Darren Lew Blends Anamorphic with the DXL for Maniac

Maniac is a new Netflix miniseries based on a Norwegian dark-comedy about mental illness and pharmaceutical remedies. The project was directed by Emmy®-winner Cary Joji Fukunaga and stars Oscar®-winner Emma Stone and Oscar®-nominee Jonah Hill.

Behind the camera was Darren Lew, a frequent collaborator with Fukunaga, who is best known for his stylish work in commercials and music videos that consistently earn recognition from the MTV Music Video Awards, the AICP, and at Cannes Lions.

Lew’s background includes a philosophy degree from New York University; an internship at the iconic stills cooperative Magnum; and an apprenticeship with Steven Meisel and Annie Leibovitz.

“What is satisfying about moving around different areas of filmmaking is that each project poses different challenges,” says Lew. “I have lit beautiful people wearing the latest fashions; shot funny spots designed to make people laugh; done dramatic and cinema verité-type commercials spots that look and feel a little imperfect; and shot documentary projects for Oscar®-winner Alex Gibney.”

It has its own quality. I’m really happy with the look, particularly with the way the C Series lenses were working with this camera.

Versatility was an important asset on Maniac, which moves through past decades, imaginary time periods, and a conceptualized time in the future.

“We always return to a common era, but the names of the characters and even the language they speak change,” says Lew. “One episode might bear little or no resemblance to the next, which kept things interesting on the shoot.”

Despite the radical shifts in time and place, Lew handled the project with a relatively consistent approach overall, emphasizing practical light sources and using color science to underscore the psychology of the characters. When it came time to choose a camera that would be ready for any situation, he went with the very latest technology – the Panavision DXL equipped with the RED 8K sensor paired with Panavision anamorphic glass and augmented with an array of zooms. Lew was familiar with the DXL from his commercial work.

“The inherent feel of the camera and the lens combination did a lot of the work for us,” he says. “Unlike many shows, Maniac required an array of visual descriptions, but we didn’t elect to go with different lenses or a different way of moving the camera for each look. To me, that would be like trying to explain a good joke. We let the art direction, the acting, and the costumes present the space and time shift without being heavy handed.”

Lew and Fukunaga opted for anamorphic photography. “We asked those lenses to cover a bigger area than they typically would because of the size of the sensor,” he says. “We got a really great painterly quality at the edges that I hope will soften the perfect edge-to-edge sharpness and brightness that we typically see on HD monitors and televisions. It is hard for me to describe, but I believe the look combination goes hand in hand with the unusual nature of the show. It has its own quality. I’m really happy with the look, particularly with the way the C Series lenses were working with this camera.”

Panavision’s C Series were the primary lenses and the E Series were workhorses for their flare characteristics. The newer T Series glass served well in situations requiring close focus or a unique focal length.

“We looked at a lot of different lenses in testing,” says Lew. “Cary had used the C Series on Beasts of No Nation, and he is a big fan of those. However, Panavision and Dan Sasaki suggested a package for us, including building up some lenses from scratch. The T Series 60 mm is extremely close focus, and very lightweight. It’s a terrific lens. It’s sharp, but it has some qualities in the bokeh similar to a C Series.”

Having the color science, dailies, final color correction, editing and finishing under one roof has been terrific, and fewer people has meant a more efficient process that enhanced the cohesive vision of a single director/ single DP show like Maniac

Lew was drawn to the Panavision DXL for its seamless integration between camera and lenses. “But once I took a close look, I realized that ergonomically and function-wise, this camera was doing so much more,” he adds. “There are simple things that go a long way – like the ability to use each side of the camera. The camera is balanced almost better than any other camera that I’ve ever used. The DXL also has a battery elevator, which allows you to adjust the height and helps with balance.”

He also notes that the camera’s resolution settings can be manipulated as a creative tool. “Sometimes we shot in 6K or 7K just to effectively change the focal length of the lens and therefore the distance to the subjects,” he explains. “At times we were shooting at 7K, and Cary might suggest that we don’t feel like we’re ‘inside’ the scene. Changing to 8K (when the lens allowed it) let me move the camera closer with the same focal length and gave the image a different kind of dimension because of how much of the sensor we were using. I’m particularly sensitive to the dimension that different image size gives you. I come from still photography, and each format has a different optical feel. I love playing different sensor sizes.”

The alliance between Panavision and Light Iron also had a beneficial effect on the project. “Having the color science, dailies, final color correction, editing and finishing under one roof has been terrific, and fewer people has meant a more efficient process that enhanced the cohesive vision of a single director/ single DP show like Maniac,” Lew concludes.

Maniac is now streaming on Netflix.

 

Photo credit: Michele K. Short / Netflix