Taming the Red Dragon on Set, and Going for Realism with Wide Vintage Lenses, Hard Ceilings, and a Static Camera

She’s not your typical superhero. Starring Krysten Ritter as the title character, Netflix hit series Jessica Jones tells the story of a former superhero trying to rebuild her life as a private detective. Although she possesses superhuman powers, Jones also suffers from PTSD and has a dark and mysterious past. “I was really captivated by the script because it was such a departure from the usual Marvel genre,” says Jessica Jones cinematographer Manuel Billeter (Orange Is the New Black, Law & Order). “The superhero aspect was almost pushed into the background and I found it to be more of an honest story about basic human relationships.”

Billeter shot all 13 episodes. During prep, he worked closely with pilot and second episode director S.J. Clarkson. According to Billeter, it was a unique collaboration because they were on the same page with identical visual references before even meeting to discuss the show’s look. One of their main visual influences was the films of Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai (The Grandmaster, In the Mood for Love), who is known for his stylized imagery and themes of isolation. Billeter wanted to create a layered image that you have to strip away to get to know Jones’ character, since she doesn’t reveal herself openly. “We wanted the compositions to be unconventional,” explains Billeter. “There were a lot of foreground elements [and] headroom as well, and we never wanted to show an open frame. We wanted to create a sense of claustrophobia.”

Billeter also revealed that he didn’t look at the Jessica Jones comics in great detail to plan the look. “It’s a different medium,” he reveals. “I did look at them for color references to see what the color palette was and I think together with production designer Loren Weeks, we certainly paid homage to it.”

Krysten Ritter

All photos Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

Billeter shot with the Red Epic Dragon, recording 4K .r3d files and occasionally 5K for visual effects shots or for image stabilization in post. Billeter was a little disappointed that, due to budget constraints, he wasn’t able to shoot the entire series in 5K. “Because of the chip size of the Dragon, 4K has a smaller image area than Super 35, so your 40mm lens is now more like a 50mm,” he explains.

For lenses, Billeter used Panavision PVintage prime lenses from the 1970s. Because Jessica Jones is a noir story about a female character, he wanted to soften the sharp resolution of the Dragon and he felt older lenses would capture a more refined period-style look. “If you shoot them wide open, they start becoming a little murky and they start to fall apart,” he said. “I was shooting around a T2, maybe a little higher depending on the situation. The PVintage are very beautiful lenses. The bokeh is fantastic. I love the way they focus. The actual focus-pulling looks very organic.”

Billeter also likes to shoot with wide lenses, sticking to the 17mm, 24mm, 29mm, and 35mm. “I prefer moving the camera closer rather than leaving it in its place and zooming in or putting a longer lens on,” he explains. “If you get a close up on a 24, you still see what surrounds the person. If you shoot the same close up size on a 100, you see nothing in the background. To me it’s very important that the surroundings play an important role, and I wanted them to be present. Long lenses tend to isolate. I’m not strictly against it, but they have their time and reason to be used.”

Although there is subtle camera movement, Billeter adhered to a static frame for the most part, believing in the power of good composition. He did employ a dolly and the occasional Steadicam shot provided by his A-camera operator Mike O’Shea.

Since film noir was such a strong reference in the series, Billeter was excited to create atmospheric lighting. For night exterior scenes, he used large and hard lights as a backlight, as well as lights that would help mimic sodium vapor street lamps in New York City. “A lot of the streetlamps are now being changed to LED,” says Billeter, with regret. “That warm, dirty color of sodium vapor is slowly making an exit.”

Krysten Ritter

For his actors, he always used soft yet directional lights, favoring 8×8 or 12×12 frames with Lighttools’ Soft Egg Crates, which gave him more control over standard soft light units. “I also had these honeycombs made and applied them to the light so the light would become more directional,” he says. “You could aim it up at the subject and it wouldn’t spill out, making a very contained soft light. It was also a time-saver because you don’t need to set up a bunch of flags to cut the light.”

One thing Billeter demanded on his sets was hard ceilings, in order to give them a more realistic look. Having hard ceilings expanded his available camera angles, he said, allowing the sets to feel like a real apartment. The crew lit mainly through the window for day scenes or from the floor for night scenes. One of Billeter’s biggest lighting challenges was a shootout scene in a large building interior with ornamental windows that he had to shoot day for night. “We hung a lot of double nets outside of the windows, and I was using a lot of light inside to overpower the brightness of the windows,” explains Billeter. “That was quite difficult to achieve but I think we succeeded.”

Billeter did not have a DIT on set, so he took frame grabs of each set-up during lunch or at wrap. After completing a quick grade he sent the files to the lab so his dailies colorist would have a good idea of the look he was going for. In creating his LUT, Billeter used Red Gamma 4 and Dragon Color presets. “I didn’t want to be too fussy in creating anything fancy for different scenes,” he explains. “Basically I treated the camera as if it were a single film stock, and the only thing I would manipulate in camera was the color temperature. Red Gamma 4 and Dragon Color is a quite aggressive LUT. The blacks are really dark and it’s easy for people to see on the monitors what was close to the final look.”

Colby Minifie and Krysten Ritter

Having worked on Orange Is the New Black, Billeter says he prefers the Netflix approach to delivering shows compared with broadcast TV. The shooting goal was to average nine days per episode. “The schedule is much more relaxed, because you don’t have an air date that you’re running up against,” he says. “You do your 13 episodes and then there were still another two or three months where the show actually airs. It’s less hectic than broadcast TV, where you have certain air dates when sometimes you’ll finish shooting and it airs in two weeks. That stress is gone.”