The cinematographer behind the second season of the hit Netflix series GLOW and the breakout Hulu drama/comedy Ramy, Adrian Peng Correia, has worked on a variety of television and film projects. He talked to ProductionHUB about his Emmy-contending work on these shows.
PH: Let's start with your work on GLOW Season 2. How did you get involved?
Adrian Peng Correia: A friend of mine had a dinner with Jesse Perentz and recommended me to Liz and Carly. That got my reel into the room and I interviewed from there. That’s how it often happens, someone knows someone, knows someone.
PH: How do you approach shooting a show within a show? What intricacies do you have to pay close attention to?
Adrian Peng Correia: When you take over a show there are always things owed in terms of continuity, but there is also a mandate from the creators to further the story and the style. I like to find a theme that I can latch onto for the season, a story point to guide and shape the season. GLOW had this large element of the show that was about the conflict of the show and the real life personas of these characters and that was what I used to drive me. I wanted there to be this underlying tension in the lighting between show and real life elements. I built my philosophy from there.
In terms of attention, it must be paid to literally everything, but I was coming into a situation with all HODs returning to the fray. In that way you have an amazing support system in place. It frees your eye to be able to dissect those details within the frame and the story. I derive my choices and specificity on the emotional and psychological foundation of character and what they are experiencing within the scene. In that way all the elements from costume to make-up and hair and most especially set design are critical to me because they are the bedrock of the world I shoot. There is no photography without those other departments.
PH: How would you describe your visual style? How is that translated in this show?
Adrian Peng Correia: I believe in camera and lighting that are active participants in the storytelling. I don’t necessarily think that means completely breaking from motivated naturalism, but I definitely like feeling the lighting. I’ve shot all manner of material and working in that way your style has to be a bit modular. I take pride in being able to read a script, and regardless of genre, know how to attack it visually. Many of my favorite cinematographers like Stanley Cortez, Gregg Toland, Conrad Hall and Darius Khondji use camera in ways that are dramatically true but dwell in expressionism and that’s a place I like to try and go to in my work. Like for example in Episode Eight: The Good Twin I used older tungsten lights with metal shutters for lightning effects and purposely imperfect camera operating to suit the lower budget and ramshackle nature of the GLOW show.
PH: There must be a ton of lighting and camerawork to create some of the bigger production scenes - how do you navigate those types of scenes?
Adrian Peng Correia: There certainly is, but I’m reminded of Egg Shen in Big Trouble in Little China talking about how things start “But that’s how it always begins…very small.” I survey the location or set and attack it piece by piece. What are the motivating practical units? Do I need to add an overall ambience and can I work that large of a unit in the space to get realistic fall off? Essentially I try to find the balance between what should be lighting the scene and how exactly I want that world represented photographically.
I choose where I want to ideally put lights. What practicals should actually play or not, and then over the course of planning and having an idea of how the world should look I “paint” elements of the location or set to create depth in the blocking of the scene. The methodology holds whether it’s a dining room table in a suburban home or a football stadium. In terms of camera, it depends on several elements. You want to use the camera to give scope to the scene, momentum, and energy. Whether it translates into a compelling composition or a dramatic camera move, but you also want to be judicious with your time.
In a show like GLOW, with a large ensemble and the need for extensive amounts of coverage, it’s in making sure that the shots line up editorially in a way that doesn’t feel disorienting or rushed or claustrophobic. At the end of it you still have a schedule and a budget you have to answer to as well. It’s all of a bit a dance between all of it. Regardless, when you look at the shots you line up, are they telling the story in clean and powerful manner? Again, for me, it’s about having that perspective that I can align my decision making to and staying true to my instincts. If I feel like the moments we capture are honest and to the fullest expression of the script, that is the key.
PH: Each character is on his/her own journey. How do you portray each of those journeys for the audience?
Adrian Peng Correia: At some point when you read the scripts, you have to put yourself in the shoes of the characters and try to understand what are their motivations. You always have to tackle it from a place of compassion. Whether it’s Debbie’s crumbling marriage and insecurities, Ruth’s feeling of being artistically marginalized, Arthie’s exploration of her sexuality, Tamme’s conflicting feelings of her public facade with her son, these stories are all important to the thread of GLOW’s season.
It’s too long to detail all the specifics on a character by character basis so I’ll stick to Debbie and Tamme’s path on Episode four, “The Mother of All Matches”. The thing with that episode was making sure that the psychological pressure on both characters was consistent until the climax. For Debbie, it’s this unpredictable and chaotic tsunami, and for Tamme it’s this slow burn realization that she’s going to have to come clean with her son. The camera has energy and drive - the characters differ in how they deal with pressure. Debbie expels it and tears down her world, while Tamme buries it inward and shields herself from the inevitable. The spectacle of the match is the biggest of the season until the finale, and it has all the energy and release that the episode has been building in the previous scenes.
After the emotional trauma of the match, we strip down in the next scene with very stark and simplified lighting and camera style. It’s a way to allow the truth of the moment for Tamme and Ernest to be the focus, unadorned and free of manipulation. For Debbie, her moment at home with Mark has a similar sense of resignation. It is only in the last scene in the orchestrated steadicam move in her Son’s room do we let a bit of relief and lyricism back into the world as we see Debbie’s connection with her child has never wavered. It also neatly ties into the point of mothers and sons, sacrifice and obligation.
PH: What equipment do you lean to help you achieve your vision?
Adrian Peng Correia: I’m camera and lens agnostic. I have used Panavision Primos and Arri Alexas for my last few projects, but it comes down to my emotional connection to the material. There are pluses and minuses to all digital cameras and lenses, with some simple testing and a general gut feeling about the project, I make my choice unless constricted by deliverable requirements. HDR finishes also dictate some factors in my choice of capture format and lensing but otherwise I’m pretty instinctual when it comes to how I originate an image. The lighting evolution is just as aggressive as cameras and lenses now, it has changed dramatically. Whether it’s new Astera bulbs, Jolekos or good old 20K tungsten units I really on that I see versus data sheets on lights. However, I can’t deny that the versatility of today’s tools provide incredible opportunities to implement lighting in new ways.
PH: American Princess just premiered on Lifetime. Congrats! How did that project come about?
Adrian Peng Correia: When I finished GLOW, Mark Burley (Director and EP on GLOW) spoke to me about Jenji Kohan’s next show. I read Jamie Denbo’s script and I thought it was funny, sweet and a perfect tonic for the viscousness of our current discourse. It was a story about someone trying to find a new sense of home and self. It also looked to be an incredible photographic challenge, and I wanted to push myself and the scope and logistics of the show were truly daunting to even the most seasoned cinematographer. I interviewed with the group, really hit it off with Jamie and we were off!
PH: How did your visual style come into play?
Adrian Peng Correia: It’s a show about two separate worlds. The world of the upper west side of New York was inspired by the clean high key films of Nancy Meyers’ like It’s Complicated defined by clean light and a more rounded, polished style. The Renaissance Faire is a much more textured and messy place with light that isn’t always perfect, mixed colors and a slightly rougher aesthetic. Much like other Jenji shows there is a healthy mix of genres and dramatic moments in the comedy. As a result, we could have a great deal of latitude in styling the looks of scenes to be a counter to the moment. We also have a great deal of dolly and steadicam work and some nice moments with the technocrane - the Faire itself is a really large set so there is a ton of space to block and use camera movement especially with such sizable background numbers - its a big show. The Faire is not particularly well known to most people so it was great fun and a real responsibility to frame this new world for the audience to experience. I wanted the photography to have a sense of effervescence and optimism to reflect the spirit of the people dwell there.
PH: What other projects are you excited about this year?
Adrian Peng Correia: I feel like the work we did on Ramy Season One for Hulu was really fantastic. I loved the scripts and thought the show had a real chance to create a modern version of All in the Family with a Muslim cast. The show’s look is naturally motivated but with a stylish color profile based on Fuji color motion picture stock. I felt that if we moved into a more cinematically lit and colored show we could help the audience in this new experience of unknown peoples with the collateral of shared cinematic memory via the look. The stories and experiences are very relatable just filtered through this new lens of faith. I’m really proud of all the work in that series and to help Ramy realize his vision for it was a profound honor.