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‘Queen Sugar’ DP on How Ava DuVernay Encourages Creativity on the OWN Series

Cinematographer Kira Kelly, who earned an Emmy nomination for her work on Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” feels that her time spent on nonfiction projects over the past two decades has improved her ability to cope with the demands of shooting narrative fare. 

The scaled-down resources — often just Kelly and maybe a focus puller or a gaffer — have created a capacity for improvisation. “You have to light, set up and block the scene quickly,” she says of her time on a clutch of micro-budget productions. “[I’m able] to walk into a room or onto a set and know where the best places for the camera are, the lighting, and to do it fast.”

Shortly after “13th,” Kelly landed a gig on “Queen Sugar,” DuVernay’s OWN drama about three siblings who move to Louisiana to run a massive sugarcane farm they inherited from their father. Kelly splits DP duties with Antonio Calvache, who shot the show’s pilot and first season before she joined the team in 2017. 

Season 4, which premiered June 12, maintains the show’s soft, beauty-driven look. The DPs’ workhorse lens is the Leica Summilux, usually opened up to 1.4 or 2, purposefully throwing the backgrounds out of focus a little bit. But Kelly has had the creative freedom to change things subtly. 

“I think the intention is always to [serve] the spirit of the show,” she says, emphasizing that while the series eschews a pop look, New Orleans does provide a colorful palette. “I think lyrical or dreamlike is more what we’re going for,” notes the cinematographer. “We do camera moves, but they’re slow — cameras on dollies — and we’ve never done handheld.”

Because the show often returns to the same locations, Kelly likes to consider the angles — as in which ones haven’t been used at a given spot or how to set up the lighting differently. “I’m given a crazy amount of artistic license,” she says. “It’s a testament to Ava: Pushing yourself creatively is encouraged. With two-camera shows, it’s easy to fall into a rut. But since the pilot, we’ve been crossing the line so we can set up a camera on either side, which creates a series of shots that give a lot of depth in the edit.”

Queen Sugar” shoots seven days per episode and is mostly an even split between locations and sets in New Orleans. The family farm location is about an hour outside the city in Vacherie, a riverside community in St. James Parish. Most recurring sets are on stages, which makes Kelly grateful that the farm has never been built on a set. “It’s kind of the spirit of the show,” she says. “When you get out there, you can see the sugarcane, the breeze is a little different, and even if the drive is long, I love it.” 

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