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Creamerie Cinematographer Marty Smith On Filming New Zealand With The New ARRI Alexa

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Creamerie
Perlina Lau in Creamerie (Credit: Hulu)

Creamerie doesn’t play it safe. For the second season of the series, the show’s creators — Roseanne Liang, J.J. Fong, Perlina Lau, and Ally Xue — doubled down in all creative regards. The action, the comedy, the drama, the horror, and the commentary, all of it, is turned up to an 11 without losing any graceful or subtleties.

In the latest chapter of Creamerie, Pip (Lau), Jamie (Fong), and Alex (Xue) are on the run with one of the few men left alive in the world. That’s, of course, barely scratching the surface of the sci-fi black comedy, which is shot by cinematographer Marty Smith.

For season two of the series, Smith continued his collaboration with Rosanne Liang, who directs every episode. Together, the two craft a colorful, dangerous world with cold and warmth. Recently, the cinematographer spoke with Below The Line about his work on the series, including his experience with the Ronin 2 and the newest ARRI Alexa.

[Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length] 

Below the Line: You’ve worked on other TV shows, but with Roseanne Liang directing every episode, is it a different experience as a cinematographer? 

Marty Smith: Well, I’ve just done another show, and on that show there was one director. We shot six episodes in 10 weeks and we shot as one block. I’m kind of familiar with it. We sort of approach it with a feature style so we can look at the whole arc. 

With Roseanne, we looked at it kind of as if it was a film and we didn’t discuss commercial breaks. Sometimes when you’re shooting for a network, you’ll shoot particular angles knowing you’re coming into or out of a commercial break, but we resisted that. The acts don’t need to be so defined. 

We’re able to build the whole picture and not wonder about what’s going to happen next when someone else comes in. Not that you should think about that, but we’re able to really knuckle down as well. And yeah, it’s having an authorship of the entire project, which is something I love to do. With one director, that’s very hard and very tiring for them as well. 

BTL: So, you have more resources for season two, but still, how do you try to stretch every dollar there and create as much scale as you can behind a camera?

Smith: One of the big things we had from the shooting style is, well, these days gimbals are used on just about every show. It used to be a steady camera on every show. Now, I use the Ronin 2. I would say that 98% of Creamiere is me wearing the Ronin 2 and operating every shot. I usually don’t work with an operator unless we’ve got a second camera and we shoot in a single camera style. 

I can create with one camera with medium resources. We can just focus on a singular vision rather than trying to shoot another angle at the same time. Basically, we could put the A camera exactly where we wanted it to be. We used a lot of close wide lenses on Creamerie, and the 21mm lens, 25mm lens were probably the most common. 

I’m usually about three or four feet away from the subject. You couldn’t get a second camera in there and you wouldn’t be able to curate the image. You wouldn’t be able to get a second shot, anyway. 

I was also lucky because I could use the Alexa 35, which had just been released a few months before [we were shooting]. And so, that just opened a whole new world in the look. I can shoot later into the night and still have it look like day, and exposure-wise, you’ve got so much more latitude. You basically can’t overexpose the camera.

The Alexa has incredible dynamic range better than any other camera at both ends of the exposure. And so, you can essentially not worry about a lot of things you used to have to worry about and deal with later in the grade. 

creamerie
J.J. Fong, Perlina Lau, and Ally Xue in Creamerie (Credit: Hulu)

BTL: Alex, Jamie and Pip, they’re great characters. Do you ever define or shoot them any differently? 

Smith: We didn’t treat them differently. I think part of that is because they would quite often sit in a three shot. There were things, by the way, I lit that suited all three, but everybody got the same dynamic close lenses. One thing that helped with that, actually, was the aspect ratio of shooting in 2:3:9. 

Season one, we shot at 2:3:9 safe, but domestically in New Zealand, it was shown as, I think, 16:9 or 17:8. But being on a wide screen format means that a three shot just sits. This is beautiful, three heads. And so, much of it could play in those group shots because the energy of those characters and those actors who know each other so well, it just works when they’re in the same shot. 

BTL: Stylistically, how else did you approach season two differently? It goes sillier and darker, everything, so how else did you want to reflect that? 

Smith: Also, fast storytelling. Most of the time I was composing using the crosshairs, so the subject would be right on the crosshairs, so the cuts could happen quickly. The quick cuts, the eye doesn’t need to scan around the frame exactly what’s happening, bam, in 15 frames, you know exactly what the shot is about. It’s not a second of searching the frame to see what the story is about.

BTL: On the show, the greens are so rich. How’d you find the new Alexa handles the colors of New Zealand? 

Smith: That’s interesting. So with the greens and cameras in New Zealand, this gets really geeky. 

BTL: Please, that’s what we like at the site.

Smith: You’ll probably quite like it. Greens in New Zealand always appear strangely on camera. My understanding is that when Kodak were designing their stocks, they designed them for the light in North America. When ARRI were designing their cameras, they designed them for the light in Europe. 

With the New Zealand light, it’s silvery. It’s not nearly as golden as it is in the northern hemisphere, and it could be quite harsh at times. The greens tend to look very strange and you have to modify that a lot. So, actually, in the look development with the colorist, we looked at the greens. We modified them and got them into the color that you see, but they don’t naturally appear like that on camera. Yeah, interesting you brought that up because I don’t think a lot of people know that. 

BTL: You were right. That was awesome, thanks for sharing that. 

Smith: Yeah, no, I’ll take my secrets out. No, but we do spend quite a bit of time working on the greens with Alana Cotton, the colorist. It’s an important thing. Kodak stock in New Zealand always looked very strange and AGFA as well. With AGFA, actually, I think there was a stock that they designed specifically for southern hemisphere use, but that was 20 years ago, 25 years ago. So, green is the trickiest color to translate between regions of the world, which I find surprising.

creamerie
Perlina Lau, J.J. Fong, and Ally Xue in Creamerie (Credit: Hulu)

BTL: It’s funny, I always hear from cinematographers how much red is a bother to shoot, not green. 

Smith: I don’t hate it, but red is hard to shoot, especially with skin tones. If you’re going to saturate a scene completely with red, which is what we did towards the end when everybody gets caught in the sperm bank, we actually replaced… We filled the whole ceiling in that complex with tubes. We programmed those to just flash completely red when the alarm goes off. 

One point for one of the takes, I chickened out and I said, “Oh, let’s just have a little bit of white light in there when the red lights come on.” It scared me a bit because it was so red. And then Roseanne came in after that take and said, “Did you change something? It didn’t feel as red.” I said, “Oh, I chickened out. We should be bold.” I think that sums up the show, really. It’s just be bold and just stick with your choice. 

BTL: There are scenes in season two that are, I don’t know if I’d call them parody, but definite plays on Terminator 2, E.T., and Donnie Darko. How close did you and Roseanne want to get to the original camerawork in those movies? 

Smith: Well, the Donnie Darko reference, Roseanne and I had quite a short prep on the show. I tend to use tools that have a small footprint, so that I don’t need big complex builds for them. So, I can respond.

The Donnie Darko reference, she didn’t mention that to me until breakfast that day and she said, “What I want to do is this.” So I looked it up, I’d seen it before, but I just had to remind myself of it, because it was probably 25 years ago that I saw it. I watched the scene [with Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels”]. Roseanne said, “I don’t think we can do the whole thing or that many shots, but we might have to do it in two shots or three shots.” The house was tiny, it was filled with stuff.

I tend to underpromise with a director if they ask for something else. I think I’ll say, “Well, we’ll see how far we get. I’ll do my best.” In the first rehearsal, I’d set it up so that I could do the whole shot, and she had said, “I think it’s going to be two, maybe three shots.” But I’d set it to do the whole thing, so she was so excited when she came in from the monitor after the first rehearsal, like, “Can we do the whole thing?” “Yeah, it’s going to be absolutely fine.” We did and there was a lot of maneuvering, but that was made up on the day. It was no big build. It was just me wearing the Ronin 2 on a vest with an easy rig over the top of it. 

We’d been working on E.T. [reference] for a long time. The logistics of actually finding the location that would suit and then with public consent and all of those issues that locations of public places tend to have, that was a few weeks in the making. It was a big stunt rig with that one moment with the bike with Perlina and Jay [Ryan] flying through the air. Yes, there were a lot of stunt rig on that day. I couldn’t believe it when I arrived.

It was such a steep hill, too. The location is called Constitution Park. Roseanne was a little uncertain at first about it. There was an old bank or university building around that reminded me of Back to the Future. The building had the clock on the top of it, and I said to Roseanne, “Oh my God, look, it’s Back to the Future.” She went, “This will work. Let’s do it here.” That particular scene, it was a couple of nights I think, and it was one night at that location, the closeups were shot somewhere else on another day in the rain. Yeah, there was a lot of piecing together. 

creamerie
J.J. Fong and Ally Xue in Creamerie (Credit: Hulu)

BTL: Are there a lot of rules for the show, do’s and don’ts with the camera?

Smith: There’s some lens choices. We wanted everything to be quite fluid. There’s a tiny bit of handheld in the opening sequence, but the rest of the show is on the gimbal, and that makes it tricky with action. If a gimbal is needed, you need to have a rehearsal or two with the gimbal just for muscle memory, a fluid thing, sort of like a steady cam, but much more responsive than a steady cam. It could be much more stable than a steady cam, but you need to rehearse the moves where you can achieve everything from your positioning. 

Action is harder than gimbal. That is one thing that you can’t achieve as much. You can’t be as quick and tilting to quick whips and back again. We’d let it sit. We’d quite often let things sit in a frame and let the actors do what they do, except the Donnie Darko [sequence]. We didn’t force anything with that one, but that’s probably my favorite shot of the whole show. 

BTL: How’s the show talked about in New Zealand? What’s its place in pop culture there? 

Smith: Season one, a lot of people I never heard talk about. With season two, people are asking me about it; it’s got more of a following. It’s quite polarizing as you can imagine, but some people, they just never watch anything like that. It’s intense and ballsy. Most people, to be honest, I know have just about all watched it and did love it. They really did love it. I know those people for a reason because they’d like that sort of thing. Yeah, it’s still a bit culty. It’s still quite culty. It’s certainly not mainstream.

BTL: But it’s great when people love something that they really love it.

Smith: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, it’s a great show. It was a very hard shoot. We did have a Covid shutdown towards the end, but that wasn’t a big deal. It was in the last week and we went back a couple of months later and finished the material that was missing. But people do love it, and we love that. It’s very much a New Zealand show as well, but I think it has an international appeal. A lot of people overseas are very interested in it and enjoy it, which is great, which is why we do it. 

Creamerie season two is now available to stream on Hulu. 

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