A Marvel DP : A discussion on cinematography with Manuel Billeter on lighting Jessica Jones for Netflix

With the 13-episode series Jessica Jones wrapped, and a new show, Luke Cage, scheduled to debut on Netflix this September 30th, cinematographer and workaholic Manuel Billeter is also slated for the upcoming companion series Iron Fist, shooting now.  One would think that with so much action work, Billeter would lean heavily towards fast edits and music-video-style choppiness, but instead, almost shockingly, he points out that he is heavily influenced by the more ethereal, dreamlike work of master directors like Wong Kar Wai, David Fincher, Stanley Kubrick and Federico Fellini.

Previously, Billeter had cut his chops on heavy-hitting but lighter, more straightforward faire like Orange Is the New Black and Law & Order. Treating the material not as if it was an extraordinary super-hero tale but rather a dramatic psychological character study, Billeter says he and the production team referenced the Jessica Jones comic books as source materials. “Instead of following the look specifically set in the printed comics, we developed a fresh, but coherent and authentic look for the motion picture version. It was important we stay true to the ‘feel’ of the original ideas, but in following our own intuitively creative approach, I feel we succeeded in making the show look great for modern audiences.”  While the film-noir look and comic-book source material gave him a lot of leverage when it came to color and production design, he historically has preferred a cold, stark palette, which had actually caught the collective eye of the producers on Jessica Jones after seeing his gritty work as lead on Person of Interest.

With a fairly dark, noirish cinematic approach to his episodic work, like his lighting, Billeter brings a minimalist approach to his photography, as well. Lensing with Panavision PVintage primes, which are newly rehoused and Ultra Speeds from the seventies, he felt the organic construction of the classic line of glass counterbalanced nicely with the high-resolution digital sensor of the RED Dragon, which helped to give it more of a crime-and-suspense feel over fantasy or science-fiction. “They had a flawed look to them,” he explains, “they aren’t perfectly flat, they’re not perfectly sharp all across the image, but that’s what I thought would help tell the story better, this story of a broken-down, former super-hero with PTSD.”

Billeter likes to shoot wide on night exteriors to incorporate backdrops, and in this case, he says that the city helps to unify the Marvel universe across so many narratives. On more typical projects, he will employ a lot of color gels for practicals because there are so many light sources that come into play at night, like street signs, lamps posts, store fronts and traffic lights. On the nighttime exteriors for Jessica Jones, however, he preferred an overall desaturated tone, so he chose to work frequently with Super White Flame gels not only to match practicals like the sodium-vapor but also to achieve a signature look.

“I’m always striving to use whatever is present at the locations, like streetlights,” he explains, “not just to use them but to integrate them into the shot, and using wide lenses especially to be able to see the city and embrace it instead of trying to hide it. With Jessica Jones, I used Super White Flame gels for color in the background and as a backlight, because it’s quite close to existing sodium-vapor lights that are present in the urban-scape of New York, though less-and-less-so.” He also stayed wide when shooting indoors, which could be a problem as he preferred to work with full ceilings on principle Jessica Jones interiors rather than open overheads. It gave him more realistic framing to better sell the realism of the set, but obviously at the same time it became much more difficult to achieve specialized lighting, especially when working on such a tight schedule. To stay on track, he employed several lighting systems, including incandescent, which he loves for the richness that it provides, and also large output LED systems like Cineo.

“The Cineo LED’s works great as a booklight, because you can bounce it into material and it spreads nicely, and then you can contain it with an 8×8 frame with egg crates,” Billeter says. “That’s the thing with these LED lights. You can make them into any shape that you want. And they’re so flat so you can hide them very quickly, but they have a lot of output. LED technology has had a tremendous impact on lighting just for the mere joy of being able to hide these small units behind little nooks and crannies.” He also laughs the low heat output does came in handy with the low overhead of the Jessica Jones sets, where heat was often trapped. “They run much, much cooler, so if you’re on smaller sets or even in the studio, the heat factor can be very important.”

“Chimera is definitely present on every film set.”

“Chimera is definitely present on every film set,” he continues, pointing out their versatility and the characteristic appeal of the soft but flattering output that Chimera accessories often offer. “On the tight time budget that we have when shooting television, it’s important that you set a light and you set it quickly. If you can basically put all the cutters in place on the light itself, than you don’t have to set up a lot of flags to cut down the light, and that’s definitely a huge advantage.”

During his long career, he says that he’s seen Chimera bags used on pretty much every lighting setup available. He often uses them himself on Mole-Richardson Tweenies or 1K setups for extensive control of hard light, but what is interesting to him the most about Chimera gear is how effective it is at controlling the kinds of larger bank surfaces that he likes to use as workhorse solutions. He often falls back on a lot of large 8×8 and even 12×12 frames, which, even with internal or front diffusion, he can then manipulate further through light channeling tools like customized honeycomb grids, which he used often on Jessica Jones, or egg-crates, which he also uses a lot, to tailor the forward-facing light output as needed.  The use of honeycombs applied directly onto the chimeras make for a fast setup without much need for extensive flagging, all the while maintaining a soft but directional light.

With an average shooting scheduled of nine days to complete each show, the DP filmed all thirteen episodes of the Jessica Jones and Luke Cage series, with thirteen more scheduled for Iron Fist. “It’s brutal but it’s also challenging,” he says happily, “and there is some satisfaction in achieving such a challenging schedule.” He’s looking forward to the debut of Luke Cage at the end of this month, which gave him a chance to stretch his legs as cinematographer as it’s a whole new look for him. (The trailer is already available online.) The Swiss native is thankful for his many successes in the US, and is happy that he followed his heart into film when an opportunity to work here came his way. “Luckily it worked out!” he says. “It wasn’t easy, but it did work out. Knock on wood!”