WandaVision is an ambitious project, even for a studio that invented the concept of a cinematic universe.
The basic conceit of WandaVision: A family sitcom starring superhero couple Wanda (Elizabeth Olson) and Vision (Paul Bettany). Each episode of the nine-part miniseries pays homage to the TV of a specific era. The pilot is an I Love Lucy-esqe look at newlywed life, and later episodes echo the fourth-wall-breaking humor of Modern Family and The Office. The series is also crafted to mirror the various decades, with early episodes entirely in black and white and later entering the technicolor world of the 70s and 80s. And this being Marvel, superhero shenanigans ensue.
Enter cinematographer Jess Hall tasked with making each sitcom episode period-appropriate and visually distinct. He also had to make sure the project fit into the larger visual world already established in the MCU. Hall embraced a vigorous research process, often relying on the same tools that cinematographers of the past used to ensure that each era remained accurate. But, Hall also took full advantage of Marvel‘s tech arsenal using 4K-HDR and creating custom camera lenses—using 47 different lenses to carry the series through time and scope. His work nothing less than a visual Marvel.
Here, in an interview with Awards Daily, cinematographer Jell Hall breaks down his process.
Awards Daily: WandaVision is unlike anything you have ever done. How did you land in the Marvel orbit?
Jess Hall: I think one thing that is consistent in the projects that I have done is that every single one is different [laughs]. From project to project, I am always looking for new challenges and things that would extend my range as a cinematographer and not just put me in a familiar place. In a way, as an artist, you do your best work when you are pushed into a new space, a new direction. For me, that place of exploration is key to my practice.
In that respect, when this came up, I certainly wasn’t an obvious choice or an obvious candidate. But, this was a project that required a very diverse skill set. The varying kinds of materials—from comedic, to drama, to action, to sci-fi— meant that it needed somebody who could navigate those different currents. I think that is the reason why I got invited into the consideration category. I got to talk to the directors and producers about how I would approach it. It was then very intriguing to me once I understood some of what they were trying to do. It wasn’t just the case of fitting into an established genre, but actually, we were, in a way, moving in a different direction, both respecting the legacy of the IP, that is the model work, which I think is so impressive. Also extending that into the streaming world for the first time— into long-form, which is 6 ½ hours, with two actors (Olsen and Bettany) that I have huge respect for. I think, for me, some of Vision and Wanda’s scenes in the previous Marvel projects were some of the most dramatic and some of the more touching, poignant scenes. So, I thought, ‘Hold on a minute, this is a chance to explore two characters that have always intrigued me, in a really long form, in like 6 ½ hours’ That was one of the things that appealed to me.
AD: Every Marvel project ends in a final battle or action sequence. How did you take that idea and say, ‘I want to do something different? I want to change this formula.’ What was your approach to that culminating moment?
JH: I mean to some extent, you are working with what is scripted, so I had to really look at that script to see what was being asked of the narrative. For example, some of the interesting angles were that we showed a lot of exteriors in that battle scene, which is a kind of a look that has been quite established in the Marvel world for those kinds of scenes. After the fight developed, the fact that we go into this storm cloud scenario was really interesting. The powers build. The fight takes to the sky with Agnes (Kathryn Hahn) and Wanda. The sky becomes incredibly dramatic, and you go out of this hard sunlight into this soft, enveloping gray light of deep cloud cover—it is much more like some of the looks that I built for the earlier part of the show in terms of a much softer light approach. That was a very satisfactory shoot for me when we were able to engineer that.
Also, for me, it was trying to maintain a lot of integrity in the visual effect works. That meant being very critical about matching lighting from different processes— green screen work, shooting stuff out of sequence, and so on and trying to be very meticulous about how that work was executed and put together in a very seamless way. We didn’t want to contrast with the language we built up earlier in the show. To a certain extent, we went to a more conventional language because all of our stunt work demands to be executed in multi-camera. The wirework demands a more dynamic camera style.
It was also a joy embracing some of that. We have been so restrained in the earlier episodes where we stuck to the sitcom language. Suddenly, we were allowed to do CG camera moves, put the camera on very fast-tracking vehicles, shoot from irregular angles. I managed to get two 35 ML lenses, which we hadn’t used anywhere else in the show. We used that to introduce a focal lens that opened up the perspective to show something new to the audience. I tried to bring a lot of small things to that sequence, like interactive lighting. Traditionally, we have been doing the usual setup. The interactive lighting was an option, a pass at the end of a bunch of process work. We tried to build that interactive lighting incredibly effectively. It was so good that we actually used those passes in camera; that was something I worked on very intensively with the visual effects team—really trying to get that light on the actors so that we didn’t have to use CG lighting on them afterward. I think that was quite effective for giving the whole sequence a nice coherent look that blended with what we did in other episodes, which was a lot of in-camera work.
AD: You have said that every frame is important to you and that you are very meticulous in your planning. Can you talk to me more about that in terms of the sitcom planning and going through the decades, and setting up the visual palette for the show?
JH: I often use the analogy of a jazz musician. If you know the standards, then you can improvise. That meticulous preparation is about building a very detailed language that settles into the work’s DNA and is burnt into my regiment. When I go onto set, and I see something that is a happy accident, for example, I am able to embrace that. I can also embrace something the actor might bring that is different and unexpected, but because I have built up that meticulous planning in advance, I am more flexible to improvise on that day. That is my approach. I suppose for the sitcom work, I kind of went to quite the extreme in the planning phase because we had so many different eras to build. WandaVision is the first time I have been faced with ‘build seven different looks.’ It really meant going into the period with a lot of detail. I was able to source some original prints from the early shows and project them. That was very informative. A lot of reading about how these shows were made. Studying the shows themselves. Analyzing the camera work. The color palettes. Looking at the period lighting. Looking at the tools available at the time for the cinematographers for those shows to use and then trying to restrict myself to those tools so that I was working with the same tools they used. There is also lensing. We used 47 different lenses on the show. We looked at the early sitcoms through the eras and found the lensing arc that expressed that progression and the technology, combining that with analyzing the film stock. It all becomes this kind of alchemy where the look is built from a number of different factors—working with the production designer, Mark Worthington on all the color palettes; working with Mayes C. Rubio, the costume designer. And being in sync across the departments. We were very much unified in our space for each era.
AD: Do you have a favorite sequence or visual moment in the show?
JH: I really enjoyed the tonal shifts. One of the things about viewing the early prints of the sitcoms and what I really took from that was this incredible warm nostalgia that these shows evoked. That was something I tried to capture. In a way, you are taking the audience into a very comfortable place, a familiar place. That means that when the tone is disrupted, as you see in many episodes. The first time that happens is at the dinner table with the Hearts. Mr. Heart and Mrs. Heart start to question the couple about what they are doing and their past. You see the tone shift. We start to shift the lighting. We shift the camera language. We shift the lensing. Those tonal shifts were really interesting to engineer. In episode two, the bee-keeping sequence, we have a static camera and very traditional sitcom framing for the entire episode. Then, Wanda and Vision step outside, and suddenly, we’re in a tracking shot with them. We pull them into the night, and the lighting becomes more noir-ish, more cinematic. And you see the beekeeper.
I think those sequences are really interesting because they combine two different styles and the transition between them to get a reaction from the audience. And that’s where we introduced the shift in aspect ratio. I enjoyed those sequences. When I watch the show with my family, when we look at them for the first time, those moments seem to get a lot of reaction, so it’s fun to see that.
AD: As you move on from this massive project, what will be the biggest takeaway for you in your work as a cinematographer?
JH: Two main points with that. I think the first one is this major exploration for me in the high-end digital technology, the streaming platform, 4K-HDR, what that could really be. I think we are at a breakthrough moment in that. WandaVision was a project where we really pushed the technical capacity for the medium because we are starting with a point of like, ‘Let’s create a familiar world of 1950s black and white, but let’s do it on the highest quality mastering that has ever been done.’ At Marvel Studios, we mastered it in the 4K-HDR, which even the feature films have not been mastered on set in 4K-HDR. There’s been a post-conversion afterward. We were at the sharp end of that. I think building that workflow, constructing custom lenses, going to the confines of the camera very deeply, and making that work was a huge challenge. And one that I look back on and say, ‘We really achieved that.’ It wasn’t simply about recreating a look. It was about taking a lot of influence and trying to create a new form. I think that was an interesting process, and I had great technical support while I did, so that encouraged me to explore this very rich area.
The other end is that [WandaVision] was my first tv series. I really enjoyed that. There is so much great work going on in that area. That is a fascinating look at the future in terms of the different kinds of forms, and content people are engaging with; these long series are over 6 ½ hours.
AD: The Marvel fans are very good at catching easter eggs [laughs]. Are there any visual elements that you feel are under-discussed?
JH: I think that the fans are so sharp and so detailed that they really leave no stone uncovered. [Laughs]. I have been amazed at how much detail has been drawn out. One of the really fun things, what was definitely cool, was what we did with the commercials and in between the episodes. Those little signifiers were always really fun and something different. We had a lot of fun with those. I hoped the fans enjoyed that as well.
AD: Lastly, how are you feeling now that WandaVision is out in the world and you’ve had a chance to reflect?
JH: That is the case with every project, no matter how proud I am of it. There’s a great satisfaction and pleasure that it was so well-received. Going into this project, there was always the big question: we are trying a new form in a sense, and we are pushing some boundaries; what is the audience response going to be? Are we going to lose original Marvel fans? Are we going to entice other types of audiences? Is it going to work at all? So, you know, I was definitely apprehensive as to what the reception would be. It is really delightful that people engaged in it in the way in which they did. Across generations. Across cultures. It seems to connect with people at a very fundamental level.
WandaVision streams exclusively on Disney+. Read more of Awards Daily’s WandaVision coverage here.