After working with Mike Flanagan on four features between 2013 and 2017, cinematographer Michael Fimognari joined the genre master on The Haunting of Hill House, tapping into the “dread and mystery” inherent to an eerie New England home. A natural progression from those prior collaborations, Flanagan’s adaptation of the classic Shirley Jackson novel was an opportunity to “dig really deep,” Fimognari says—a miniseries that was treated, from pre-production on, like a 10-hour film.
Intensely atmospheric and involving, Hill House has been widely celebrated for its incredible tracking shots, accomplished through the construction of a two-story mansion within a Georgia soundstage. Brought to life by production designer Patricio Farrell, this space was large enough to house a 50 foot technochrane— each room, designed with the specific needs of the series in mind. Within the walls of Hill House, Flanagan and his DP had the opportunity to tackle scenes that were remarkably challenging to translate from script to screen, bringing them to fruition through extreme attention to detail, and collaboration with a fully committed crew.
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In the horror anthology’s first season, the centerpiece was Episode 6—a piece designed to look like one continuous shot that, in reality, consisted of only five. To Fimognari, the success of creative experiments like “Two Storms” can only be attributed to Flanagan, a multi-hyphenate who knows and loves the genres he’s working within. “From the moment that he’s writing, he’s got it in his head, so when we prep, our ideas then become seventh, eighth, ninth-level ideas,” says the DP, who recently reteamed with Flanagan on Doctor Sleep. “It’s all how to elevate it and tie it together and pay it off, and then what you’re really focusing on is story and character, and the nuance and punctuation of those beats.”
What did you speak with Mike Flanagan about first, when you came aboard Hill House?
More than anything, we talked about the feel of the world, about character intentions. Mike’s very specific when it comes to frame. Point of view is very important to him, and he’s a deliberate thinker when it comes to the lens, so a big part of our process is about camera and how that works with behavior.
The look of it seemed to be pretty clear up front for us. It wasn’t a long conversation. We looked at the original Robert Wise, [not] necessarily for the look of it, but we wanted to make sure that we honored a certain part of that. Now granted, we didn’t go into deep focus; we kind of did the opposite of that. So, there were very big differences in some regards, optically speaking.
But as it relates to the house in the past portions of the story, we wanted a space that felt like it could go on and on, where you didn’t understand geography all the time, where light had a tough time finding its way in. There aren’t many windows; in the main, central hall, there are no windows visible. So, we lived a lot in the dark, and talked very much about what you can see in the dark, and how those perceptions come to be. Going back all the way to our first movie together, it’s always been about gray on top of gray, these shapes and shadows in cavernous or dim spaces, and that held true here.
Our aesthetic for Hill House was a very soft, liquid kind of light, and I think that was an important holdover, whether you were talking about the past or the present. Color-wise, we decided early on that we would have two different looks from past to present—so, the optimism and the hope of the house when they first come into it, and the perception that they had about the house, which was that it was safe, and had a kind of warmth to it, although what’s actually going on for them is very different. And then, living in their present-day world, we had two different looks for those who were on the East Coast and those who were on the West Coast. Both had a little more desperate color palette to them—a little more monochromatic, whether a cold monochromatic or a warm monochromatic—and that’s because they’re holding onto this pain and grief, and that’s made their present-day world something that they’re fighting.
So, there’s really those three different looks throughout the course of the show, and whenever you edit between those looks, you’re grounded very quickly, as to where you are.
What informed your choice of camera and lenses? Was the show’s abundance of low-light scenarios influential in coming to that decision?
Technically speaking, we didn’t shoot in low light at all. We had light everywhere. To create that feeling that you can see in the dark and that you’re seeing shapes, without giving away that you have light sources, we built a two-story house on stage, and built the ceiling panels on the first floor all with LED strips inside the ceiling. We had panels that we could pop in and heavy, heavy diffusion on those, so that when we’d be walking down the hall, it wasn’t like they were walking in and out of sources. Then, we painted the light fixtures really dark, so that they didn’t give away our light sources, and everything had a very similar tone. When you finally stepped back and looked at it, [it] all became shapes and shadows that could be mistaken for something else in the wrong perspective, and that’s why we were able to hide so many ghosts. We were able to place them in spots in plain sight because there was a very consistent middle gray tonal value to everything.
So actually on set, it was quite bright. Our lens and camera package, we primarily chose because we’d shot Alexa 65 for Gerald’s Game, and we really loved how that looked. We chose a different lens package for Hill House—the Prime 65 package—because it had a softer overall contrast. It wasn’t a sharp contrast; it had like a roll off at the bottom. It was rich and a little bit warmer, something where the shadows rolled into black in a very nice way.
The tracking shots in Hill House are consistently remarkable. What inspired the decisions you made, in terms of camera movement?
Mike is very specific about character perspective, and also, audience perspective, so he’s a master at knowing where we want to take the eye, how the camera is going to move, and why it’s going to move. As a philosophy for Hill House, what Mike is able to do is [create] a sense of comfort through the lens, because you’re able to go through edits fluidly, but this sense of dread and anxiety at the same time, as it relates to what’s happening on screen.
The fluidity of the camera is related to our wish to make camera mostly invisible. We try not to make a point of saying, “Oh, look at what the camera’s doing.” Sometimes, we will turn the camera on its side in the shot, and even in some of those where it seems kind of aggressive, I feel that what is happening in the scene is motivating why the camera is taking on such an act—and as such, you don’t think of the camera in those moments. Even in Episode 6, where the camera floats around for minutes and minutes, our hope is that when you’re watching it, you’re not paying attention to whether there’s a camera cut or not.
But the reason to not cut, the reason to float around the room and be precise about these beats, is that it’s the right way to communicate that these family members are trapped in this space, and they have to confront all of these painful memories. Seeing them do that in real time, without this safety net of an edit, builds the exact emotion that Mike wants to communicate to the audience—that these people haven’t seen each other in years, and that they have to come together for this terrible thing and confront it on some level. By the same token, in the past, when you’re in the middle of this nightmare of a thunderstorm, and the house seems to falling down—as a kid, you’re going to remember it that way, the way that it never ended, and was all these fluid, scary moments for you. I think in that way, the bigger philosophy is that the camera always starts with the story and character trauma and elevates that, trying not to get in the way of that.
Episode 6 was crafted to look like one continuous shot, featuring an astounding oner that is 17 minutes long. Reportedly, Flanagan shot a full-length version of the episode with stand-ins before bringing the actors in, to properly grapple with all of the piece’s complexities. Could you flesh out a sense of the prep that went into that episode, and how you were able to execute its five long tracking shots?
We knew up front that Episode 6 was one shot; we built our shot list so far in advance that we knew what those were going to be. So, when we talked to Patricio [Farrell, production designer] about the build, we knew which walls had to go, and how they needed to go. We knew the relationship of the funeral home to the house, and how that had to be bridged across two stages.
We knew early on that we needed three and a half to four weeks of rehearsal time just for Episode 6—more than usual, for [just] one episode—but in the background of that, we were also prepping the other episodes. Sometimes in other series, you get stuck having to go back to a little location and just do a one-page scene, but in our world, we were able to shoot out locations because we knew how they played. So, there was a bit of feature philosophy as it applied to the prep, so that we could borrow that time for Episode 6.
When we got into prep on Episode 6, we already had the stages built, and we walked through it with a cell phone to make sure the spaces were right. Then, we brought in a terrific second team that we had in Atlanta, who were really invested in what we were doing from the beginning of the series. They had their characters, they paid attention to details, and Mike knew where he wanted them to be, so we worked that out with a DSLR. That was our second wave, figuring out what all those beats were.
Then, we brought in the cast, and Mike worked with them to fine-tune the blocking. Simultaneously, we would have cast rehearsal on one stage and technical rehearsals on the other stage, so that once we had a plan for camera, I’d be on the technical side with second team, while Mike was on the other side with first team, and we’d be putting in all our lighting queues. When you’re traveling through space and having to shoot 360s in a room, invariably, it doesn’t look good from every angle, so we had lighting queues shifting and changing all the time, and our gaffer and board op and dolly grips all had to be in sync. All of those queues, we had to build, so we just spent hours and hours going, “Okay go back to this beat. Now, this light’s going to go on, and this light’s going to go down to 50%.”
We also had camera rehearsals because steadicam had to work out all of its technical stuff. One shot was on a dolly with a Garfield Mount, and another was all walking and stepping onto rickshaws, so every shot had a different camera philosophy. So, we had these three pockets of things that were always happening, and it required the entire crew, top to bottom, being on point, even to the degree, because we had so much detail in the camerawork, that we had two terrific operators, James Reid and Brian Osmond. Brian’s also a steadicam op, so Brian sometimes would rehearse camera for lighting queues, so that James could be rehearsing camera for second team.
When we were doing the actual shot, Brian was offstage at a couple of monitors, watching. James had an earpiece in, and Brian would talk to James about what was next. We had queue sheets with all the dialogue and all the frames, and Brian was coaching him, so that he would always be sure he knew what was coming up. “Okay, the dolly’s going to come up behind you now,” or “You’re going to move on this line.” Even though we rehearsed it so many times, we wanted to eliminate any room for error, so that we didn’t get 10 minutes into a take and have to go again because we leaned the wrong direction or something. It was a real team effort.
For portions of the oners in that episode, you’re tracking around the actors in a circle. Were you shooting on tracks, which needed to be removed through visual effects? Or how were those moments handled?
There’s no doubt that a lot of work went into figuring out the smoothest version of everything that could match the speed of the characters, the intention of the camera. For example, the second funeral home shot starts with a super slow pull back, and on the steadicam, those kinds of creepy moves, which we love and embrace, are hard to do, without feeling the floatiness of a steadicam. But in that same shot, we eventually ramp up to going fast around them, while they’re arguing, and then at the very end of that shot, we slide down the center of the aisle, and land on the close-up of Nell in the casket. Those two things were so far away from each other in their camera style, so we had to figure out a way to pull that off. The way that James and our dolly grip Sal worked it out was that he did that on a Garfield mount, so that the PeeWee dolly could therefore handle that super slow, creepy move. But then James was married to the dolly for the rest of that episode, so it was a lot of wizardry on the dolly front, [with] James being able to control his rig while Sal was pushing him in circles and spinning.
We didn’t have any VFX to paint anything out. Everything you see is what you see. All the rain is real effects, and that was all part of the plan. Some of the walls were painted different colors because the lighting queues were different; the sets were adjusted for the photographic execution, and all the camerawork is what you see. There’s no track.
The most complicated part of it was the technical execution, physically, for the steadicam operator and the dolly grip, which was a lot. Sal had to hit queues on specific lines, and hit marks. Sometimes, we’d have somebody come in and move some chairs out of the way so he could turn a corner. But other than that, it is what it is. You had a steadicam op on a dolly, with a dolly operator, in the middle of the cast, who were moving around and arguing the whole time. And lighting queues were changing, so if you stepped back and looked at it from a distance, it looked like a circus. It was crazy. But we’d done it so many times that once we started shooting, it actually went really well. I don’t know how many takes we did, but it didn’t take all day to do any of them. We gave ourselves a day to do it, but no single take took all day.
What can you tell us about your collaboration with Flanagan on Doctor Sleep, his anticipated sequel to The Shining?
Doctor Sleep was a blast; it was so much fun, and so wonderful to live in that universe. Doctor Sleep was, in this pretty fantastic way, the merging of a lot of our experiences, because it’s got one foot in the old Stephen King that everybody knows, another foot in the more modern storytelling of Stephen King, and then it’s got Mike—and we’re also standing on the shoulders of Stanley Kubrick. There’s all this rich cinema and literature to boost us up.
You’re also in the process of working on your feature debut, a sequel to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before…
That’s been another really special experience. The cast is terrific and collaborative, and the producers, who I’ve worked with for a long time, are great and supportive. When you get these little, special relationships, it’s a good feeling to hang onto that, and go into a space where you want to tell the best story with the right support. And that’s really what I’m doing, more than anything.
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