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

“We Used Almost Every Lens Set They Had in Their Inventory”: Cinematographer James Kniest on The Midnight Club

The cast of The Midnight ClubThe Midnight Club Cr. Eike Schroter/Netflix

If you’ve begun watching The Midnight Club on Netflix, you may have noticed the tag “Part of the Flanaverse” affixed to the new series. Though the individual entries in said universe aren’t particularly interconnected, the sheer breadth of writer/director Mike Flanagan’s output for the streamer certainly justifies the “Flanaverse” moniker.

The Midnight Club marks Flanagan’s fourth Netflix series, in addition to the four Flanagan-directed movies currently residing on the platform. Based on the young adult novel by Christopher Pike, Flanagan’s newest show follows a group of terminally ill teens at a remote cliffside hospice facility who meet in secret each night to regale each other with scary stories.

The latest Flanaverse endeavor features the contributions of regular collaborator James Kniest, who also shot Flanagan’s film Hush in addition to work on Midnight Mass and The Haunting of Bly Manor. With The Midnight Club now streaming, the cinematographer spoke to Filmmaker about the show’s extensive array of lenses, his newfound love for the Sony Venice and why his old gel swatch books are still a constant companion. 

Also included below the interview is an extensive list provided by Kniest of all the lenses used during the filming of The Midnight Club.

Filmmaker: Looking back over Mike Flanagan’s previous projects, he’s been using some version of the Alexa sensor almost exclusively for a decade. Did you have to talk him into the Sony Venice for The Midnight Club? 

Kniest: One of the main drivers behind that decision was the Netflix resolution mandate. Each of the show’s episodes has a separate “B Story.” With 10 different episodes and each needing a different look, the low-hanging fruit was using different lenses. With the 6K resolution of the Venice, we had the ability to scale for different lenses so we could use [an assortment of] anamorphic, spherical and full frame lenses and still satisfy Netflix’s 4K mandate. I really fell in love with the Venice on this particular series and have been using it ever since. The form factor for the Sony is amazing. Rialto mode is really helpful for car interiors and small spaces. There are a couple other things that I really liked about the camera, such as the one stop internal NDs. We shot this at the height of COVID, so running in and changing filters all the time just wasn’t part of the plan. The ability to control the camera remotely with one stop increments, and the camera’s dual ISO function, gave me a lot of flexibility. My biggest concern with the Venice was the noise level. It’s a Mike Flanagan [show], so everything is pretty dark.

Filmmaker: Did you shoot more at the Venice’s 500 or 2500 ISO?

Kniest: We used the 500 mode a lot on exteriors. It’s a great option to try to get the stop where you want it in terms of background and depth of field. It’s an amazingly versatile tool. I was concerned about the noise situation because, from my experience, some of the Sony cameras have a very linear pattern whereas with the Alexa, any noise almost looks like film grain. For the first week or three, I was paying close attention to the noise levels and building in a little bit of protection with LUTs so that all the exposure was there for sure. 

Filmmaker: If the new 4.6K Alexa 35 had been out at the time you shot, hypothetically, do you think you would’ve gone that route?

Kniest: Probably, just out of habit and my relationship with Arri. I really love the skin tones of the Alexa camera, but I’ve learned a new tool [with the Venice], and that was a motivator for me too. I always push myself to try new things and work with different tools because I think each job, each show and—in the case of The Midnight Club—each episode determines the different tools that you need to use. Using the Venice was another way to keep trying to grow as a cinematographer. We used to get new film stocks all the time, and that was always something new to figure out.

Filmmaker: I’ve interviewed a few people who have compared the different digital sensors to being the equivalent of different film stocks.

Kniest: Absolutely. I 100% agree. Rating the cameras at different ISOs changes the image and shifts the latitude all around, as well. If you’re working in a bright environment, you can shift the ISO to help keep some of the higher end information. The latitude is crazy now. It’s too much sometimes. You can see into the blacks and you can keep all the highlights. Sometimes that can be a problem. [Before you might’ve said,] “We don’t want to see out that window, so I’m just going to put a white [diffusion or bounce] out there and let it blow out.” Now there’s such latitude that you can actually see the fabric [of the rag] or see the ties or stitching, and it’s not clipping unless you really force it.

Filmmaker: Especially when you’re doing a Netflix show where the primary deliverable is HDR.

Kniest: Exactly, and the rub is we don’t monitor in HDR. It’s just not cost effective yet. We think something is gone [on the SDR monitor], then we get in the DI in HDR and it’s like, “Oh, you can see where it says ‘Matthews’ right across [that piece of grip gear].” Oftentimes, especially in commercial work, you don’t get to hand-hold all the way through the process. You’re hoping that your intentions stick, but that’s not always the case.

Filmmaker: Let’s get into the lenses you used on the show. You mentioned before that because of the Venice’s resolution, you could crop the sensor for different lens formats and still hit Netflix’s 4K mandate.

Kniest: Yeah, and a lot of times—because we want to try to maintain as much resolution as possible—we’d go right down to the edge of the sensor. I tend to vignette things a little bit in the DI anyway, so for me a tiny vignette is kind of cool. I’m not afraid to push it right to the limit of the image circle. 

Filmmaker: Break down the lens package for me. 

Kniest: We used a ton of different glass. We used the Zeiss Supreme Prime Radiance lenses for the A Story, which is the kids [in hospice at] Brightcliffe. Then we tried to give the B Story in each episode a different look. For those, we used everything from Vantage One primes to MasterBuilt Soft Flares. I also used the MasterBuilt Zoom. I like the B Camera to oftentimes be on a zoom for speed, especially during COVID, when we couldn’t run in and change lenses all the time. It also gives me a chance to say to the operator, “Hey, on the third take, do something different. Tighten up or grab some different pieces.” Those MasterBuilt lenses are just spectacular. They’re really nice and sharp in the middle, but fall off pretty heavily. They have a lot of character. They also have portrait lenses that we used quite a bit. I definitely always had a 100mm macro, as well. There’s a lot of close-up work and bringing in filters and diopters, things that can be a little bit tedious given the schedule. Having a nice, solid macro lens that was always available was really important.

Mike Flanagan likes to do zooms, so sometimes I would use different zooms depending on the shot. I like zooms as well, and it’s fun to pay homage to some ’70s and ’80s movies with them. I carried some Fujinon zooms, then we had our shift/tilt lenses that we used here and there. We also used Lensbabies. I’m always trying to do fun things visually to give it some variety and some style. I went back to just putting Vaseline selectively on filters and it turned out great. That’s really fun in an arts and crafts/DIY kind of way.

Filmmaker: Which of the Lensbabies did you use?

Kniest: The one that I tend to use is the Composer Pro. It’s quirky, and it’s a little hard to manage. It’s not as precise as a shift/tilt setup, but a lot of times you’re after something that’s kind of odd, anyway. That’s the fun of it—finding something that maybe you wouldn’t be able to get with a super precise lens.

Filmmaker: Is the exterior of Brightcliffe a facade or is there anything functional inside?

Kniest: We found a place that was an entrance to a quarry. It was kind of sequestered, south of Vancouver in British Columbia up on a hillside. Because it’s scripted that Brightcliffe is overlooking the sea, we built basically just a small facade. It was the lower part of the main entrance, then blue screen from the top up. There’s a front door, a little veranda and a tiny bit of wraparound. The garden and the circular driveway are both real. Everything else is blue screen. When they sit up on the cliff and they have the ocean view, all that is blue screen too. 

Filmmaker: When I talked to you for The Haunting of Bly Manor you said Vancouver was so busy pre-COVID that you had to build sets at different studios. Did you have an easier time on this?

Kniest: It was much easier this time. Everything was in the same studio, pretty much the same stages. In Bly, everything kind of happened in the same place. With The Midnight Club and all these different stories within the episodes, we were turning sets around all the time. There was a basic interior set that lived, but then the other ancillary stages were constantly being flipped around. That can be daunting schedule-wise. Sometimes you’d want to go back and do a pickup and it was like, “Well, that set is gone.” Then you have to try to grab a wall from that set that might still be around [to fake the pickup].

Filmmaker: As you mentioned, every episode has at least one of these “stories within the story” that the Brightcliffe kids tell each other. There were four cinematographers on the show. How did you make sure that you weren’t duplicating the styles of the B Stories between DPs?

Kniest: I was fortunate enough to be the lead cinematographer, so I was sort of charged with developing the A Story look. The one mandate for the B Stories was really just that everything look different. A lot of that was achieved through using all kinds of different lenses, but we also did it through the lighting and production design. We had a consistent production designer and art director throughout the series. We created lookbooks for each episode pretty far in advance so you could see if there was any overlap. The idea was just to really push the envelope, make it as dynamic and stylized as possible. I think that allowed all of us to explore and do something fun. 

Michael Fimognari directed and shot the second block of episodes, and he used the Vantage One primes and pretty much shot them at T1, which has its own unique look. You could also get an entirely different look with those same lenses by shooting them all at T2.8 or deeper. We were really supported by [the Canadian rental house] William F. White. They were on board with this idea of having all these different lenses, and we used almost every lens set they had in their inventory. At first I got a lot of wide eyes when I pitched the idea [of this diverse lens package], and there was a lot to track. In the end, everybody had a lot of fun with it, except for some of the focus pullers. [laughs]

Filmmaker: Let’s talk about the first episode’s “story within the story.” The first Midnight Club tale we see is an amusingly self-aware bit set in a Gregory Crewdson-esque suburban neighborhood where it’s just jump scare layered upon jump scare.

Kniest: That was a lot of fun. That was our first real big night shoot on the series, and Mike Flanagan was directing. We made a lot of fog and a lot of steam, which I think adds to the look. That was an opportunity to really have fun with the color. It’s pretty saturated and there’s some color contrast between the greenish yellows and the blue greens. I think that helps it stand out against the A Story. We wanted to make sure that the B Story was never confused with the A Story, because when these young people are telling their stories to each other, they also become characters in those stories. Through wardrobe, lighting and the camera language, we really wanted to make sure that it was differentiated. That was something that we constantly discussed and tracked.

Filmmaker: Did you have all the jump scares preplanned or did you think of any new ones on the day?

Kniest: We had them all planned out. Mike is pretty fastidious with that stuff. Part of the culture in the “Flanaverse,” as it’s called now, is extensive planning. He doesn’t like to leave anything to chance. Now, in doing that, you’re prepared to shift gears. You can always call an audible, but going into it, everything is very well planned out. I remember we were running out of time, and there was one part of that sequence that we didn’t get that night, so we ended up shooting a little part of that on the last day of that episode. That’s always kind of fun, to pull up references and try to make sure everything matches from the surface of the street to the lighting direction to the ratios. Even having to put a little bit of fog on stage to drift through the camera. All in like 40 minutes.

Filmmaker: For Episode 5, you got to shoot a black and white flashback. You shot black and white for a period flashback episode of The Haunting of Bly Manor as well.

Kniest: I am really drawn to period pieces, especially black and white or sepia, which is kind of how this 1940s look was. It allows, I think, for a little bit more contrasty lighting. We were using the same units, but we just treated them differently in terms of lighting with less diffusion and harder sources. I worked with the DIT to create a LUT for that, and we played with different levels of sepia versus totally stark black and white until we found something we really liked. 

Filmmaker: For the serial killer story in Episode 6, there’s a unique bloom to the highlights. Did you get that look through filtration?

Kniest: Yeah, and a little bit of the LUT as well, pushing those highlights and letting them bloom out.

Filmmaker: That one has a unique green/yellow palette. The story itself has an ’80s slasher vibe, but you don’t go for the look of an ’80s slasher movie.

Kniest: As much horror as I do, I don’t really have an affinity for the 1980s A Nightmare on Elm Street type of look. I like stuff like The Exorcist that is a bit more muted, but nowadays with LEDs any color of the rainbow is possible immediately. Sometimes we’ll be in the process of setting up and we’ll be dialing a color in, and the lighting board operator will just drift off of the color wheel slightly and you’ll be like, “Oh wait! What is that color?”

Filmmaker: Because lights like the SkyPanels have settings meant to replicate specific gels, do you ever start with that as a point of reference?

Kniest: When I was coming up, we spent hours selecting gels from little swatch books. I can remember shooting digital when it first started, white balancing through different gels to trick the camera. That was pretty commonplace to warm stuff up, you’d white balance through blue. I still carry swatch books with me all the time. It’s really easy to reference as a starting point. One of the things that we are adjusting all the time is the saturation of the color, which is really interesting. You can pull a color up, then you can adjust its saturation really easily, too. It’s like, “Oh, I like that color, but it’s just a bit too much.” There are just umpteen options. You can go down the rabbit hole a little bit, and oftentimes you just don’t have time to keep searching and searching [for the perfect color]. Ideally, you shoot tests, and a lot of times I’ll do that with a still camera. Then it’s easy to circulate those images around to ask the production designer and the director, “Are you cool with this color scheme or this color contrast?” I’m a big fan of color contrast, I’m always trying to get better at it. There’s a scene in Atomic Blonde where [Charlize Theron’s character] is in a hallway and it’s yellows and greens. I find myself referencing that all the time. I don’t know why I’m so in love with it, but I just am, and the way that the colors come together on the skin tone and blend. I’m constantly trying to get there, and I feel like I haven’t quite achieved it yet. I want to learn and play more with mixing colors, and now it’s so easy for us with LEDs. One of the trickiest parts is that, for some reason, I’m still kind of a purist. It needs to be motivated by something. The color or the direction of the light is oftentimes determined by what we can put in the frame through production design. Like, “Okay, we’re going put a neon sign here, and we’re going to establish that as a motivator.” 

Filmmaker: Do you think that the streamers are almost now getting a “house look” the way studios used to have? Stranger Things and Fear Street on Netflix also used color contrast with bold colors. That’s not something I associate with, for example, most HBO shows, but it seems to be a thread that runs through Netflix projects.

Kniest: For The Midnight Club, we had discussions in prep about what iconic films these young characters would have watched and then used as references when they’re telling their stories to each other. And whether it was Terminator or Nightmare on Elm Street or Carrie, a lot of the movies we came up with had a lot of color.

Filmmaker: The ’80s and ’90s were definitely the era of blue moonlight.

Kniest: Oh yeah, it was Congo Blue. I used to go through rolls of that stuff. I’m always cognizant of not going too Smurf-y blue. That’s always the danger. You’re right, though, the ’80s and ’90s had a lot of that blue until Fight Club came out, and then it was all White Flame Green [gel]. I came up as a gaffer, and that was when we had to gel every light. The worst was when [the DP would say], “I don’t like it. Start over.” We would end the day with piles and piles of gel. It’s great that we don’t have to do that anymore.

Permanent Run of Show Lenses:

  • Zeiss Supreme Prime Radiance
  • Zeiss Supreme Prime
  • ARRI/Zeiss 100mm Master Macro
  • 25-125mm MasterBuilt Zoom

Block Lenses:

  • Block 1–Hawk V-Lite Anamorphics and Hawk 45-90mm V-Plus Anamorphic Zoom
  • Block 2–Leitz Summilux-C Primes
  • Block 3–Vantage One T1 Primes
  • Block 4–MasterBuilt Soft Flare Primes
  • Block 5–ARRI/Zeiss Master Anamorphics and Hawk V-Lite Vintage ’74 Anamorphics 

Day Play Lenses

  • Angenieux Optimo 28-340mm Zoom
  • Angenieux EZ-1 45-135mm Zoom
  • Fujinon 28-100mm Premista Zoom
  • Fujinon 18-85mm Premier Zoom
  • Hawk 80-180mm V-Plus Anamorphic Zoom
  • Lens Baby Composer Pro
  • MasterBuilt Portrait 32/55/100mm
  • Zeiss CP.2
  • Arri Shift-Tilt System
  • Arri Macro
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