but with these weird pops of color and lime green oozing into each of the frames. It was cool. It was weird.

NFS: What are mistakes you see rookie DPs make, and how should they avoid them?

Suárez: I'm constantly making rookie mistakes to this day, so it's inevitable, I think. I'll tell you one mistake that I think a lot of DPs, rookie and otherwise, make to this day, which is setting up interviews where people are just in a chair floating in space in the middle of nowhere.

I don’t know if I should be saying any of this, but for a lot of my career, I didn't use any filtration in front of the lens. For a long time. No one told me that was a good idea, and I feel like everyone should be doing that all the time—a soft effects filter with the cameras these days.

I feel like the only rookie mistake you can really make is just not shooting as much as you can when you're first starting out. What was so great about the DSLR thing was suddenly, you have a camera with you all the time, and you shoot all the time. I feel like today, a lot of people are always trying to level up their gear really quickly to work, which makes a lot of sense, but there's a lot to be said for just having a camera that you can carry around all the time. That inspires you to shoot all the time and just be making stuff.

The bigger the cameras get, It gets really hard to go out there and shoot something when you have to build a whole rig out of a Pelican case. I think just going out there and shooting as much as possible is the best advice I could give to anybody.

NFS: What about advice getting into the nonfiction space?

Suárez: I think it's the same thing as getting into any space. I imagine it's like when you're starting out, the projects that you're working on as you're building your website and your reel, those are the projects that people are going to call you for.

So if you want to work in nonfiction, then you just need to work on nonfiction stuff. I mean, the good thing about nonfiction is, if you're starting out, there is in some sense a lower barrier to entry than some of the other genres.

Find a good story, a good character, a story you care about, and make a project for your website with not a ton of support. Because I didn't go to film school and I just did it all myself, I feel a bias toward just going out and building your own website, building your own portfolio, with friends and with yourself.

But I work with a lot of people that come through the Berkeley J school or the Columbia J school. I think that's a good thing about going to film school—amongst many other reasons, like learning to use filters in front of your lenses before you get too far along in your career—you get an amazing network straight out of the box. I didn't really have that when I was starting, which was definitely a challenge. I would say just make stuff that you're passionate about, and the rest will come, hopefully.