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Brendan Steacy ASC CSC shoots CSC-nominated “Rabbit Hole” with Zeiss Supreme Prime Lenses

May 1, 2024

Brendan Steacy ASC CSC, a virtuoso of visual language, has received another nomination from the Canadian Society of Cinematographers (CSC) for his exceptional work on the espionage drama Rabbit Hole, which is available on the streaming platform Paramount+. To achieve the modern visual aesthetic that complements the film’s cyber-spy-privacy-invasive narrative, Steacy employed the Zeiss Supreme Primes lenses.

How did you end up working on Rabbit Hole?

Steacy: I think I was put in front of the showrunners by the PM actually, whom I’d known for years, and we’d been wanting to find an opportunity to work together again for a while. We had a great meeting and were interested in making the same kind of show. They did also mention being fans of Peter Berg, whom I’d just worked with on Painkiller and I think that probably helped as well. Rabbit Hole was much more structured, however, and required more complicated visual storytelling because it’s just a more technical project. It has more VFX and more complicated relationships between different things happening at the same time. It had to be more structured. Rabbit Hole required the kind of planning that Painkiller was desperately trying to avoid. [laughter] There’s still the spirit of improvisation in some of the stuff we did on that show but not to the same extent.

The shows required different things and I tried to give as much as I could to each of what I thought they both needed. It’s interesting to step outside yourself for a minute and just do what feels right for a project, even if it’s not necessarily familiar territory.

What is the story of “Rabbit Hole” about?

Rabbit Hole is born from the paranoid thrillers of the ’70s. It’s deeply inspired by that era of Pakula films, while still being contemporary and very much present day. It deals with data and information. It’s timely because of the resurgence of paranoia happening now which hasn’t really been around since the ’70s. As a sort of temporal document, it’s an interesting time to make a show like that. The plot is quite twisty and there’s lots of things that I don’t want to spoil. Basically, it follows the main character John Weir (Kiefer Sutherland) as all the elements of his world collapse around him.

Kiefer Sutherland as John Weir of the Paramount+ series Rabbit Hole. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/Paramount+ © 2022 Viacom International Inc. All Rights Reserved.

How did you shoot the CCTV footage? 

We started off and the intention was to shoot those mostly on mirror-less stills cameras. Just because they were easy to leave all over the place. We were using Panasonic S5s mostly. But as happens so often on these shows, suddenly we needed to get another high angle, and it just so happens the Alexa is already on a crane. “Why don’t we just throw it up in the air and we can control it from the ground and then we’ll just degrade it after.” So, we wound up shooting more of that stuff on the main unit camera than we’d originally planned.

Kiefer Sutherland as John Weir of the Paramount+ series Rabbit Hole. Photo Cr: Marni Grossman/Paramount+ © 2022 Viacom International Inc. All Rights Reserved.

A lot of times we weren’t sure how they were going to affect those shots in post–maybe it’ll go full screen, and maybe in the end we’ll have to zoom in on it, etc. So just to have the extra latitude, we would use the Alexa as well.

Otherwise, we used the Mini LF and Supremes throughout Rabbit Hole.

You had just used Supremes on Painkiller of course. Did you know going into Rabbit Hole that you would use the Supremes? 
 
We tested a couple of lenses at the outset. In Rabbit Hole there are a lot of flashbacks and we wanted to separate the looks. I pretty much was determined to use the Supremes again for the main packet, but I was struggling to find complimentary lenses to use for the flashbacks. We ended up shooting anamorphic for that section. I was determined to use the Supremes again going into the shoot. On Rabbit Hole, at some point we had five or six cameras going between two units. There’s no way you’re going to get into vintage glass when you have that many units going.

Enid Graham as Jo Madi of the Paramount+ series Rabbit Hole. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/Paramount+ © 2022 Viacom International Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The other thing that happened recently is that there’s so much more glass on the market. I don’t know if we have a sense of what it all is yet. When I started shooting, I grew up on Zeiss Super Speeds. But you only had three choices really. You could have S4’s, Zeiss Super Speeds or Primos. It was really those three that we were shooting on.

I knew clearly what those all were and how they all felt and what they all looked like. If you watched something you knew right away which lens it was because they all had distinct properties.

Compared to that era where there were like three sets of spherical lenses that you saw in normal circulation, and now there are like…20-30.

We don’t necessarily have a community sense of what a certain lens feels like any longer. So, when you find something that feels good, you want to stick with it.

I think now I know what the Supremes feel like. I feel good using them and I like how versatile they are. I love the size, weight, and speed.

What was important in designing the look for Rabbit Hole

I did say that we weren’t going for a specific period feel, but that’s not fully true. We watched dozens of ’70s paranoid thrillers. Lighting wise, we didn’t take a ton from them, but we referenced the framing and a lot of the camera direction choices. I don’t know if we could be as reserved as they are in those movies, but there was an approach borrowed from some of those films. Then it is also modernized.

What is important to you in lensing a show? 

This was a particular instance in which I went from one project to another using the same glass. I don’t typically do that.

I usually test extensively for every project and try and find what feels right for what you’re doing.

I guess just coming from Painkiller to Rabbit Hole, I knew exactly how I wanted to use the Supremes. I knew I wanted to use them in a different way than I had on the other show because I had been trying to make them feel like something other than what they were, and now I knew what they really were. I knew what they could do and that they’d be great for this. But I like testing. I’ll go pretty deep, a lot of the time I wind up testing the same things over and over again and come out with a different choice than what I used on the last project.

Meta Golding as Hailey Winton of the Paramount+ series Rabbit Hole. Photo Cr: Marni Grossman/Paramount+ © 2022 Viacom International Inc. All Rights Reserved.

I like to take every project as a separate thing and not repeat myself. Of course, you end up with stylistic sort of things that you tend to do, but I try to break them down as much as possible and make each thing distinct and as different as possible.

That’s hopefully what we cinematographers can bring to service the story. Everybody comes to a project with comps and you try and take something from them but not too much. Even this is a great testament to the fact that we’re all individuals.

Even if you come to a project, with a strong pre-determined reference, and I really try my hardest to make it look like that, it’s still probably going to feel different because I did it or you did it or whomever. Even if everyone tried to do the exact same thing, it’s going to wind up being different in some unique way, which is I think great. That’s what makes it interesting. Hopefully you’re creating something different every time.

Kiefer Sutherland as John Weir, Charles Dance as Ben Wilson, Meta Golding as Hailey Winton and Rob Yang as Edward Homm of the Paramount+ series Rabbit Hole. Photo Cr: Marni Grossman/Paramount+ © 2022 Viacom International Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Is there a type of project you are drawn to?

I don’t know if there’s a particular genre, although as a viewer I think I’m drawn towards magical realism. I like things that are unique and original, but also have the potential for aesthetic intrigue.

If I don’t know what I can contribute or add to a certain project, I tend to stay away from it. Sometimes even if it’s a good film that I may want to watch, I have to decide whether what I think is the best approach for the film is also something that I want to take on myself. Those things don’t always line up. I also like to be challenged. I guess I’m not genre fussy as long as I respond to individual scripts. If something’s really well written and I feel like it’s a film worth making, then I get excited about it.

Rabbit Hole is available to stream on Paramount+

Director of Photography: Brendan Steacy ASC CSC

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