DJ Stipsen. What we do behind the cameras.
The play on words was simple, but, how to resist doing it? DJ Stipsen, photography director from New Zealand, is the last representative of a long-standing saga of technicians prepared to make the most of the so-called mockumentary art. In his main project as DoP, both the film and the serial adaptation of ‘What We Do In The Shadows’ (FX), turns being late to catch the action into an art as he makes us participate both in the dramatic narrative and in the bewilderment of camera people, who open the doors to the world of Staten Island’s vampires to us.
Both this project and in the ambitious ‘Dispatches from Elsewhere’ (AMC) benefit from all resources offered by today’s technique in order to offer viewers a window into two worlds: one with plenty of magical and supernatural resources, and other in which ordinariness takes over the action. We shared a funny chat with DJ Stipsen and got a chance to know his work in more detail.
We have read in previous interviews that you have been closely related to filming all your life. How did you approach the direction of photography in particular? How did you start in that, we would say, techy world?
I grew up in the film industry. My father was a props master, so I spent my childhood’s weekends on different sets of films. I learned lots of things from him, but also it was great fun. Although, when I left high school, I was not going to go into the film industry. I started training to be a builder and then I decided that maybe the film industry would be more interesting. Also, I’ve always had an interest in cameras, so I applied for different courses and got into one. Then, I’ve got picked up for an internship with the state broadcaster at their camera department. I learned a lot there. Then, I started making music videos and short films with friends… and that’s sort of how I fell into it.
How would you define your style in a few lines? Do you have a particular style? Do you adapt to each one of your projects? What is your preferred way to do your job as DOP?
I thought about this question a lot because I don’t think I have a particular style. What I do have is a very strong belief in that the story comes first. The story will help me decide what the style may be for the film, the episode in a series or the whole series. I like to read the story first and find out what style is best to advance the story. I never want to push a style onto the story and then have the viewer sitting without understanding a thing. For me, the number one rule is that my style must make advance the story. It can be colour or it can be depth of field or framing: everything will be dictated by that story.
You are based in New Zealand. How is living these strange times the cinema and television industry there?
At the moment, because of Covid-19, New Zealand is one of the few countries in the world that is free of Covid-19. So, our production is very healthy. We have several international productions running right now: “Avatar”, “Lord Of The Rings”, “Cowboy Bebop”… and there’s a lot of interest from other productions to come here, because they don’t have to wear face masks. Once they arrive and they isolate, they can start their productions. Also, our local production is very strong. I couldn’t tell you how many local productions are shooting right now, but it would be at least at least 10, which for New Zealand is a lot, because our local productions are funded by the government almost exclusively, so there aren’t that many productions compared to Spain or Italy or France.
As you said, you have worked in commercials, in documentaries, in music videos… Regarding to workflow and technology, what are the main differences compared to TV shows?
In a commercial, you’re selling a product, so your entire focus is about what that product looks like. That’s why you’re there and that is what your main aim is. There is a storyboard and you will follow that storyboard. There’s some creative freedom, but not a lot for the DoP. It is a far more rigid form and almost all the creative decisions have already been made. Not on all, but on some. You are telling a very quick story, in just 15- or 30-seconds, so you need to make sure the audience gets it. Next, I would say that documentary is “reactive storytelling”. You are literally on your own listening to what’s happening, watching what’s happening, and if the story changes in front of you, you have to be willing to go where that story goes. I find that really liberating. You can really tell amazing stories if you’re willing to just let yourself go and follow that story. Finally, I would say that TV shows are amazing as a DoP, because you get up to eight to ten hours to tell a story, to advance that story visually and to create a visual arc for that amount of time. And that’s huge! You never get that opportunity. I love the fact that every hour you are creating another episode, another story… It’s incredible that episodic television has come so far. 10 or 20 years ago that just wasn’t happening. You were restricted by the networks. And now, my goodness, Netflix, Amazon, Apple… They all are letting you really advance story visually.
In your two latest main projects, What We Do In The Shadows (FX) + Dispatches From Elsewhere (AMC), you mix both fantasy and everydayness elements. How does this translate into your work? How are your decisions conditioned by both worlds?
I’ll start with What We Do In The Shadows. The most important thing about it is that we feel that the vampires are living in their own magic world and, as the human documentary crew, documenting that world, it’s incredible to us. We wanted to make everything in the vampire world warm and dark, but kind of welcoming and scary at the same time. If you were living in that world, it would just feel normal to you. But, for us as human we’re going into it, it’s a pretty intense world. Then, we wanted to make sure that, when we shot anything outside of our vampire world, it had to be really banal. That was really important. We deliberately looked for locations and the ability to light those locations to make them feel bland, plain and banal. That was definitely the style the story told me to do, and that’s exactly what we followed.
For Dispatches From Elsewhere there was a lot of discussion about how to present the different worlds. Jason Siegel, the writer, creator, executive producer, and actor, was very keen that each episode was different, and that’s a real challenge, also for the audience. But once we broke down that each episode was about a character, we could give that character their own look and feel. Anyway, we established a couple of things: firstly, that the idea behind Dispatches from Elsewhere is that if you’re just living your life, you’re potentially missing the magic around you; there is magic around and you can find it, but you’ve got to look for it, and that will pull you out of the world that you’re in. In the normal world we always shot handheld, we had side framing. Moreover, the lighting was always going forward: if you had light coming through a window, you wouldn’t have them standing in the light, you’d have them slightly off from that light. We shot that with handheld and spherical lenses. Then, once we moved into the magic world, we used anamorphics. Then, often we would flare the lenses deliberately, just to give that extra bit of sparkle and magic. Also, we would use mirrors with light: when someone opens a door to a department store, the glass will pick the sun and throw it across the department store for a moment, it will just flash across. That was the magic part, very different from how the normal world felt. One other thing I must add about the magic world is that, as soon as we went into that magic world, we used a steady cam, a MoVI Pro, a Dolly, a Crane… Everything was very smooth.
Previously you said that your documentary experience has helped you for your work in What We Do In The Shadows. But isn’t it true that many filmmakers are heavily influenced by TV shows almost like The Office or movies such as This Is Spinal Tap? How much of your work in the TV Show has been influenced by these works and how much of your previous documentary experience?
We drew influence from, of course, The Office, Spinal Tap and other kind of documentary, even The Blair Witch Project. You know that’s been made, but that’s only a start. I would say that the biggest difference between What We Do In The Shadows and those other is that we really made an art of being late to the action. We really wanted to make the audience feel that we were literally seeing it ourselves for the first time as well, and we were arriving late to whatever was happening, whether that’s in a pan or a focus move, or physically moving the camera to find something or running. And that’s actually a really hard thing to do all the time. It’s comedy, so we’re doing up to 10 takes: each of those takes has to feel new again, it can’t feel like the operators and the focus pullers know what’s going to happen. They had to untrain themselves from everything they’ve ever learned in their careers. They’d be fired on another show for not finding or not getting the action! Furthermore, unlike The Office we have a lot of visual effects. We never wanted to treat the visual effects like a Marvel film. We wanted to treat the visual effects like how it would be if it just happens in the world. You begin to believe it more, because the things that are happening in that world are so incidental… We’re not deliberately flagging them all the time.
One more about WWDITS! How has the cinematography of What We Do In The Shadows evolved from Season 1 to Season 2?
To me, they are almost two different shows when it comes to the lighting. Basically, between season one and season two, Astera brought out their two tube products, the Helios and the Titan Tube. Now, everything’s battery controlled, wirelessly run, and we built boxes for them, which allows us to have more versatility during our shoots. Unfortunately, the one thing that hasn’t changed are the lenses. We have to shoot on zoom lenses, because that is the style that gives us that ability to zoom in and out. That’s really important to the style of the show. But the handheld zoom, the lens technology that exists for 4K, because we’re shooting on the Sony Venice in 4K and 6K, is just no decent. So that’s the big let-down for me. The zoom technology is not very good, and they have a lot of aberrations and it’s a real shame. I’m hoping that a lens manufacturer reads this and decide to build a decent lightweight zoom that probably covers a 4k sensor.
What was the biggest challenge you had to face during the shooting of a TV series?
I don’t really want to talk about What We Do In The Shadows so much, but it is probably the hardest show I’ve ever shot and the reason for that is that as a DoP you have to be willing to let the camera go wherever it needs to go. You’re still shooting drama, it’s still scripted, it’s still got visual effects, it’s still got costumes, it’s still got all the restrictions that you have when you’re shooting a drama. But you cannot completely plan the shooting. We have to be able to shoot everywhere. We have to shoot a wide shot and a close-up at exactly the same time. And it has to be dark, it has to have candlelights, and it has stunts. It is really hard! You end up becoming very skilled at hiding technology everywhere, whether it’s on a location or at a set. When I first did it, it was really scary and hard, but as I got better a t it, it became way more fun and a lot more of a challenge. Ultimately, you’re never going to make something that’s super beautiful, you’re only ever going to make something that can be as good as it can be with the restrictions of that idea of shooting two cameras and they fact they can do whatever they want.
Recently, networks such as HBO or Netflix recommend certain camera models to maintain certain homogeneity in their productions. Did you have to experience something similar in FX or AMC? What’s your opinion on this?
I didn’t have that with FX or AMC. As long as the camera is suitable for the job… We shot the movie of What We Do In The Shadows on Red Epics, but I thought the Sony Venice was a much better camera for the series. It not only does 4k, but it can do 6k very easily. The codec that it uses is very post-friendly, its noise to signal ratio is really good, its curve is really great in the blacks or in the shadows… And also it’s a very good handheld camera. It’s a bit heavy, but I’ll sacrifice that for the great information gathering that it does, and I really like the way the pictures look. So FX never had a problem with that when I presented side-by-side tests of other cameras versus the Sony Venice. It happens the same with AMC, which I shot with Minis.
What’s your approach with VFXas? How do you plan the shootings that involve these types of resources?
First of all, when it comes to visual effects, to me it’s a dark art [laughs]. Those women and men are amazing. I’m always blown away by the things that they can do and do beautifully. I don’t understand how they do it, but they’re great. But I really enjoy working with visual effects. I find it challenging but I also find it really rewarding. If the show’s handheld and we have lots of zooms and things like that, I really sit down the VFX department and we have a good chat before the show starts. For example, for What We Do In The Shadows, I told them: “Whatever we do we can’t let the audience think that this is a VFX shot ,we have to make it blend seamlessly into the show”. I really enjoy the planning stages of it and I really enjoy the input from the VFX supervisors and their clever answers to some really dumb questions that I ask.
And what’s your role regarding post-production? Do you usually get involved on these stages?
Absolutely. Before the show, we will have shot tests, a series of looks and feels that we present to the producers. We get everyone on board, so we can sort of move seamlessly into the final stages with the show looking like everyone expected. The downside to that process is that, if you start playing around in the colour timing, the producers might come in and go “Well, that doesn’t look like what we saw on set”. Then, you have to basically write a thesis explaining why you changed your mind and how it won’t be detrimental to the show. But honestly, when that has happened, I’ve found people really reasonable about it. It comes right back to question two: as long as it’s advancing story, you always get people to travel with you. If that’s interrupting, they will stop you, and then we should change it and go back to what we were doing or whatever else.
Finally, what’s next for DJ Stipsen? Will you remain doing TV Series? Are you moving to feature films or documentaries?
So, with the Covid-19… [laughs]. Hopefully going to finish off a show, and then I’ll go to Toronto and hopefully do another series of What We Do In The Shadows.