Dan Stoloff, successfully overcoming the creative challenges of ‘The Boys’
Since childhood, our today’s protagonist found himself ‘infected’ with the thrill of shootings. He was always clear that this had to be his goal. And so, each step of his career was steadily heading in this direction. He trode his path forward through short films, feature films and commercials; recently, ‘stability’ reached him when he landed in the world of TV fiction thanks to the effectiveness, creativity, and passion he puts into his jobs.
It is a world he is passionate about. Today’s TV environment is not only capable of presenting a single cinema finish, as is the case in most films, but it is also capable of adapting and evolving in each episode or each season. This chameleonic capacity is evident in the chapters he has authored for the second season of ‘The Boys’ (Amazon Studios) -he is already shooting season three, by the way- but also in other renowned productions in which he has worked: ‘The Americans’ (FX), ‘Zoo’ (CBS), ‘Suits’ (USA Network), ‘Memphis Beat’ (TNT)…
We chatted with Dan Stoloff to have him share with us his vision of the profession and the technical keys to his latest work.
Frequently, all children who end up working in cinema begin to be fascinated by the silver screen or television, and then move to a home recording device, such as a Super 8. Nonetheless, there’s a time when the roads divide and decide to focus on direction, photography or any of the other areas of this amazing process. How did you end up choosing photography? What were the reasons for taking that path?
I was first introduced to a super 8 film camera at the age of 10. Neighbourhood friends and I made a series of little films. I was intoxicated by the process. Not excelling in traditional academics, I vowed to myself that if there was a way I could make a living doing this, that is what I would do. I’d had no exposure to anything related to the film industry and I made it my mission to learn everything I could. I saved my money and purchased a subscription to American Cinematographer. I read every issue from cover to cover. It became my bible! In junior high school I took a class in animation, followed by filmmaking. In high school I continued on this journey, taking college film coursed in summer school. There was no doubt in my mind I would go to film school for college. I went to Ithaca College and my studies reaffirmed my commitment to the craft, and here I am.
What was the first TV Series whose photography amazed you, whatever the reason behind it?
I came up in my career through Feature films and commercials without much interest in episodic television. I think my interest was first sparked by ‘The Sopranos’, not so much for the photography but for the cinematic potential of TV. It was the storytelling, in an epic and intimate medium that I saw potential for me and my career. It would be years later that I first got an opportunity to photograph a TV series. It was a show called ‘Memphis Beat’ and I found everything I’d learned previously prepared me for this. I loved the pace, the energy, the thinking on your feet that TV required. I was hooked.
What is that spark that drives you to choose one project or another? Is it the script, the creativity behind it, maybe the technological possibilities of the project…?
What I am looking for in choosing a project is multifaceted. Primarily, the story must grab me. I ask myself what is my personal connection to the story and how can I access my own sensibility to make a meaningful contribution. Variety is important to me as well as discovery. When undertaking a project the world you enter is very much dictated by the subject. After spending months in dark alleys, or gritty basements, it’s nice to switch it up to high end glamorous locations. Personalities of those involved is a high priority too.
Is Dan a DP who loves to add his signature to every project he works on, or does he prefer to be a tool to the director of the film or series? Maybe you feel comfortable halfway?
I don’t consciously try to put a specific stamp on a project. I try to let the story dictate the look of a project. That said, so much of what we do are decisions we make based on our own taste, so I suppose that would be the common denominator.
Do you consider yourself as a “techy” when approaching your profession? Does technology expand your creativity or inevitably limit it?
I do not consider myself a “techy” or overly technical director of photography. I keep up to date with technology as one must, but I rely on my DIT and camera teams to really execute the technical.
How has working in 4K or 8K + HDR changed your way of filming?
I don’t think working at higher resolution has affected the way I work at all. I tend to light primarily by eye; I know if it looks good to my eye, the camera will enjoy it too. I do love the expanded exposure range that HD and HDR afford, it is all getting the camera closer to the way my eye sees. I love shadow and highlight details… I want to see it all in the frame!
Although you have worked in several movies, you’ve been specially linked to TV series during the last decade. What’s so special about this field? What do you like the most about working in this area? How has your job in TV change since you worked back in 1995 on MTV’s The State, for example?
What I love about dramatic episodic television is that as we move through a season a TV series takes on a life that in feature films is a bit different. A feature is a finite project, all prepped and executed with a specific vision. I have found that TV has more room for growth in the look as well as in the characters. Just as actors shape a performance over a season, the look of a show evolves as well. In a perfect world, the show grows in its look, the efficiency of execution and depth of character, which the look helps to support.
Before talking about ‘The Boys’, the last big project you were involved, you were responsible for lots of episodes of ‘Suits’ and, in my humble opinion, some of the best episodes of ‘The Americans’, among other projects. What is it like to take an already established show, such as the latest, and take it into its final episodes?
Taking over a show that has an established look presents its own creative challenges. Fortunately for me, the shows I’ve taken on have had wonderful look already, so putting on those shoes was painless. The question becomes how I maintain the look of the show, keeping it consistent, and at the same time putting myself into it. I found with ‘The Americans’ following a few ground rules kept the show in the zone but also allowed me to introduce new locations, new characters and keep them in the same world. The lensing of the show was very specific and that to me became the common denominator. We stayed with wider lenses, close in with actors to keep the environments sharp and present. I felt that this created a more intimate proximity to the audience. I would often juxtapose very wide shots, through doorways or windows to create an outside perspective, like a spy might view the world, with the close wide intimate coverage, as though inviting the audience in on an intimate secret.
What were the greatest challenges in these two TV series?
‘The Boys’ has so much in the way of variety that I found every scene was a discovery. Eric Kripke, the showrunner of ‘The Boys’, told me early on to “play with it, have fun with camera moment, keep it dynamic but grounded in reality, and never let me catch you lighting!” I thought this was the best coaching I’d ever had. I knew what he meant and although I never want to get caught lighting, what he meant was for the conceit of the show to work it had to be within the confines of reality. The challenges of these two shows were very different. ‘The Boys’ is a masterclass in effects, visual effects, special effects, and stunts. Most days we do them all. ‘The Americans’ was a different kind of challenge. Being a winter show in New York, with a lot of nights is a tough go. It was a lot of fun keeping it dark and textured – not too dark, you’ve gotta see the wonderful actors –, but gritty realistic and edgy.
What was your choice of camera + lenses choice for ‘The Boys’ (or, at least, what was chosen when you arrived?)
When I arrived on ‘The Boys’ the show was being shot on a Red with Cooke SF anamorphic lenses. I loved the look of the lenses and the aspect ratio of 2:35 so I kept the lenses; however, I switched the camera to Sony Venice, primarily for its color rendition and high speed. The base 2500 ISO was crucial to a lot of our night work. The aesthetics of the show really comes from the writing. I don’t think it needs a defined look, except to say that the world we create must closely resemble the grittiest of the real world as we peel back the layers to uncover what is beneath the surface of mass corporate manipulation. The elements within must reflect familiar visual tropes that viewers can identify with. For example, if there is a music video from the 90s embedded in a story line, that video must be visually legitimate. A news cast must look like a news cast and clips from a tentpole summer blockbuster superhero movie must have the production value of any Marvel project.
You’re also working on a brand new HBO Max project. Could you tell us more about this and the technological / visual choices that have been taken?
After finishing season 2 of ‘The Boys’ I was looking for something smaller and more intimate in scale. I got exactly what I was looking for in the HBO Max pilot ‘Julia’. It is the story of Julia Child’s entry into the world of television. Taking place in 1962, it was a period character piece with a lot of cooking. Coming from the world of TV commercials I was familiar with food shooting, and I love it! The care and detail in shooting the making of a french omelet uses different muscles that the planning and executing of a congressional hearing mass murder! Both are infinitely satisfying, however more so when juxtaposed together!
Finally, what do you think has been the most relevant technological upgrade for DPs and what technological solution would you love to see introduced in the near future?
I think the most radical technological upgrade I’ve seen in my career has been the ascendance of digital cinematography. We had been using the same tech for 100 years and it was time for a change. No more late night calls from the lab. No more conflicts over who scratched the film, camera assistant or lab. The dynamic range is vastly improved; the flexibility of the medium is improved. Essentially, we can shape the look of any filmstock or process with the push of a button. It has freed us up to try things and to dig deeper into the needs of a script to provide visuals that can make even greater contributions to storytelling.