“TV Shows are Like Better Funded Independent Films”: DP Larkin Seiple on Beef
In the new Netflix series Beef, a struggling contractor (Steven Yeun) and an affluent entrepreneur (Ali Wong) become embroiled in an escalating feud following a road rage incident.
The series fits snuggly into a very specific quadrant of cinematographer Larkin Seiple’s wheelhouse— hard-to-classify A24 projects. Though his filmography includes sports biopics (Bleed for This), thrillers (Cop Car) and prestige dramas (To Leslie and Emmy-nominated work on Gaslit), Seiple’s most distinct work has come in A24’s Swiss Army Man, Everything Everywhere All at Once and now the studio’s Beef.
With the full series streaming on Netflix, Seiple spoke to Filmmaker about Incubus clinching his interest in the project, dealing with the world’s worst cityscape backing, and how shooting a television series is like making a better funded indie film.
Filmmaker: What are you working on at the moment? Anything interesting?
Seiple: Yeah, I’m finishing up a movie called Wolfs [with Brad Pitt and George Clooney] for Jon Watts, who I worked with a long time ago on Cop Car . It’s one of the longest things I’ve ever shot—like a 70-day shoot—and I’m at the very end of it. Beef was about 65 days, but the difference in scale is kind of baffling. I’m very excited to get back to reality, but it’s been a trip to work on something for this long.
Filmmaker: Watts went right from Cop Car to Spider-Man: Homecoming. Was there ever any talk of you shooting that as well?
Seiple: I was in the mix for some of the Spider-Man films, but I also had a very young family and couldn’t move to Atlanta for eight months. But I love working with Jon and did end up doing all the L.A. pickup re-shoots for Spider-Man: Far From Home. I hadn’t done something of that scale before, where you have the container walls and the massive green screens and like 18 condors. It was really fun, but the Atlanta part of those films always made it really tricky for me.
Filmmaker: Well, you got to stay in L.A. for Beef. You’ve worked on a few A24 films, and this is an A24 show. Did that relationship lead you to Beef or had you worked with any of the show’s creative team before?
Seiple: My buddy Jake Schreier was the directing producer on it, which is a funny role that only exists in TV. He directed the majority of the show, but originally there was a different creative team involved, a different director and DP. [At that point], Jake was still producing it, and when he was first working on it he was picking my brain as they were prepping. I was intrigued by it. I’m a huge fan of Ali and Steven. [Yeun’s film] Burning is one of my favorite films of all time. Then Jake was like, “We’re actually going to change up the creative direction and swap out some people. Do you want to jump on as the DP?” So, I got on the phone and talked to the showrunner Sonny [Lee], and I really connected with him. TV is still always a learning experience for me because there’s so many voices on every show and every show’s different in terms of whose opinion determines what and who has more say. This one was nice because I got to talk to Sonny right away, and it’s probably the most direct relationship I’ve had with a showrunner.
Honestly, when I read the script for Episode 3 and Steven’s character sings Incubus’s “Drive,” I was like, “I’m in. I want to shoot that.” The tone of the show is so interesting. It’s very funny, very dark, very silly. At that point, episode ten hadn’t been written yet, so I didn’t know how it was going to end. Even halfway through shooting, I don’t think episode ten was fully finished. The show had its other challenges as well. We were scouting on the weekends for half of it, trying to figure out how to pull it off in time.
Filmmaker: What did you shoot with?
Seiple: On most shows I always want to shoot with a Super 35 [sized digital sensor] like the Alexa Mini, but with the 4K mandate that a lot of streamers have we had to upgrade to the Alexa LF. I’m not a fan, because I really don’t like large format unless the project calls for it, which I think is very rare. So, we spent our whole time trying to figure out how to make large format look like Super 35. We ended up cropping in as tight as we could, so it just met the minimum 4K requirement. Then we tested a bunch of lenses. We didn’t want lenses that were too vintage. We looked at master anamorphics and then Zeiss Supreme Primes. We were delivering 2:1 and ultimately didn’t want to crop anamorphic, because we thought that felt weird. It felt like you were punching in on something no matter what, so we landed on the Supreme Primes. They are pretty sharp, but there’s just enough character to them that I like them more than something like the Signature Primes. Still, we ended up with a rather pristine image in the end that we opted to try to mess up or funkify in post.
Filmmaker: How’d you land on 2:1 as the aspect ratio?
Seiple: It was a big debate, because most streamers really want you to shoot 16:9, just because it’s easier to sell internationally and you fill the full [TV] screen. Most of the things I work on are 2.35 and that’s how I think about imagery—a horizontal weight and less of a vertical one. The opposite happens with 16:9, where I feel like you end up playing a lot more with the headroom and vertical space. So, we ultimately landed on 2:1. Also, because we were shooting a lot on location and were doing a lot of last-minute visual effects choices, having less headroom was helpful so we could sell things better and get away with more as we were shooting. That was my final plea for 2:1, that it was going to make things faster and cheaper.
Filmmaker: Danny [Yeun] and Amy [Wong] are almost mirrors of each other in terms of their personalities, but they exist in very different social and economic strata. How do you visually link those characters while separating their worlds?
Seiple: Danny’s apartment is actually very much like mine when I first moved to California, this beautiful sun-lit complex that’s also depressing and feels like a prison. Danny’s space is filled with different colors of light and it’s murky and cloudy. Even though it’s in California, we wanted to make it feel like he’s always in a cave. The dressing of his apartment is wonderful. There’s so much stuff and leftovers from his past in there. It’s cluttered and messy and there’s half-finished projects. With what our production designer Grace Yun and her set dec team did for Danny’s space, you already know a lot about his character before I even do anything. His thing is that his baggage is always present and it’s claustrophobic to him, whereas Ali’s character is the opposite. Her space is very clean, and the lighting is very monochromatic, with big, broad sources. She’s in this giant tan version of a cave. There’s nothing on the walls, there’s barely mail on the counter. Her depression comes from the fact that she feels completely isolated and alone, and there’s nothing in her life that makes her happy. She feels like all the things she builds start falling apart immediately.
Filmmaker: There’s a great scene where Steven and Ali meet in a parking lot to discuss a truce and a car honks at them because they’re blocking the traffic. They both turn to the driver and unload on him at the same time. The spaces they live in are very different, as you just described, but they can really only be themselves around each other without fear of judgement.
Seiple: That was a funny scene to shoot. Our stunt coordinator was the guy driving the car. But, yeah, they’re twin flames. Basically, both their lives are falling apart. For me, especially as you get into later episodes, their beef makes them feel alive because it makes them feel young and reminds them of a place and time in their lives when the future was limitless. That synchronizes with the musical themes of the show. It’s all the music they grew up listening to. [Their feud] is almost like this escape. It ignites something in them.
Filmmaker: You see that at the end of the first episode. Yeun’s character comes to Wong’s house and pees all over her bathroom after she’s been review-bombing his business. That Hoobastank song, “The Reason,” comes on the soundtrack and you shoot them in slow motion as Yeun makes a run for it to his truck. He’s laughing and as he drives away you push in to Wong in the street and she smiles. That’s the final frame of the episode.
Seiple: If I’m remembering right, I think the slow motion was a last-minute thing. I think we talked about doing slow motion and regular motion and then seeing how it felt depending on what song was used. A lot of what goes into a scene like that is just the minutiae of figuring out like how far away Danny’s car needs to be for him to run to it and be able to get away before she catches him. We thought if we shot it in slow motion [the audience] wouldn’t think about that distance as much. Sometimes creative choices are also just practical solutions.
Filmmaker: You had to come up with practical solutions for the scenes set in Las Vegas, when Danny’s brother Paul [Young Mazino] visits Amy on a work trip. You actually shot all of that in L.A.
Seiple: Grace and her team really saved the day. Most of that was shot in this hotel on a golf course southeast of L.A. We brought in some slot machines. We didn’t have a lot of them, just enough for one scene of Danny and [his cousin] Isaac walking through the hotel. We did a lot with colored lighting and sound design to really sell that. One of the only sets we built on the show was the Vegas suite that Amy and Paul are in, because half of that episode basically takes place in that room.
Filmmaker: There’s a shot in the suite where Amy and Paul are dancing in silhouette. What did you put out the window behind them for the cityscape?
Seiple: A really terrible backing. [laughs] It was bad. The rigging team put it up and when everybody showed up the next day I was like, “Did no one think to tell us that this is like the worst backing of Vegas I’ve ever seen? It looks like someone Xeroxed it.”
Filmmaker: [laughs] Why did you put them in silhouette then? It almost calls attention to the backing.
Seiple: At one point we were just like, “We’ll change it in post.” Then you get to post and they’re like, “Do you know how many phone screens we have to replace and how many reflections we have to remove from Ali’s glasses? We’re never changing that background. We have so much other work we have to do.” Luckily that shot doesn’t linger that long, so when I watch it, I’m not like, “Wait a second, I can see the printing pattern on the backing.”
Filmmaker: I did think your Vegas driving scenes looked very good for being done on stage. Did you use LED panels outside the windows for that?
Seiple: We did. TV shows are like better funded independent films, but you’re still working at the pace of an independent film. You’re looking at five to six pages a day. For Beef, we got one day on a very small stage in East L.A. that had one wall [of LED panels] and a little panel from above. I had two directors there and Sonny, and we had to do eight different car scenes in one day with only one wall. It’s not like we could even cross-shoot, which you can do with more walls. On the show I just finished, we spent five days doing all of the night exterior work on LED walls, which was great. It takes forever to do it the right way, but it’s worth it. The Vegas stuff was fun because we were able to change the colors based on the video wall. You can pixel map the lighting, which basically tracks the color of the video and translates it to whatever LEDs you’re using. It was so much easier than practically shooting them driving. That’s a huge time save, and you get a lot better performances. It becomes less about the fact that they’re in a car and much more about what they’re saying. I think it’s better for the actors and directors in the end and I prefer it over blue screen, because it’s so much more fun for me than hoping that post doesn’t mess it up.
Filmmaker: If you only have one wall, when you get to the reverses is it easier to move the car to face the other direction as opposed to moving the wall to the other side?
Seiple: Yeah, you just spin it and then there’s usually a ceiling piece that can come down for reflections on the windows and windshield. For the shoot I’m doing now, we have four walls and a ceiling piece. So, the walls can move around, which makes it a lot easier as you flip coverage. The right way to do it is to always have the wall be perpendicular to the camera. You want to make a flat wall to the lens, which is why it’s good to have walls on wheels.
Filmmaker: Are there any good stories about the basketball game at the end of episode six? What did you have, like a half day to shoot that?
Seiple: Oh, there was no rehearsal for that basketball scene. We just showed up. We had not even half a day. Steven and Young are both good at basketball, so that made it a hell of a lot easier. We were shooting two cameras. I was doing all the handheld work that day. Then Mario [Contini], my B operator, was also shooting the whole thing on a dolly on a super long lens to give it more of an action angle. I spent the whole time running around handheld, then catching my breath between takes because those guys are actually in shape and I’m not. [laughs] We also had to dodge seeing all the mountains because we shot in Northridge, but it’s supposed to be Orange County. So, we had to be careful about how we framed. When we got to the edit, it’s mostly handheld oners because we were trying to sell that these guys could really play. The final shot of Steven—where he makes the shot and you see him actually have a sense of pride again—took about ten takes because we wanted to earn it and get it in camera.
Filmmaker: You said before that a TV show is like a better-financed indie film in terms of the pace. That must’ve made the night exteriors in episode ten—where Danny and Amy are stranded in the desert—very difficult. Are there a few day-for-night shots in there?
Seiple: Yeah, there is a day-for-night sequence. Sonny wrote a montage that basically said, “Danny gets lost in the wilderness.” I was like, “There’s no way we’re going to be able to light that at night.” We went out on a weekend to scout. I would run to a rock far away and Sonny would run to another rock and be like, “Does this work?” and our voices would echo over the valley. How can we make him lost in the fewest moves possible? It was about finding a point where we could be like, “I can look in four different directions from here.” When Danny gets lost and is looking for cell phone reception at night, that’s almost all day-for-night. We just went with the idea that we would either try to not frame the sky or would key the sky out since it was blue and replace it with night and some stars, which I was happy to embrace because it’s also this point in the journey where things start getting a bit more surreal. I also think day-for-night can look amazing. In a way, it’s the most honest version of moonlight, which is a giant, single source super far away.
Filmmaker: Is the key just underexposing? And how much do you actually underexpose on your digital negative and how much do you just push it down in the grade?
Seiple: For this, I did less in camera because I’ve found that a richer exposure just creates better color information in the end. As much as I came up really destroying the digital negative, it was the opposite. I was trying to collect as much as I could because I was going to try to compress it later. I think what we ended up doing was drop the ISO down to the lowest it could go, like 200 ISO, and created that underexposed look that way so that I could still keep the highlights down, but then the shadows were pumped full of information. That’s how we built the look on set, then in the grade we took it to the next place.
Filmmaker: There’s a shot in that episode that I liked that starts as a profile close-up on Steven in the foreground, then Ali fades up in the background. I had to go back and watch it twice because at first glance I thought maybe you faded up a light on her, but I think it’s actually just a cross dissolve. Was that something that was planned or found in post? The framing is so specific I assumed it was the former.
Seiple: That was intentional. I think Sonny was referencing a Truffaut film for that one. They start to become the same person in a way and, by dissolving between two shots like that, the idea is that their identities are getting blurred. That whole episode was an exercise in how to frame and block two people talking for 20 minutes. What can we do to evolve their conversation? Do we do profiles? Do we do frontals? Do we use dissolves? Do we use top shots? Or should we do the opposite and just get out of the way and let the performance do its job?
Filmmaker: I want to talk about the lighting of the show’s final shot, but without getting into too many specifics about what’s in the frame because I don’t want to spoil it for people who haven’t seen the show. It’s a time lapse in a hospital room where the colors get more and more surreal as the shot progresses until the final frame is bathed in pink and green. How did you pull off that shot?
Seiple: That was Sonny’s idea, and I was really scared of doing that. It’s a big swing to have the lighting have that much of an input on what you’re supposed to feel at the end of the story. But he was like, “I want it to feel like a time lapse, then I want the time lapse to evolve into something more surreal where the colors are shifting and the image keeps breaking the context of its reality.” To be honest, my initial approach failed terribly.
Filmmaker: What did you try first?
Seiple: In a perfect world, I would’ve put the lights all on motion-controlled devices and had them synchronized to a rhythm. But we didn’t have the budget at all to do that. So, then I was like, “I’ll surround the set with mirrors at different angles and use moving lights to move across the pattern of the sun, so it feels like the sun’s moving up and down.” We spent a long time setting that up and tried a couple and it just felt wrong. It didn’t move the same way as it did in my head. Normally, we would’ve tested it beforehand, but we didn’t have time. We ended up setting it up for the first time on the day, after we had already shot three scenes. It didn’t feel right, and the actors needed something better to send them out on. So, we ripped all the mirrors out and put all the lights on dollies, like you’d do in film school. We had electricians on each dolly, and it was four different dollies moving on cue and the lights raising and lowering and shifting color temperature. I think we got three takes and then they pulled the plug because we were in overtime. I’m trying to even remember what lights we used. I want to say it was a bunch of LED Source Fours on dollies and maybe some Q7s. It wasn’t crazy lights or anything, just LEDs that we could control.
Filmmaker: And, like you said, the final episode wasn’t written when you started shooting. So, it wasn’t like you had time in prep to come up with ideas and test solutions.
Seiple: Yeah. I really believed my mirror idea was going to be great. [laughs] It just wasn’t, but I ended up liking how the shot turned out. And to be honest, the dollies are still a little off. The lighting cues are not perfect. I wanted four more takes to get it to the place that I wanted it to be, but it still works really well. We were also playing the Smashing Pumpkins song [used in the edit] as we were shooting, so at least I could go home at the end of the night knowing that, while it might not be to the level I had dreamed of, it still worked because I could see it playing in my head with the music.