Dagmar Weaver-Madsen. Passion, creativity and technique.
Chatting with Dagmar Weaver-Madsen allows one to feel at each moment the creative immensity of the photography direction universe. Amongst references and experiences, she is able of accurately conveying all the keys for such a vital area in today’s TV offering.
Throughout her entire career, the American artist has worked in the world of advertising, music clips, cinema and TV, being the latter the filed in which she has developed two of her most relevant projects: “Dare Me”, a brave proposal for Netflix in which she shows her command of atmospheres; and “High Maintenance”, a display of naturalism and ingenuity for HBO.
We provide you with a full account of our interview with Dagmar, who reviewed with TM Broadcast International her influences, her way of understanding technology and some of her most challenging takes, amongst other interesting topics.
First, we would love to hear more about your story. How did you get involved in the cinema for the first time? What attracts you the most about the DoP area?
When I was a little girl, my sister and I would steal our father’s VHS camera and make little movies. I would film her and her friends. At first, we set them up as plays in front of a static camera and then we learned we could make things appear and disappear, like Méliès. We kept exploring the form and progressing, and I was always behind the camera. I had been very interested in writing and storytelling, and overtime I realized how one can use a camera like a pen: it is another storytelling tool. You are shaping someone’s experience of a story in such a visceral way. It is a tool for empathy and shared experience. You can guide someone to experiencing different emotions and journeys. I think that is what draws me most to it. I believe that empathy is the most important aspect of our humanity and I also think that perhaps today more than ever we need more of it. I think that storytelling and cinematography can open us up to different view-points and help bridge gaps in understanding. It can also provide needed escapes and releases when the world can seem too bleak, which I think we can also all appreciate right now. I think if used properly and with conscience it can do a lot of good for our societies.
I love being a DoP because you are the right hand of the director helping them to bring their vision to the screen. Helping to ensure the audience member connects with the story and characters and is emotionally affected. I love collaborating with the different departments and bringing together a group of talented artists to create something bigger than any one person could make. I value the collaborations with my gaffers and key grips and how the placement of a good shadow can really change the mood of a scene. How the angle of the light can make something ethereal or anxiety inducing. I like that it is a job that dictates a need for intense planning and preparation but also requires the flexibility of improvisation and intuition, and the ability to let go of all the planning when a new idea inspires and changes the course. I like that it is ever changing and though you draw on previous experience with each job, no two challenges are ever quite the same. It stays exciting and fresh. I also love that it is a job where you get to experience a lot of sunrises and sunsets alongside people you respect.
What is the “Dagmar” signature when it comes to cinematography? Is there a particular clue to identify your style?
I think that often cinematographers try to be chameleons and adapt to whatever the story needs. I think it’s important to try and hold that above any personal style. That being said, here are some things that I really love when they seem right for a project. I love when I can incorporate a frame within a frame. I like having a motivated backlight and then just passive bounce or fill, so the character is defined but moving in shadow or soft light. I love when I can experiment with withholding information and when to reveal things to an audience member, either with lighting or framing. For example, in a scene playing with letting a character leave frame and staying with another and hearing the rest of the conversation offscreen, or having them enter back in to frame at another point and continuing the shot. I like using that as a tool to make the viewer focus on something and guiding what they should be learning or feeling at that point in the scene. Also, I love using an edit or a cut to reveal a reaction or piece of information at the start of the next scene to weave two scenes together. I also love nature and trees to anytime I can use the natural landscape to mirror or speak to something in the story. I am drawn to that; again, it has to be the right kind of project. I really love when the shots and cinematography make the viewer feel like the character does rather than seeing them objectively. Making them feel the experience the character is going through. The movie that made me learn the word cinematographer and want to be one was “Blade Runner”, so I guess I’ll always be chasing that dream and pushing towards there. “Dare Me” brought me a little closer to it with all of our night and fog, and it was so fun to play with those elements. Again, the thing I love the most though is empathy and trying to get the viewer to have it for our characters whether they are “good” or “bad”, so perhaps that is truly the style I’m most trying to have.
You’ve been wandering around cinema and television for the past few years. Do you have a preference between both worlds?
I love aspects of both. I love that television has in many ways moved towards becoming like chapters in a very long story. Each episode is like a section of super long movie and this allows for lighting and styles of scene more traditionally thought of as “cinematic”. That kind of TV is exciting to me and it was so rewarding to watch the fans engaging with “Dare Me” as the longer story unfolded. I like that you get into a long term relationship with a viewer and take them on a continuing journey each week (or a whirlwind intense consuming binge period, depending on their style of consumption). We referenced a lot of movies in “Dare Me” and it often felt like we were making one rather than “TV”, whatever that means.
I have also worked on “High Maintenance”, where it is more of an anthology vignette style and we are building a world, style and characters from the ground up in each small story and then rarely returning to them. It is almost like shooting many small TV pilots/short films. That also gives you a lot of freedom to play and experiment. I always approach what I’m shooting very focused on the story and what is the best way to communicate that and affect the viewer with it; how to make them feel as though they are experiencing the story for themselves. There are, of course, different politics to the two worlds but, at the core, the projects I have worked on have all prioritized story and have had the comradery that a good movie crew would have as well. I love when you create a little family of artists, technicians, craftsmen and help build and grow eachother’s ideas and visions, and that happens in both worlds, or at least the ones I have been lucky enough to be part of.
Does current DoP technology limit you or give you infinite possibilities? How do you feel about that?
I think that there are so many possibilities with current technology. I also feel that technology can become a crutch and take the place of really thinking through story and storytelling. We have to be careful not to let gear and fancy toys get in the way of making sure that the shots are effectively communicating with the audience member. I have always felt that no matter the size shoot I am on, that there are infinite possibilities as we can be creative, no matter what we are working with. When I was shooting “10.000 KM” I loved the way light looked when it was broken up by some plastic trash I had found. I attached it to an open frame and put it in front of the HMI and the texture it gave the light looked like light going through old leaded glass. It was unique and beautiful, and it was just trash. From the outside, it looked a mess, but what it did to the light was very special and just what I needed at that moment. I’m sure someone can make a product to do something similar and that will be fantastic too (and easier to re-create) but it’s good to remind yourself to think outside of the box and be creative with resources. I guess the glass is half full for me. But also I won’t lie, when I got to do wet downs every night on “Dare Me” and had the “tube of death” pumping in tons of fog along with big lights aloft to illuminate it, I was giddy, and so happy to have those tools to play with and create the right mood for the scenes. I had so much fun with the material and the artistry that my teams brought to the table. Especially my Key Grip, Mark Manchester and my gaffer Tom Henderson. It was wonderful to have the technology available to us to do what we wanted to do artistically on “Dare Me”.
In our opinion, “Dare Me” has an outstanding feel and helps create an eerie atmosphere, especially at night. What were the main challenges of this project?
Thank you so much. I loved Megan Abbott’s book so much that I wanted very much to do right by it as we brought it to the screen. Also I was picking up the baton from Zoë White, who is a genius and I wanted to continue in the beautiful footsteps she laid out for us. I think the biggest challenge was just wanting to honour the previous work of these two women. They both had made such beauty and we wanted to continue working at that level for the entire season. We wanted to explore what modern Noir is. We hoped to reference some classic noir and cinema, and also the photography of Todd Hido and Gregory Crewdson. Megan, Gina and I traded music early on in the process, including chipmunkson16speed‘s “Call Me”, and when I shared it with Megan she responded that it made her feel “Such sublime driving-on-misty-nights music. Like a Todd Hido photo set to music”. When I saw that I was excited, as I have long loved Todd Hido’s work and I was excited to nod to it in our exploration of night in “Dare Me”. Our night had to be eerie, haunting, lonely and yet incredibly seductive. There is exciting danger in our night. My gaffer Tom Henderson and I decided to continue pushing our nights from traditional blue to cyan and in our interiors for some characters, like Addy, we moved into their mood and went with purple, and brought those into our shadows and fill. We looked for contrasting colours to counterpoint these and make a rich image. One of my favourites is the grungy yellow playing opposite the cyan, as the coach and Addy leave the back of Will’s apartment building. It’s dirty beautiful, just like their characters. It was fun to play with colours for what makes modern noir and evoke emotions with them. We were also not afraid of darkness on the show and I was very supported by Megan and Gina, and everyone, to explore darkness and shadow. The showrunners really knew that mood was important for “Dare Me” and had an excellent command of it. I felt very empowered to explore that seductive, dangerous, exciting, mysterious energy cinematically.
One of our other challenges on the show was to show Cheer for what it actually is, rather than the stereotype it has been relegated to. Cheerleaders are incredibly strong athletes who push their bodies to perform gravity defying gymnastic feats. We wanted the audience to feel up close and personal in the routines to feel part of them, to feel the dedication, strength and hard work these young women put into it. We wanted to see the sweat and feel the competition and pressure. During our regionals routine, we wanted to feel the organized chaos of being in the middle of a complex routine almost like a war zone. Sasha Moric, one of our operators, did an amazing visceral pass, using the Venice in its smaller Rialto mode, covering the dance from inside and following Beth’s emotional journey inside the routine (she hears something devastating just before the routine), and our Cheer coordinator and choreographer Amy Wright came up to us after the take and told us she had never seen cheer filmed that way. That was what it felt like to be in a routine: like being in a battle. I was very proud of that and Sasha. We also used the Phantom to show the beauty of their technique and in one episode we slowed down their tumbling practice until they looked like astronauts floating weightless through space. The show allowed us to meditate on things, to spend time examining the artistry of their movements in high speed. And then come back to the pressures of the scene. All of this worked towards creating the mood, which is so key to “Dare Me” and needs to permeate everything.
What was your camera + lenses package for “Dare Me”?
The pilot had been shot on Alexa with master primes, but we just missed the launch of the Mini LF, so we couldn’t continue with Alexa, as we had a 4K deliverable requirement to meet now that it had been ordered to series. I did some tests and decided that the Sony Venice was really interesting and gave us something unique for the project. Everyone was very supportive of the decision. I kept the master primes and then played with using different filtration for different levels of softening, often using either Pancro Mitchell’s or Glimmer Glass. We almost entirely shot with primes. I liked the combination of the masters and Venice, especially for what it did with people’s eyes. The book and show are so much about who is watching who and how little looks and glances can carry so much meaning, and I loved how much detail we could see in people’s eyes. Also, our cast had fantastic eyes and my gaffer Tom Henderson is a king of eye lights, among other things. However, the limits of slow motion at the time in Venice meant that we would use an Alexa Mini and a Phantom for our slow motion work. So we were often switching between bodies. Our camera department headed up by Rob Tagliaferri made it seamless and efficient.
You also have been involved in “High Maintenance”, which looks completely different. What is it like to adapt to a predefined cinematic style? Were you able to show your signature on this project?
“High Maintenance” is a very different kind of storytelling than “Dare Me”. It is rooted in reality vs. mood/tone. It never wants to have a look or style that could in any way make the audience member feel separated from the every-day interactions in the story. The viewer should feel that they could have this same encounter on the street in New York. It’s constructed naturalism, while “Dare Me” is surreal and moody. On “High Maintenance” it shouldn’t look as if we are lighting even when we are. I worked on “High Maintenance” from its web series days and then onto HBO. When we moved to HBO, the DoPs assumed that we needed to change the style; we felt the pressure of those three letters. But that would have changed the feel of the show and how people interacted with it. We ended up pushing the look a little, but largely stayed true to our original roots and what people loved about the show to begin with, and that was the best choice for the material. I was happy to flex on “Dare Me” and show that I am capable of other styles and storytelling, because I think often people want to put people into categories. Oh, they make this kind of work. I was getting a lot of calls for soft naturalism and though I like working in that style and often the stories it compliments, it’s not the only thing I like doing nor am I capable of. I also love a bold style, as long as it serves the story. The only thing I don’t want to make is something where the look comes at the expense of the story.
You also worked on “Through You”, a VR experience. What is it like to work on a project like this? What were the main difficulties?
“Through You” was a very interesting project to work on. We wanted to do some things that had not been tried at the time in VR. We wanted to have a lot of cuts and camera movement along with the dancers, so that the viewer was part of the energy and dance and not passively watching it play out around them. We also had a small budget. We used a rover for one section of the film (in the diner) where the movement was more linear and the camera could be remote driven forward and backward with the actors (if you look in the diner you can see me and the operator hidden in costume in a booth driving the rover), but for the rest of the piece we wanted more complex and human movement. But how to operate the camera when it can see 360? We came up with the idea of using the latitude of the Jaunt camera to our advantage. We knew that at the time there were not a lot of details in the blacks, so we put down a black carpet over the entire set. Then we donned all black head to toe suits, not unlike the ones people think of for green screen. The directors and I inched along flat on the floor and were able to wheel and operate the camera and then pass it to each other in different part of the room while staying flat to the ground. What small detail of us you could see was then crushed out and removed in post, and we blended into the floor and the camera danced on its own. During the early edits I sort of liked looking down and seeing the ghostly puppeteer operators moving the tripod and joked that we should keep us in, but it wasn’t quite right for what we were trying to achieve, so ultimately we were removed. I was quite proud of this idea that let us create a new feeling of movement in a simple and cost-effective way. We were able to use a very new technology but pair it was an ancient theatrical tradition, hidden puppeteers, and create something unique and new.
What technology would you like to see developed to include in your future projects?
I continue to be impressed with all the new advancements in lighting tools. I think that is the department I am most excited to continue to advance. I would love to have more big lighting units that use less power, but still have the same qualities as their forefathers, so that we could decrease our power consumptions without sacrificing quality. I think that would make me feel less guilty when I call for big units.
What’s your vision regarding post-production? Are you actively involved in the process?
I am always involved in the final colour grade, as that is the last work of the cinematographer. It’s the plating of the food that you have all worked together to make, and it’s where you can do any tiny finishes and sweetenings that you were unable to do simply and efficiently on set. It’s critical to finish out projects, so they finalize the way you intended. I have also been very fortunate to often be included in the edits of a number of the projects that I have shot for. I love giving notes and feedback when requested. I think because I care so much about the story, different show runners and directors have shared edits with me and asked for feedback. On “High Maintenance” I ended up becoming an associate producer over the seasons because I would help with feedback on scripts and edits in post-production. It’s an honour to help with this last formative stage of a project.
What’s next for Dagmar?
I’m hoping to continue to find projects with stories that excite me and that hopefully will let audience members feel empathy and connection with something or someone outside of their normal lives. I’ve also been raising my daughter and I’m excited for a time when I can bring her to set and show her all the big toys I use to create different times of day and moods for the stories I’m working on.