“Traveling By Plane at the Moment is One of the Tricky Things…” DP Toby Oliver on Production Restarting and His Work on the Netflix Series Dead to Me
The second season of the Dead to Me marked cinematographer Toby Oliver’s first Netflix TV series production. The series has been ranked in the platform’s top ten since it was released in May, spending a week or so at number #1. Oliver, originally from Australia, has worked frequently with Blumhouse, including shooting the breakout hit Get Out. He spoke with Filmmaker from Los Angeles.
Filmmaker: How were you hired for Dead to Me?
Oliver: I was in Mexico working on a movie called Barb and Star go to Vista Del Mar, which was written by and stars Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, who did Bridesmaids. That was a Gary Sanchez production, which is Will Ferrell’s company, and there was a crossover of producers. Jessica Elbaum in particular worked on both projects, and she told me they were looking for a DP for Dead to Me.
I met remotely with Liz Feldman, the showrunner. They were starting soon, so I basically started prep three days after I wrapped on Barb and Star.
Filmmaker: What is the look of the series?
Oliver: It has a pretty glossy, high-end, TV look. The series is about people who live in a comfortable part of town, so there’s a slickness to it. It’s essentially a comedy, although the two leads, Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini, spend most of the time in tears. A funny tragedy really. At the same time it’s a quirky story where the two ladies get into diabolical situations. So there’s a certain playfulness to the cinematography, a slightly art-house bent to the structure of the visuals compared to some other things on television.
Filmmaker: Did you study the first season?
Oliver: Absolutely, the second season is the same story, it starts as soon as the first season ends. Liz Feldman wanted a consistent look, but we could afford to take it a bit further, improve on a few things where we needed to. Christina and Linda get themselves into even crazier situations, so you’ve got different scenarios where things can be a little bit more extreme.
But essentially the look wasn’t supposed to be a radically different journey from the first season. You’re coming in on the second season of a show, you have to respect what’s gone before.
Filmmaker: How do you keep a consistent look working with different directors?
Oliver: We had five directors, which is a very different situation for me, coming from feature films where you’re only dealing with one director, hopefully. For Dead to Me each director shot two episodes. You had to make rapid adjustments to different styles, make sure you’re on the same page, try to figure out what they’re after … You just have to try and make it work.
It is challenging because you get proper prep time only with the first director, and after that you’re just shooting straight through. The other directors coming in have all got great ideas and are excited about their episodes, and I barely get much time to even meet with them because it’s just not scheduled. It’s tricky because you’re on set shooting and a director might come in wanting to talk about upcoming episodes.
Filmmaker: You’re in a situation where you might know more about the visual style than the new director.
Oliver: There is that element, certainly in terms of the look of the lighting. That’s a normal television situation because the directors come in, they do their bit, and they leave. It’s up to you to try to keep the consistency going. Liz Feldman, the showrunner, was very hands-on, she was there at the monitor every day as we were shooting. She would be the ultimate arbiter when it came to issues when a director might want to do a shot that’s not in keeping with the show stylistically.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about the time pressures you face? How much do you get to scout locations, work with production designers, etc.?
Oliver: Early on, for the first two episodes, we get to scout everything quite thoroughly. Later you often have to lean quite a lot on your electrics team, or your grip team, who go out with the scouts on later episodes. They actually feed you information about what’s coming up.
I spend a fair bit of time with L.J. Houdyshell, the designer on the second season, picking her brains. In a way she had to do what I was doing in terms of playing catch-up with what happened on the first season, then try to recreate a lot of stuff, mimic what had been done before by the previous designer.
The main set, Christina Applegate’s house, was rebuilt to be identical to the original set even though we were on a different stage. So some of the dimensions had to be re- sized because the stage was smaller. Likewise the lighting and backdrops, all of those kinds of things, had to be carefully matched to what had come before.
So we spent a fair bit of time working that all of that stuff out. For example, on the new stage there was not as big an “outside” area beyond the windows to shoot off into. So things like that had to be sort of rethought to make it work for season two.
As the season wore on, L.J. would have more time with the new directors than I could, so she would fill me in on upcoming new sets and locations. When I could, I would grab little bits of information about stuff coming up so I could get more prepared. L.J. and I worked pretty closely throughout the whole season.
Filmmaker: What’s it like shooting in a location you’ve never seen before?
Oliver: It’s terrible. Awful. That happened maybe a couple of times in the season, minor locations I hadn’t seen at all, just the photos. Some locations you go to on your own time, like the weekends, so you can feel more prepared. Sometimes you have to wing it on the day, just try to squeeze in as much prep as you can. It can be a little hectic, racing around to a whole bunch of locations in an afternoon to prepare for the next week. You’re spending a half-hour here and a half-hour there, you barely get time to start talking about the scenes with the director. Certainly with nighttime locations, you never get to see them unless you go and look for yourself. You do what you can. Try and make sure the most important information gets across.
You do lean on your experience as a DP to be able to deal with stuff on the fly, or when you don’t get a lot of time to prep. You lean on your experience from similar situations. That is what allows you to get it done and hopefully look good.
Filmmaker: How many setups a day would you shoot?
Oliver: The setups would vary, averaging around 30 to 40 setups a day. We’d always shoot with two cameras. We had five days to shoot a half-hour show. I’ve had tougher schedules than that back in Australia. But you have to still move pretty fast. There certainly isn’t time for making mistakes and having to go back and redo things. You’ve got to make the right choice pretty much every time at the beginning of the day.
We’re shooting on average from four to sometimes seven or eight minutes of screen time a day, depending on the style of the day. An eight-minute day would have been a very big one.
It’s TV. You’ve got to keep moving. For a feature, even the smaller features, you’re closer to three to four minutes of screen time a day. Big action sequences, you may be shooting only two minutes of screen time a day. A very large feature is often way less than that. It’s all relative.
Filmmaker: Dead to Me is heavily dialogue-driven. How did you approach the conversations?
Oliver: For the coverage, and this is the style from the first season, we try to avoid the traditional over-shoulder reverses as much as we can. We either shoot two shots or stay a bit wider for much of the scene. We’ll use a selection of wider shots and then go into clean close-ups, where there’s no shoulder, and you’re shooting characters clean of the other person. That’s part of the show’s style.
Throughout the season, we were always trying consciously not to revert to the standard ways of shooting. We all know what traditional TV coverage looks like, and audiences are pretty bored with that.
Filmmaker: How does your work affect the pacing of scenes?
Oliver: Camera movement is where pacing comes in during shooting. If it’s just static shots, pacing is determined more or less in the editing. But if you’ve got a camera move built into the scene, and this is a directorial choice as well, you have to decide, okay, do we commit to a camera move, or do we shoot coverage that allows us to cut around it. So you don’t have to use the move if it takes too long, which is usually the problem. I’ll always be working with the director on this.
In my experience, in television they always try to get coverage. Even if they have a camera move in there, shoot coverage so that if the move can’t be used, they’ve still got the scene covered. You’ve got two cameras, so one will be doing the move and the other will be getting coverage. A director has to be rather bold to commit to a move and not get other coverage.
Filmmaker: Your work is key to setting the tone, which in this series shifts from comedy to suspense.
Oliver: We were definitely adjusting styles, borrowing stylistic notes from different genres depending on the story and the scenes. Particularly in the early part of the season revolving around the freezer in the garage, Liz Feldman wanted to use more creepy thriller/horror shooting styles. So I could lean on some of my experience.
For scenes around the freezer, you’ve got a low camera, you’re doing slow moves. With the lighting you’re adding a sense of creepiness and darkness of shadows, a little shaft of dim light. And we had a motion detector light, it was written into the script. It would come on and off, and that would become the key lighting in the scene.
It was kind of fun playing with some of that stuff. Other scenes would be more action- based, or have a romantic feel. Like when Linda and Natalie Morales, who plays her girlfriend, are in a cafe, we use candlelight, string bulbs, fairy lights in the background. That’s romantic comedy lighting, that’s genre I am pushing for that sequence.
What’s great about this show, because the scripts and the actors are so good, what you’re doing with your lighting to set the scene and create a mood—in a way it’s the icing on the cake. The show would still work if it was done in a drab way.
Filmmaker: Where were you when the lockdown began?
Oliver: In early March I went up to Washington state to do three days’ pickup on a documentary an Australian friend was making. I hadn’t worked on the documentary before, I was just helping with an extra interview and a bunch of atmospheric B-roll footage around this small town.
I had to go through Seattle, which at the time was a hotspot, although it hadn’t been officially locked down yet. It was deserted, there was no one in the Seattle airport. The day I got back to Los Angeles they called the lockdown. So I’ve been at home in LA for the past 10 weeks or so.
Filmmaker: Did you finish everything on Dead to Me before the lockdown?
Oliver: We did maybe half of the color grading of Dead to Me after the lockdown started. Normally I would go in and sit with the colorist to look at the episodes and give some notes, but we had to do it remotely. I looked at the color pass online, pretty much on my computer. We already had some one-on-one time to set the looks for the show.
Filmmaker: How about Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar?
Oliver: That’s still in post. They were going to initially release it in July, but a week or two ago Lionsgate decided to push it a whole year. So it won’t come out until 2021. They see it as a summer movie and they want to release it in the summer.
I am scheduled to go the post house (Fotokem) soon to set some looks for the DI with our colorist and the director, Josh Greenbaum.
Filmmaker: What will it take for you to feel safe going back to a set?
Oliver: I guess it’s about having a containment around the set. If it’s a location, then it’s a contained location where we’re not moving around and there are not a lot of people coming and going. I think if everyone who’s involved can be tested at the beginning perhaps, then it’s a contained situation.
Obviously regular shooting, where you’re changing locations every day, you’re in and out of stages, all over town, international for that matter, I think that’s still some time off. It’s also going to depend on the lockdown measures in place in the particular state or country you want to film in. And then it’s going to depend on whether there’s another outbreak.
Do I want to travel somewhere, do I have to get in a plane to go to a location to film? That’s probably the hardest part. When you get there it’s controllable. Traveling by plane at the moment is one of the tricky things. I guess I’d have to be satisfied that that can be done in a way that’s safe.
Filmmaker: You haven’t worked in a while, are you doing anything to prevent you from getting rusty?
Oliver: I’m not worried about getting rusty. I’m not really shooting anything on my own other than taking photographs as I normally do. I have some collaborators, old friends I’ve worked with over the years, we are in the very early stages of developing projects. The silver lining is it has been good for having time to be able to do that.
Filmmaker: Going forward, will you continue working at the same pace?
Oliver: That I don’t know. I did three projects last year, two features and a TV series. To be that intense in on set and prep environments over a long period of time, it was a lot of work. But I am very grateful, and the truth is, the work does go up and down. This year maybe I’ll shoot only one project, knock wood. Perhaps that’s not unusual. You’re a freelancer, projects fall over, things don’t happen, you’ve got to wait for something else.
It’s kind of a lifestyle choice that you make as a freelancer. By its very nature freelancing is completely insecure, there’s no security at all. Every job you get is often a brand new bunch of employers. You have to win the job, get on with the people, do the job perfectly, and then find the next one.
As a freelancer you have to be able to cope with that lifestyle or you’ll be stressed out all the time. Earlier in my career, I have to admit I was a bit more stressed. But as you get more established, have more of a foundation around you, it’s easier. That’s one good thing about getting older.