Shooting the Mr. Robot pilot and the bulk of Stranger Things—projects he’s shared with fellow nominee Tod Campbell—cinematographer Tim Ives has received his first Emmy nomination for his work on the Duffer Brothers’ blockbuster Netflix drama. Looking at reference materials for Stranger Things, Ives found a project that spoke to his own sensibilities and the Amblin classics he loves.
While it’s common for fans to latch on strongly to actors and the characters they play, it’s far less common for a show’s visual choices to make an impact on this level. With Stranger Things‘ flickering Christmas lights—a favorite costume accessory last year on All Hallows’ Eve—Ives has become the exception.
How did you become involved with Stranger Things?
I got a package from my agent that was the Duffer brothers’ outline for Season 1. It was crafted with some visual hooks, and had an outline for what they were trying to capture.
The references spoke to my high school years more than anything else, and all the things that we’d been talking about, like E.T. and Stand by Me and Close Encounters. It just really spoke to me, visually.
Immediately, it leapt off the page—it was one of the greatest things I’d read in my television career. I think it was called The Montauk Project at first. I was reading it on Fire Island, which is not too far from Montauk, and we go out to Montauk all the time to go surfing. I was like, “Oh my god! I can shoot the thing in Montauk! It’d be amazing!” and I signed on. It got changed, it was in Atlanta, and it was like, “Doesn’t matter. I have to go do this.”
What work did you go through, early on, to establish your tone and visual world?
We looked at many movies together and talked about many visual styles. We did a lot of shot listing together. We would lock ourselves in a room and spend hours figuring out how we were going to shoot it. We did it all, basically, at the production offices, acting out the parts of the first episode together. We did them in a block, 1 and 2, so it took about six hours per episode to really lock it in, but we got very excited in that one room, figuring it all out.
Right off the bat, we were pretty much in sync, and the guys really have a high standard visually, which I of course appreciated. They had expressed this tone they wanted to achieve, and I was all in, trying to help them get that.
What camera and approach to lensing did you land on?
The approach to lensing was to be a little more cinematic than most shows on television. We went 2:1 on the aspect ratio, so it has this slightly letterboxed feel to it. We really wanted it to feel not like a regular television show—you were meant to be watching something that was an event.
Camera-wise, we work in a 4K medium on Netflix. I think we shot 7K for 6K extraction; we had a little bit more overlap, in case kids didn’t hit their marks, and we could repo for VFX if needed. I shot Season 1 on the RED Dragon—after testing a bunch of other cameras, the RED felt very filmic, in conjunction with the Leica Primes, which were softer and a little flatter than most of the contrastier lenses today. They were more akin to the lenses used back in the ’70s and ’80s.
My dream and my job was to help make this thing feel like it was shot back then. That was our goal, to make this thing feel like something that you’d lost and you hadn’t seen in such a long time. You missed it in the ’80s, and you were going to watch it now—a found piece. That was the desire, and that was everybody’s mantra.
Bearing in mind the latitude that comes with digital technology today, were the low-lit scenes some of the most challenging material to execute?
The Dragon was 800 ASA. In Season 2, we changed to the RED Helium, which gets up to about 2,000 ASA, so we have a lot more forgiveness there.
It was challenging for our focus pullers, who did an amazing job. I always like things on the darker side if I can get away with it. The guys kept saying “Darker! Darker!” when I’d want to play it safe, and I absolutely love them for it.
Especially in those first two episodes, it was really finding our way and our language together. As a show, we were a very insular group that wanted to do the best thing.
Season 1 is full of flickering lights. Did you bring in a lot of control boards and dimmers to achieve that kind of control?
Yeah, we had to rig lights. In the school, for instance, when Eleven gets the monster in the end, we had to change out all the lights overhead to look like they were fluorescents, but they weren’t.
Dan Murphy, my gaffer, and his rigging gaffer spent an enormous amount of time going up there and changing the bulbs up so that we could have it set remotely, and wirelessly, to a dimmer board. Those guys came through with flying colors and allowed me so many different options. We wound up loving the sort of checkerboard light thing happening above her, and that was all pre-rigged.
On other episodes, they took all those Christmas lights and rigged them so they could control each light individually throughout the house. They took like two weeks to rig those Christmas lights so that we could make it seem like there was a trail, and the lights were leading in a certain direction.
In some of the episodes, you have the kids walking through the house, and Hopper and Joyce in The Upside Down—the same house at the same time—and we had lights leading the way there. It really worked out.
What has it been like to see the Christmas lights become such an iconic aspect of the show? It’s rare for aesthetic choices like that to so strongly connect with an audience.
There are so many parts of Stranger Things that are frankly overwhelming, as far as tributes the fans have made for the show. I don’t even process it as something that I’ve done. It is remarkable that the world has taken this show and made it theirs.
When the show got released this time last year, I talked to the brothers and we thought, “We’ve hit it. This is incredible. I can’t even believe it.” Where the show went from there is remarkable. And there’s a reason why the show is coming out October 27th this year instead of Halloween night, so that they get enough time for the fans to have fun with it this coming season.
The whole thing is a joy to watch. I couldn’t be more pleased and tickled that they’ve responded to the lighting in that way. But I mean, who doesn’t love Christmas lights? [laughs] It makes your first dumpy apartment look nice, you know?
With your extensive work in television, were you well set up to tackle the complexities of the visual effects element of this show?
I gotta say, I do have some work behind me now. The funny thing is when I got called to do this show, I read it and saw visual styles, and it’s all stuff that I knew that I could do, but maybe haven’t really done in previous episodes or shows, or music videos, or commercials or all the things that I’ve done in all these 20 years.
I read it and I said to myself, “I love this—there’s no way I’m getting it. They’re going to get some big-shot LA DP who’s worked on features.” And I asked the brothers about that. After the end of the first season, I’m like “I gotta say, why did you hire me?” They were like, “Because, Tim, we saw what you had done, we saw what you can do, and we believe that you would give us 110 percent, because this was going to be a game changer for you.”
I was like, How smart of these guys to do that. They did it with a lot of heads of departments, but they believed that I would do that for them, and they were 100 percent right. I will continue to do it for them because they’re the kind of people that you want to do your best for, every single hour of every single day.
What was your part in conjuring the visual world of the Upside Down? It’s interesting to see lights incorporated into the suits worn by Joyce and Hopper.
The Upside Down, I believe, is anything that’s in that world that Eleven goes to when she’s in her unconscious state, whether it’s the black void or the Upside Down version of the woods. We did a test on a stage, and we wanted it to be really simple. It really came down to just being a cooler version, along with all the other effects that the effects department gave us—the spider webbing and all that stuff.
We wanted it to be very simple, but just an apocalyptic version of what you’re seeing in the show normally. When you walk through Joyce’s house, it’s sort of a dead light—that’s something that we talked about. The light’s not coming from anywhere. There’s no source to it. If you see a source to a light, it meant that there’s hope over there, in that direction. We didn’t want to convey that, that there was hope anywhere.
The suits were interesting—we looked at films like Alien, where you have lights inside of suits. In Season 2, I think we went even further on that, as far as perfecting it. We definitely use a lot of atmosphere, so when there were flashlights, that picked up a lot of the ambient light. That was the only source that came from the people that were walking through that space.
Technically, we wanted also to not have to change all the lighting up. We basically took the cameras in our tests and knocked them down to 2200 color temperature, and that turned all the tungstens very monochromatic blue. We added a little bit of the flocking that you see—the dust flying around. There were some places, like in the hallways next to the lab, where it wouldn’t float as much, so we had to digitally add a little bit more to it there. The flocking and the blue, together, really felt like this creepy, weird space that felt kind of cool.
We just wanted to show restraint in whatever we were going to do for the Upside Down.
What were the most challenging Season 1 moments to shoot?
There were so many challenging things, including Mike Wheeler deciding to jump off into the quarry. That was very challenging, from safety to all sorts of different aspects. The shot where we introduce Hopper is one of my favorite shots of the whole series, where we do almost this 360 across this whole trailer. It’s very Spielbergian, and we land on him, passed out with beer cans all over him. And by the time we get to him, we know who this man is. It was an incredible dolly move on wood flooring that, to this day, I still think is a signature move of Stranger Things.
What’s ahead, visually, in Season 2?
Filming it, I got tears in all the right spots, and some spots I didn’t expect to get tears. I think the kids are better than ever—they’re in it to win it. It’s bigger in scope and bigger in heart.