Jess Hall Interview: WandaVision

As WandaVision continues to amaze and delight viewers worldwide, MCU fans have been paying more and more attention to the technical aspect of the show when looking for clues that lead to the multiverse. With the finale approaching this week, the presumed big battle in the super-sized episode is sure to be a knockout.

Cinematographer Jess Hall spoke to Screen Rant about how he approached the different eras of the show, and in what ways the MCU side of the story proves equally as challenging as the sitcom side.

This is the first time that you’re doing a television or streaming project, as opposed to a film. Were there any particular ways you approached WandaVision differently, especially considering the show is largely about television?

Jess Hall: Yeah, absolutely. I think it started from the ground up, really, with a completely new technical workflow from camera to finishing, which we designed with Marvel for the Disney plus platform. There was a kind of new technical workflow; we were mastering in 4k HDR on set, which is the highest quality on set mastering Marvel have done – because normally the HDR is done as part of the post workflow. So, we have this incredible workflow with this high quality mastering on set, which was amazing and opened up all sorts of possibilities in terms of color gamut and so on.

And then prepping a six-hour movie as opposed to a two and a half hour project. And on a show which required so much visual diversity and so much research, was certainly [something]. I like to go into depth when I’m building a look for a film; I tend to try and build an individual look for each project. But this was like, “Now you’ve got to build seven looks for this one project.” There was a lot of work to be done, and I just dived into it from day one, testing vintage lenses and playing around with color science on cameras. It was just a great a great journey of exploration and technical innovation.

The production design crew has gone above and beyond, and they continue to leave clues about Easter eggs. How aware are you of the Easter eggs and props while you’re shooting?

Jess Hall: I mean, I’m pretty aware because when you’re designing a sequence, you want any sort of reveal to come with the correct dramatic tension and the right shot structure, so that you make the most of it. So, it was always something that would be discussed between myself and Matt Shakman. But there’s obviously a lot of internal conversations that happen at Marvel before we get to that point, so I wasn’t party to all those. My connection would be with the producers of our show and with Matt Shakman, and they would always place everything in a context and give me a heads up as to what I needed to draw attention to visually.

One thing that many people have been noticing is the shift in aspect ratio in relation to the storytelling. How significant is that to the story, and how much planning went into mapping out the different looks for the audience?

Jess Hall: It’s massively important, I think, to the storytelling and to the narrative. It’s integral to the DNA of the narrative, if you like. It’s the sitcom creation that Wanda is up to, so it was key. And I think the aspect ratio particularly had to be very well planned, because when we had a transition, we would potentially be compromising composition. So, we would have a bunch of different aspect ratios pre-designed, which we could input into the camera.

We’d also have transitional aspect ratios, so if we were going from 4:3 to 2.39, we’d have an aspect ratio on the camera that showed us both so we could build some commonality and know where we’re going. But, as with most things Marvel, it’s pretty well planned and Matt Shakman was a very meticulous director. So, we did a lot of pre-vids and a lot of storyboards. We’d always talk about these things in advance, because they’re in key dramatic moments. They were really exciting transitions to work with.

Can you talk to me about the practical effects and shooting techniques that used to pull off the early eras of television.

Jess Hall: Yeah, the practical effects were a challenge. Especially in episode one, where we were using a lot of moving objects across the set that were controlled with fishing wire on pulley rigs. We had a great effects supervisor, Dan Sudick, who actually had trained and his intro to the industry was actually with some of the great exponents of this type of technique. So, he was very comfortable with stringing up fishing line across the set in these incredibly complicated rigs to place across some wine bottles that tipped and napkins that folded.

But the problem for me was it was always interfering with my lighting grid. That episode was a live studio audience, so we’re using a traditional lighting grid over the top. So, Dan and I were battling for space, and this rig became more and more complicated as I got more lights up there and he got more rigging up there. But, like all good filmmaking, it’s a collaboration. He certainly brought some great skills to effect in those sequences.

Our visual effects supervisor, Tara DeMarco, was very meticulous and looking at – in the same way that I was looking at what lighting techniques are being used, and what film stock was being used, and what lenses to look at – the visual effects technology of the period. And she’d figure out, “Okay, would they be using an optical printer? And when did they start using yellow screen and blue screen, and all these archaic types of technology?”

With every pair of visual effects, she had an idea about what she was emulating. And we’d support that with the photography, in terms of the way we captured as well. So, it was a really collaborative piece of work amongst all the departments.

Which era was the most enjoyable to shoot, and which gave you the most headaches?

Jess Hall: I think the live show gave me a lot of headaches, because you’re creating a 1950s multi-camera show, and then you’re gonna plunk it in front of a live audience and run it as a live show as a 26-minute take. With three cameras, working all different angles and lighting cues. And we’re in the middle of pre-production, trying to plan because we prepped everything and then shot everything. We’re trying to plan a lot of work and then suddenly, this shoot was upon us. And we didn’t have a lot of time to finesse all the blocking and lighting cues. So, that was a huge challenge, and I definitely breathed a big sigh of relief when we pulled that off.

But I think every episode had a bunch of challenges, because they were so specific in terms of trying to really capture an authentic era and genre. There’s so many detailed decisions that have to be made, especially in the early periods, where you’re really translating this bright, high quality digital platform to emanate an early film platform. It’s quite an interesting bit of a dichotomy, and something that takes a lot of technical work to figure out how to do that.

What other visual markers have fans overlooked that might be fun to point out?

Jess Hall: I don’t know that fans have overlooked much. I feel like the fans have dug into every frame of this show and analyzed in such detail. I feel like everyone’s talking about it; they have great conversations, and I think they’re going to continue as we go into the next couple of episodes.

Speaking of the next couple of episodes, everyone from Kevin Feige to Paul Bettany have teased for a year that the finale of the show will please the MCU action fans. Can you talk to me about how the scope of your job changed for the final two episodes?

Jess Hall: I think as soon as we enter the MCU world, we’re obviously entering a different vocabulary. One that involves more camera movement, more cinematic lighting, stunts and more green screen work and more visual effects. I think it’s fair to say that – and this includes the really long shot at the beginning of episode 4, where we follow Monica through the hospital, and you have the figures glitching back in – all those sequences require a kind of level of visual effects technology, and a level of filmmaking.

It’s the modern tools of filmmaking, whether it’s CG camera moves or big technical moves like drones, we kind of throw it all in there. Certainly, everyone’s seeing that things are amping up. I think the next two episodes are exciting, and there’s a lot of dynamic MCU work to come.

What’s the bigger challenge: the superhero typical Marvel side of things, or the sitcom aspect of the show?

Jess Hall: I think they’re an equal challenge for me. My attitude to filmmaking is every frame is precious, and I always try and make every frame as good as I can make it. So, it doesn’t really matter to me, whether I’m shooting an insert a hand pouring a glass of wine, or I’m shooting a close-up of an actor. I try and give them equal attention and equal quality.

I think there’s a massive amount of technical challenge to recreating these periods, but at the same time, the technical challenges of shooting a complicated MCU sequence has its own ingredients. You’re dealing with stunts, you’re dealing with the light fading during the day, or trying to control all sorts of other elements that don’t fit when you’re on a sitcom stage. I think my job is always interesting, and this show was an amazing challenge and one that I really enjoyed.

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