“How Big Can We Get? What Crane is Available for This Day?” DP James Laxton on The Underground Railroad
Developed and directed by Barry Jenkins, and adapted from Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Underground Railroad takes viewers into the world of slavery in the Deep South prior to the Civil War. Like Whitehead’s novel, the series integrates fantasy and mythological elements with real-life events. The Underground Railroad focuses on Cora Randall (played by Thuso Mbedu), who escapes from a cotton plantation in Georgia and travels through the Carolinas, Tennessee and Indiana to avoid recapture. Other characters include escaped slave Caesar (Aaron Pierre), slave hunter Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) and Homer (Chase Dillon), Ridgeway’s young African-American companion.
Cinematographer James Laxton has collaborated with Jenkins on his debut feature Medicine for Melancholy (2008), the Oscar-winning Moonlight (2016) and most recently If Beale Street Could Talk (2018). He is currently working with Jenkins on an animated prequel to The Lion King. The ten-part limited series is streaming on Amazon Prime.
Filmmaker: When did you start on the project?
James Laxton: The writers’ room for the series started before we shot If Beale Street Could Talk; that would have been in 2017. I think our first location scout was fall 2018.
Filmmaker: This series has an enormous scope and scale.
Laxton: I feel bad for anyone trying to review this, because it’s an immense task and there is a lot to say about it.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about your camera package?
Laxton: We shot on the Arri Alexa LF systems, both the Mini and the regular LF. We used two different formats. We shot most of the show in spherical, 16:9, then did three episodes in 2.40 with anamorphic lenses. The spherical lenses were Panavision Primo 70s, the anamorphics were the Panavision T series. Dan Sasaki at Panavision and his team did a tremendous amount of tweaking on all the lenses. We adapted different color profiles, focus shapes, other things to create a custom lens kit for the show, which is the first time I had done anything like that.
Filmmaker: What were you looking for by tweaking the lenses?
Laxton: We wanted to have a sense of vintageness. When you’re working in large format, that can sometimes be a challenge. We didn’t want to go into some of the truly vintage lenses, but wanted some characteristics that would reference decades past. For example, we wanted flares in our spherical lenses that were almost anamorphic, that have horizontal banding, characteristics that aren’t just precise little pinpoints. We wanted to have aberrations at the edges of the frame, a slight bend like vintage lenses might have. Flare profiles that weren’t so pristinely perfect. We had coatings that were slightly more low contrast. I used a filter that I used a lot on Beale Street, called a Smoque filter, that has a tendency to bloom highlights. Some of the rainbow flares you see in the series stem largely from a filtration package.
Filmmaker: How closely can you control lens flare?
Laxton: Shape and things like that, at this point you can do a lot. This is all new stuff, I don’t know that this technology was even able to do this a few years ago in terms of taking apart lenses and putting different kind of glass in there to make the lens flare a certain way. We did a series of tests in preproduction. You can ask, can that flare be wider? Taller? Things like that.
Filmmaker: I don’t think you’ve worked on this scale before. Was everything bigger, your crew size and lighting package?
Laxton: We were mostly a two-camera show, occasionally three, sometimes a second unit. But largely speaking it was a two-camera show. I operated A camera with the exception of the Steadicam shots, where Jarrett Morgan did a fantastic job and became a huge member of our team.
It was a much larger lighting crew than I ever had before, with big rigging teams and all the infrastructure that went into rigging out tunnel sets or big train stations. All these different setpieces that are so massive clearly had to have a different infrastructure than Moonlight or If Beale Street Could Talk.
Filmmaker: Were there a lot of visual effects?
Laxton: Some, definitely, as you might imagine. But we wanted to rely on as much as possible on physical sets, physical things. For example, the trains are real trains, not visual effects or CGI. All the train stations and train tunnels we shot in Savannah, Georgia, in a museum. We realized quite quickly that it was going to be very difficult, if not completely impossible, to bring a train to a soundstage and build a set in a traditional way. Not to mention we needed these trains to move.
The sentiment was to do things physically as much as possible, and there’s a reason behind that. We’re telling this truthful story, but there’s also this mythological element happening. In the novel and the show, the “underground railroad” is an actual train running underground. We wanted to make it feel quite real, not a cheap fantasy. The tendency to dip into too much CGI can make the audience believe the moment much less.
Filmmaker: Did that approach extend to the equipment as well? Cranes instead of drones?
Laxton: If I’m not mistaken, there’s one drone shot in the show that happens in the “Fanny Briggs” episode [episode seven]. It’s actually a crane and a drone shot bridged together. We crane up over the house, and at some point the drone takes over and goes all the way up and we see the burning town. That’s the only drone. Everything else was done on cranes very high up, 75- or 100-foot cranes. There are a lot of firsts on this show for me, and crane work for sure was one of them.
Filmmaker: In episode five (“Tennessee Exodus”), you crane up over Cora to reveal an entire landscape on fire.
Laxton: The sense of scope was hugely important for us. The journey Cora’s on is intended to feel massive, because it was massive. A lot of these big wide vistas that crane down onto characters—or the reverse, start at the character and then reveal the journey—for us, we needed to feel that sense of scope. The conversation became, how big can we get? What crane is available for this day?
Filmmaker: Just how big did the production get?
Laxton: That first episode where you see the slave quarters, we planted cotton fields there. We planted sugar cane months earlier so it would be a certain height for Cora and Caesar to escape through. So much infrastructure went into making this, so much planning. I have to give it up to a lot of departments who made those things happen.
One thing that’s a positive about working for 116 days is that you end up being really in synch with people, because you’re working with them every single day for months and months and months. You get to know people and their processes really well. That’s one big luxury in having such an extended schedule.
Filmmaker: Did you have enough time?
Laxton: I guess I would say I always wish I had more. It sounds crazy. It’s a lot of script. I want to say we were working at five or six pages a day, which isn’t that bad actually—it’s quite healthy for a TV series. The problem is this TV series wasn’t shot like most TV series are. And that’s not really how Barry and I like to work. We do like speed, so it wasn’t far short of what we would have wanted. But what are you going to say? You always want more days.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about how you collaborate with Barry Jenkins in terms of composition and framing?
Laxton: It’s really kind of effortless in many, many ways. I think the best way to describe working with Barry—it’s a bit of a cliché, but think of a musical bandleader. You’re in the band, and you have a solo, or you’re playing backup. Barry orchestrates his crew like that. It’s like performing on a stage. You’re asked to show up, listen, participate and collaborate. Performance is the best word I can use for it, because it isn’t like a lot of detailed discussion about, “Well, this should be center-punched and this should have more headroom.” Or, “James, the light should really have this ratio.” He gives his collaborators quite a lot of room to participate. And he guides us—when something’s not quite right he’ll say it, it’s not as if there isn’t any discussion. But it isn’t a discussion about precision, it’s a discussion about emphasis.
A lot of our work is center-punched. And I think a lot of that deals with how much we like to put audiences in our characters’ shoes, and let them really sink into the frame, as opposed to going on the outskirts.
Filmmaker: Throughout the series you have extended two-shots where the camera pans from one character to another, sometimes resting on someone who isn’t speaking. What’s the process there? Do you work out all the beats beforehand?
Laxton: We agree that we’ll shoot a version where we’re panning back and forth. We’ll set that up, but we won’t rehearse it, we’ll just roll. Maybe I’ll start on the character who has the first line, and I’ll watch that happen and decide, based on my memory of the dialogue, “OK, the next line is the other person, but they’re going to come right back, so I’ll stay here for a minute.”
It ends up being a sort of ping pong based on dialogue, but also on performance. I’ll be listening: wow, she’s really pushing hard on that line, emphasizing it, so that means I should stay here. I want to make sure I’m witnessing that intensity and emphasis. I’ll let that happen, and sort of exhale, maybe let that performance breathe a little bit, or that might cue me to go back and forth.
We’ll do a couple of takes that way, and Barry will watch those things and say, “Great, for this line I need you to be on this person.” And we’ll do a version where I make sure to hit that line.
Filmmaker: Without the shot/countershot rhythm, it keeps viewers more involved in the dynamics of the scene.
Laxton: It’s a lovely effect. It provides tension, not knowing where you’re going to be next. You feel like you’re in the room with the characters, an active participant in the scene instead of being told to watch this line, watch this performance.
Filmmaker: It’s harder to get that effect with something like the debate scene in episode nine, where Valentine (Peter De Jersey) and Mingo (Chukwudi Iwuji) are arguing about Cora’s fate.
Laxton: That’s because it’s such a presentational, informational scene. There’s a bit of panning back and forth. We go to Mingo when he’s listening at times. But as the debate is happening, you want to be on the person speaking to take in what they’re saying. Because it’s not a conversation between those two characters, it’s a conversation with the audience.
We shot those debates all the way through, I think twenty-minute takes. If you account for changes in lighting from set-up to set-up, camera changes, lunch, you end up having only ten takes per day. That was a tough scene, we had to be really conscious of being economical with our angles as much as we possibly could, knowing full well that we were only going to do this ten times.
Filmmaker: This is such a depressing, violent milieu. How do you create imagery for the torture and death in the story?
Laxton: We thought a lot about that. Clearly we didn’t want gratuitous trauma. From the outset we were [thinking], let’s not go too far, we need to be conscious of this. We settled on an approach based on perspective. We would tie our camera perspective to one particular character. Caesar, for example: watch events from Caesar’s perspective, and watch Caesar watch it. As opposed to the whip, the wound, the face grimacing. Building the scene out in that way, I felt like it would feel story-related as opposed to just violence-related.
That was our hope. For example, in the first episode there’s a scene at a whipping post at night. We’re wide, from a high perspective, quite distanced from the violence. As the camera moves closer and down, we pan away from the violence, it happens off screen. All we’re doing is watching Caesar. These are violent moments we need to understand and digest, but not in a gratuitous way, not in a way that inappropriately elevates the violence.
Filmmaker: On a more personal level, how do you stay positive when you’re dealing day after day with slavery and genocide?
Laxton: Amazon was very conscious of this. We had a therapist on set when we shot the most violent scenes. At any moment, anyone who needed to could stop and walk away. Many people did, they would need to take a break. It was something we knew from the outset would be challenging. For me, personally, no doubt about it, it was hard. But it felt like something I needed to be conscious about. Not just let it be another shoot day: “Oh, it’s day 87. We’re doing this scene that’s violent.” Instead, I tried to digest these violent acts in a way that meant something to me, not reduce them to some technical issue. That actually helped me in the end. It made me process the violence, as opposed to just dismiss it.
There’s a tendency today, specifically for whites with liberal beliefs such as myself, to say, “I’m not racist,” or, “I don’t have these beliefs.” But doing this project reminded me that no doubt about it, I have very racist people in my lineage. If you come to accept that, move through that and process that, then go forward and accept that this is part of who you are, it actually can be very helpful. On this project I felt like I’m part of the story. I’m not going to dismiss my historical ancestors’ atrocities, I’m going to use this experience to therapeutically come to some deeper understanding of who I am and my own past.
Filmmaker: Did you have to deal with the pandemic during production?
Laxton: We started in the late summer of 2019. We were forced to wrap in the middle of March because of the pandemic. We were three days away from completing production and had to put the brakes on. We did end up picking those three days up back in July of last year.
Filmmaker: There are so many scenes in this series—parties, banquets, church meetings, railroad stations—that would be difficult to shoot under the new protocols.
Laxton: Oh my gosh, completely, I don’t know what we would have done. You never want to say it was a blessing, but we were lucky to get done when we did. It would not have been possible in the end.
Filmmaker: How do the protocols affect your creativity?
Laxton: I would say you have to just think simpler in the end. What was once a complex lighting rig is now very simple, because we just don’t have the ability to get complicated. That’s how the first few months of shooting in the pandemic were: How can we simplify, strip this back to bare bones, meet the necessities? My first film with Barry, Medicine for Melancholy, was very much an exercise in that idea. We shot that with five people in the room, including the actors. It probably could have been shot in the pandemic. Now that things are getting a little easier and we understand how to work in the pandemic, we can go back to some more complicated ideas. But in the first few months it was largely like that. Some projects benefit from that, some obviously don’t. I don’t know how you make a Marvel movie like this. But a lot of American independent films were shot with just a few people. The show goes on somehow.
Filmmaker: What can you say about your next project?
Laxton: I’m doing another film with Barry, The Lion King. It’s different from anything I’ve ever done before, all virtual reality-based.
Filmmaker: Have you reached out for advice from anyone?
Laxton: I had conversations with Caleb Deschanel, who shot The One and Oly Ivan using similar technology, although that was live action as well. The positive is that literally your imagination is the only thing keeping you from getting what you want.