Awards Daily TV talks to Stranger Things cinematographer Tim Ives about creating the vintage 1980s look and feel for the Emmy®-buzzed series.
Like looking back at old photograph albums, the Netflix sensation Stranger Things stirs the heart and the mind with its pitch-perfect look at an era we’d perhaps forgot we love. Complimenting the writing, the acting, and a whole host of successful technical executions, Stranger Things owes a lot to its photography.
Creating the nostalgic, eerie look of Stranger Things was no mean feat, but in the more than capable hands of cinematographer Tim Ives the show visually captures the mood and the era perfectly. I questioned Chris about his fine work here, though the stunning photography speaks for itself.
Before we talk about the moving image and Stranger Things, tell us a little bit about your love for photography.
I have had a still camera in my hand most of my life. I’ve had a love for photography and photographs continuously since I was little, I have been a collector of photograph as well. I just love the still image, it is a hobby of mine when I am not filming, which is not that often.
When did you see cinematography as something you wanted to do professionally?
If I was to look back to the little voice in my head, I would say probably when I was eight years old. I remember having an Instamatic camera and taking pictures in sequential order to tell a story with still images. I guess I was in Boston in the early 80’s, I was out of college. Where am I really go to go? Am I going to pursue this? I moved down to New York and became a production assistant, which was more about set etiquette than being on my way with the camera.
So you’ve done all kinds of stuff, some great commercials, short films. You’ve done music videos. How do those mediums differ from television?
They’re all quite different from each other actually. I really got my start in the production of commercials. Then, I stepped right into music videos when the opportunity arose to shoot in those formats. Commercials are telling a short story but in 30 seconds. That’s very different from music videos where you still tell stories but in a more abstract way and have a lot more time to do so. And of course don’t always rely on any sort of sound recording.
I am a music lover, so music videos spoke to me more than commercials did. In the early 90s there was a break-out of formats for showing cinematography on television. A lot of music videos are very specialist, and a lot of commercial people were drawn to directors and DPs [directors of photography] to bring a new flavor to the format. It requires a completely different skill set, doing something over a period of time and staying focused and manage an idea.
You’ve done a lot of TV recently, obviously Girls, a couple of House of Cards episodes, and the pilot of Mr. Robot. Was obligation the reason you were not doing more of those shows?
In truth, yes it was. They were tremendous opportunities. I literally just came in to fill in for Eigil Bryld to work on House of Cards in a short time frame. That was a show that was incredible to work on. Mr. Robot was an incredible thing to start off. Girls was my show. I felt a loyalty and a desire to stay with them. Jennifer Konner and Lena Dunham were so supportive together, wonderful to work for them. They connected me with my younger filmmaker self and forced me to look at things a little bit differently. And I really responded to that. It was nice to see the project all the way through.
Stranger Things is a terrific show. I am sure people tell you that all the time. An instant hit, so congratulations on that.
Oh thank you. It was a true joy.
So two things: the look of it, obviously the 80’s, but also the lighting. The look of the show first. How did you create that? It almost felt like it was shot in the 80’s, and that’s a compliment.
Thank you! Yes, that was the absolute goal with that show. When I was given this opportunity, I took it quite seriously. It was the kind of project that you sit around, at least in my shoes, and wait for, hope you get it, and assume you’re never going to get. And there it was. It was written in a way I connected to immediately. That it really needed to feel like it was shot back then. And not just in a homage sort of way, but in a way that really captured the heart and soul of that time frame.
It was a challenge I was looking to do for a long time. I’m a cinematographer who wanted to do a period piece, and this is a period I was very familiar with. Some of my cinematic heroes were at their peak in those years. You know, Allen Daviau, Conrad L. Hall, directors like Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott. I felt like I really knew this time well.
Stranger Things is a network show which was shot in 4k, which itself excluded a couple of cameras I usually work with. So we tested Sony, Panasonic, RED, and I had just worked with RED on House of Cards. I felt like I really understood it. It had a different feel to it to some of the other great cameras out there. It reminded me of the [Kodak] 5293, 200 ASA we all used to love, velvety and smooth. I went with the RED and tested a bunch of different lenses.
I found the Leica had a flatness and smoothness and roundness to them, which made the skin tone just beautiful and had that 80’s feel to them. We wanted the contrast and did not want it to feel flat and overlit. I wanted it to be dark. This is a horror fantasy show and wanted the details to be in the shadows.
The way Stranger Things is lit is terrific. How did you execute that? The dark scenes in the house, the interiors more so.
Well as much as I wanted to base this on reality. Those Spielberg movies like E.T., Close Encounters [of the Third Kind] had a fantastical element to them. You believed them, but they were not documentaries. There was realism and then a heightened sense of realism. That’s what I wanted to do with the house. We had a good color contrast with the warm tones of the interiors and a little bit of blue coming in from the moonlight. I did it in the woods too by suggesting a moonlight, and it all worked and added to the fantasy aspect of the show. Ultimately, you want the characters to shine, and anything I do has to tell the story and not get in the way of it. And not be too super fantastical about it.
How did you work with directors, production designers, and also the actors, the kids, to perfect your vision?
Extremely close. Another reason why you’re being so kind with the job we did is because it was a group effort. Chris Trujillo’s sets were just amazing. The love and care he put into them is what you see on the screen. We worked out earlier on when the stage was being planned. Like in the Byers house, it was a little bit out of scale. The walls were a little big bigger a little bit wider. It wasn’t just to accommodate the camera. We all remember our homes when we were younger being larger than they were, and we all thought it would be neat if for the kids the house did seem a little bit big. Chris really captured that.
Then you look at other departments, like hair and make-up and wardrobe. The hair was exactly how it would be in the 80’s. Everything we put in front of the camera really had the essence of those 80’s things we really love. Including some of those elements from John Hughes films like Sixteen Candles. It was a group effort. The kids themselves we had never seen before. We were quite paternal with them. They were wonderful, very professional, a joy to work with. They gave it their all.
Have your own children seen Stranger Things?
Yeah, they are big fans. My daughter called me on the set of Girls. They binged it like everyone else. She was so upset that the show was over and that Steve had ended up with Nancy. I thought something had gone terribly wrong at home, but she was talking about the TV show. I was kind of happy that in some way she responded to it. That she was crushed. There is a lot of emotion in it. We’ve watched it three times to make sure we stayed true to ourselves.
Well you have made the 80’s cool again. The 80’s was a decade that has been picked on a little bit. You have brought it back.
Yeah, it is picked on a bit. I had a great time in the 80’s, though, it was fun.
Stranger Things Season 1 streams on Netflix. Season 2 premieres in October 2017.