Interview with Chris Teague: The winner of an Emmy Award for “Russian Doll” embraces 8K recording and HDR
Technical care is getting an increasingly important role in TV fiction. Long gone are those formats in which visual finish was a secondary issue to scripting. At present, maybe because of the appearance of players such as Netflix, Amazon Prime o HBO in the scene, direction of photography has evolved to become a decisive item for viewers.
Chris Teague, winner of an Emmy award for Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series thanks to his work in Russian Doll (Netflix) and also author of the staging of Glow, told the team of TM Broadcast International about his way of understanding TV technique.
We would like to start by asking you to summarize your career in a few lines so our readers can get to know you better.
I went to film school at Columbia’s School of The Arts in New York City, and before that I had studied photography and worked a bit as an assistant to a documentary DP. At film school I studied writing and directing, but I had some technical skills so I ended up being one of the go-to DPs for school exercises and short films. That work evolved into indie feature work, and in the past few years I’ve mostly been working in television.
If we had to identify a trend in the last decade TV shows, we would say that “cinematography evolved” compared to the 70s, 80s or even 90s. Do you agree? In your opinion, what is the biggest technological change that TV series has faced?
Yes, the look of television has certainly become more cinematic and varied in past years. Part of that I believe is due to a wider variety of story material that lends itself to different visual approaches, and the advent of streamers like Netflix who are more willing to do unconventional things.
HD, 4K, 8K… Resolutions evolve day by day. You had to film “Russian Doll” with RED equipment working under those resolutions. How was the experience? How did you fell when filming with those resolutions?
Before Russian Doll I had no idea why anyone would shoot higher than 4k if you have to deliver in 4k. After seeing the tests of the RED Helium sensor at 7k and 8k I saw how the oversampling of pixels can lead to a more rounded texture to the image, particularly when paired with appropriate lenses and color grading.
We have talked to many CTOs and cinematographers and they agree that HDR could work as a revolution, as color was decades ago. Therefore, they told us that cinematographers still need to learn how to use correctly this powerful tool. What do you think about this? How was your experience with HDR?
I was hesitant about working in HDR, but it was actually a perfect format for this show. Once you spend a few hours in the DI suite working with the rich color and contrast of HDR you tend to find the SDR image feeling a little flat and lifeless.
We would like to stop briefly at your work in Russian Doll. Could you describe the main equipment used for this production and why did you choose it?
We shot on the RED Helium sensor. At the time I felt our only choices for Netflix’s 4K mandate was RED or the Panasonic VariCam, and I had previously owned RED cameras and liked what I was able to do with them. I thought the tests we shot with the Helium looked great and fit the show. For lenses we shot with the Leica Summiluxes. I have typically shot with older lenses because they are softer and more idiosyncratic, but I loved the Leicas for this because they look amazing wide open at T1.4 and despite being modern glass I still feel that they are not too crisp or sharp.
A large part of the first season of the show was filmed in night environments. How do you face these conditions?
I shot the entire show at 1600 ISO to introduce a little bit of noise and texture, and shooting at that ISO paired with T1.4 lenses meant we almost always had more exposure than we needed. The challenge was not getting enough light, but controlling the existing light on NYC streets to keep the show from feeling too bright.
In addition, you used different types of technological gadgets for some shoots, such as underwater or subjective scenes. What were the solutions you used?
We used an underwater housing for the water work. Luckily our steadicam operator Kyle Wullschleger is an underwater operator, so he handled that very well. We also used a body mounted camera rig with a Sony A7SII, as well as some shift/tilt lenses for the scene when Alan is drunk and walking on the roof.
Let’s move to the way you like to work. How do you face one particular project? What is your workflow?
Each project is different. I try to get into conversation with every creative part of the team and let those conversations lead to concepts that will direct the look of the show. I like to test cameras and lenses to find the right feel for the show. Ideally I make a document of images and text to serve as a “style guide” that I share with my team to help get everyone on the same page.
Do you have a preferred manufacturer? Do you choose a different option for each project?
We are very fortunate to be working in a time when there are many excellent camera formats to choose from. I think it is good to be familiar with all of them.
Is there any technology that you would like to be improved or implemented in the coming years?
So much of our work in lighting is about balancing levels from interior to exterior, or shade to bright sun. I think the more our camera latitude increases, the less work we will do to simply balance things, and the more we can focus on being creative.
How important is post-production in the decisions you make on the pre-production phase?
I think my colorist is one of my key creative partners, and I like to involve them in the process as early as possible, as they help me make big picture creative decisions that will shape the look of the show. Nat Jencks has worked with me on many many projects and we share a similar visual sensibility, so he has been an excellent creative partner.
What is the biggest challenge you had to face as DoP?
The biggest challenge is staying on top of all the different decisions that need to be made in the incredibly fast pace of television. I never have enough time to devote the energy I would like to each and every creative element of a project, so it is important to know what to focus the most time on, and still not let anything slip through the cracks.