You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

How Cinematographer Used Light, Shadow to Help Tell Tale of Wu-Tang Clan in Hulu Series

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.”

Popular on Variety

More Artisans

  • Ad Astra

    How 'Ad Astra' Production Crew Created Authentic Look for Brad Pitt Space Drama

    In “Ad Astra,” Brad Pitt’s astronaut Roy McBride crosses the solar system to find and confront his long-lost father, requiring the movie crew to create an authentic-looking future that conveys the theme of traveling long distances to learn the lesson that it’s where you started from that has the most value. “Visually, the aim was [...]

  • Women in Animation Logo

    WIA Partners With Animation Mentor, Toon Boom to Expand Scholarship Program

    Women in Animation has partnered with Animation Mentor and Toon Boom to expand the organization’s WIA Scholarship Program with workshops and software packages. WIA scholarships are given to animation students with a financial need and who demonstrate talent and passion for animation that will lead to a promising career in the field. The Animation Mentor [...]

  • Steven Poster ICG National President

    DP Steven Poster to Receive SOC Lifetime Achievement Award

    Stephen Poster, cinematographer on such classics as “Donnie Darko” and Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” will receive the Lifetime Achievement Distinguished Service Award from the Society of Camera Operators at a ceremony on Jan. 18, 2020. SOC grants the award to an Individual who has served the community at large and/or the Society through outstanding service [...]

  • Swedes Call for Incentives to Keep

    Swedes Call for Incentives to Keep Potential Runaways at Home

    Horror film “Midsommar” did it last year. A new adaptation of the Swedish classic “The Emigrants” will do it next year. Prestigious productions that could have taken advantage of beautiful Swedish locations and craft expertise continue to run away to foreign locations for lower costs and tax incentives. Despite having a strong film industry creatively [...]

  • Game of Thrones

    Ireland Lures Filmmakers With Locations, Expertise and a 37% Tax Credit

    Few locations on earth can match Ireland’s proverbial 40 shades of green. In addition to its restful hues, the island nation also boasts alluring lakes, rugged windswept coasts, small charming hamlets, rustic farmhouses of aged stone, hilltop castles and breathtaking expanses of wild scrubland. Bustling and modern Dublin, Ireland’s capital, will be the largest English-speaking [...]

  • UNDONE Animated Series Amazon

    How Animated Series 'Undone' Used a Mix of Techniques to Tell the Mind-Bending Tale

    When Kate Purdy wanted to tell a story about the nature of reality, she knew she wanted to play with perception and time, fade in and out of memories and give voice to visions that only her main character could see. And it wasn’t long before the executive producer and co-creator of Amazon’s new series, “Undone,” [...]

  • John Wick: Chapter 3

    James Cameron, Keanu Reeves Starring in '2nd Unit: Invisible Action Stars' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Rootbeer Films has completed “2nd Unit: Invisible Action Stars” with James Cameron, Keanu Reeves, Mark Wahlberg and Halle Berry, Variety has learned exclusively. The film explores relationships between actors and stunt performers — a topic at the heart of Quentin Tarantino’s recent “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Joe Mantegna narrates “2nd Unit: Invisible Action [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content