On Netflix reality series Cheer, cinematographers Melissa Langer and Erynn Patrick enjoyed the privilege of intimate access to a fascinating, athletic world, aiming to showcase the beauty and grit of a sport that sometimes is underappreciated.
Spotlighting the high-pressure world of competitive cheerleading, Greg Whiteley’s series follows the cheerleaders of Navarro College as they prepare for one of the biggest moments of their lives—the National Cheerleading Championship, held annually in Daytona Beach, Florida.
A water-cooler phenomenon, Cheer earned six Emmy nominations last month. On top of nods for directing, cinematography, picture editing, sound editing and sound mixing, the series will contend next month for Outstanding Unstructured Reality Program.
For Langer and Patrick, though, who received their first nods, the great gift of the series was not this recognition. Ultimately, it was the memories they’ve taken away from the challenging project, as well as the relationships they formed with their documentary subjects.
Below, the pair discuss the strategies they employed to bring the series an elevated, cinematic feel, and the experience of embedding themselves within the community of Navarro.
DEADLINE: How did you get involved with Cheer? And what attracted you to this project?
ERYNN PATRICK: I had worked with [producer] Adam Liebowitz on a spec shoot for a hockey show that was being pitched. We had met through mutual acquaintances in the industry, and just got along really well, and I didn’t talk to him again for a while. Then, just out of the blue, I got a call to go out.
It was the first time I met Melissa. They had shot the sizzle reel for Cheer, and it was the homecoming game, so I guess they had already been discussing having us on to shoot, but it was a surprise. We went out kind of last minute to cover their homecoming, and actually a lot of that footage ended up in the series.
I think the reasons for being excited about it, some of them are pretty obvious. It’s just a great story. I’m from Texas and grew up around competitive cheerleaders, so I had some frame of reference for the sport, and I think Melissa and I were both drawn to the types of stories that get overlooked, like that one. I had a lot of respect for Greg’s previous work, and was just excited to see what they wanted to do with the subject matter.
MELISSA LANGER: I originally met Greg on a pickup shoot for Last Chance U. I work mostly in the independent doc world, so I’m used to really small crews, and a longer time frame. So this, for me, was a really interesting challenge, to be the head of a department with Erynn, and work in this incredibly collaborative medium, with these great minds. Everyone on the crew was just a dream to work with, so I think it was just a really interesting, new challenge to have this incredibly fast-paced timeline, as well. There’s just so much happening all the time.
As a side note, I didn’t have any frame of reference for cheerleading. But I think it really surprised me, how into it I was, and I think that comes across in the footage, that excitement of discovering something for yourself.
DEADLINE: What can you tell us about your early conversations with Greg Whiteley and other key creatives, in terms of the look you’d pursue for the show?
PATRICK: We did jump into production on a fairly accelerated timeline, but we still spent a lot of time discussing the aesthetics, and the visual world we wanted to create. Melissa is based on the East Coast, and Greg and I are in LA, so fortunately, we were able to meet in person a handful of times. I had brought quite a few still photography books, and was using some famous still photographers like Garry Winogrand, just people who have taken a more refined doc approach. We were looking at that, but also at film references, [and] we spent a lot of time in pre-production going over that.
We did lens tests because we wanted it to feel really elevated, but also intimate. So, we were testing a lot of different vintage lenses, trying to find what was going to be the right fit, because the sport is really beautiful, and that’s part of it. It’s really important to them, the presentation, so we wanted it to feel natural, and authentic, and gritty when it needed to be. But we also wanted to respect that, in a way, that it is about the beauty of it. So, we ended up deciding on some vintage Cooke Panchros, because they sort of meet that line.
Then, in the field, it was pretty much a daily conversation, especially for Melissa and I, having to collaborate, heading this department, which is not something you see commonly, co-DPs. But it was really necessary for the way that the shoot was structured, especially the compressed timeline that she mentioned. So, she and I were meeting either alone, or with Greg and the rest of our team, pretty much on a daily basis, to discuss how we were approaching things aesthetically.
LANGER: Not to focus too heavily on the lenses, but I think that really did affect the visual aesthetic. I think that zoom lenses can sometimes be like shorthand for documentary, and I think that by choosing to go with primes, it definitely posed some challenges. But it also, I think, has this way of making a cinematographer commit to a shot, and really search for the heart of a scene, because you only have so much latitude.
I think that part of what people are attracted to in the show is that it doesn’t look and feel like what you would expect a doc to, because of the prime lenses. We really wanted a sense of visual control, so that people felt like they were in good hands.
PATRICK: Yeah, that’s super important. Back to those constant conversations we were having, the choice to stay on primes was often the crux of those conversations. Even in the middle of a scene, we would be checking in, because the fear is coverage, right? The classic conundrum is, if you’re going to shoot on primes, when you’re shooting in real time, you’re losing the opportunity to potentially grab all the coverage you might need from one standpoint. You have to physically move to get in or change the lens, so it has the potential to really interrupt the intimacy that we were trying to foster with them.
But Melissa and I both just felt super strongly about using that as a tool, rather than a handicap, leaning into that and making that part of the relationship we had with them. By the end of their season, they were kind of familiar with focal lengths, and knew what we were doing, and it ended up working out really well. But it was definitely a bit of a risk, I would say.
DEADLINE: Can you elaborate on the gear you used to shoot Cheer, and the approach you took to shooting it?
LANGER: Erynn and I functioned essentially as two separate crews, so we each had two cameras that we used interchangeably. The primary camera was a VariCam LT, and then we also used [Panasonic] EVA1s. The VariCams, we used for interviews, most practices—really the bulk of what you see in the show. Then, the EVA1s, we used because it was really important for us to remain lean in really intimate situations. For example, we shot a lot in dorm rooms with the cheerleaders, and these dorm rooms can be incredibly small, as anyone knows who’s lived on a college campus. There’s no way to get EasyRigs, VariCam, yourself, the sound person in the room, and not have you be completely distracting, so we ended up just using the EVAs, shoulder mounted, and I think that really helped us to form bonds with the cheerleaders, when we were in those spaces.
The lighting, we relied pretty heavily on practicals, for a lot of the dorm room scenes, and then of course we lit the interviews. We also added some diffusion to the gym because that lighting in there was pretty awful when we first walked in, and there’s only so much you can do to a gym to make it beautiful. But I think that the lenses really helped, and you’re so into the action that’s happening.
PATRICK: Also, with a handful of our kids, we would go into the dorms when they were in class—with their permission, obviously—and we would rig LED panels or tubes into the ceilings, and kind of hidden in corners, just to be able to elevate the lighting without having to interrupt our shooting time, and without taking up floor space in their room.
DEADLINE: Greg Whiteley told me not too long ago that one of the main challenges of shooting the series was managing to get up close to the cheerleaders, to capture the full extent of their grit and athleticism, without risking their safety.
LANGER: We were constantly grappling with that, so I think it was an ongoing conversation, and part of what helped is that they do this routine over and over again, all the time. So, we became super familiar with when we could move onto the mat and when we couldn’t. We couldn’t move onto the mat for the majority of the routine, but part of being a cinematographer is being able to read someone’s body language, someone’s mannerisms, because you get to know them so well over time. And you could sort of tell when a group was confident in a stunt. You knew they would hit it. Of course, there are always surprises, but I think you have to be an observer of people, and really stay tuned into that. That being said, we obviously always erred on the side of caution, and tried to memorize the routines as best as we could.
DEADLINE: What was it like to immerse yourself in the world of the Navarro Cheer Team? It must be fascinating to gain access to such a unique world, and to get to know the people within it.
PATRICK: I think that’s it. That’s the whole thing. It’s getting the opportunity to build a relationship with them, and the privilege of them letting us into their world, and they really did. They were so giving and generous with their time and space, and I think we were both excited going into it, but I couldn’t possibly have anticipated how joyful and creative it was. They just would constantly surprise us every day.
And it was hard work, for sure, both for us and for them. They’re really pushing themselves to the limit, physically, and yet they would still have this brightness always. It was inspiring, to be honest. I know it’s a little cheesy, but for me, that was the biggest surprise I really wasn’t expecting.
You know, it’s like they’re cheerleaders. That’s what they’re supposed to do. They’re supposed to inspire and excite the people around them, but you don’t really expect them to have that effect on you. And then you’re like, “Oh my gosh, they got me.” [Laughs] It really felt like a privilege to get to be there, and to bear witness to the hard work that they were putting in.
LANGER: I totally agree. I feel the longer you shoot with people, the more your heart and brain becomes enmeshed in their lives, and you just care so much about them. It’s this weird paradox of being a cameraperson, where you bear witness to all these painful and beautiful moments in a person’s life, and you feel so close to them, but in a project like this, we’re still trying to have this fly-on-the-wall approach, in so many ways. You still have to maintain your distance, so that you don’t disrupt the filmmaking process, and I think that was always a challenge.
I was shocked at how invested I became in them winning at Daytona, and in them personally, so that when things happen in the series, it was this emotional roller coaster every day. Certainly after Daytona, we were all just exhausted. I could have slept for three days.
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