How ‘What We Do In The Shadows’ Cinematographer D.J. Stipsen Mastered Mockumentary Style For Quirky Vampire Comedy

'What We Do in the Shadows' cinematographer D.J. Stipsen
Russ Martin/FX

The cinematographer behind FX comedy What We Do in the Shadows, D.J. Stipsen would have been “petrified” by the prospect of shooting the series, had he not already collaborated with Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi on a 2014 film of the same name.

Following vampire roommates, as they cope with the mundane tasks of modern life, the feature was a “baptism by fire” for Stipsen, who learned in the process “exactly how to shoot a mockumentary that was loaded with stunts, wire work and VFX.”

Transplanting its vampires from Wellington, New Zealand to Staten Island, Clement’s TV adaptation of Shadows offered the opportunity to expand a hilarious and cinematic world, further refining a style Stipsen previously worked hard to master, while being even more ambitious, on a visual level.

“I realized I could take all those skills that I’d honed on the film and use them on the series, but actually a lot better, and Jemaine was pretty excited about it. He phoned me up and said, ‘Hey, do you want to do the series in Canada?’ and I went, ‘Yeah man, that’d be great! But hang on. Will it be as anarchic as the movie?’” the first-time Emmy nominee recalls. “He said, ‘No, no. This time, we’re actually going to have real scripts.’’’

“The most grueling shoot” of Stipsen’s career, Season 1 of What We Do in the Shadows involved 10 weeks of night shoots. “Basically, we’d go to work when the sun was setting, and we’d be home just before the sun would rise,” the DP recalls. “So, the whole crew was acting like vampires.”

Harvey Guillen in 'What We Do in the Shadows'
Russ Martin/FX

How did you come to the feature version of What We Do in the Shadows? What was the draw?

I got asked to do the film through a couple of connections. I already vaguely knew Jemaine, and they started shooting, and they weren’t happy with the results they were getting. They really were pursuing a mockumentary feel, and I don’t think they were happy with what they’d got, so they phoned me up and asked me to come down to Wellington and take over the film, which was a great opportunity.

I’ve done a lot of documentaries in my career, so I was used to that idea of operating. Reacting, rather than preempting, is the first thing. Then, secondly, trying to do that like it’s your first gig in your entire life, so you’re constantly surprised by everything that’s happening in front of you on camera, gives that feeling of found reality, which I think is the magic glue that stuck the movie together.

Can you elaborate on the process of capturing the mockumentary style both the film and the series required? In either case, were you operating camera yourself?

On the movie, I definitely operated the camera, but on the television series, I wasn’t allowed due to union regulations in Canada, so I had two fantastic operators, Bradley Crosbie and Kaelin McCowan. Jemaine and I were reasonably nervous about having operators, because the film was such a personal interaction between us. There was sort of an unwritten language that we could speak to each other and know exactly how we needed to cover a scene, and all of a sudden, we were inviting people in to do that job. But after a couple of hours on the first shoot day, we were like, “These guys are great. They completely get it.” Because you basically live and die on the operators and the focus pullers.

The house set was our biggest set—it had a two-story foyer, long corridor, multiple rooms—and the restrictions Taika and Jemaine want are limited. They want the ability to go and follow the characters through the entire house, so you have to light the entire house, and allow the cameras to go wherever they want. You could be doing a scene which starts in the lounge, and all of a sudden they take off and go into the foyer or down the corridor, and you’ve got to be prepared to follow them. So, that’s the first thing you have to do, is be prepared to allow the actors and the operators to go anywhere.

Natasia Demetriou and Matt Berry in 'What We Do in the Shadows'
Byron Cohen/FX

Because of that, you have to develop a style where you can light a close-up and a wide shot at the same time. We’re all on zooms—that’s kind of the mockumentary style—so the operators must be allowed to zoom from a wide shot into a close-up, and that’s insanely challenging as a DoP. It’s what you don’t want to be doing on a set; you want to be crafting and setting shots up. [But] we developed all kinds of tools, from special, little lights that we would hide, and LED strips that we’d put under tables, along the edge of bookshelves, that we knew would never be in the shot, that we could dim up and down.

The other thing was, like we did in the film, the operators had to act like it was their first gig. They had to arrive at things just a little bit late, like they were finding it. They zoomed in like they were surprised at what they were seeing. That’s cool if you’re doing three takes, but we were doing up to 10 takes because of the improv nature of how the show works, and they still had to have the discipline to [make moments] look like found shots. And same with the focus pullers; the focus pullers were so good, reacting on the fly. But in the end, I had to tell them to start throwing focus on certain shots, because everything was too sharp.

What informed your choice of camera? Was the low-light nature of the series a major factor?

We shot the film on RED cameras with Angenieux zooms. That was all right for the time that we shot it, but I think it was four years between the film and the series, [so] technology had moved on so much by the time [the series came around]. The pilot was shot by the lovely DoP Christian Sprenger in LA, [with] ARRI Minis; I think there were like nine months between the pilot and the series, so by the time I came along, we looked at different cameras, and the Sony VENICE had been road-tested by that stage. I wanted to use that because of its low-light abilities, and there was a lot of side-by-side testing with the Mini and the Sony VENICE. [But] basically, the dual ISO on the Sony at 500 ASA AND 5000 ASA was unbelievable. When it came to low-light abilities the Sony was noiseless. It was amazing, so that was kind of a no-brainer.

The idea was that we were using as much available light at night as possible. In fact, we didn’t. We used a lot of machines, a lot of lifts, a lot of lighting, but we had to make it look like available light, and having that high ISO helped us balance the streetlights out. So, we didn’t use as big of units as you would normally use. The only problem with those cameras was, they are really, really heavy. They were a beast, because of the nature of the show, [but] the operators did so well carrying those cameras—[and] now, they’ve got the Rialto [Camera Extension] System, so they’re way more user-friendly, when it comes to long handheld scenes.

Natasia Demetriou in 'What We Do in the Shadows'
Russ Martin/FX

The other thing I was going to say is that the cool thing about the show is that everything’s up for grabs, when it comes to format. So, I could shoot on any camera I wanted, if it was reflected in the script. We used a lot of GoPros on “Animal Control” because we wanted to have a CCTV feel to it, and it worked well—and the VFX house, Mavericks, were incredible at letting us use lo-fi cameras and have complex VFX. When Laszlo turns from a bat into Laszlo and back again, and Nandor turns into a dog, all that was happening on the GoPros, and they were cool about it. So, that was pretty amazing.

In the orgy episode, we shot all of Laszlo’s adult films on different formats. We shot Standard 16 black-and-white, we shot Super 16, we shot DVCAM 4:3. It was really cool. As a DoP, that’s just the best thing. Then, the operators and focus pullers were just absolutely geeking out over the old cameras that we were shooting on to get the film stuff.

The nature of Shadows’ world justifies the use of all kinds of interesting practical lights, including glow sticks and candles. What was your approach to lighting the house set? How did you arrive at such a satisfying, cinematic palette for the series overall?

We had to rely a lot on practicals in the house. My approach to any set is, I want to make it like a location, so I always [want] ceilings. But in the house set, we had so much wire work that we had to have the pieces be able to be removed and put back again, so we could hang actors, climb walls, and do all that kind of stuff. We ended up with quite a lot of softboxes throughout the house so, in a pinch, we could actually light up the ceiling piece that would be in, if it was out of shot, and put a little bit of top light into the house. I’m not a big fan of that always, but we did what we needed to do.

We also had the foyer with the green chandelier, so we had a lot of green light up in the ceiling that you would never see, that we would punch down into the foyer, which I loved. It gave it that weird feel, and offset the red that we put into Nadja’s photographic room, and the blue we put in, which was for Guillermo’s little hovel under the stairs.

Kayvan Novak and Harvey Guillen in 'What We Do in the Shadows'

The way I like to light is, I always like to use complementary colors, and the reason for that is that when you get into the color timing, if you’ve got just one tone, you’ve got nowhere to go. You’re just never going to separate the actors from the backgrounds, or anything like that. The challenging part about the house is, everything’s run-down, everything’s really worn out, and there’s a lot of yellow light from the candles, so we had to manufacture complementary colors within the house. That’s where Nadja’s darkroom red came from, where Guillermo’s little hovel came from. We put blue light in there to suggest there was a computer or something on in there, at least—that he has a laptop all the time. Then, we used the green for the foyer.

As far as the practicals go, Ra Vincent, who designed the film and who also was on another show with Taika and Jemaine, came on to do the pilot for What We Do in the Shadows as designer. But then he had another project, so he couldn’t do it. So, Kate Bunch, as art director, stepped up, and she did a lot of the extra rooms in the house. Her and I worked very closely at getting the practicals in the right places, thinking about getting them at eye height if you’re standing, so we can always get a practical in the back of shots—so we can have either a backlight in shot, or at least side light someone if they’re close to it.

Then, the set decorators found these LED bulbs, which I’d never seen before. Normally, you’d shy away from domestic LED fixtures in film because they flicker. [But] they found these flame effect LEDs, and they worked amazingly. I couldn’t believe it. All the flickering stuff that you’re seeing inside lanterns inside the house is actually LED flicker bulbs.

What We Do in the Shadows features a lot of great visual gags, and tonally lends itself to moments of more theatrical, Halloween-type lighting cues. It must have been fun to be able to play with aesthetic choices that wouldn’t work for any other show.

Yeah, completely. The basic premise behind the show is that these vampires live in a house that hasn’t really changed since they first emigrated from Europe to Staten Island, and as you know, they got to Staten Island by accident. So, the house is like a time capsule—old, run-down—and we approached everything outside of the house [like] every time they stepped out the door, it was shocking for then. It was shocking in the way that it was bureaucratic, that they could never get anything done, that it was stark, so we often chose locations with bright fluorescents. It was very, very un-vampiric, I guess. It was almost like daytime, but it was nighttime, and you almost had to squint when you were looking at the shot, when they go to the supermarket, or they go to the council chambers. I absolutely loved that, and you’re right about the theatrical stuff. We would just go nuts on certain things, and go way over the top, because it was so funny to do it, juxtaposed [with] the house all the time.

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