Conversations with DPs, directors and below-the-line crew by Matt Mulcahey
“Friday Morning Donald Called Me and Said, ‘We’re Shooting Film'”: DP Drew Daniels on Swarm
In the new Amazon series Swarm, a fanatical devotee of a Beyoncé-esque pop star embarks on a quest to meet the singer, with a few stops along the way to dispose of those who have disparaged her idol online.
Created by Donald Glover and Janine Nabers, the show hops around between Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, Seattle and L.A., but was shot largely in Atlanta by Drew Daniels. The Red Rocket and Krisha DP spoke to Filmmaker about the influence of Michael Haneke, the beauty of imperfect camera moves and Swarm’s extremely last-minute switch to 35mm film.
Filmmaker: Let’s start with some of the influences behind Swarm. The show has a unique tone.
Daniels: One of Donald’s favorite references was actually Michael Haneke in terms of the camera language. I think of Haneke as very observational and letting things play in wide shots and single takes, not doing too much with the camera to tell the audience what to think. Donald was actually very interested in not connecting with the character [of Dre, played by Dominique Fishback] and that’s why Haneke was a good reference, specifically The Piano Teacher. At the end of that film, you don’t really get answers. You don’t really feel like you’ve understood [Isabelle Huppert’s character] or why she’s done the things she’s done. It just leaves you feeling empty, and Donald wanted something similar for Swarm. He wanted people’s own humanity to betray them, is the way he put it.
Filmmaker: I can see the connection to Haneke, but the humor of Swarm and colorful palette are certainly not something you’d find in a Haneke film.
Daniels: As far as the colorfulness of the show, I couldn’t imagine shooting this any other way, really. I didn’t want it to feel like Haneke in that regard. We didn’t want to strip the show of too much color.
Filmmaker: I feel like in the last five years or so I’ve seen more and more shows and movies with these really expressive and colorful palettes like you have in Swarm. Do you think that the ease of creating a multitude of colors with LED units is a driving factor behind that?
Daniels: You’re totally right. It is almost too easy to just scroll through all the colors on set with LED units, whereas before you’d actually have to get a book of gels and pick through them. We still did that on Euphoria because we wanted to use tungsten light, and I still try to do something similar even if I’m using something like Arri SkyPanels. We’ll go through the choices [before we start shooting] and say, “Our moonlight will be this gel. Our street lights will be this gel.” What I like to do is look at the artwork of James Turrell before a shoot. Often, he’ll pick two or three main colors, and I try to think about the contrast of the colors and the separation and the feeling that those colors evoke. I still try to approach every project with a specific set of colors or to have an arc with the colors. Then usually I’ll try to have a color that’s special, that means something a little bit more than the other colors.
Filmmaker: Does that mean you want to use that special color as much as possible or that you want to hold it back for specific moments?
Daniels: That I’m more selective with it. On Swarm it was this yellow/amber that I really liked. Even though it may seem kind of chaotic at times, there’s usually a pretty specific approach to the color so that it doesn’t get too messy. I don’t like it when it’s too messy, but I don’t like it when it’s too orderly either. I prefer a little bit of chaos and organic mess, even with stunts and action. I don’t like shots to be too perfect. I love it when the camera is a little bit late on a pan.
Filmmaker: I do miss the way camera moves were more imperfect in an era like the 1970s, where you would feel those bumps on dolly moves and everything wasn’t stabilized.
Daniels: I 100% agree. I miss it so much. On the movie I just finished shooting, we very seldom laid track. We just pushed the dolly right on the floor.
Filmmaker: Would you put down dance floor?
Daniels: No, we just put the dolly right onto the floor. Sometimes I would be pushing the dolly while I was operating the camera. I would ask my dolly grip to leave it loose and not to lock it, just in case something happens. I would give him hand signals to turn the wheels to go sideways or forward so I could push in or move right. Just the feeling of pushing on the floor gives it that little bit of extra something special that I think that I’m missing from Ronin shots or even Steadicam. Sometimes I have to argue with my operators because they want to make it perfect and I’m like, “No, it’s cool when the camera bumps somebody or when you get too close and you’re within close focus for a second.” I really do look for things like that.
Filmmaker: Going back to Haneke, is there a particular shot from Swarm that reminds you of him?
Daniels: The first murder. [In the final edit] it cuts to a tight close-up of Dre, but originally the whole thing was one shot, and she actually did eat that whole pie in the wide shot. That was probably the most Michael Haneke moment. But I think they wanted to trim that scene for performance reasons or other reasons that I can’t control. They tightened it all up but I’m not too mad at it, because a lot of it still plays out in the wide.
Filmmaker: Two things I read about that scene. First, you only did one take of the wide, at least in part because the reset would’ve taken forever. True?
Daniels: Yeah. We set up the shot and were like, “OK, how far are we going to take this?” And Donald said, “We’re going to do the whole thing.” Then Donald talked to makeup and everybody and they told him it was going to be a huge reset, like an hour, to reset her. We didn’t really have the time for that reset, but Donald was like, “I don’t care. We’re doing it in one shot.” So, we rehearsed it, did that one take, then covered ourselves with two other shots [the aforementioned close-up and a medium push-in for pie eating coverage].
Filmmaker: The second thing I read is that the idea of doing that long take with the violence obscured by the kitchen cabinets wasn’t preplanned.
Daniels: We pretty much found everything on the day. There was really never a specific shot list. We always just kind of knew what the show was, and we knew what to look out for. I feel like that’s often the case: You know what to look for and train your eye and sensibility to look for the right things after a while.
Filmmaker: That discovery affected the style of the other murder scenes going forward?
Daniels: Absolutely. I feel like we established quite a lot of the rules on the pilot that I could then take going forward with all the new directors I was going to be working with. I had a lot of ideas going into it, Donald had ideas, then they meshed. I learned what he liked while we were shooting the pilot, as much as you can in a week of shooting—I’d never worked with Donald before, so it’s a big learning curve. When you’re working with someone for the first time, it usually takes six or seven days to even get into the groove of things with them, in my opinion. So, it was really a challenge to get to know Donald and his tastes. I talked to Christian Sprenger [who shot Guava Island and episodes of Atlanta with Glover] a lot about working with Donald. Just trying to understand a person is part of the challenge, to read their mind and get into their head.
Filmmaker: Where did you shoot? The setting hops around to Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, Seattle and L.A.
Daniels: In Atlanta.
Filmmaker: Did you have many builds or was it a lot of practical spaces?
Daniels: All we built was an elevator, because it’s a pain in the ass to shoot in a real elevator. That’s it. We also did poor man’s process for the car stuff, which works well enough. I actually wish they had enhanced some things in post for that, which they didn’t do. That’s the thing with TV, you kind of lose a little bit of control. People tell you some things are going to happen, and then they don’t always happen.
Filmmaker: We talked before about imperfections, and I personally like two very different styles in films. I love imperfections and the feeling of spontaneity, but I also really respond to compositions that are very symmetrical and formally rigid. You have a lot of that style in Swarm as well.
Daniels: To me, those frames feel a little bit Kubrick-esque, which feels like one of those influences that I will always have. There’s also something with a wide angle, symmetrical shot that feels a little bit dehumanized. It doesn’t feel quite realistic. It’s fun to look for those kinds of frames out in nature or in the world. There’s just something about them that I’ve always leaned towards. In Swarm, we’re also often putting people at the bottom of the frame and having a lot of headroom. That really worked with the aspect ratio and the static camera too. We wanted to avoid too much camera movement in general. If we could, the goal was always to try to do the thing we were trying to do in a static shot.
Filmmaker: Since you mentioned the aspect ratio, let’s dig into that. The ratio is 1.5:1, which is a frame size frequently used in still photography.
Daniels: That is the aspect ratio of photography and there is just something so pleasing about it that I’ve always liked. I’ve always wondered why it has never been one of the go-to aspect ratios in cinema. Aspect ratios used to be based on [what worked for theatrical] projection, but now with digital media and streaming, there’s really no rules. You can do whatever you want. So, why not choose your own aspect ratio that you like or that you’ve always seen the world in? And I’ve always seen the world in this aspect ratio, because I love still photography.
Filmmaker: You talked before about how Donald didn’t want to compromise that long, wide take for the first murder. Another thing I read about Swarm is that the idea to shoot 35mm came very late in the game and, again, was largely a product of Donald not wanting to compromise. When was that decision made and what was plan B, since it seems like you were pretty close to shooting this digitally?
Daniels: Well, plan B would’ve been just an Alexa Mini. I didn’t want to shoot large format. I’m not that into it, I guess. I’m sick of seeing everything out of focus. I wanted to shoot with a more classic stop, at like a 5.6, and I wanted there to be focus. But, yes, film came in very late in the game. We were going to start shooting on a Monday and the decision came on like a Friday. We had already prepped a digital package. We basically kept the same lenses, but instead of digital we swapped everything out to film and had to lose our DIT and hire a film loader. [Our camera rental house] Keslow had to open over the weekend for us so we could go back in and re-prep all of our stuff. It was nuts.
Basically, we did a film vs. digital test on Thursday and, at the end of the day, I heard, “No way we’re shooting film. It’s not going to happen.” Then, Friday morning Donald called me and said, “We’re shooting film.” I thought he was joking at first. It was cool to get to actually do a true side by side film/digital test specific to this show. It looked great both ways, but there is something about film. It’s almost intangible or indescribable. It just felt better and, in Donald’s opinion, made this show stand out a little bit more.
Filmmaker: When you did your film vs. digital test, did you just use one film stock, or did you try a few different ones?
Daniels: I only tested one stock. I love the 500 speed film. I love how it’s a little grainier. I love the way it reacts with color and with light, especially lights that I can’t control, like street lights and practical lights. I also knew that I was going to push the film, though I didn’t know how much. I basically tested push one and push two and we landed with push one, but also mixing in underexposure to give it a little extra texture. We wanted the blacks to get a little bit milkier and grainier, which I really liked.
Filmmaker: We talked about the first kill scene and its static long take. In episode two there’s another scene where Dre tries to take down a hulking tow truck driver in his bathroom. That scene also plays out mostly in a single shot, but this time you have a long push in instead of staying static.
Daniels: That location was awesome. That wallpaper was actually already there. That push in was another thing that came on the day. That was a fun one because it had to be the actors [performing] the action and it had to feel messy and not overly choreographed. Often times the stunt team wants to clean things up and it can start to feel too stunt-y. We had to fight to have that as messy and as much with the real actors as possible.
Filmmaker: Before I forget to ask, what were your lenses?
Daniels: We used Cooke S4s for everything and I used a low contrast filter on them to lift the low end a little bit, which also gives the highlights a little bit of bloom, though it’s pretty subtle. I really liked using that filter because it helps offset the push a little bit because the push adds contrast. So, the low con filter helps to offset it just a little bit and also adds a little funkiness in front of the lens, which I think the S4s need. I love them, but they need a little something to dirty them up.
Filmmaker: What was your zoom?
Daniels: Just the classic 12-to-1 Angenieux Optimo that I use for everything. I love that lens and I’m a huge fan of zooms.
Filmmaker: On Red Rocket you used a very unique set of lenses that had only two focal lengths, a 12mm and a 50mm. Was there any carryover from that on Swarm? Did you either give yourself similar restrictions or go the opposite way and break out a vast array of focal lengths?
Daniels: We definitely had hero focal lengths. I feel like that’s every show, though. Each show has a certain language that speaks to you and I can’t help but gravitate to certain focal lengths. But sometimes when I’m working with director Trey Shults [the pair’s collaborations include Krisha, It Comes at Night and Waves], we use a lot of different lenses because his films have so much evolution to them [as the story progresses]. On Swarm, the 21mm was big. For closeups it was usually a 32mm or a 40mm—sometimes a 65mm if I wanted a little bit more of a cinematic closeup, but I never use a 100mm or 135mm. Typically, I like to keep it on the wider side.
Filmmaker: My favorite of the murder scenes is the one that opens episode three, where Dre tracks down a guy in Seattle who tweeted something negative about the singer she idolizes, Ni’Jah. This one is more constructed than the previous two kills we talked about in terms of the coverage. There’s this great shot where the victim walks into his huge walk-in closet in the dark and when he turns on the light Dre is revealed standing there with a sledge hammer.
Daniels: We knew we wanted to be very wide at the beginning and just see him, because there’s something unsettling, in my opinion, when you see somebody in a wide shot. They feel vulnerable, especially when you see them in a wide walking away from the camera. Whenever I watch horror movies and I see that kind of shot, it’s immediately offputting.
That location was great. You could shoot so much with available light because there were giant windows everywhere. That [lighting gag] you mentioned wasn’t originally planned. It was just going to be this cool silhouette and then she would be in the door, but the director [Adamma Ebo] noticed [that lighting reveal] on set when we turned the light on and said, “What if we do this with a lighting gag instead?”
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about the strip club location in episode two. Was that space already lit in anywhere near the colors you use in the show?
Daniels: I’d say maybe 80 percent was already there. I added all the LEDs that go around the deep outside of the frame, which basically circles the whole floor, and I added the lights under the bar, but the spotlights and all the moving lights were pretty much there. The first time [we see Dre dance at the club] I wanted it to feel a little bit more like normal pinks and purples that you’d see in a strip club. Then the second time [after she’s killed a fellow dancer and her abusive boyfriend], I was like, “We have to go red. We have to go slow motion. We have to make it feel like it’s her celebration dance.”
Filmmaker: Let’s finish up with the commune location in episode four, specifically the “therapy” room where Billie Eilish’s character interacts with Dre.
Daniels: That set with the circular window was amazing. All we did there was add a stained-glass thing on it. I really couldn’t put a light outside that window because it was so high up and I couldn’t get a lift out there. It was just impossible. So, I ended up just shooting lights from below, essentially just to glow the window, and that lit the whole room. I only used a small bounce and a Leko to augment what was happening there.
Filmmaker: What was that location?
Daniels: Some kind of a meditation retreat. When we were scouting that it was like, “OK, clearly this is where this has to be set. Just put them in front of the window. They’ll be lit beautifully, and it’ll look interesting because of the symmetry.” I think we used a 12mm for the wide shots in there. I wanted to see the ceilings in as many locations as I could and I wanted people towards the bottom or middle of frame. We had a whole sort of dogma for the show that I mostly obeyed: I didn’t want to have to boom the camera ever. I wanted to shoot low angles and I’d tilt up rather than boom up when someone approached the camera. I didn’t want to do too many pans. I’d rather do left to right dollies if the space and time allowed. I didn’t want to do too many push-ins. Of course, we broke all those rules at certain times, but I wanted the style of feel rigorous. In a way, we were intentionally depriving the audience of things.