For Hulu’s “Wu-Tang: An American Saga,” cinematographer Gavin Kelly set out to capture the heroic journeys of the dozen young black men that Bobby Diggs, aka The RZA, assembled amid the early 1990s crack-cocaine epidemic in New York’s Staten Island to form one of the most important groups in hip-hop history.
“The look of the show for me was about the edges of light and shadow, where our characters’ conflicts, [losses] and victories take place in a high-stakes world,” says Kelly, who comes to the biopic from three seasons of FX’s “American Horror Story” and shot half of the episodes, sharing duties with Niels Alpert (“White Collar,” Marvel’s “Iron Fist”). “Lighting-wise, rich contrast and layered color textures were central to the look and tone.”
The 10-episode series debuts Sept. 4 and tells the story of the formation of the Wu-Tang Clan, which transformed hip-hop and had a huge impact on music, arts and culture via the success not only of the group but of the solo work of its extensive membership. Created by The RZA and Alex Tse, the series is produced by Imagine Television and is based on two books by The RZA — “The Wu-Tang Manual” and “The Tao of Wu” — which explain Wu-Tang terms and delve into the group members’ inspirations and philosophies.
Kelly wove together scenes that moved from shadow into light, thematically and emotionally forming the heart of a project that’s part musical biopic, part crime drama, part family drama and part hero origin story. The series chronicles its characters’ journeys through many realities, both alone and collectively.
“I aimed for the dense, murky, color-bleeding shadows of the streets — where often violence, hardship and conflict lived — to bright, washy light that often flares over them when music, inspiration, family, connection and hope propel them forward,” Kelly says. “The look lives in this world of extremes and the complexities of navigating everything in between.”
Alpert and Kelly shared ideas and technical points where necessary but were each free to bring their best ideas in support of the directors’ in their vision for each episode. For episode 8, Alpert executed a “oner,” which required extensive planning and rehearsal to make it flow as if it as shot in one continuous take.
They filmed on the Panavision Millennium DXL2, a larger-format camera, so that even medium shots and close-ups would have a richer feel along with a shallow depth of field. They also wanted strong frames that would create portraits of characters in relation to their environment — shooting in the Park Hill or Stapleton housing projects in Staten Island, or seeing The RZA work deep in the musical hive of his basement — to position each character in time and place and give the audience cues to follow: a visual tapestry of the universe of the Wu, as Kelly explains it.
Complementing the larger-format camera was the choice of lenses that delivered on dramatic and dreamy visuals. “I mixed Panavision Primo 70s and the Artistes, which are more expressive in how they catch light and flare,” says Kelly. “We also employed the H-series that are even softer with more wild flares, which we use for the flashbacks — that creamier feel we wanted for the past.
“Ultimately,” he explains, “I wanted a dramatic lighting and lensing approach that gave a larger-than-life presence to our heroes and their interconnected stories while also keeping us grounded in the characters’ intimate struggles and triumphs.”