Controlled Chaos in the Kitchen
Cinematographer Andrew Wehde spent more than a decade shooting commercials for Michelin-star restaurants before he ventured into the frenetic kitchen of The Original Beef sandwich shop seen in FX series The Bear. Wehde joined the production for the second episode and went on to shoot the rest of the first season, building on the hard-hitting, fly-on-the-wall style that cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra established in the pilot.
Wehde worked with Panavision Chicago to assemble his camera and lens package for the season. The cinematographer recently spoke with Panavision about how he and his collaborators achieved the series’ dynamism while retaining its focus on the cast’s performances.
Panavision: How did you become involved in The Bear?
Andrew Wehde: The Bear is a very special project that a longtime friend of mine, [creator and executive producer] Chris Strorer, once wrote as a movie. I read the movie script probably nine years ago, obviously much earlier in my career and his as well. A few years ago, he pitched it as a TV show, and that's when FX picked it up. I was on the show Night Sky for Amazon as one of the two alternating DPs the summer he shot the pilot for The Bear with Adam Newport-Berra as DP. FX loved what they put together and greenlit an eight-episode first season, and Chris came back to me since I was free.
We ended up shooting Episodes 2 through 8 in about 27 days between February and March 2022. We built the entire Original Beef on stage in Chicago and did about 18 days in that primary set, and then we were out at the original Mr. Beef and elsewhere around the city for the remaining eight or nine days. We were scheduled for 29 days, and we came out two days ahead of schedule, which is phenomenal.
How were you able to manage such a quick turnaround?
Wehde: A lot of it was due to designing the stage to be as efficient as possible. We did an entire interactive lighting setup on the stage so that every single light in the restaurant — whether it was back of the kitchen, front of the kitchen, or the dining room — was a full RGB LED, controlled by our dimmer-board operator. We never brought any lights onto the set, so we never had to wait for things, and there were no C-stands or movie lights in the way. It was all practical-based lighting. And outside of the stage, we had about 10 old-school 18K tungsten lights to give us the rich, warm light coming into the restaurant.
We also built the entire stage so the dolly could run without track or dance floor. We made it into a playground for us. It was always ready; we never had to set things up. We were finishing days at eight hours and then spending the last two hours on the stage shooting food. The actors would stay with us and do the cooking and chopping for the camera. And because we just kept shooting inserts and giving all that information to editorial, it created a lot of that kinetic energy in the show.
Was the kitchen that was built on stage fully working?
Wehde: It was. Every stove, every oven, every refrigerator — they call them low boys, which are the fridges underneath the counters — the bakery, even the soda machines worked. Chris designed it in that way so that he could always lean on reality versus what a lot of us have done in the food-commercial world, which is bring in the precooked food and make it look good on camera. Our approach on The Bear was that everything was made fresh on set and done by the actors, even down to the point that Jeremy Allen White, who's our lead, would cut celery and carrots and onions, and prep the bins for the scene, while we spent 10 or 15 minutes setting up a scene. If he needed to cook something in the scene, he would start precooking. He was in that character, cooking, while we would set the shots.
How did the look of the show evolve from when you took the reins for Episode 2?
Wehde: I feel like the pilot was a bit more raw and almost more documentary in style. When we came in on episode two, the lighting became more refined, but we still kept the energy. Chris knew the direction he wanted the show to go, and he was able to help me understand what the best parts of the pilot were, and we brought those elements forward. We wanted it to feel like an extended movie, and we started pushing it more toward the world of Michael Mann or Martin Scorsese, which Chris loves.
The pilot was shot on a regular Mini and I went to Mini LF, which I think helped create more of a cinematic feel. I used a LUT based on the pilot, so the color and contrast provided some connecting tissue. We introduced more movement starting in Episode 2 — the camera never stopped moving, and we used the second camera in a way that kept that energy.
I never would have gotten the show to the level where it is without Adam starting it. He got us there, and I was able to push the envelope even further. I owe him a lot for that.
What drew you to Panavision’s H Series spherical lenses for your episodes?
Wehde: I went out to Panavision in Woodland Hills and met with Brian Mills [lens manager in Panavision’s Special Optics division]. Brian and I got along really well. He specializes in vintage lenses, and we did a whole projection session. He had the H Series because those were the ones I was interested in, but then he brought out things like the Primo Artistes and the new Panaspeeds. He asked me, ‘Do you know the difference?’ I was able to tell him, and at that point we really clicked. He was like, ‘You're right, H Series is where you should be in terms the mood you're talking about and what you're asking for.’
What attracts you to the H Series?
Wehde: They remind me of shooting on film or seeing old movies shot on film where things don't look optically too sharp. The skin looks dreamy and creamy, but the eyes have a pin sharpness, and you can see the eye light really well. I love how smooth the out-of-focus is; it falls away very softly, in a way that allows it to feel three-dimensional.
I just finished the movie Sweethearts, a coming-of-age comedy I shot with H Series, and they gave it a look from the era of John Hughes. They can work with any genre, any sort of film. It's very hard to describe the emotional feeling I have with these things, but I feel like they're mine at this point because I know them so well and know exactly what each lens is going to do. The fact that I've been lucky enough to have them — and I've had the same serial numbers — is pretty amazing.
What lens did you use on the B camera, and how did you deploy that camera?
Wehde: The B camera lived on an expanded Panavision 11:1 Primo zoom. It never came off that camera. There was this chaotic, amazing kind of cinematography that was happening on the B camera at the same time the A camera was shooting the scene. Chris Dame, the B-cam operator, was always able to find interesting shots that were great for transitions and cutaways. We would design the scene with the A camera, and then I’d be like, ‘Chris, I need you to get the eyes here, the plating here, the look over there, and I need you to get the handoff.’ The kitchen was basically a big horseshoe with an island in the middle, so if we were working on one side, Chris would work on the other and shoot through everything. And because his lens was an 11:1, he was out of the A-camera shot at all times.
The idea was, we didn't want the B camera ever to feel like it was a mistake. So the A camera would be constantly running through space and following somebody and chasing the food while Chris was on this 11:1 at 400mm, plating a piece of food and then pulling up to the actor’s eyes and following their eyeline. All his transitions from one piece to another needed to feel smooth, and that allowed the editors to use them at any time. It was beautiful what he was doing.
It seems like working on this crew was much working in a kitchen. Everyone’s a chef, and you’ve got to make these dishes, and they have to be good, and you’re using so many ingredients all at once.
Wehde: Yeah, the kitchen is just as chaotic as the camera department! [Laughs.] The best thing is, our team had worked together and we were all friends, and there was not a moment in the entire 27 days that we ever got annoyed, upset or frustrated, because we respected each other. Chris, the B-camera operator, and Gary Malouf, my longtime collaborator and our A-camera operator, had so much opportunity and freedom with shot creation. These guys were thinking outside the box and giving more to it than just taking direction.
I think that's where so much of the value of the show comes from, these two guys finding things in moments. Everything was so natural coming from their photography on set — it was like perfect chaos. And then we had two focus pullers who were just lights-out the whole time, Matt Rozek on A cam and Hunter Whalen on B cam. We were shooting large format, with the A camera pretty wide open and the B camera shooting 200 to 400mm on an 11:1 — it was a focus nightmare, and yet the focus was rock-solid.
Zooming within a shot is often criticized, but you embrace the technique.
Wehde: I'm trying to figure out how to implement in-camera zooming as much as possible in my work. I think it's a beautiful way of expressing emotion through visuals. I don't know why people have been afraid of it for the last decade or two, but I’m reminded so much of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s movies, where he's zooming constantly and forcing the audience to bring feeling or emotion to something. Because you're creating this sense of connection; you're accentuating focus into or out of a point or a person. A zoom is a very different thing than a dolly.
How do you think your lens package influenced the show?
Wehde: There was a very specific rhythm to how we shot The Bear, and honestly, a lot of it had to do with the lens choices that we had. With Panavision glass, I’m free to choose and do whatever I want, because I know the look will hold. I do a lot of low-level lighting, which means that I need speed in that glass, and the H Series optically performs wide open just as well as it does a stop down. I'm constantly adjusting the iris through shots, always tweaking a stop up and a stop down, but I never see that iris change.
I'm also getting a secondary kind of help from the lenses adding blooms and flares and throwing the foreground or background out of focus when I need it, but they're staying tack sharp on the actors and they don’t breathe. So you don’t get pulled out of the moment when we're doing a focus pull from the front of the kitchen to somebody coming through a door 15 feet away. And there’s also the fact that I have lights hanging everywhere inside this kitchen that could bloom and destroy the image, but the lenses hold well with contrast.
These lenses have become an integral part of my work, how I light and move the camera. There’s a sense of trust I have in them, that I'm throwing everything and the kitchen sink at them and they're just holding up and working. And at the end of the day, I think they're happy to be doing it!
Behind-the-scenes stills by Cooper Wehde. All images courtesy of FX Networks.