Shooting Emotional Journey of Lessons in Chemistry with DP Jason Oldak

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Jason Oldak is the cinematographer behind episodes 103, 104, 107, and 108 of Apple TV+’s newest show Lessons in Chemistry, starring Brie Larson, Lewis Pullman, Kevin Sussman, Aja Naomi King, and more.

Set in the 1950s, Lessons in Chemistry is based on a best-selling novel beloved by fans and with a star-studded cast following Elizabeth Zott whose dream of being a chemist is put on hold when she finds herself pregnant, alone, and fired from her lab.

Across all of his episodes, Jason builds on the look of the show to expand worldbuilding and emphasize Elizabeth's journey across different stages in her life, each with their own challenges. In episodes 103 and 104, he was challenged with shooting some of the scenes from the perspective of Elizabeth's dog to convey her grief over losing Calvin and anxiety about becoming a mother. In episode 7, Jason had a challenge to create a distinctive look for 1930s flashbacks that would differentiate them from the rest of the show but also highlight the emotional weight they carried. 

PH: How did you approach the task of expanding the visual language and worldbuilding in Lessons in Chemistry, particularly in episodes 103, 104, 107, and 108?

Jason Oldak: Lessons in Chemistry tells the story of Elizabeth Zott’s journey. Each episode of the limited series tends to create a different emotional and physical stage and gave the filmmakers a jumping off point for tone and the visual language. The episodes provided room to play with style of shots, our plan for lighting and for movement of camera, but always keeping in mind that there needs to be a grounded “Lessons” feel throughout.

In episode 103, we dealt with an immense amount of grief and sadness. It’s quite the departure from the first two episodes, where our love story began. Losing someone close to you creates a sensation that the world has stopped moving. The silence feels vast and overwhelming. It felt like a necessary visual departure from the light and to embrace the darkness and the stillness. At the beginning of the episode, Elizabeth learns of the news of Calvin’s passing. We wanted to create a sensation of the pausing of time. Bert & Bertie (directors of ep 103 & 104) and I devised a series of shots that play over cranked and blended together in the edit, to create the passage of time, in a now foreign environment (funeral homes and cemeteries). There were a lot of scenes in the episode that needed the stillness to process the pain.

In episode 104, we deal with birth and new beginnings. The episode narrates an initial discomfort which eventually arcs to find determination. Our lighting and camera work was distinctive of these emotions. For a lot of the hospital work, we wanted to feel Elizabeth’s discomfort. We opted for some handheld work and extreme shallowness with our focus. We used a device called the Dekanizer, on the front element of the camera to create a dreamlike state when Calvin enters her vision and guides her through the birthing process. As more clarity appears in Elizabeth’s world, she decides to convert her kitchen to an industrial lab. The directors and I, created an elaborate number of shots all feeling like it was one fluid movement of the camera, creating time passing. The camera moves in and around the kitchen, with stitched edits in a few places, as the viewer watches the transformation unfold. Different characters come and go building the passage of time. In the end, we land on Elizabeth and a vision of Calvin reminiscing about their past and their love for one another. 

In episode 107, the penultimate episode takes us back to the origin of Calvin and his side of our love story. This episode had a plethora of visual opportunities. Tara Miele, our director of 107 and 108, and I created a unique look for young Calvin’s world in the 1930’s. It felt appropriate to strip down the color as this is where Calvin’s life started. Once we bridge the gap to adult Calvin, and his scientific achievements, we contrast the world with warmth and color. Another opportunity that challenged our visual vocabulary was the correspondence between our man of science and our man of God. Tara and I created a cohesion of imagery that flowed back and forth sometimes metaphorically to the spoken word being said. We romanticized the influence each of them had on their worlds through the way of camera movement and composition.  

In episode 108 we come full circle, find focus and a clear path ahead. A big arc to the final episode is Elizabeth’s decision with her future at Supper at Six. We devised fluid camera moves and our lighting felt clear and controlled. The number of shots we devised, and how we introduced the show was important, as this will be the last time we step foot in the Supper at Six studio. As we reveal Elizabeth’s new profession, we contrast this with a more simplistic approach to the set design, lighting and shot design. In one of the final scenes of the series, we are in the Zott residence and Elizabeth is hosting a dinner party with all of our characters under one roof.  She greets them as she passes through the house from room to room. We designed the camera to dance through this interaction with only one or two cuts. My intention was to have the audience feel as if they were as much a part of this POV and this journey with these folks that Elizabeth was. It felt like a perfect way to say goodbye to our show.

PH: Episode 103 and 104 presented a unique challenge with scenes shot from the perspective of Elizabeth's dog. Can you share insights into how you tackled this challenge and the creative choices made to convey her grief and anxiety?

Jason Oldak: We learn the origin of 6:30, our dog in the show, at the beginning of 103. Throughout ep 103 and 104, we tend to view a lot of perspective through the dog’s eyes. It was imperative that we were very honest with where the camera was placed, to feel as though we were with the POV of the dog. One of our consistent camera tools on the show was a stabilized remote head called an ARRI SRH 360. Our A camera would live on this head when we did any studio work. Cat Smith, our production designer, worked with us and built the sets with a smooth flooring in mind to help if we needed a move without track. The stabilized 360 head, underslung, allowed us to get low enough to feel the perspective of the dog. With the stabilization and the smooth floors, this allowed us to not rely on dolly track to move through the sets with our dog in frame. This also meant the dog didn’t have to walk over any film related objects. We could dolly towards the dog, or place the camera over its shoulder and move with him. We also utilized this type of work with cranes when out in the world. 

6:30’s team of wranglers were pros and helped us get the dog to land on the right marks and look where we needed the eyeline to be delivered to. It took a village!

When dealing with the grief in episode 103, the directors and I wanted a somber balletic tone to the way the camera moved. A slow and steady approach like time has come to a halt. Our lighting needed to encompass a different level of darkness from the rest of the show. Creating less wrap in our lighting. We would place Elizabeth in frames within frames to feel confinement. At different times, we would move with her aggression. Brie Larson performed so much of episode 103 with little to no dialogue. It was all in her face and her movements.There were times when the camera just needed to be still so we could process her performances that much better.

Our opening montage sequence of 103 is designed to smack you over the head with the amount of grief you are about to witness in this episode. It’s an unbelievable shift in tone from episode 102 and we then carry this theme of filmmaking through the rest of the episode. In the end, we created an aggressive and determined montage as we reveal she is pregnant.  This style shifts us into what we are about to experience in episode 104.

When we arrive at our cemetery location in ep 103, the sky was filled with a blanket of overcast skies. However, the cloudy skies had soft light that scattered everywhere. I needed to shape this and create a level of darkness to this world. Our Key Grip, Adam Kolegas, and his team pulled every large black solid framed rag off the truck and we created a wall of dark material to really shape that skylight and form darker tonality to the faces with negative fill. 

PH: As Lessons in Chemistry is set in the 1950s with occasional flashbacks to the 1930s, how did you go about creating a distinctive look for the different time periods while maintaining a cohesive visual style across all episodes?

Jason Oldak: The world of Lessons in Chemistry in the 1950’s has hints of the old AGFA film stock. A warmish quality, but with room for cool tones to pop through. The colors that Mirren Gordon-Crozier (our costume designer) and Cat Smith (our production designer) crafted were unbelievable resemblances to the time period and worked beautifully with our designed LUT. Our lighting resembled  elements of the period, never wanting to overly stylize the image. The word naturalistic is used quite often in cinematography these days, but I really wanted to stay truthful to the feel of the light source in the frame. The lights that were used to motivate were subtle in tone. I wanted a refinement in how light passed through the frame and embraced the fall off. We added atmospheric smoke to carry the light through the room, and used vintage glass to round out the look and feel of the time.  

Episode 107 goes back in time to the 1930s and tells the story of Calvin Evans origin. Because this episode was structured differently than almost any other episode of the series, we felt there was room to try a unique look to young Calvin’s 1930s world. Calvin was raised in a boys orphanage, with little to nothing, all in search of a home. I felt it might be interesting to pull some of the color away from the image and cool it off. I was inspired by a mix of reference images that were shared with our DIT and final colorist to get a base LUT to work off of. As Calvin grows older and finds a path through his scientific advancements, we introduce our “Lessons” look, a warmer more saturated palette. A flash photo bulb transitions the two worlds. This is where it most clearly shows the two distinctive time period looks.

PH: In episode 107, you had to create a distinctive look for 1930s flashbacks. How did you balance the need for differentiation while ensuring the emotional weight of these scenes remained impactful and integral to the overall narrative?

Jason Oldak: There is a distinction between where Calvin starts in his life and where he ends up. As a young man, he was stripped of a family and a home. But he had a drive and perseverance. As we start our story in the 1930s, we decided to strip the color away and create a cooler palette with blooming highlights. As we transition to adult Calvin, who has become more established through his scientific achievements, our world has more color and warmth to it. It felt important to give these two worlds their own characteristics.  

PH: How closely did you collaborate with the cast and other crew members to ensure that the visual storytelling complemented the characters' emotional journeys, especially considering the star-studded cast of Lessons in Chemistry?

Jason Oldak: Within each block’s prep, I worked thoroughly with both directors, discussing the emotionality and the nuances in each scene. We created shot lists and how we felt the blocking could play out.  We would have a solid plan going into our block of episodes.

As closely as I worked with our directors in prep, I was in full communication with my camera, grip and lighting team. Half the battle is hiring a talented team behind you that you can communicate your vision with and it’s executed with ease. Our camera operators had a wonderful rapport with our actors and they were in sync about what was needed for the best result. If I needed our actors to take a few steps to the left because of lighting and compositional aesthetics, they were on board to facilitate.  

I was in awe of our cast’s performances throughout the series. They brought their all on set, each and every day. I wanted to reciprocate and give them a set to move around in and not feel confined. Dependent on their blocking, I tried to keep the lighting and grip on set to a minimal amount.

PH: Given the advancements in cinematography technology, were there any specific tools or techniques you utilized in these episodes that were particularly instrumental in achieving the desired visual aesthetic?

Jason Oldak: Almost all of our lighting was exclusive to using LED dimmable bi colored units. Except for our HMI’s or occasional need for a larger tungsten source, the LED’s synced up to our dimmer boards allowing for myself and Len Levine (our gaffer) to quickly dial in different levels based off of pre rigged, and set lighting setups. Even though the lights are not of the period, the quality never felt foreign to the time period. The technology with where lights have come from even 10 years ago is leaps and bounds. We would use small battery powered units as eye light and for accents when in small places on set. For our Supper at Six set, Len worked with the set dec team and our lighting rental company to find old 1950s era lights that were hallowed out and retrofitted with LED units to keep the temp in the room down and allowed us to dim our units to the desired level without losing the color temp we needed.

Having the Arri SRH remote stabilized head was a game changer for me. It was the first time I used this head on a show. It mostly lived on our A dolly. Because of the smoothness of the set floors and the stabilization of the head, it allowed us to move camera through spaces and boom down to levels that were never compromised. I love Steadicam, but i feel like it’s a tool that has its limitations. This tool took me to places Steadicam couldn’t. Dealing with adults and kids and dogs and movement through a show, this head did it all. It helped with the pairing of three excellent artists (Mika Levin, A cam op, Joe Ruiz A cam dolly, and Ian Barbella A cam 1st AC ) who ran that system like an F1 race car.  I was very impressed.

It's not necessarily new technology, but the utilization of cranes on this show, let us achieve things that would not be possible otherwise. For all of our rowing work, we had a 35’ moviebird crane on a pontoon boat and would ride “boat to boat” and achieve shots that I would never envision we could get otherwise. It was an exceptional tool. We additionally had a lot of running work. We used a patriot car with a movebird crane and an M7 head to create a plethora of angles and have the camera run side by side, trail behind or tower over our runner in frame. 

PH: Were there any specific challenges you faced in episodes 107 and 108, which aired on November 17th and 24th, and how did you overcome them to bring the story to life?

Jason Oldak: Throughout episode 107, Calvin and Rev Wakely form a friendship through letter correspondence, leading them to open up their minds to each other’s beliefs and world views. 

The letters are penned in the script as VO but with very little scene direction to match. Tara Miele (director of 107&108) and I were tasked with finding a visual diary that would compliment the voice over to each man’s correspondence to one another. We found crossover with their words and created metaphoric imagery in the other man’s world. We pieced together a list of shots and locations desired for these shots. Working alongside the AD, the location manager, and art team, we carefully pieced together a schedule that could reflect the added locations to an already packed schedule and paired them with locations we were already using. It was quite the puzzle placement but it all worked out in the end. 

Every cinematographer will tell you that their biggest fear is watching that sun set and knowing that we did not complete the work for the day. Our day on the water, shooting all of our row work for 107 & 108 was an extremely tight schedule. The plan was to shoot the row work on a lake in San Dimas, CA in the early part of December. A time of the year where the sun sets at 4:30p if you’re lucky. We arrived way before the sun came up and had everything pre rigged to get out on the water as soon as that sun was rising. Tara, myself and our AD worked out a very specific timetable so it left little room for error. In addition to our own water work, we also were tasked with shooting a portion of ep 105’s row work that day and shooting two scenes along the edge of the water, one being a lengthy dialogue scene in 108. We had our work cut out for us.  In the end, the light always seemed to be in the right place at the right time and our team was on their A game and knew exactly what needed to be done. The success is in the results!

In episode 108, which is the climax of our story, our heroine makes a decision regarding her present state and her future. This was always written with a lot of pieces happening over a large part of the Supper at Six set with a lot of dialogue for our lead to memorize. To top it off, the schedule had us completing it all in one day. We brought in a 3rd camera team. We did a heavy amount of prep, days prior to the shoot day, with shot diagrams, to figure out how to best tackle this within the hours allotted to the crew and the talent. We made our day with strategic planning and execution. 

One of the last few scenes of the show involves all of our characters spread throughout the Zott residence as Elizabeth makes her way through each room greeting everyone and bringing the group to the table for dinner. Our goal was for a minimal amount of shots in the sequence. It took a heavy amount of planning with the blocking of the actors and the camera to have everything flow from one piece to the next. We wanted the camera to feel like we were moving through the group as if we were Elizabeth. Myself, Tara and our A Steadicam Op Mika Levin, worked out a beautiful ballet with our actors and the camera.  Once we figured out where the camera was going, we then had to figure out where we could hide our lights to give luminance to the actors, but not be seen. It was challenging as we almost saw a 270 degree portion of the set. The result feels quite seamless.

PH: Lessons in Chemistry is based on a best-selling novel. How did the source material influence your approach to cinematography, and were there any particular scenes that posed a unique challenge in translating the written word to a visual medium?

Jason Oldak: I thought it was brilliant that the show was based off a best-selling novel, however I decided from the beginning that I was not going to read the book until I was done with filming. I realize it may seem odd to some, but if our writers felt compelled to change or add to the original story, I wanted to keep my mind fresh to what we were working with and not be confused by the original framework.

I would receive the scripts and visually break them down the same way I would on previous jobs.  Zach Galler (the alternating DP) and I shared similar imagery from our initial look books with the producers and found a common dialogue in our approach for the visual structure of the series. 

The dog narration at the beginning of ep 103 probably created the most unique of challenges with translation to the screen. We had to conceptualize how to portray the dog in visually compelling ways, mirroring the voice over work but realizing that we were working with a dog and making sure that our ideas were able to be conceived. It took some fine tuning for sure!    

PH: Elizabeth's journey involves navigating various stages of life, each with its own challenges. How did you use cinematography to emphasize these different stages and the evolution of her character throughout the episodes you worked on?

Jason Oldak: My process with the cinematography and how I approached each stage in Elizabeth’s life was a simple one…I would strip each episode down and ask myself, what is the emotionality and what story are we telling? Lessons in Chemistry chronicles Elizabeth’s Zott’s life, and the show could easily have gone in drastically different directions for each chapter. However, with all the variables that happen within the making of a television series, it’s important for the cinematography to have continuity. Even though there were nuances I touched on for each chapter I photographed, I tried to hold onto an overall style that kept the series feeling unified. 

PH: With episodes 107 and 108 set to air soon, is there anything you would like the audience to pay special attention to or anticipate in terms of visual storytelling in these upcoming episodes?

Jason Oldak: I have a fondness for episode 107. I am a big fan of how we go back in time to see the story from a different perspective. I really enjoyed how Calvin and Rev. Wakely share their insight and intellect and learn from one another. Episode 108 had such realization and I really enjoyed how the story came full circle.    

However, my biggest hope is that our audience will watch this series and be floored by all of the elements, working as one. I am very proud of the visual storytelling but I hope it doesn’t stand out anymore than the costumes, set design, editing and the performances. If a show works in unison as one complete, powerful piece of work, then all the filmmakers have done their job!

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