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Jason Oldak • Lessons In Chemistry

Jun 25, 2024

American DP Jason Oldak kindly wrote-in with details about his work on Lessons In Chemistry, for which he recently received an ASC nomination and is now showing on Apple TV+. Oldak is known for his credits on season one of the Max series Minx, NBC’s Good Girls seasons 3 & 4, and Hulu’s Casual, to name a few.

Lessons In Chemistry, an Apple+ TV show based on the NY Times best-selling novel by Bonnie Garmus, follows the story of Elizabeth Zott (Brie Larson), a woman living in the 1950s whose dream of becoming a scientist in a man’s world is challenged by society.

While working as a Lab Tech at Hastings Laboratory, she is paired with a Nobel Prize-nominated scientist, Calvin Evans (Lewis Pullman). Evans quickly realises that Elizabeth is unlike any woman he’s ever met – fiercely independent, wildly intelligent, hyper-analytical, and without BS. She was just like him.

“I was hired onto the project in spring 2022, and prep commenced mid-summer of that year. It’s always beneficial to join the team early and discuss the project’s origins. I shared my cinematographic duties with co-DP Zach Galler, who shot episodes 1 & 2, and 5 & 6, while I shot episodes 3 & 4, and 7 & 8. 

Our production designer, Cat Smith, shared a plethora of imagery and research from the 1950s and discussed how the world could be built, which helped us think about lighting and the design of the look for the show. Zach and I also shared images from our respective interviews, and I knew we were on the same page with our visual intentions for the show. We photographed the series on the ARRI Mini LF camera system along with TLS Canon K35 lenses from Keslow Camera.

This show didn’t necessarily have a pilot in the traditional sense, as each episode portrayed a different emotional and physical stage in Elizabeth’s life, giving the filmmakers the liberty to change the tone and the visual language accordingly. 

One episode that particularly distinguished itself from the others was episode 7, which takes us back to Calvin Evans’s origin and his side of our love story. The storyline was not found in the novel and proved to have a plethora of visual opportunities. Tara Miele, our director of episodes 7 and 8, and I teamed up to conceptualise and design the final chapters of our story.

DEVELOPING A SPECIAL LOOK

There is a distinction between where Calvin starts in his life (1930s) and where he ends up in our present-day story (1950s). As a young man, he was stripped of a family and a home, but he had drive and perseverance. After reading the 1930s portion of episode 7, Tara and I decided that if there was a place to depart from the overall look of the show, this was it.

Because of the boys’ home environment and how little they had to their names, we felt inspired to strip the colour away and create a cooler palette with blooming highlights. Our original LUT for the show was based on old AGFA filmstock, with warmer tones and cooler pops, but this look would be quite the contrast.

We referenced a handful of images from classic films and shared this with our onset DIT, Scott Resnick, and our final colourist at Light Iron, Ian Vertovec, to craft a specific LUT, which allowed the sets and costumes to be designed with this same aesthetic in mind.

Once we reach the end of our 1930s story, we compose young Calvin in the same framing that present-day Calvin is in, as a camera flash bulb dissolves the two shots. That jump cut and the change in looks of the two men from one time period to the next help to accentuate the passage of time.

MOVING THE CAMERA

In general, our approach to the camera was to take, for example, three shots needed in a scene and make them work as one. The idea was to design the blocking so that the camera moved from one piece to the next and told our story in a ‘non-cutty’ aesthetic. 

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When Tara and I discussed the opening sequence, we wanted to show-off how Calvin had always been so curious about the world, which took his attention away from his schooling. The opening was not one shot but intended to feel like one.

Because of the geography in front of the boy’s home location, we used a MovieBird MB35 crane to tell our story. As our first nun calls out Calvin, we telescoped back, leading him to run. As the boy rounded the corner, we shifted our crane on the dolly track down the line with him, and as he ran up the stairs, the crane started to telescope forward, feeling as if we were running to class with him!

The location was built on a pretty steep hillside, making it a game of measurements to see if it could be achieved. But, thanks to our Key Grip, Adam Kolegas and his team, it was a success. I also wanted to limit the ambient sunlight surrounding us and build on the contrast, so Adam constructed a cluster of large black solids to take away the unwanted light in the scene.

Once upstairs, we actually did the whole shot as one move on Steadicam (operated by Mikael Levin). The intention was to tie the boy’s name, Calvin Evans, to his face at the very end of the sequence. We started on his feet as he entered the hallway and pulled back, leading him. As he rounded the corner, we wrapped around the back of Calvin and were then in follow-mode as he approached the class door. As he opened the door, we crept in behind to get to the seat before the nun turns around. As she said his name, we wrapped around and reveal Calvin in the light, sitting in his chair.

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This was all done on stage and we panned across four to five large windows. So we had to flood them with a handful of 10Ks to feel the sunlight hitting-in at the right angle, but not see the units.  I loved the orchestration and the timing of that shot. It told the story in the most effective way possible. This was truly a collaborative effort with our G&E team, AC and operator, our director, and myself.

SHOOTING ON OPEN WATER

Throughout episode 107, Calvin and Rev. Wakely form a friendship through letter correspondence, leading them to open-up their minds to each other’s beliefs and worldviews.

The letters are penned in the script as voiceover, with very little scene direction to match. Tara and I created a cohesion of imagery that flowed back and forth, sometimes metaphorically, to the spoken word being said. A lot of this voice-over imagery was found in the water, filming Calvin rowing. 

Every cinematographer will tell you that their biggest fear is watching that sunset and knowing they did not complete the daylight work for the day. Our day on the water, shooting all of our row work for multiple episodes, was an extremely tight schedule.

The plan was to shoot the rowing work on a lake in San Dimas, CA, in the early part of December, when the sun sets at 4:30pm if you’re lucky. We arrived way before the sun came up and had everything pre-rigged to get out on the water as soon as the sun started rising. We had a large pontoon boat that carried the crew and a MovieBird MB35 crane with a camera on the end of it. We treated the rowing work as you would with a car-to-car sequence, trying to keep the team placed on the right side of the sun.

Tara, myself, and our AD worked out a very specific timetable. There was little room for error, and we had our work cut out. In the end, the light was always in the right place at the right time, and our team was on their A-game, resulting in a stunning final result!

Being on the open water and filming the actors crewing was one of the highlights of the show. When I first interviewed for the job, I remember reading a scene involving Calvin at dawn on the open water and immediately envisioning what that would look like in my head. I wanted to photograph it right then and there. In episode 107, I was able to do just that!”

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