“We Tested a Million LED Flashlights”: DP Chris Teague on Only Murders in the Building
After joining forces to solve a killing (and create a true crime podcast) in the first season of Only Murders in the Building, the trio of Steve Martin, Selena Gomez and Martin Short find themselves the suspects in another slaying in the latest batch of episodes of the Hulu series.
Set in New York in the fictitious swanky apartment building the Arconia, the show’s entire inaugural season was lensed by longtime Big Apple resident Chris Teague (Obvious Child, GLOW, Russian Doll). For the new season, Teague’s role expanded to the director’s chair for two episodes.
With the season finale premiering next Tuesday, Teague spoke to Filmmaker about creating faux cityscapes on stage, being inspired by Touch of Evil and Vertigo and finally getting to shoot Coney Island.
Filmmaker: I haven’t seen the first season of the show yet. Is the new season similar in style?
Teague: It’s definitely a continuation of the same style, but there was an effort made to find new looks and environments to shoot in. There are these hidden, secret passageways in the Arconia, which is a new set. There’s the apartment of Bunny [the Arconia’s board president], which is a new set. There’s a blackout episode. Those new locations helped inform new looks for the show and made sure that we weren’t getting into too much of a visual rut.
Filmmaker: Did you use the Sony Venice and the Leitz Primes and zooms again?
Teague: We did. I was very happy with the look we were able to get from them. It fit what we were after with the show, which is something that feels classic and nods to Hitchcock and Orson Welles noir films but also feels updated in a way, with a color palette that is full of life but not overly poppy or saturated.
Filmmaker: One new thing this season is that you directed two episodes. When did you start to get that itch?
Teague: I went to film school at Columbia to be a director. That’s what I concentrated in, but I had a background in photography and was sort of tech savvy. So, I became the de facto DP of my school year, me and a couple other people. That’s how I got into cinematography. I’ve always been looking for an opportunity when I got on a show where it felt like the right fit to try to find my way in as a director. So, it’s been something that’s been in the back of my mind for a long time. I’ve settled into the role of a DP, and I’ve wondered if I put the director hat on again, would I actually enjoy it? And I did. I absolutely loved directing those episodes and stretching those creative muscles. It was a bit daunting at first because there’s just so much to oversee that is typically outside of my purview and my job, but I think because of that it woke up something in me creatively and got me excited about all the different components of the craft that you can use to tell the story, whether it’s performance or props or choosing the right location.
Filmmaker: That’s a good point when you talk about everything that falls under your purview when you move into the director’s chair. It’s not just a matter of working more with the actors. Now you’re approving every prop in the frame. Were there any moments where you thought, “This is more decisions than I was anticipating”?
Teague: Absolutely. I wondered going into it, “Am I really going to have a perspective on all these things?” I’ve seen directors go through that process where they’ve got a million decisions to make and you want to steal their attention because you’re like, “My decisions [as a DP] are more important!” (laughs) The way you get to really immerse yourself as a director in the script and talk it through with the showrunner and the rest of the creative team, I was surprised that I did end up feeling like there was a right choice for all of these little details. There were also definitely choices where I felt like our amazing costumer designer Dana Covarrubias or our prop master might be better suited to make the final choice. I might narrow things down or give some general insight but let them nail down what the final decision was going to be. It’s a good collaboration when you can trust the people you’re working with.
Filmmaker: Did you have a say in which two episodes you directed? That blackout episode seems like it would’ve been fun to shoot.
Teague: John Hoffman, the showrunner, and I were talking about that at a very early stage as they were developing the concepts for the episodes. He really wanted to give me the blackout episode, because he knew I could think as a DP while I was directing and he felt, rightly so, that the episode was going to be designed around that blackout. So, I got to wear my DP hat a little bit as we were prepping those episodes. Part of choosing which episodes I directed was practical. I got to start off the season, shoot the first four episodes and get the ball rolling. I went into prep as a director while they were shooting episodes five and six, then I directed seven and eight. I got to come back as a DP and shoot the final two episodes. I think it worked out well for everybody.
Filmmaker: The story is so centered around the Arconia. I know you’re only two seasons in, but how did you keep coming up with new ways to shoot establishing shots of the building’s entrance?
Teague: It’s very difficult, particularly with the Arconia. If you want to get a shot of that whole building there’s really only one angle to do it from and, in terms of how the light hits it, there’s very few times of day when the light is ideal on that building. So, it’s certainly limiting. We’ve had to get creative. We also have very limited access to the exterior of the building. So, the times that we are there, we overshoot as much as we can. During the first season we had a Technocrane outside the building and as we were resetting the shot we had planned for the crane, Jamie Babbit, our director/executive producer, was like “Point the camera here. Point the camera.” We were just fishing around, finding all these great angles on the building and great moves. We were running the background back and forth through the shots so we could quickly get all these dynamic shots on the fly that might fall into other episodes at other times. Same thing happened when we did some angles from the rooftop looking into the courtyard. We were able to get a bunch of different pieces for that, and those shots are just incredibly valuable and found their way into various episodes in different uses.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about how you handle the cityscapes outside of the characters’ apartment sets. There’s essentially three ways you can go there—you can do printed backdrops, greenscreen or LED screens. What approach did you take and why?
Teague: That’s an ever-evolving question. In the first season, for example, we ended up shooting greenscreen outside of Steve Martin’s window, primarily because we couldn’t get a backdrop printed in time to use on the show. On some shots the greenscreen looked fantastic, but it also created a lot of VFX expense that we weren’t necessarily prepared for. So, for the second season we did both. We had a curtain that had our printed backdrop and also had our greenscreen. When we were close-up on those windows and they were really going to be more or less in focus, we would shoot greenscreen because we would have more control. When the [view out the window] was more deep background, we used the printed backdrop. I have to say the backdrop performed quite well. There’s something interesting about what happens when you have a printed backdrop like ours outside, because you’re lighting it so intensely to create a daylight effect and a lot of that light bounces into your set and blends with the set lighting to create a much more naturalistic blending of sources. It makes your daylight ambience feel broader and bigger and deeper, which is a really effective look. As the season went on and I saw that the printed backdrop looked surprisingly realistic on camera, we used it more and more.
Filmmaker: With a printed backdrop, do you want it to be fairly in focus and then you can control the focus by controlling the depth of field in the shot? Or do you want it printed a bit soft to begin with?
Teague: You never want it too sharp. When we did the prints we got some samples at a few different levels of de-focus, and I remember for this we landed somewhere in the middle.
Filmmaker: Most of your apartment sets had hard ceilings. How did you handle lighting those interiors with that limitation?
Teague: [In Steve Martin’s apartment] we had an I-beam running the length of the window that had SkyPanel 360s on it, these big, bright LED sources that were arranged so there was one for each window. That allowed us to push light in and give us a base daylight [ambience]. Then we would sneak a light on a stand just outside the window and push that through the window through some diffusion just to help focus our light specifically on Steve, and have more control and more wrap around it so it felt like it was a broader sky source.
Filmmaker: In episode two you have two flashbacks. One emulates a silent film look, the other the 1950s. How did you create those looks?
Teague: The silent one was very challenging because there was very little material to work with [to use as background plates]. None of it was what you would have shot if you were trying to shoot a background to blend into a foreground shot. Also, we didn’t know what the background was going to be when we shot the foreground element, which always makes things more difficult. It was a lot of work in color grading to blend those two elements together and make them feel like they belonged in the same frame.
[For the 1950s look] we used a LUT built off of Kodachrome film stock. That was a pretty cool way to approach it because it gives you these beautiful, poppy blues and oranges. There’s this wine and liquor shop in that scene that’s across the street from the Belnord, which is the building that we use as our hero [location], the Arconia. I try to use it whenever possible in the present-day scenes, particularly night scenes, because it looks so great. It feels like such a classic New York location, and I love the fact that we could frame for it in that scene and be like, “This place has existed for decades. It’s one of the fixtures of the neighborhood.”
Filmmaker: Of all the shots this season, the one that really made me think of classic noir was the flashback to Bunny’s murder, where you’ve got a low angle shot and all we see are a pair of shadows on the ceiling and Bunny’s bird in the foreground.
Teague: That was a shot that our director for that episode, Jude Weng, was extremely excited about. The great thing about a show like this is you can stretch realism to a certain extent and it will work within the show. There was all this talk about, “We need to have a lamp that gets knocked over and we need to cut to this and that.” Ultimately, we just said that we don’t have to justify why there are these sharp shadows. It’s just part of the style of the show. Basically, we just put a very hard light, like a Fresnel, on the ground and staged the actors exactly where we needed them just to get the shadows right where we wanted them. Honestly, [that shot] had no correlation to the blocking of the rest of the scene. The addition of the bird was a last-minute thing that just really made the shot awesome. (laughs)
Filmmaker: How was the bird to work with?
Teague: The bird was remarkably easy to deal with compared to, like, a dog. She mostly stayed in one place. Getting her to talk was difficult. That was the biggest challenge. Sometimes she would talk and her mouth wouldn’t really move. There was definitely some bird reshooting or scenes we shot without the bird where we had to comp her in later. But most of the time she did great.
Filmmaker: In the past you’ve mentioned Rear Window as a reference for the show. What else from that era was an inspiration?
Teague: I love Touch of Evil. That’s one of my favorites from that era. It has some spectacular filmmaking in it, a really bold use of wide lenses and super dynamic staging. There is some incredible use of color in Vertigo that I go back to and reference a lot in terms of costume and the color of lighting. Those were the big ones.
Filmmaker: Let’s get into the secret passageways in the Arconia. For anything tracking, did you have to shoot Steadicam? I can’t imagine you could fit track and a dolly in there.
Teague: Yeah, we could not. Even Steadicam was extremely difficult. When we were planning the sets I texted our Steadicam operator Kyle Wullschleger and asked, “What’s the narrowest possible hallway you can fit your Steadicam in? Because that’s pretty much what we’re going to do.” We really wanted it to feel as claustrophobic as possible. That obviously poses a lot of challenges with shooting and lighting. We did a lot of Steadicam work in there and a lot of clever staging where we would have the dialogue part of the scene land at an intersection so we’d have some freedom of movement. We could pull some walls and sections but I tried to be very judicious about doing that, because I never wanted to have an angle where you’re looking in profile laterally as if you’re looking through the wall. I think that ruins the effect of feeling like you’re stuck in this place with these people.
Filmmaker: The light in that space is often motivated by flashlights. What did you light with in there?
Teague: We tested a million LED flashlights. Everything is LED nowadays, which poses a lot of challenges with flicker and color temperature. We noticed that some of the flashlights as they got hot would start to flicker, and we’d have to trade them out. Some of them we would gel and the color would skew in strange ways. So, that was a pain. Beyond the flashlights, sometimes we’d do bounce cards on the ground and have the actors hit them with their flashlights so it would pick up more light on their face. We also played with this idea of lamplight from other peoples’ homes breaking through the plaster in the walls. For that, we used really hard tungsten light placed throughout the set. Sometimes we’d just go through and poke little holes in the plaster where we needed them to get these great patterns.
Then we had open areas—sort of shaftways—and headers built into the set, so we could do soft light coming from above that we dimmed down as low as we could get it but still have it register to read as some kind of ambience. We would hide little LED tubes behind the headers and dim them down as much as we could to have them blend in with the rest of the ambience in the room so it wouldn’t give itself away as a source. That’s always the trick with those things, creating something that feels generally source-less and dark.
Filmmaker: You have that same challenge in the blackout episode, though you helped yourself out by including practicals that are some sort of emergency lights.
Teague: Yeah, we thought of those as a battery-powered emergency system. A “lights off” look can get really flat and muddy looking very quickly. So, I was comfortable taking the creative license to have those emergency lights just to give the frame some sort of highlight source. And then the candle scene in that episode with Howard Morris [played by Michael Cyril Creighton] was playing off a joke about Howard having a ton of candles. So, we felt like we had the freedom to light a million candles in there. It’s this very sweet, charming, romantic scene between these two guys, so it felt fun to lean into that and use those candles to motivate. We had other sources that we tried to blend in and boost the candles without overpowering them.
Filmmaker: You’re shooting with the 2,500 ISO base on the Venice, so you can get by with a low amount of light.
Teague: Exactly. We typically weren’t super wide open for our T-stop. We were usually at a T2.8, because we would try to use our zoom lenses whenever we could. They look great, and they make us shoot a little bit faster and give us more flexibility. So, I think we were at a T2.8 at 2500 ISO for that scene, and even that was quite sensitive so you could get a lot out of the candles.
Filmmaker: Did you use any new lighting units this season?
Teague: There’s this model of LED Fresnel called the Fiilex Q8. Those are fantastic, because they give you the quality of a Fresnel but the full dimmability and the full color control of an LED. We liked to judiciously use hard light on the show as a way to nod to some of our noir references, whether for backlights or subtle slashes on the wall. An LED Fresnel source is perfect for that. The other thing that we used a lot were the Creamsource Vortexes, which are similar in shape to a SkyPanels but a bit punchier. They’re great to put in the corner of the room and put a big diffusion frame in front to create a very controllable level of ambiance.
Filmmaker: Do those have the ability to dial in specific gel colors?
Teague: Yes. I do use the gel types because there are just certain colors that I like, so I’ll reference, for example, a particular Lee gel that you’re supposed to put on tungsten light to mimic fluorescent light and it gives you this dirty green look. The interesting world we get into now with LEDs is that there are so many different models from different manufacturers. When you dial the same gel in to one manufacturer’s fixture and then another manufacturer’s fixture, you’re ultimately going to get similar colors but they’re never going to quite be the same. So, for some scenes we would try to use LEDs from the same manufacturer for every source.
Filmmaker: Any shots that I didn’t ask about that you wanted to get into?
Teague: One of my favorite shots in the show is in episode seven, one of the ones I directed. There is this flashback thread of Mabel putting puzzle pieces together, and there’s a moment where everything comes to a head and she has this realization. We brainstormed this really fun effect of shooting puzzle pieces raining down in slow motion and then we reversed the footage, so the pieces floated up into the air. I was driving in my car on a scout and trying to figure that scene out—because it never felt like we quite nailed what the ending of that thread was going to be in the script—and this idea of the pieces floating in the air came to me. What’s so amazing now is that I can just take my iPhone and shoot it at 240 frames and drop some puzzle pieces and shoot tests, which is basically what I did with my AD. We presented a little proof of concept to John, the showrunner, and he loved it and wrote it into the script. There was such a great sense of collaboration and team effort on the show and that continued on through the edit, which was cool because I don’t typically get to be part of [that portion of a production]. Being a director on this season, I got to really see how problems continue to get solved or things continue to get improved all the way through that stage.
Filmmaker: You also got to shoot at Coney Island in that episode. You’re a longtime New Yorker. Had you ever shot there before?
Teague: No, never. It was cool to do it when it was closed and have the run of the place. We scouted underneath the Cyclone, which has this really amazing, complicated wood frame to it. The production designer and I were running around through there like, “We’ve got to write a chase sequence into this!” But we only had one day to shoot there. Everybody was like, “Guys, we can’t be adding new scenes.” (laughs) It’s one of those reverse challenges. Usually you go to a location, and you have one great background you can look at. But at Coney Island it was like, “I need to get all of this into the camera somehow.”