Through such feature films as “The Lodge,” “The Lobster” and “Keep the Lights On,” cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis has become known for artistically depicting the tension of complicated familial and romantic relationships, often in isolated settings. Stepping into the third season of “Master of None” continued the trend in his career as the season focuses on the day-to-day nuances of Denise (Lena Waithe) and Alicia’s (Naomi Ackie) crumbling marriage and takes place almost entirely in their farmhouse.
Aziz Ansari co-wrote the episodes and also directed, so he obviously had a very specific vision for the season. What drew you to that vision and what was your collaboration like once you were working together?
Actually it was really easy once we met and decided we were doing this together. When I got the call from my agent, I hadn’t seen “Master of None” and I didn’t know Aziz, but when I got these scripts I really liked them. And when I met with Aziz, he told me that he wanted to do something different from the previous [seasons]. He communicated what he wanted to do in a very specific way. He was very precise with what he wanted to do, but then I brought to the table some other ideas.
Did you want the first two seasons to influence any of those ideas, in terms of pulling visual through lines?
I asked Aziz about this, and he said he wanted to do something else completely — a different film language. The only thing I had in my mind with what we were doing was to keep the same tone because we’re doing the same show, but with a different film language.
So much of the season feels like it puts the audience in the scene, leaning against the far away fourth wall, watching the couple go about their lives. Why did you want to favor wide shots like that?
That came from him in the beginning, but then it was a discussion. I was trying to understand what he was trying to say with the language. We watched some references — one big-time reference for this was Chantal Akerman, that film language where the camera has a distance and the actors are performing without having coverage or editing. The performance is really real, which makes it more dynamic and more cinematic, as well. We don’t see that often; actually, I haven’t seen anything like that in TV shows. We wanted to be honest with the audience; we didn’t use tricks like close-ups. It was a little bit like documentary in the composition. I shot it like a picture, not like a TV show.
Was the fact that you were shooting the show amid the COVID-19 pandemic a factor in these choices? Did you have to adjust what gear you’d use because you needed to keep cameras further away for health protocols?
We never talked about this and the pandemic, to be honest. It only created some problems when we were shooting in the car. No one could be in the same car — the crew had to be in a different car — so we were losing some time to communication. Otherwise, the creativity wasn’t affected by the pandemic.
What was your philosophy on the lighting style, given how wide the shots were and how freely Lena and Naomi would move around in the space in scenes?
We were shooting on a set, so everything was artificial, but in general what I tried to do with the lighting was make it look like natural lighting. So, for example, when we were in the room with the two couples, the lighting came from the windows — [to represent] daylight — and from the practicals.
How did the notion that some viewers would watch the show on their phones affect the decisions you made when it came to frame sizes and lighting choices?
That’s always [an issue] when you’re shooting something nowadays; there’s always someone who will see it on their phone, whether it’s a film or a TV show or a music video or a commercial. I don’t think about it that much. I did the test watching it on a big screen — a cinema screen — but then I watched it on a TV screen as well. But I would never do specific framing for a phone.
Why did you want to shoot on film and how did it affect the length or amount of takes you shot?
That was Aziz’s idea and I agreed [with] that because we wanted to create a more organic look — [using] real color, to have a different look from the usual way of shooting, and also to have some texture. I came up shooting on film, so I’m happy they’re still shooting on film at times. I like to be able to use what’s the best for each project. The time you have for each shot, on digital you can make something last longer, but on 16mm you have 11 or 12 minutes for a shot, which is too long, maybe; you don’t need that! [Laughs.] And if you are shooting 10 hours a day, the time you have for each shot is exactly the same, whether it’s on digital or on film.
Later in the season the show does follow Alicia out of the house and into her world, including a doctor’s office, for some sensitive discussions around infertility. What did you feel was most important to do differently there?
There we put the camera a bit closer, sometimes, to see her expression more for the emotion.
Close-ups and coverage really didn’t make it into the final cuts of these episodes, but how much of those did you shoot that just didn’t make it in?
Sometimes I was trying to push Aziz a little bit to do some close-ups, but he was very strong in his opinion [of] no coverage. It was more, if you do it then you might use it, but it was better to no have the choice [because] he didn’t want to change his idea, and he was really right; I believe it works well for the story.