The hit Netflix series Dead to Me stars Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini as two grieving women who bond during therapy. Season two returns with Australian cinematographer Toby Oliver ACS behind the camera.
By James Cunningham.
Jen (Christina Applegate), Judy (Linda Cardellini) and the lies that entwine them are back. Picking up in the aftermath of that bloody backyard reveal, the irrepressible pair once again struggle to keep their secrets buried. With a surprising new visitor in town and Detective Perez (Diana Maria Riva) hot on their heels, Jen and Judy take drastic measures to protect their loved ones and each other… no matter the cost.
From Emmy Award-winning creator Liz Feldman, Dead to Me returns for an addictively dark second season, where the stakes are higher, the friendship is deeper and the traumas that bond loom larger than ever before. Cinematographer Toby Oliver ACS hadn’t seen the first season of the Netflix series Dead to Me, but came across it while he was shooting Barb and Star go to Vista del Mar in Mexico.
“I had not seen the first season but I’d heard of it,” says Oliver. “There was a connection through the production company, Garry Sanchez Productions (Will Ferrell’s company). There was a producer who crossed over and she mentioned they were looking for a cinematographer.” That producer then asked Oliver if he was interested in meeting Liz Feldman, the showrunner on Dead to Me.
“I watched the first season quickly, then met Feldman via Skype and was luckily asked to come on board,” says Oliver. Pre-production on Dead to Me began just three days after the cinematographer wrapped on Barb and Star go to Vista del Mar. “No turnaround for me on this one!”
Oliver spoke briefly with season one cinematographer, Daniel Moder, and there was certainly an intention to follow on from the look that Moder created in the first season. “Also to refine it a bit more, especially in looking after the leading ladies and making sure they looked their best,” explains Oliver. To that end, while Oliver used the same camera system, full-frame Sony Venice, he changed the lenses from Leica to Cooke S7i.
“I felt they would give a somewhat more flattering look to the actors, especially combined with Glimmerglass filters and my own take on the lighting,” says Oliver. As a different cinematographer Oliver is his own artist, but the idea was to keep season two feeling like a natural continuation from season one. “On a technical level, even though the main sets were the same, we were on different stages, with much lower ceilings! I also had completely different lighting, crew and equipment so we went about it our own way rather than refer specifically to what they did in season one.”
Because Oliver’s stage had a low height clearance above the main sets, the cinematographer made use of LiteGear Litemat LED panels for top ambiance. “I have no idea if they used so many Litemats on season one,” he says. Oliver also had an opportunity to use the new ARRI Skypanel 360 units. “They are big and heavy but a really flexible and punchy softlight. Often I had two 360s up in a Condor for key lighting at night on streets or in the woods, a wonderful tool.“
Oliver collaborated very closely with production designer LJ Houdyshell. “She was super organised and often, as the season progressed, became a main source of information for me for about upcoming locations and new sets,” says Oliver. Houdyshell would go scouting with the incoming directors and feed Oliver information.
Because Oliver was shooting all the episodes in the season, he had only minimal prep time with subsequent directors after the first block. Budget was not unlimited, and it did seem the purse strings were tightened as Oliver closed in on the final episodes, but overall the cinematographer found it to be ample in the sense that he didn’t want too much in the way of lighting or camera.
Technically Oliver was bound by the Netflix camera and format requirements, which meant native 4K capture on an approved camera. In Oliver’s case the Sony Venice in full-frame 6K mode. “We also shot in the 2:1 aspect ratio established on season one,” he explains. “Sometimes called the Netflix ratio as it has been popularised on the service; kind of a halfway house between regular 16:9 and 2.35 widescreen.”
“I guess the biggest reference we had was the first season, not surprisingly, but I did spend quite a bit of time in pre-production with the lead director, Liza Johnson, developing detailed shotlists and a shooting style for her episodes,” says Oliver. “I also devoted time with our colourist Tim Vincent from Technicolor to develop two show Look-Up Tables (LUTs); a ‘Day LUT’ and a ‘Night LUT’ which was essentially the same but with lifted blacks for use in darker scenes.”
As the cinematographer was shooting in Los Angeles, Oliver was lucky enough to get many of his familiar crew on board. This included Oliver’s key first assistant camera Brian Udoff, Steadicam and A-camera operator Damian Church, along with his regular key grip, Alexander Griffiths. All whom Oliver had worked with before on features, plus some new faces.
“I was working with, for the first time, the wonderful gaffer Paul Hazard and his team, the legendary operator Bonnie Blake on B- camera and super first assistant camera Sarah Brandes who is an amazing, natural focus puller,” says Oliver. “I was blessed really, with a top line crew. Even fellow Australian cinematographer Judd Overton came in for a few days as our occasional second unit cinematographer and C-camera operator, which was a great help.”
“I myself did not operate a camera on this show; the rules say the cinematographer is not supposed to operate on a union production and it is particularly rare on a television series,” explains Oliver. “But I do miss operating, being hands-on with the creative process in that way. I will probably find a way to operate more on my next project.”
There were multiple sets built over two stages at Riverside Studios in Los Angeles. The cinematographer had plenty of locations too, with all the logistical challenges in moving a big production unit around the city.
“We had basically two main lighting packages; the stage package, much of which was permanently rigged overhead on the stages. Litemats, 20Ks, 12Ks, 5Ks, Skypanels, Sumo LED spacelights, old style Skypans for the backdrops, plus closer in on the floor several Kino freestyle LEDs, lots of Astera Titan LED tubes, more S-60 and S-30 Skypanels, traditional tungsten lamps, and all the practicals,” says Oliver. Every single light source on the stage, from a 20K down to a 25watt bulb was controlled remotely via the lighting console. ”It was a dream!”
Oliver’s location package was separate and generally in the truck, although some units like the Skypanel S-360s were floated around both stage and location depending on the pre-rig schedule. “This truck package naturally included more daylight fixtures like three 18Ks, ARRI M90s, M40s and M18s, plus Jokers and the same allotment of LEDS like Kinos, Titans and Skypanels,” he says.
“Then there was the rigging gaffer Rodger Meilink and his team who would often day-hire lights like ArriMax 18Ks or extra S-360s depending on what the pre-rig needed to keep a step ahead of us on the main unit,” says Oliver. One of the cinematographer’s big location exteriors was in episode 2.07 where a vigil was held on a beach at night. “The pre-light involved three Condors, one with two M90s, the other with two S-360s and a 120-foot arm with two Arrimax 18Ks up on a bluff. Needless to say lots of generators and cable as well.”
In episode 2.05 there is a lengthy sequence in a picturesque oceanside restaurant in Malibu. “Our characters arrive just on dusk and stay through to night enjoying a meal,” says Oliver. “The schedule meant we had to shoot it all out of order, mostly in the middle of the day. It was a considerable challenge creating all the right looks for the time of dusk into night, shooting inwards and tenting out the windows for the reverse angles then staggering shots and flipping around camera directions to use the natural light for dusk… and saving only the wide shots for the short amount of ‘real’ night time allowed in the schedule when we could see out the windows towards the length of beautiful lit up pier and boardwalk outside. It all worked a treat in the end result.”
Oliver was involved in post-production, too. “I first was involved in setting looks with my colourist, based on the LUTS we developed in pre-production, then I reviewed all the first pass grades on each episode to give my own notes to Vincent,” he says. “Then showrunner Liz Feldman went in for final notes and adjustments. It was a collaboration and I do appreciate being able to take part in reviewing the grade as I understand that is not always the case in television production.”
Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, would Oliver change anything shooting the season? “Not really,” he says. “It would have been beneficial to have a bit more pre-production time for the later episodes but not sure how that would physically happen except to work on the weekends.”
“I guess in hindsight, it would have been useful to have a dedicated second unit scheduled in advance for a certain amount of days so we could shoot with that in mind,” says Oliver. “As it was, the second unit was brought in towards the end of the shoot in a more ad-hoc way when it became apparent we wouldn’t get everything shot by the end. But to be fair, this often happens on any shoot.”
Unfortunately, at the time of the interview, Oliver can’t say what hell be working on next. “With the continuing COVID-19 situation the business is in flux, and not sure when i’ll be shooting again,” says the cinematographer. “Hopefully, sooner rather than later.”
Toby Oliver ACS is an award-winning cinematographer whose career extends from his native Australia to the United States and internationally.
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.