Cinematographer Alison Kelly (Grand Hotel, Counterpart, Dietland) talks about her latest project, Grand Hotel, working with Eva Longoria and changes in the film industry in an exclusive interview with ProductionHUB.
PH: Going into the project did you know what you wanted it to look like? How did you decide on a style?
Alison Kelly: I had some great preliminary conversations with Eva Longoria and Brian Tanen. We were all on the same page about leaning into the grandeur of the world and the light and color of Miami. I knew that the hotel itself needed to be a character visually. I worked with Steve Saklad, the production designer, to help us with lens ports, half walls and moveable set pieces that we could shoot through. He and his team were wonderfully collaborative. We tried to use the architecture in interesting ways to frame the story. The sets were vast and leant themselves to both interesting long lens work and grand wide shots. We also tried to use camera movement to propel the drama and mystery.
PH: You've worked with Eva Longoria, who is directing a few episodes. What was that experience like?
Alison Kelly: Eva is a wonderful leader. She is incredibly organized and focused. We do a very thorough prep, considering all of the visual elements and how to best align them for the style of the show. She is also a wizard with coverage and can work very quickly breaking down a scene to its emotional beats. It was great having her direct the first episode we shot in LA because it really set the tone for the rest of the series.
PH: What does your creative process look like? How has it changed as the industry continues to change?
Alison Kelly: It has changed a lot but the foundation stays the same. I usually begin with pulling images and references that inspire me. These include everything from lighting ideas to color palette to general mood. Over the years, I have accumulated quite a folder, but I also like going to museums and movies and getting new ideas. There is so much great software for designing stage lighting now, and with LED units the sky is the limit with color gradation and dynamic light. We really had a lot of fun creatively on Grand Hotel.
PH: Do you have a favorite shot from the series? What is it and how did you achieve it?
Alison Kelly: One of my favorite shots from the series is in an alley at night. There is a confrontation and then one character is running after another down the length of the alley. We needed a way to light the whole alley and follow them over very rough terrain. We got a 50' Technocrane from Nico Bally at Cranium, which was the perfect tool to get very dynamic coverage quickly. The camera could fly down the alley after them. We went very stark with the lighting: a couple of downlights on the buildings and an 18K on a condor several blocks away backlighting the whole area. It ended up being a very dynamic scene.
PH: What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?
Alison Kelly: One of the most challenging issues was the size of the sets. The lobby set was 120' across with exterior sets on either end. We had to be able to feel the Miami daylight spilling in, and execute scenes with 7-8 characters on the move. The lighting team — gaffer Eric Forand and key grip Michael C Price — helped come up with a brilliant strategy. Michael suggested using ultra bounces to ring the set instead of normal black teasers. These served the dual purpose of extended the walls in wide shots and giving Eric and I a place to bounce light for ambiance. This gave us the freedom to use three cameras for some really grand set pieces.
PH: You're also working on Disney+’s Diary of a Female President. How has that experience been?
Alison Kelly: It's always exciting to start a new series! We have been building the world of Elena, our hero, and it is unlike anything that has been on television before. I think the show is going to be a game-changer.
PH: Who are some of your inspirations?
Alison Kelly: Ellen Kuras, ASC is a great inspiration and dear friend. Many years ago, I was a camera assistant on her sets and she has been a role model ever since. She is incredibly ethical and kind and brings that to work, which impressed on me how important it is to bring that energy to set.
PH: What's one industry lesson that you've learned that you take with you into your everyday life?
Alison Kelly: The most universal and best lesson: TRUST YOUR GUT!
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