A major player at the Emmys since its very first season—and now through production on its fourth—Transparent is remarkably affecting insomuch as it’s character-driven. While infused with its moments of fantasy and whimsy, on a visual level, the show is typically quite simple.
But investigating the work of cinematographer Jim Frohna—a first-time nominee this year—one recognizes that there’s nothing so simple about it. While keeping his focus squarely on his characters and the great performances transpiring in front of him, Frohna has managed to continually infuse his images with added intimacy.
Much like his fellow nominee, Kathryn Hahn, the DP first worked with Jill Soloway on Afternoon Delight, and has worked with her ever since. Simply put, his images breathe.
It seems that over the last four years, you’ve found a profoundly supportive collaborator in Jill Soloway. What has this relationship meant for your career?
It’s only five years ago this August that we shot Afternoon Delight, and the journey we’ve all been on has been amazing.
I had remembered her name from Six Feet Under, so when I got an email from my agent saying, “Oh, there’s this person, Jill Soloway who used to work on Six Feet Under,” I was like, “Oh, I’ve got to meet her.” We instantly connected, creatively, and it was the kind of thing where I was the first DP she met on that feature, and she went back to her producers and said, “Jim’s the guy.”
The very naturalistic and intimate style of filmmaking that we were pursuing, in terms of both lighting and camerawork, is something we carried from Afternoon Delight into Transparent. Jill saw something in me as an artist, as a DP, as a human, that she knew she wanted for her film, and then for the show. I was at the right point in my life to be able to respond to what she was seeking.
It’s a very different kind of style than a lot of things we see on TV, where our whole objective is: How do we connect emotionally? Let the camera be the conduit, in a way that I feel things as a viewer. There’s this thing that we cracked open that I responded to so deeply. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been on this journey and have Jill see something in me that has only grown and deepened in our four and a half years of creating stuff together.
Transparent manages to convey a palpable sense of intimacy and wonder while remaining fairly simple in its camerawork. How do you pull that off?
This is something that Jill started to hone and go further with on Transparent and I Love Dick, but from the beginning on Afternoon Delight, Jill would say, “On a lot of sets, there’s so much of a filmmaking machine that the acting becomes sort of a byproduct.”
The machine can often assert itself to the point where it takes precedence, whether it’s the gear or the time for lighting, but she said from the beginning, “We’re here to honor the actors, to honor the emotions that wash over their faces, and the camera is there to capture it.”
With everything we do, Jill would say, “We’re creating space.” How do we create space for the actors to do their best, most authentic work as these characters? The way that I responded to that is how I already liked to do lighting, which is a very naturalistic style.
A lot of our show is shot on sets, but my goal is to always have it feel like you wouldn’t know whether we were on a set, or a location. The Pfefferman house on Transparent, that’s a set; I’m going to light it to look like there’s natural light coming in from outside, through the windows. We have ceilings on the sets, which is not very typical—but if it were a real place, it would have a ceiling. We give the actors as much authenticity in the space, and the lighting is therefore also outside.
When we shoot a scene on Transparent, the actors are able to use the whole space—so now, it’s going from the theoretical or emotional idea of holding space for actors, to literally having the whole room to move around. We don’t set marks—maybe like three times an episode we’ll set marks for a specific shot, but the idea is that the lighting lights the space, the actors can move about freely, and create what feels like the most believable, authentic blocking.
What is also amazing and so creatively satisfying is that sometimes we’ll just start shooting without a rehearsal, but even if we rehearse a little bit, Jill instills in all of us that this is all about discovery. This is, as Jill would say, a “community of possibility.”
What you’re seeing on screen is that everyone is open. Everyone has learned at this point that you’re not going to get yelled at for making a choice. There aren’t any mistakes, and it frees up the actors. I do a lot of the camera operating, but I also inform my crew—focus pullers, as well—that I don’t know what the camera’s going to do sometimes.
I’m following what the actors are doing, and sometimes they’re doing something slightly different from one take to the next. Everything is about honoring and being a part of this process of discovery, of the “What if?” It’s really thrilling to be in that. It’s this kind of swirling mix.
I tell my crew, “The camera is here to bear witness.” It’s not about making the perfect frame, it’s not about getting it right—it’s about being truly open with how your energy is, aiming the camera, and letting things unfold before you without feeling like I gotta get this shot, or I gotta get this moment. That has freed our crew up to create the show that people are experiencing.
How have you approached those times over the course of the show when you do go out on location and are capturing the texture of a real place?
Our establishing shots of LA are our own way of seeing the city. We’re never looking for a postcard shot—it’s always capturing the specific little details, or a slightly different perspective that you haven’t seen before.
I love shooting on location because there are things that you don’t plan for, or you wouldn’t expect to find. In that same spirit of open discovery, again, I’m not really changing my methods, whether we’re on stage or location. Obviously, there’s stage lighting, but in terms of how we frame things, or how we tell the story with the camera, it’s the same.
What camera do you shoot Transparent with, and what kind of lenses support the visuals you’re working toward?
Digital technology has allowed us to shoot in the way that we do. Let’s say there’s a scene with the characters sitting around the dinner table, and there’s a number of pages of dialogue—there have been times when we’ve done 25-minute takes, and that’s only possible with digital.
It’s amazing, because with the actors, it’s like we’re doing a one-act play. We don’t have to break this down into so many bits that we lose the thread of what we’re feeling and what we’re saying. I use the Canon C300 Mark II. Many of these cameras are getting smaller and smaller, which helps because physically, the operators can handle long takes.
For a lot of the scenes—even the most intimate scenes—I will operate, and we shrink the camera down to its essence, so it’s not even on a shoulder handheld mount. I’m holding it in my hands, cradling it against my sternum. There’s a monitor on so I can see, but that allows me to be very close with the actors. I’ve been using the Canon since Season 1 of Transparent, and used it on I Love Dick.
I’ve used these older Zeiss Super Speed lenses on Transparent from the beginning. I’ve used the same lenses for all the flashbacks stuff, whether it was ‘80s or ‘90s; in Season 2, we went back to 1933 Berlin. Whatever the period, I’ve used these same lenses—amazing lenses that are probably 80 years old that Leica made—they’re called “Leitz lenses,” and I think they’re from just around World War II.
It’s sort of the fun thing of contemporary cinematography where cameras can shoot 8K, they can shoot 4K, but at a certain point, what are the tools that help us distinguish or add some character or texture, when digital can be so clean and crisp? It’s been fun in recent years to have all these vivid lenses that have been brought back to life, and we get to use them like paintbrushes.
It must be exciting to be working in a time in which most television across the board is so cinematic.
That’s very true—it’s been amazing. The types of stories we’re getting to tell are really wild and new, or unique. It definitely feels like a very fruitful period. In addition, there was a very long period when there wasn’t that much production happening in Los Angeles, and that has also changed, which has been great.
While generally naturalistic, Transparent has its moments of whimsy. How did you approach the shooting of Ali’s dentist-chair dreams this season?
Ali imagines she’s on Wheel of Fortune, and that was fun because we got to shoot on the actual Wheel of Fortune set. When there are fantasy things, or flashbacks—or like, the turtle thing—it’s still coming from the same language of the show. It’s still within our visual alphabet. You were still going for the same look, and letting what’s happening in front of the camera be the strange thing.
I have to say: The episode that I got the Emmy nomination for is one of my favorites of all the four seasons that we’ve shot. The story of young Maura is so incredibly moving. Just to go to these places and marvel at the writers’ [work]…What a time to be a DP, and be a part of a show like this, where a whole episode can drop back into the late ‘50s and tell this story, yet have it be very integral to the rest of the show.
Shelly’s standalone moment on the cruise ship has moved so many people. How was that episode shot?
Whether or not awards happen for the show, the fact that Judith [Light] got nominated is so great. I still get goosebumps every time I watch that part of the episode. Part of it was the show making space for the character of Shelly to have a story—a really moving one, I think—and watching Judith’s performance as Shelly, figuring out where her place is, not just in the family, but in the world.
Heading into that episode, we didn’t even have to talk much about it. I remember the table read, and typical of the show, it had this crazy summer camp/commune kind of feeling that we often have on our set. Instead of just saying, “Oh, then Shelly sings,” without people knowing, Judith started doing the song. Faith [Solloway] had set up a keyboard and started playing along, and by the end, everyone was tearing up.
We were able to shoot on an actual cruise ship. We shot that scene and made it open to the public—regular customers on the cruise could come, and many people did, so it was an actual performance for them. I was operating, and I get so connected when I have the camera, and I’m in it. I felt like I had the front row seat when she was belting out that song, and it was powerful. It was an amazing celebration of the end of the season.