In our latest interview, we spoke with Vincent De Paula, CSC, the sole cinematographer on Season 2 of Firefly Lane, now available on Netflix.
This upcoming season, Kate grapples with the painful aftermath of Johnny’s ill-fated trip to Iraq, while Tully faces a lawsuit after walking away from her talk show and must start her career over from the bottom.
Throughout the seasons, Vincent utilized lights, framing, and lens filters to capture the spirit of each decade explored in the show and reflect the characters’ mental state. The 1970s are warm and hopeful, representing dreams and aspirations of young Tully and Kate, while the 2000s are much more neutral as they deal with the reality of now-grown characters. By assigning aesthetics to each decade and life stage, Vincent made the visual aspect of the story help the viewer fully immerse themselves in the characters feelings.
PH: Hi there Vincent! I'd love to learn a little bit more about your background. How did you get into the production world?
Vincent De Paula: I was born in Galicia, in northern Spain, where the film industry is almost non-existent. There is no film background in my family, so it wasn’t the path my parents probably expected for me. So when I mentioned my desire to be involved in the “movies,” it was pretty clear that I would have to move elsewhere.
After I moved to London, UK, I got involved in documentaries, music videos, and many commercials early on in my career and then I slowly got into the narrative.
The rest, as they say, is history.
PH: Can you share some of your first few projects? Was there a moment where you knew this is what you were going to do (career wise), and what was that moment for you?
Vincent De Paula: When I moved to the UK, I started working mainly on documentaries. This taught me so much about using natural light and how to use what was available there to tell a story. It allowed me to develop a naturalistic approach that I still always prioritize today.
When I started doing more narrative, commercials, and music videos, I was able to apply that naturalistic approach. I tried to enhance it to help the story in a more dramatic way, which I have been calling since a “poetic realism” approach. I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life, being able to paint and write with light and composition as tools to tell a story.
Short films were my introduction to narrative. I also learned how wonderful the collaboration with the director and the production designer, the gaffer, and all crew members could be.
It’s always important to be bold and push your creativity in every project you do, and I have been learning new things all the time. I was at a point where I was filming mainly on 35mm and S16mm, even though digital already had a presence, but learning to expose and work in a film environment is the best school. All the projects I did early on in my career were telling me that I had found my path.
PH: What drew you to your most recent project Firefly Lane?
Vincent De Paula: I thought it was a fascinating story about friendship with American culture and history as our canvas. We could cover many topics as the background of our story and emphasize how things have changed for women regarding equality and rights from the 70s to today.
I also connected with this story much; I remember growing up in Spain with my best friend and how everything back then was about creating adventures, exploring life, dreaming about the future, etc. All these memories and experiences were a key factor in how I saw this story from a teenager's perspective.
PH: What sort of process do you go through to determine what projects you want to pursue? Is there a type of project that you haven't done yet that's a "bucket list" for you?
Vincent De Paula: In every project I do, I need to connect with the story we are telling. If I don't have that connection, I don't think I can bring anything to the story to help visualize it to an audience.
Telling a good story that I can connect with, that can move an audience, and hopefully make a difference through the message we are sending is fundamentally what I am always after in every project I do.
I have shot every genre and like to adjust my style to the project I am currently filming. Speaking of styles, I don't think I have one, and I don't think I should. It is more like the story I tell will dictate my style for that particular project. This has been the case on my last few projects, from the feature film '2 Hearts," where I was filming two parallel stories with two different timelines and looks that would eventually meet in the end, to a period drama like Firefly Lane. Then moving on to a very naturalistic, raw, and brutal story like "Maid," which we shot almost entirely handheld, to a comedy musical like "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist," which had the complete opposite visual language, then onto a thriller/horror feature film "The Inheritance," and back to this last season of Firefly Lane. And now, I am filming a superhero DC comic show to explore more of this genre.
So, I think I am an excellent example of a cinematographer that can adjust to any genre and style that the given script dictates, and I think we should all be like that. And the same can also apply to directors. For example, when I asked director Richard J Lewis, with whom I worked on Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, about his style compared to past projects, he said, "It is still storytelling, just different storytelling."
It is a cliché, but if I had to choose a genre I would like to explore more as a cinematographer, it would be Western.
PH: Can you walk me through your planning process for shooting Firefly Lane? Before you start shooting, what goes on?
Vincent De Paula: I always like to do a lot of research, and I firmly believe in fixing things while in pre production. I also tend to look more at photography as a visual reference for me and painting. Not necessarily other films all the time. Since Firefly Lane covered so many different decades, I did research the 1970s, 80s, and 2000s from a historical and cultural perspective. These were the main periods we covered.
Visually we all have our ideas as to how these periods should look. Still, it was more important to show the decades from a character and emotional perspective rather than just having a period-accurate approach.
Photographers like Stephen Shore and Saul Leiter are always a reference for me, and I did look back at the work of Ed Lachman, ASC, on the film “Virgin Suicides,” which was ultimately a good reference for our 1970s part of the story. I always create a lookbook too that I like to print at high quality and then share with everyone.
PH: How would you describe your approach to shooting? Is there a type of style(s) you prefer to shoot in?
Vincent De Paula: Before getting involved in narrative and commercials in the UK, I did shoot a bunch of documentaries using the actual space as a canvas. I always tried to utilize natural lighting and find ways to shape and make it work while simultaneously trying to create the most cinematic possible style. So this embedded in me a style very keen on naturalism but enhancing it to add a dramatic sauce that would allow the audience to connect emotionally with the story.I always try to bring a very passionate and positive vision to every project I am involved with.
I believe my work as a cinematographer is collaborating with the director to find pictures that describe the story from an emotional point of view.The story is very important to me, and I need to have a connection with it.
PH: Throughout this season of the show, can you share how you utilized lights, framing, and lens filters to capture the spirit of each decade?
Vincent De Paula: I wanted the different decades to have a distinctive look, although we did not want the different periods to be too radically different. Of course, when filming a period drama, everyone interprets how these different decades should look based on history, culture, films, photographs, and experiences. But I wanted to approach these different looks from an emotional and character perspective rather than just a period-accurate perspective. Transitions also play a huge part in our visual vocabulary, especially when transitioning between different periods, so we are always trying to find interesting ways to create these.
The chore of our main story lives in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 2000s.
The 1970s has the warmest look in the whole series. It is our happy and warm period. This is a time when our girls get to know each other and explore youth together. In the 70s, yellows and greens are very prominent, with milky blacks suggesting a pastel feel. For the characters, it should be about exploration, hope, adventure, youth, friendship, and learning, creating an environment that should generally feel safe and warm. It should be the time that the girls would always look back to, their special moment, dreaming about an amazing life ahead of them, before they would grow to experience the reality of life. To help achieve this overall tone for this period, I had stockings in the lenses and an 81EF filter at all times. There was almost always a hard and warm light coming in through the windows. As both characters have very different personalities, I also wanted a different approach for our camera movement and framing for this period. I introduced a more dynamic feeling to young Tully’s character, played by Ali Skovbye, contrasting with a more still and isolated feeling to that of young Kate, played by Roan Curtis. It was more obvious earlier in season one, and as her relationship with Tully matures, they will share the frame more, etc.
The 1980s have a deeper contrast with a more saturated palette since the 80s had more vivid colors and a particular look when it comes to clothing and hairstyle, which is characteristic of this
period. Therefore, I introduced a different filtration for the 1980s using Schneider Classic Soft filters of different strengths.At this point, our characters are experiencing the real world, first jobs, relationships, etc. Everyone at this age has a higher energy that should also be part of this style so the camera movement can get even more dynamic. Here we are not so observant of two girls growing up together, but we are more participants, so I feel we have now moved in closer with our characters. The use of wider focal lengths closer to our subjects helped achieve that feeling. We want to feel like we are there with them, helping them transition into adulthood and the real world. Instead of casting different actors for this period, like in the 1970s, Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke played themselves in the 1980s, too, so we were doing de-aging in post production to help sell their younger selves.
We treated the 2000s as our “present” period. In season one, we showed how Tully had had a successful career, contrasting with Kate, who is struggling career-wise but is the only one who managed to start a family. Framing for this period is more dramatic, and some scenes feel like the framing is calling for a more short-sighted composition.Until now, we have seen our girls growing and becoming women, and we have witnessed the development of their strong relationships. But now, in this period, we see more of the ups and downs of two mature women dealing with the routines of everyday life. Overall, it feels more current, and the camera movement is looser for this period. I had a subtler filtration for this period, with the use of light Black Satin filters or none at all at times and softer lighting coming through windows. The images have a more desaturated palette overall.
PH: Did this present any challenges? How did you address those?
Vincent De Paula: It is really challenging to film all these different periods and have a shooting schedule that reflects only a specific period on a given shooting day. The 1970s were the easiest period in terms of scheduling, as we had different actors for this part of the story, Ali Skovbye playing a young Tully Hart and Roan Curtis playing a young Kate Mularkey.
Sometimes had to film Katherine Heigl, Sarah Chalke, and other cast members between the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s on the same day. It meant there was always going to be a waiting time for hair, makeup, and wardrobe to switch between these different timelines, so we tried to schedule them with only one period on our shooting day as much as possible. We couldn’t consistently achieve this on a TV schedule, but everyone did a fantastic job when we had to switch periods on the same day.
There were also times when we went back to the exact location that spans different periods. For instance, there were locations we covered in the 1970s that the characters returned to throughout the decades, which means that our art department would need time to prepare the locations and sets to play for different timelines.
PH: How did assigning aesthetics to each decade and life stage help evoke emotions for the viewers?
Vincent De Paula: I am always trying to light and frame the different periods to bring out the emotional side of the scene and hopefully evoke that same emotion to the audience. I have a personal connection with the story we tell in the 1970s, in terms of the story and emotions we are telling in that timeline, and I hope the audience can also find those moments where they can identify with this story.
PH: If you had to choose one (or a few) films that really evoked emotion in you while watching through visual style, what would those be and how?
Vincent De Paula: From a visual standpoint, I think it was “Il Conformista” (The Conformist), shot by Vittorio Storaro. It was the first time I reacted to just the visuals due to the great contrast between light and shadow, the different colors in different locations from an emotional perspective, and the framing and camera movement. The latter was normally orchestrated by director Bernardo Bertolucci who I think was a genius in orchestrating camera movement in his films.
It opened my eyes in a way that I understood then how powerful cinematography could be in telling a story. After this discovery, I started watching films from a different perspective and analyzing light, color, composition, etc. There have been many films that have impacted me visually, and I always go back to them for inspiration. And the same applies to photography and painting.
PH: In your opinion, what is one of the most essential characteristics of a great DP?
Vincent De Paula: We are responsible for everything visual, but there is also the crew management side, the collaboration with the director, the scheduling with the AD, the time put aside for our research and continued learning of the craft, etc. So a great DP should check all those boxes, and then on top of that, if you can have a great attitude on set, then even better.
I think of myself as someone who should set an example for all my crew about discipline on set and always having the right attitude. I enjoy what I do; I always show my passion for my craft and love talking about it. What I mean is that cinematography is so much more than just being talented at lighting and composition. There is a lot of management dealing with stress, having to move fast, making decisions, and finding answers for hundreds of people daily.
PH: Would you like to share any upcoming projects?
Vincent De Paula: After filming season 2 of Firefly Lane, I had a few offers but chose to join the team of the DC comics TV series The Flash, as they were about to shoot their last season ever, and I wanted to explore more of this superhero genre and bring my approach to it. We are adjusting the visual style a bit in this final season by making subtle changes and moving away from a pre-established palette.
It’s pretty unusual for me to join a show that already had a visual language. I usually like to start a show and create the look, but I thought it was an excellent opportunity to elevate the show and be creative with this genre. I’m currently prepping episode 8, and so far, it has been a great experience.
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