“We Did Not Have an Interior to Shoot for Eight-and-a-Half Episodes”: DP Christina Alexandra Voros on Her Emmy-Nominated 1883 Work
“The landscape is its own character,” says 1883 cinematographer Christina Alexandra Voros. It’s not an unusual declaration for an epic outdoor adventure, until Voros adds, “And that character was the biggest diva on the show.”
A prequel to Paramount+’s popular Yellowstone series, 1883 subjected its crew to both a stifling Texas summer and a frigid Montana winter to trace the Dutton clan’s westward journey via wagon train.
“It was punishing,” said Voros. “It was either raining, windy or just plain freezing, or it was 500 background people in downtown Ft. Worth sweltering under the August sun in wool clothing.”
Braving the meteorological unpleasantries wasn’t without its rewards. Voros recently picked up her first Emmy nomination for the 1883 episode “Lightning Yellow Hair,” which features a harrowing tornado sequence. Series co-cinematographer Ben Richardson earned a nomination for one of his episodes as well.
Voros and Richardson also directed nine of the show’s ten installments, with each DP-ing while in the director’s chair. With 1883’s full first season available on Paramount+, Voros spoke to Filmmaker about taking on that double duty.
Filmmaker: As a cinematographer, you get to select one episode from your show to submit for Emmy consideration. Why did you choose that particular episode?
Voros: I felt it was the most challenging for me and I am the proudest of it in the way that all of the different departments came together. It felt like everyone working at the highest level to create the most spectacular thing. For both Ben Richardson and I [to be nominated] is a tremendous testament to our crew. They are the common ground between our episodes and to be recognized with two slots in that category is really a tribute to the team behind us.
What I loved about that episode is it felt like it was equal parts embracing the landscape and working with the light of the world as it was given to us, and also creating this superhuman phenomena of this tornado and its aftermath. I’m proud of that episode in terms of my own work but also the art department and visual and special effects. [Series creator] Taylor Sheridan creates these worlds where we are encouraged to shoot the real thing all the time. If the script says 200 horses cascade down the mountain, we’re shooting 200 horses cascading down the mountain. We don’t lean on CGI or visual effects whenever possible and, at the end of the day, we relied very little on visual effects to create that tornado. We had 12 giant Gas Plant fans in the middle of a field, and our animal coordinators and wranglers worked for weeks to get the horses used to those fans and the sound of them and the pressure of the wind and the dust. Technically, it was really complex and involved a lot of pieces coming together and dovetailing perfectly to make it work. I actually submitted a different episode [for consideration] as a director, but in terms of the cinematography, that was clearly the one.
Filmmaker: That episode is all exteriors in wide open spaces.
Voros: Once the Duttons pull out of Ft. Worth, it’s entirely exterior unless you’re in a tent or a wagon. We did not have an interior to shoot for eight-and-a-half episodes. You’re at the mercy of the weather, the light, the length of the day. The landscapes look like they are in the middle of nowhere because they are. We were often in really, really remote places. When we were shooting [the “Lightning Yellow Hair” episode], production set up like 150 RVs in the middle of a field on a ranch that was two hours from the closest city, because there was nowhere to house people. It was like Burning Man. We literally set up camp out in the middle of a pasture. I think we all have amnesia now about how hard it was, because the show looks so beautiful and we’re all so proud of it.
Filmmaker: I’ve interviewed cinematographers before who have directed episodes of their shows, but they’ve almost always handed off DP duties. What possessed you and Ben to want to direct and shoot? On top of that, you’re both producers on the series.
Voros: It is unusual. To explain it, I kind of have to give you the origin of it. I started on season one of Yellowstone as an operator. On season two, I became one of the two DPs. For season three, I came back only to direct and not shoot. Then, on season four, Taylor asked me to come back to both shoot and direct and gave me the option of shooting my own episodes. It felt like the perfect opportunity to do it: It was a crew that I knew well, we’d done four seasons of the show together. I lean on my gaffer and key grip and camera operators tremendously in a way that I think feels very collaborative and allows everyone to really take ownership of the work.
[Simultaneously shooting and directing on Yellowstone] was a really positive experience and so, coming into 1883, Taylor just assumed that I would want to do the same thing and I was like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Doing that on season four of a show that we’ve been making for half a decade is very different than creating a look on a period piece that’s this massive.” So, I thought about it and what I came back to him with was, “I’ll do it on the first two episodes, but I reserve the right to bring in a DP if it’s too much.” It ended up not being too much. We had very much the same crew from Yellowstone. It wouldn’t have been possible if we were walking into a world with a new crew that didn’t have our shorthand, but in a weird way it allowed me almost more time to be with the actors, because I could look at my gaffer and key grip and my operators and go, “Cameras are here, here and here. Big bounce from over here. Let’s put village over there. I’ll be back in 20 minutes.” I could trust that they knew exactly what I meant and exactly where things should go. We also had two second unit DPs, Mike Parry and Dino Parks, who did a tremendous amount of work on the show. We would have two units going at the same time. Main unit would be shooting in one place and the second unit would be picking up large vistas of wagons on another set three miles away. Those guys deserve credit as well for the heavy lifting they did to create the scope of the show. 1883 is unique in that it’s a show that’s mostly daylight exteriors. I don’t think I would ever want to do [double duty] on something where you’re creating a dark, moody, stylized world. For that, I would want to have the time and concentration to really focus on my lighting plots and painting with light in a way that requires more than just strategizing with what the universe is giving you that day.
Filmmaker: What camera and lenses did you use? Are they the same as Yellowstone?
Voros: We shot Alexa Minis on 1883 with a combination of Summilux primes and Angenieux and Fuji zooms. It was a very similar approach to designing the camera and lens package on Yellowstone, initially, but on season four of that show we moved from Alexa Minis to the Mini LFs.
Filmmaker: The show is in a 2:1 aspect ratio. I don’t know if Paramount has a preference for aspect ratio, but I could definitely picture this in 2.39.
Voros: Those conversations happened before my episodes between Ben, the network and our post team. I will say one of the things that drives the look of the show and that Taylor always seeks out—and we do this on Yellowstone a great deal—is we like to live on the long end of the lens. It’s funny in these vast landscapes, because if someone was taking a picture with their iPhone, they would want it as wide as possible to see as much of it as possible. We go the opposite direction. Rather than shooting something on a 25mm, we’ll go back two miles and shoot it on a 135mm, because we can. We have the space to do that. I think it’s part of what gives Yellowstone its look and we definitely leaned into it on 1883 as well. It was not uncommon to put two doublers on a 400mm lens and go chase after horses. Taylor likes to joke that you need written permission to use something wider than a 40mm because it’s just not the language that we’ve set up for Yellowstone. Even though 1883 is its own universe, there is some DNA that does cross over. Long and shallow is the name of the game.
Filmmaker: Your Emmy-nominated episode mostly takes place over the course of about 24 hours and you get a variety of exterior shooting conditions. There are scenes at dawn, dusk, night, and then in the midst of a tornado. Let’s talk through how you approached some of those different scenarios, starting with the extended dusk sequence that opens the episode.
Voros: One of the beauties of having basically two full units running for the entire run of show is that you get twice as much magic hour. I would quite literally be on one set shooting magic hour with three cameras and Ben would be on another set shooting magic hour with another three cameras across different episodes. We also sometimes would merge those two units. On some of the bigger sequences, like at the beginning of the episode as the wagon train is coming into the valley to set up camp, we had six cameras. With the massive logistics of 30 wagons and all the horses and the cattle, if you can reset a shot twice instead of four times and shoot it with six cameras instead of three, that allows you many things, not the least of which is maintaining a certain lighting continuity.
When we got to that point in the season, we were also deeper into the fall. So, we were able to shoot early and shoot late. We’d get there in the dark in the morning and shoot dawn for dusk. Then, at the end of the day, we’d shoot dusk for dusk. To Taylor’s credit and to the studio’s credit, they really gave us what we needed in terms of time and space and scope. No one was going, “You’ve got to shoot this at noon.” If we said, “This has to be sunset,” they were very flexible with us in figuring out ways to achieve that.
Filmmaker: When you are shooting one of these wide vistas, there’s not any lighting or shaping you’re able to do. But once you got into coverage, how would you shape the light?
Voros: It was a lot of bounce fill, a lot of 20’ x 20’ frames of Ultrabounce. I don’t think we used a flyswatter after leaving downtown Ft. Worth. It was very much about coming up with a strategy and a roadmap to work with the sun all day. Especially in [the “Lightning Yellow Hair”] episode, we were out in the wide open plains of Texas. There’s no shade, no trees. The upside is that it allows you to say, “We’re going to face this way in the morning, then we’re going to move the wagons a little bit and face that way in the evening.” There’s a lot of cheating involved, a lot of spinning the blocking around to go into the backlight, and because you’re in such a geographically ambiguous space, that was infinitely achievable in this particular segment of the show because there’s nothing tethering you to a strict geography. It’s grass and more grass and a couple of cactuses, then more grass in the other direction. It was a little disorienting. At a certain point it reminded me of when I was really early in my career and shot behind the scenes on 127 Hours, an entire movie that takes place in the same slot canyon. By the time you got to the second month of shooting you’d lost all sense of space and time because you were in the same place every day. There was a little of that going on with 1883. Just give me a mountain or a tree—anything I can frame around.
Filmmaker: Walk me through your firelight night exterior. There’s an insert shot of a full moon. Does that give you license to go brighter?
Voros: The full moon was scripted, so that was the motivation of that moon. I grew up in cities and never experienced being outside in an area of total darkness on a moonlit night and just how bright and hard moonlight can be. I live in West Texas now, and when there’s a full moon I can see a half-mile down to the gate and the shadows that are cast are as hard as they would be if the sun were out.
I find I have an allergic reaction to moonlight in movies that feels like movie moonlight. So, I’m always trying to find the subtle balance between seeing enough but not being distracted by how much I’m seeing. We did shoot some of that scene on a stage. As we got deeper into the season and the weather got more punishing, if you can put the actors on a stage where they are not frigid in January to shoot the same close-ups, why not do that? I think in general we tried to light with practical firelight as much as possible in the night exteriors, then I did a lot of dodging and weaving in the grade to bring things down just to the edge of where it felt pleasing but plausible in my mind.
Filmmaker: Let’s get into the tornado. You have to create this dark, ominous overcast effect, but you’re shooting those scenes on bright, sunny days.
Voros: The clouds are visual effects, but the dust was practical. The wind was practical. We exposed so that in the digital negative there was shadow detail. You could pull out the detail on all of the humans and wagons in the frame, but we just crunched it way, way down in the grade.
I did a great deal of research on tornados. I’ve been living in Texas for a number of years so I’ve been close enough to one to understand what can happen meteorologically and it’s not always what you think. There is a storm photographer on Instagram that I followed closely as a reference. Sometimes the sky turns orange or green. Sometimes the funnel is slate gray and the sky around it is peach. You can have this dark, dark spot in the sky, then sunlight is leaking in all around it. So, there were a lot of directions to potentially go in. The line we were trying to walk on this is that tornadoes themselves look unbelievable. They look fake. So, how do we make our tornado look like a real tornado without making it look fake? [laughs] I knew nothing about tornados when I started, but now I’m weirdly an expert on this.