John Behrens and Jonathan Pope are the cinematographers of the multi Emmy nominated Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. The combing of narrative and documentary presented some interesting techniques for them to explore even when they never actually met until after the film was done. The meaning behind the film gave them a lot to think about, and they hope it is a good launching point for others to think about what social media is doing to the world.
AwardsDaily: What got you interested in The Social Dilemma?
John Behrens: Initially all this social media stuff was on my mind because I live in the Bay Area so I worked for some of these companies before and definitely lived in a world where social media played a role. The project came to me from Jeff Orlowski and Larissa Rhodes saying they wanted to have a meeting about an upcoming project. I thought it was going to be another environmental documentary because Jeff has done Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral, and when they told me it was this I was pretty excited. A total departure but a fascinating subject.
Jonathan Pope: For me it was very similar. I have been having a lot of misgivings about how social media has been making me feel and this piece just kind of fell in my lap. I had done a feature in early 2019 and had become close with our first AD Travis LaSalle and our production manager Stephanie Stanziano. They had been brought onto the project later in the year. Then when they heard Jeff and the team were looking for a narrative cinematographer they recommended me. They interviewed me and sent me a copy of the film. They had all of John’s work in it with temporary storyboards where the narrative parts would be. So just seeing that and seeing the content of the film and how thorough it was being discussed, I knew it was something I needed to be a part of. It just felt important after that moment.
AD: Was it difficult combining the scripted with the documentary portion?
Jonathan Pope: When they reached out to me they had a full cut of the film that had all of John’s work plus the storyboards. So they had already very clearly thought out how the narrative was going to interweave with the documentary. In terms of aesthetics my job was specifically to come in and create a new aesthetic. The goal was not to match what you wanted done, it was to create something distinct so, while the audience was watching it, they would know which world within the film they were in. For that I chose to shoot with anamorphic lenses because John had shot all his beautiful work spherically. That was my first inclination of how to differentiate the two spaces.
AD: Did you guys work together at all in the process? It sounds like it was basically separate tasks.
John Behrens: It was a very interesting collaboration where we essentially did not meet for an overlap. So I worked on the project initially for almost two years and my work was coming to an end when Jonathan was coming on. We worked on the same project but we didn’t meet until Sundance where the premiere happened.
Jonathan Pope: What I would also like to say is John was speaking to me through his work. It was great to see the tone that he was trying to invoke. They’re filming the B-roll and the interviews and Jeff very early on had said that he wanted this to feel like a drama or thriller, treating it very seriously. So I kind of went in knowing that was the intention with John’s work and that would be the intention with my work as well.
AD: For me one of the most interesting shots was inside the algorithm where we had Vincent Kartheiser debating amongst themselves how to manipulate the user, as well as the model of the user moving as he’s observing different things on his phone. What was the thought process in creating those shots?
Jonathan Pope: That space was very daunting but a lot of fun to work in. Our production designer Adam Wheatley was prepping that space in LA while we were shooting in Colorado. So we were trying to do some pre-production on that room remotely, which was tricky. I had an LA based gaffer and a team here working on getting everything ready. As far as actually working with Vincent playing three different characters, we knew we wanted to incorporate some big moves and give that space scope so really the only option there was motion control. We worked with a Milo motion control rig, and the initial intention was to give him a quick track to pace himself to know when his lines were up and when he needed to respond to himself. But he was such a professional about timing that he ended up nailing it every time so that we ended up ditching the quick track and he just did it from memory. For any shots where we didn’t see his face multiple times we would use body doubles in place. That was a fun place to work in.
I will tell you one side story. The back wall was actually the most challenging part of that. The walls behind the algorithms with flashing lights that show you the world beyond the window. It was the most challenging because for the rest of it we already had laid out what we wanted to do. When we arrived Adam and his team rigged up white spandex that was stretched across that opening because the intention was always to put something back there. The first thing we found was that the white spandex–because it was only eight feet or so from Vincent–we found that anything we tried to do to Vincent just lit up that wall. So that was immediately a non-starter. We asked Adam if we could get this in black, and Adam and his team were great and switched it to black, and from there the challenge was figuring out what the lights outside that space were going to look like. We had a rough mock-up of what the effects department was working on for that outside world and we just had one day to pre-light and figure it out. So we tried Christmas lights, we tried wooden flats cut out in different shapes with fresnel lighting behind them to create shapes and that wasn’t reading. Finally I believe it was my gaffer who came up with the idea of just putting some Titan tubes back there, which are these big 4 foot LED tubes that you can program different effects onto. I think we had eight Titan tubes ready to go behind there, and I remember looking and just thinking we’re going to need more. So we talked about numbers but how many more we were going to need. The number just kept going up and up and up so we started out with eight and we ended up with about forty. That was a long story, but it was a fun space to work in.
AD: This is a question just for John. You have worked almost solely on documentaries. What keeps attracting you to that art form?
John Behrens: I started in narratives back in the mid-90s and into the early 2000s but I always felt that I wanted to do something that would hopefully make a difference and move the needle a little bit. I was initially attracted to environmental documentaries, but the form of documentary was super interesting because a documentary is scheduled for about two years so it’s almost like you’re getting a master’s degree in a given subject. I really loved what I was able to learn in the process of becoming proficient enough to photograph and tell the story while really digging deep into a given storyline. I also enjoy the fact that the art form has evolved so much in the last fifteen years, in the sense that we’re now competing with narrative film and television, we’re able to use the tools that are used on larger-scale projects to make things visually interesting and engaging while still telling stories. I like the combination of the educational and outreach opportunity with documentaries as well as the fact that it’s an interesting way to innovate the cinematic form.
AD: What has the experience been like getting your first Emmy nominations? Has it changed anything for you guys professionally?
John Behrens: This is my first Emmy nomination and it is an amazing honor. I am really excited about it and it has already opened some doors and gotten me some interest in a fair amount of future projects, which has been great. I also like the opportunity that being nominated gets the film that much more attention and I feel like the subject of this film is pretty important. So it’s exciting for me also because hopefully it will get more people to see the film and it will have more legs, and I look forward to the possible opportunities that the next projects hold.
Jonathan Pope: It has been insane for me. I have gotten a number of interest in other projects because of this, and even before the Emmy nominations because of my attachment to this project, I have had a bunch of interested parties, but since the nominations it’s certainly grown. As John said, it is wonderful and validating, not just necessarily for myself but for the feeling of being a part of something that is so important. When the film came out back in September of last year it really blew up and I’m still hearing stuff about it today, regardless of the Emmys, in these other circles that I don’t usually hear chiming in on the conversation. My parents’ friends or even my parents engaging in these really important conversations. So to be a part of that is really special. The fact that John and I were nominated in addition to the six other nominations for the project, including outstanding documentary, is incredibly validating and rewarding–to be recognized for something that does feel so special and important.
AD: Have you prepared at all for your Emmy night?
Jonathan Pope: (laughter) We have our tuxes now. John sent me a picture of his tux today; I got mine a couple of weeks ago. I think we’re still trying to figure out the speech situation and how we’re going to handle that.
John Behrens: I have been watching past Emmy broadcasts and it has been quite a joy to see how different filmmakers and crew people handle their speeches In different ways. It has been a neat journey through Emmy’s past. I am sort of studying up on what the ceremony and event is like and what people have to say when they get the opportunity.
Jonathan Pope: I am curious how this event will be different. I went to Celebrate Under the Stars the other night and I was talking to a few members and they were elaborating on how different this year is. It’s obviously a step up from last year, which was all virtual, but I think this year is all outdoors or at least partially outdoors, which is different than any other year. It feels weird to have our first Emmys ceremony be the one so strange but also kind of cool, I guess in a way, to be a part of that.
John Behrens: It’ll be interesting as a cinematographer doing a midday not very lit event.
Jonathan Pope: Like going to the drive-in during the day.
John Behrens: Yes, like that! It will be interesting because one of the things I love about the Emmy ceremony is the lighting. All of the intelligent lighting, LEDs, oh, and the saturated color, and the production design. So I’m really curious to see how you handle that at 1 p.m. in the afternoon in LA. I’m really excited to see what the production teams come up with for that.
AD: Is there anything you want to leave our readers with?
John Behrens: I think from my perspective I was really excited to be involved in a film that was this experimental hybrid of narrative and documentary cinema. Jeff in the exposure labs team was so brilliant figuring out how to roll them together in a way that both has a unique different look between the two pieces but fits cohesively in the same film, telling the same story. The technical challenges of shooting interviews with six to eight cameras on a single subject was really interesting and fascinating. Then to up the game and add a narrative element that looks so rich and nice and beautifully photographed by Jonathan. I’m proud of the work on this film and I’m proud of everyone on the team, and I’m really excited to be nominated for it and for the world to see this.
Jonathan Pope: I feel the exact same way. I feel like Jeff and the team at Exposure put so much thought into this project and the impact that it has had. I’m just proud to be a part of it. and real quick I want to plug something for your readers. Jeff and the team always envisioned this project to be the starting off point of a larger conversation. This is hopefully the first of many conversations that people will have about this subject matter. So they created the website for the film https://www.thesocialdilemma.com/ to be an access point for other resources. If you go there wondering what to do next, how to handle your own relationship with social media for your online presence, there are also tons of articles and reading and resources there for people to dig deeper and go beyond the film.