Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan chats with Ramy cinematographer Adrian Peng Correia about the Game of Thrones viewing debacle, working on Hallmark holiday movies, and Ramy‘s distinct look.
One of the busiest cinematographers in the business is Adrian Peng Correia, who shoots on high-profile shows including Hulu’s critically acclaimed Ramy, comedian Ramy Youssef’s series about dating and family life as a Muslim Millennial.
As a show, Ramy offers a very unique outlook, paired with a very unique look, courtesy of Correia. I had a chance to chat with him about what it’s like to shoot on three completely different shows (he also works on GLOW and American Princess), lighting techniques based on race and gender, and the best way to watch television (calibrate those monitors!).
Awards Daily: Ramy has some of the best reviews of the year. Did you know that this show was special when you were working on it?
Adrian Peng Correia: When I was contacted I was still on American Princess, the Jenji Kohan/Jamie Denbo show, and [Ramy producers] had sent me the pilot which was shot by Ashley Connor, and then they sent me the script for the second episode. Once you see at least the foundations of what the pilot was and then you read what the opportunities were with the script, you really have a good idea of what the show is going to be in terms of the conception of it, at least a rough idea of what they think they want the show to be in terms of on a season scale. And pretty much immediately once you put all that stuff together, it was kind of a no-brainer frankly.
AD: Ramy has such a distinct look about it. What kind of discussions did you have about that?
APC: There’s a very naturalistic tone to the pilot, and when I talked to Ramy, Chris Storer [director], and Bridget [Bedard – executive producer] about it, it was something where I didn’t feel like complete naturalism was the the proper way to go. I felt like the show needed to have some connective cinematic tissue. This family is not necessarily something a lot of people have seen before, at least in this capacity, and it was something where I felt like I wanted to wrap this new cinematic television adventure in this kind of guise of a more stylized and cinematic look. Have it be entertaining and put a little bit of sugar with the medicine, so to speak, so that people can see this family in the guise of what they would believe to be a movie or traditional television show. This kind of stylized naturalism would put it in a slightly different universe, maybe remove it from whatever preconceived reality people had about Muslims and their families. So that was the motivation behind having that look, which is a little bit more stylized.
AD: I’ve read that there are differences between cinematography on white actors versus people of color. What are the differences? What techniques did you use?
APC: I used to be a person who used a lot of back lighting and edge lighting to break out and shape faces. I counteracted the stylization of the nature of the color of the photography by becoming a bit more rooted in naturalism for the motivations of the key lights and the way faces were shaped. There’s a certain baroque-ness to the nature in the way a lot of the faces are played and I wanted them to have these big key lights wrapped around their faces and almost in the style of a modern Rembrandt, where it would showcase the completeness of their faces. If we were in a room that was a little bit brighter, I’d still try to keep the faces in a little bit of a shadow and part of that was continuing with that idea of this stylized nature and not doing so much back lighting and edge lighting, keeping that a little bit more grounded and let the color be a little bit more expressive. It was like a counteractive choice to make the color a little bit more experimental.
Most of the people on this show have a very consistent skin tone. It wasn’t so much like shooting an African American actor where you have to be a little bit more careful with reflectiveness and contrast. All the faces in this family are in this lighter to darker caramel range and for that it’s like splitting the difference between the way you would shoot a Caucasian face versus an African American face. In a lot of ways, it doesn’t really change the nature of how I was going to photograph the show; it was just about making sure that I had good exposure on their faces and be able to have a nice, thick, fat negative so that when we went to color, that we could shape and create the slightly stylized look.
AD: You also work on the female-centric GLOW. Are there different techniques for shooting women versus men, since Ramy is a male-centric show?
APC: The way we view women in cinema is kind of unfortunate in the sense that there’s always this need for women to need to look beautiful and I mean that in the sense that it’s kind of limiting. It forces the reflection of the way a woman is supposed to look in a very narrow and specific way on screen and it’s kind of patronizing. Now it is very normal to try to make women look beautiful, make sure all of their faces are beautifully filled out, but I don’t subscribe having to make women look beautiful every shot. I think within the context of drama or comedy, women don’t necessarily have to have a key light on their face. A couple times with actors and GLOW, I would want to hit them with a very specific key light in their normal day lives and then there are times I would let them go a little bit more underexposed. I think when you allow yourself to frame and shoot women in a way that is more free, I think that helps them more in terms of the way that their performances can be rendered in the finished episode. They deserve that freedom.
AD: You’ve worked on Hallmark holiday movies, which I can’t think of anything more opposite than Ramy. How do you adjust your look from project to project?
APC: It’s a very careful idea of, one, what you’re trying to deliver, whether it’s a comedy or drama or Christmas movie or something like that, and what the expectations are of the people that you are in service to. I’m in service to the creators of TV shows and to the directors of films and to those producers of both, and if they have a conception of the particular world that is very important to them, I like to be able to emulate that clearly before we start. There’s nothing worse than having to be pulled over on the first day and being told, “This is a little bit dark,” or “This is a little bit bright.” If you can keep yourself aligned with them, whoever the individual is that you’re answering to in terms of the conception of the art, it’s just gonna make for a smoother transition in terms of the finished steps over the finished episode or film. That’s a difficult thing with television; there is so little time because you move so fast. You can’t afford do-overs.
For me, for a project to project basis, it’s always emotionally and psychologically grounded. That’s the whole point of the breakdown of Ramy, the whole thing about creating this postmodern All In the Family look that was stylized and put into a more cinematic universe as opposed to an actualistic one. Then with GLOW, I latched on to the psychological nature of what it would be like to be a person and then a professional who puts on a different look to the public, as they do in the wrestling world. That collision, psychologically to me, was the the foundation of the season. It was built in the first season and then all of these conflicts and things that are festering underneath and not being dealt with come to the fore and explode psychologically and dramatically—and comedically, too.
AD: As a cinematographer, what do you think when audiences say they can’t see what’s going on, like on Game of Thrones? The cinematographer shot back that it was their fault.
APC: I think it goes back to the comment we just talked about in terms of the motivation and the foundations for how something should look. You don’t go into the “Battle of Winterfell” with just a rough idea of winging it to make it look like something. Everybody has to be on board that wagon for how that show was gonna look, and if you think about the motivations for it, it makes perfect sense. Psychologically, motivationally, everything that cinematographer did in that episode makes sense. The unfortunate thing is he’s trying to create this very stylized look which is perfect psychologically and practically motivated in the context of the world, but he has very little control at the end of it for how that is delivered to the public. When you’re talking about compression settings and the bit rate of the data, there’s nothing irresponsible about those choices; it’s just difficult navigating the rocky shore with delivery to the customer.
For myself, when it comes to motivating how dark or light something is, nobody wants to play it safe with their art. The way I shoot naturally is that I’d give myself room in the context of my negatives to be able to push and shove the image when I need to in post. So whether that means lighting my night stuff a bit brighter and making choices to print down, it all depends on how the cinematographer manages the negatives, and for me I like to have a really healthy one and that usually means pouring light into the image and then being able to make my choices more concrete in post.
AD: There are certain shows I can’t see very well. Is there a best way to view TV for lighting’s sake?
APC: The difficult thing is that everything is made to be seen in a darkened capacity. If you’re a person who works nights and you watch your shows the next day in the morning, you got window reflection on your screen. There are certain things where there’s no way to overcome a show that’s really darkly lit in that kind of viewing arena. There’s not much that you can do except get a good set of blackout curtains and try to watch in as dark capacity as you can. I would advocate that everybody should have their televisions calibrated in some capacity. There are good options to be able to judge contrast and brightness and be able to put your TV in the sweet spot of how you can expect to watch television shows. You shouldn’t have to be upping your brightness or lowering your contrast on an episode to episode basis. A good calibration will always help you, but the room and the place you’re watching is always going to dictate how your screen looks. It’s difficult to find an all-clear solution for every single viewer. But having a calibrated monitor or television and watching in a properly dim space is about the best you can do.
AD: Thank you! That’s really helpful. One last question. You work on what appears to be a handful of projects in a given year. Is it hard to juggle so many? How do you do it?
APC: Once you’re doing this as long as I have, you’ve worked your body into a routine to be able to accept production. The great thing about being able to do this many projects over a short period of time that are so visually different, between GLOW and American Princess and Ramy, is that it enables you to deal with the rigors of production but still have a fresh outlook and perspective when it comes to shooting something. That kind of variety keeps you fully engaged and ready to take on any challenge. As a cinematographer, that kind of variety helps you to maintain new perspectives and the way you look at the world. Ramy is 180 degrees from the way you look at the world inside GLOW, and for American Princess as well. These choices and things always end up keeping the cocktail bright and fresh, and then you just kind of execute as you go. You’re always looking for motivations, and these kind of shows always provide it, especially when the writing is as strong as it is.
Megan McLachlan is a freelance writer that lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, The Cut, Paste, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Thrillist, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @heydudemeg.