How the DP Helped Bring David Lynch's Far-Out Visions to Life on a 141-Day Shoot
Few television series ever launched with the impact of the original Twin Peaks, which debuted on ABC in 1990. The show’s central mystery — who killed homecoming queen Laura Palmer? — ignited the public imagination. But when the series entered its second season, co-creators David Lynch (then best known as the director of Eraserhead, The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet), and Mark Frost divided their time between Peaks and other projects, and the show, shot by director of photography Frank Byers, ASC, lost its must-watch status. In the decades that followed, the reputation of both the series and its follow-up feature, the critically maligned and audience-ignored Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, grew, inspiring other programs like Lost to consciously ape the “puzzle-box” storytelling. And yet no other series in the intervening years has truly captured its essence, with the adroit positioning of quaint rural Americana as backdrop to horrific goings-on. Twin Peaks seemed to be a one-off — until Frost and Lynch began talking about a follow-up six years back. The result, widely known as Twin Peaks: The Return, aired on Showtime as simply Twin Peaks and was described on Blu-Ray as Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series.
Lynch chose Peter Deming, ASC, with whom he had made Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr., as his cinematographer. Having worked with Lynch previously, Deming had a good shorthand understanding of the director’s methodology and stylistic preferences. Lynch directed and Deming shot all 18 hours of the new series, which is as eye-opening a viewing experience as the original; the chilling, VFX-heavy “Part 8” earned Deming an Emmy award nomination for cinematography on a limited series.
Though initial reports had the new Twin Peaks being acquired on film, that was not the case by the time Deming became involved. “My discussions with David were always about going digital,” he states. “David went digital before almost anybody [laughs] with Inland Empire. There may have been some talk of shooting a bit on film to make certain parts integrate with footage from the original show, but that wasn’t necessary.”
With its strong history of photochemical work, FotoKem was able to juggle the incorporation of classic Twin Peaks imagery with Deming’s new footage, shot on the Arri Amira. “David really likes using the smaller cameras, but DSLRs aren’t ideal for VFX work,” says Deming. “So the Arri Amira was a good compromise, since it has the same sensor as the regular Alexa — a camera I’m very comfortable using — but is more compact.” The camera choice limited raw options, which would have required an external recorder, so production instead shot ProRes 4444. “That worked fine for our purposes. We captured 3.2K, then in post the image was upres’d to 4K, which is mandated by Showtime.”
Deming was impressed by the Amira’s capacity for storing looks in the camera. “I was only budgeted for eight weeks with a DIT [Maninder K. Saini], so that was spread out over the entire shoot,” he recalls. “Together, we built a bunch of looks so that I’d have them ready to go during periods when she wasn’t there. She also calibrated a high-quality monitor so I had access for on-set review. We didn’t have dailies; there was no pipeline for that at all. So most of the manipulation was done by me in camera, varying the color and brightness based on one of those looks we’d set. That would be embedded in the metadata so editorial knew what kind of look to apply. We knew going in that time for the DI would be very limited compared to what I was used to on features, so getting as much nailed during shooting was essential.”
Deming elected to shoot with older UltraSpeed and SuperSpeed glass. “Panavision has rehoused a lot of those lenses and now calls them PVintage, but we choose to go with the original housings,” Deming reports. “They tried to improve the look when rehousing — they can’t help wanting to make it look better — but I liked the original look.”
With a 141-day shooting schedule, the sheer duration of the project posed significant challenges. “It precluded making a detailed plan, so we often worked more seat-of-the-pants,” he admits. “Otherwise we’d have had to spend four months planning before getting to the eight months of shooting — and we did not have that luxury! Capturing the mood of the location used for Twin Peaks is a big deal, so [during] our shoot in the Pacific Northwest we tried to get as much of that as possible. When we went back to Washington locations known from the original show, like the [Double-R] diner and the sheriff’s station, we made an effort to match the look, to get that familiar feel. For the new locations and characters, we treated it all as we would a feature, working from the mood and tone intended, then building from there.”
Collaboration with Lynch followed an established pattern. “Once you’ve read the script and seen the location, you get a feel for what is needed,” Deming says. “There might be a 30-second or minute-long discussion about what he wanted, but mostly he counted on me to get the mood without a ton of back-and-forth. So much becomes evident during David’s rehearsal with the cast that the tone is very clear to me, establishing what he is going for.”
Like the original series, the bulk of shooting was accomplished in the Los Angeles area. “A couple of the sets featured in the original show, like Ben’s office at the Great Northern Hotel, were re-built on stage [by production designer Ruth De Jong],” Deming recalls, adding that many far-out locales were also stage builds. “Production built the Red Room, the Black Lodge and often just connecting pieces rather than whole sets. David is very careful and precise with his set dressing, so the elements visible in frame are presented just as he wants them, with a specific choice of hues — just as you’d expect with a painter like him, David had nearly all the compositions nailed. His process is pretty ironclad.”
The cinematographer employed the full gamut of tools to move his camera, though most shots relied upon dollies. “I used some handheld and a fair amount of SteadiCam,” Deming says. “Then, for some special perspectives, we used some more drastic, herky-jerky stuff, shaking the camera. It wasn’t in my old Evil Dead mode, but much more emotionally based, especially with the scenes outside the convenience store [where characters would cross over from our realm], though I’m not sure how much of that wound up in the finished show.”
Additionally, Lynch would himself shoot some shaky footage on a DSLR. “Sometimes when we’d finished shooting a scene, he’d come in with that little camera and grab some additional material. I don’t think he always knew exactly where it might go, but when the mood struck he wanted that option. Shooting and editing a thing this size is an immense task, so having some editorial options and some experimental approaches to coverage was probably a very good and useful technique to protect him down the line.”
To accommodate for weather and other variables on location, Deming carried a fairly large lighting package. “While we did use LED lighting, it wasn’t employed to the degree we might have on another project,” he explains. “Conventional lighting on the established locales helped maintain that original-recipe feel. But if there was something special indicated in the script, we’d be sure to order that. Plus there are certain tools David likes to have on hand that most shoots wouldn’t plan on including, but we’d carry those knowing he’d probably ask for them. We revisit a lot of the same locations at different points in the eighteen hours, so that helped me too, since I like to mix things up to keep from repeating myself.”
A section of the storyline set in Las Vegas let Deming create a very different look from the Pacific Northwest. “That whole Vegas portion obviously had a very sunny look,” says Deming, “so the scenes with Jane-E [Naomi Watts] and Dougie Jones [one of three different incarnations of Dale Cooper essayed by MacLachlan] had exteriors that were a little bleached. The art direction dictated a lot of the interiors, and so if we had wanted a colder look, I’d have had to push to get that look, because it all did look so warm, in a very natural way. I just brought out the tones that were evident on set.”
The series reaches a kind of climax in episode 17, when a reawakened Cooper confronts the otherworldly presence of Bob (the late Frank Silva, incorporated into the new footage through visual effects) while in the company of many series regulars. “That all takes place in a conference room in the Twin Peaks sheriff’s station,” acknowledges Deming, “where we had the practicals worked into the lighting in a fairly significant way, though they didn’t do all the heavy lifting. We have various mysterious forces appear during this, and they aren’t all meant to be seen like real-world beings, so we shot a number of different passes with the various characters, using different lighting effects to make it seem scary and unusual. It wasn’t just a matter of giving over to VFX; mostly it involved them compositing different elements and passes at various matte densities, and was fairly low-tech. There were more VFX here than on the original show, but it wasn’t wall-to-wall.”
The exception to this, “Part 8,” features a long stretch of dialog-free visuals that recall the ultimate-trip sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Turning the clock back to 1945, Lynch and Frost reveal that the initial A-Bomb test apparently attracted and/or unleashed otherworldly evil upon the Earth. Buf, a VFX house that has worked on commercials with Lynch going back over the last decade and that contributed significantly to the recent Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, created a sustained series of powerful subjective CG images that transport the audience to another realm, inhabited by the Giant (Carel Struycken) from the original series. Surprisingly, the bizarre interior scenes with the Giant were nearly all accomplished practically. “There were some small bits added, and they had to remove the rig for when Carel was being flown in the air, but the rest of that came from the art department and David, so I had a lot of freedom to shoot that environment without worrying about green screen.”
Deming had a limited amount of time on the grading process, which was completed at FotoKem. Many of the adjustments were just to make sure scenes blended with those that preceded and followed them. “I didn’t have as much time for color-correction as I’d have had on a feature, so we didn’t employ windows very often,” he acknowledges. “I’d just have to let it go unless something was really out of whack — something that would really torture me forever,” he says with a laugh. “But there wasn’t too much of that. Working with David is definitely a pleasure.”
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