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Conversations with DPs, directors and below-the-line crew by Matt Mulcahey

“You Have Nine Days to Make an Episode. Go!”: DP James Kniest on The Haunting of Bly Manor

Amelie Bae Smith in The Haunting of Bly Manor (Courtesy of Eiki Schroter/Netflix)

With a list of credits that includes Annabelle, Hush and The Bye Bye Man, cinematographer James Kniest has spent a fair share of his career toiling in horror. “I somehow got into doing all these dark genre films and episodics, which I like a lot,” said Kniest, “but I often times say jokingly, ‘Can’t I just do a romantic comedy?’”

The Haunting of Bly Manor fulfills half of that request. The second installment in Netflix’s Haunting Of anthology series, Bly Manor is a gothic romance that leans heavily into the latter. When the horror does arrive, it’s less jump scares and more peering into the existential dread of loss.

Like its season one predecessor, The Haunting of Hill House, Bly Manor takes its inspiration from a famed literary ghost story, in this case Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. The foundation of James’ story remains—an au pair travels to a countryside estate to care for two orphans, whose previous governess met with an untimely end. But much of the rest of the story is Bly Manor’s own, from the 1980s setting to the au pair’s arrival with ghosts of her own in tow.

With the show now streaming on Netflix, Kniest spoke to Filmmaker about imprinting his style onto a show mid-season, doing post in quarantine and creating the sumptuous black-and-white of Bly’s standalone flashback episode.

Filmmaker: Usually when I watch a series with multiple cinematographers, I wouldn’t be able to tell you who shot which episode because the style is so similar. With Bly Manor, there is very much a difference to the bloom of the highlights and the way the light falls off in the rooms in the final four episodes that you shot compared with the early episodes shot by Maxime Alexandre (High Tension, The Crawl). How much leeway did you have to add your own imprint to the show?

Kniest: There were some things that [series creator] Mike Flanagan and [executive producer] Trevor Macy were open to changing, and it actually worked out pretty well that my episodes began at a point in the series where it made sense for the arc to start getting a little bit darker and more stylized. You mentioned the blooming highlights—one of the things Maxime had established was using nets in the back of the lens. They have a little magnetic attachment that you stretch the nets onto and just slap it on the back. So, one of the things I did was take those nets and stretch them a lot tighter, so they weren’t as noticeable but there was still a hint of that same vibe and quality. With some of the lighting, it was just taking it a little bit further around behind the actors and not too frontal, really trying to add shape and density to the images and letting things fall off more into darkness.

My style is also to move the camera on almost every shot until there’s a time that you don’t want to move it for a specific reason, which was outside of the box for what they had been doing in previous episodes. It was funny, because my first couple days the crew was like, “We don’t do that on this show,” but they were really good about embracing the change and supporting me. I tried not to rock the boat too much, but I definitely put my spin on it. 

Filmmaker: When you come onto a show halfway through, you’re also inheriting a camera and lens package that you didn’t choose.

Kniest: Absolutely. That was one of the biggest challenges for me. I’ve done it a couple of times. I kind of equate it to Chopped or Iron Chef, where they give you the ingredients and then say, “You have nine days to make an episode. Go!” On this season, we used the Arri Alexa Mini and the Arri Signature Primes, which are just stunning glass.

Filmmaker: When was post on the show? Did you end up having to do any of it remotely?

Kniest: We finished production just before COVID, like February 25th, then all post was done remotely. All my color timing [notes] were done by viewing it on an iPad Pro in HDR and I’m just like, “Uh, what is this really going to look like?” I still don’t know. I’m a little worried about how it’s going to translate to people’s regular TVs and their iPads.

I did fight for a day to go into a color house even during COVID and they allowed me to go in, but I was just in a room by myself and there was somebody else in another room running the thing. So I got to skim through all of the episodes in three hours on an HDR monitor.

Filmmaker: That’s a good point. Netflix’s deliverable for its original content is now an HDR version, and you’re not going to have a high-end HDR monitor at home to view the colorist’s work during the grade.

Kniest: You have to be careful with HDR. For years we’d say things like, “Just let that window blow out so we don’t have to move all the company trucks.” Now if you put a bounce outside the window to blow it out, in HDR you’ll be able to see the seams and grommets on the rag. And because we weren’t viewing HDR on set, you don’t know that until you’re in post. And even if you are looking at it on the 1,000 nit, $30,000 Dolby Vision HDR monitor in a beautiful studio setting, what about the person that’s watching it on their iPad on the bus? What are they seeing? How do we as filmmakers learn to tick all those boxes, and should we even? Back in the day we were protecting for 4:3. I used to do a lot of car commercials and at some point I started saying, “If somebody hasn’t bought a new TV, they’re not buying your new Chevy truck.” So eventually we quit worrying about 4:3. At some point are we going to keep worrying about all these platforms and different viewing devices and environments? 

Filmmaker: Where did you shoot the Bly Manor exteriors?

Kniest: They were shot predominantly on a farm just outside of Vancouver, where they built the grounds, the garden, the roads and the church. They actually dug out and built a lake that had to be maintained at a certain temperature, because we put actors in the water even through the winter, which was daunting for me because sometimes it steamed up so much you couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face.

When I came on board I asked for a bunch of fans to blow the steam away. We would roll camera, cut the fans, then do the scene as the fog slowly started to take over the little valley again. That was super challenging and nerve-wracking, but I also think it lent itself visually to the show and added this ethereal, spooky environment. And it was fun to backlight that steam and really use it as an element.

We did have a couple days where it actually snowed on the location. The show is supposed to be set in the springtime. We were told, “Oh, it doesn’t snow in Vancouver. It just flurries, it doesn’t stick.” Then it snowed two feet. So, production brought in steam trucks and steamed the snow away, which was great but turned the ground into a complete bog. Your boots would get stuck; you’d pull your leg up and your shoe would still be stuck in the mud. I ended up using a Technocrane a lot, because we could reach into different areas and do different set-ups and not have to drag dollies and sticks around.

Filmmaker: You did the interiors on stage in Vancouver?

Kniest: Yeah. The sets for the interiors of the manor were enormous. I was blown away when I first walked into them. They were just cavernous. But because Vancouver is so busy, there isn’t a lot of space available there, so the upper half of Bly Manor was at one studio facility and the downstairs of Bly Manor was at a completely different studio facility. So we had to stitch together the performance of somebody walking from upstairs to downstairs between different days in different studios with different vendors. At the studio with the upstairs stage, the floor was painted green so we could comp in the downstairs for shots where we were in the upstairs set looking down. We threaded that needle pretty well, it was just a logistical challenge. 

Filmmaker: If you are renting two stages simultaneously, do you have to rent twice the amount of G&E gear so you can pre-rig both sets?

Kniest: Yeah, that was a problem for sure, but [production] figured it out. Especially now that everyone wants to do everything with LEDs, there’s not always that much available. You think, “Oh, we’ll just have 150 SkyPanels”—well, maybe there’s only 100 available in Vancouver. It’s challenging to say the least, but they were able to navigate it really well. 

Filmmaker: Episode 6 is the first one you shot. [SPOILERS FOLLOW] In that episode, Henry Thomas, whose character is the children’s absentee uncle, also plays his own imaginary doppelganger. How did you approach those scenes?

Kniest: Well, first, Henry is an amazing actor. It was a bit of a challenge to figure out how to best lens that stuff with “Dark Henry,” as we called him. We used a low-budget motion control thing called the Mo-Sys. It’s basically just a repeatable head on dolly track, so you don’t have the ability to crane up or down but you can pan, tilt and move laterally. We used that to do split screen types of things to get [both Henrys] in the same frame and I thought it worked pretty well. It was quick and definitely affordable. 

Filmmaker: For most of those shots, I could kind of figure out how you did them, but there was one that stumped me. The camera starts above the couch in Thomas’ office with a woman on top of him. Then you pull back and boom down and she leaves frame. Still in the same shot, “Dark Henry” slides into the frame and hovers above his doppelganger. How did you do that?

Kniest: We just ended up using a split-screen. If you look at the shot you’ll see that [the two Thomas characters] never overlap in the frame. So, we ended up with the camera mounted 90 degrees on the dolly with real Henry in the shot and once the camera does the [boom down and pullback] and lands [in its final position], we cut and locked the head and said “Alright, nobody touch the camera.” Henry did a wardrobe and make-up change, then we shot Dark Henry [on the top half of the frame with the camera still locked in the same position]. We had another dolly with an offset arm with a pad on it and “Dark Henry” laid on that, and we just lowered the boom down to get him into frame. It was all really lo-fi.

Filmmaker: It works, though. I was thinking something crazy like, “Did they put a double in there with tracking dots and then do a face replacement?”

Kniest: No, it was really, really lo-fi. Even though there was the budget on this shoot to have all the gear we needed, sometimes a lo-fi approach is still the best approach. I’ve done a lot of things over the years in-camera and I think that spirit still holds true today. We don’t always have to have some fancy solution for things. 

Filmmaker: In the Hill House season, there was a standalone episode made to look like a single take. For Bly Manor, you got to shoot the standalone episode—a black-and-white flashback set in the 1600s. How do you change your approach when you shift to black and white?

Kniest: Black and white affords you the ability to go with a bit harder light. So, we went with harder lights and a lighter diffusion material, or sometimes no diffusion at all. That also helps shape the light more so it’s not spilling into the background. Lighting for black and white is almost a little bit easier because you’re not dealing with color contrast, just tonal contrast.

I created a LUT with my DIT and prior to shooting that episode—because we would be shooting the black and white scenes in some of the same spaces as the color scenes—I would say, “Hey, let’s look at this in black and white.” We would fine-tune our LUT while we were shooting color scenes. I’m really proud of that episode. I’ve shot black and white in the past. I come from a traditional photography background, where I processed my own film, and learning with black and white was basically step one with photography in the old days. So, I’m always thrilled to get to do that again.

Filmmaker: There are images in that episode that made me think of the Zone System, where you have five or six strategic areas in the frame sitting at different lighting levels. What tools do you use to get that right? Do you still pull out a stop meter to compare ratios or are you just using the monitor to see what looks good?

Kniest: I still use meters quite a bit, usually in pre-lighting to set the ratios, then rely heavily on false color. I don’t use waveform that much. Because of my experience with the Zone System as a still photographer, false color to me correlates to the zone system where a zone is now a color. 

It’s funny now: as a filmmaker, you have all these different tools, but none of them tell you exactly like a meter reading used to do. So, you have to kind of interpret it all and use different elements from each tool to come up with your exposure. It makes me realize how much film I probably over- or under- exposed back in the day that I didn’t even realize because film had such latitude.

Matt Mulcahey works as a DIT in the Midwest. He also writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.

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