DP Mark Schwartzbard on the Masterful Cinematography of ‘Master of None’

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The Netflix comedy series Master of None follows a New Yorker named Dev as he navigates the hurdles of mid-life — finding a potential mate, finding a rewarding career, and finding something to eat. The series’ co-creators, actor-writer-director Aziz Ansari (who plays Dev) and writer-executive producer/director Alan Yang, share a love of New York City’s culture and cuisine. They also share an appreciation for ‘70s cinema, both foreign and domestic, using films like Shampoo and The Long Goodbye as stylistic inspirations for Master of None.

Master of None treats New York City as another character in the story, and cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard, who worked on both seasons of the show, knew just how to handle that approach. He has shot many series and films in which the city plays a central role, like Sex in the City, Law & OrderThird Watch, and The Departed (as camera assistant). The lighting was also key to communicating an authentic vibe on Master of None. Schwartzbard chose the Panasonic VariCam, which allowed him to shoot cleanly in low-level light situations. This meant the numerous bars and restaurants that Dev visits could retain their warm, glowing ambiance.

Here Schwartzbard discusses their technical and aesthetic choices for the show’s look, talks about scouting locations in New York City, and also delves into their adventures in Italy.

S&P: What’s your approach to Master of None?

Mark Schwartzbard

Mark Schwartzbard (MS):  When we started the show, we were very into ‘70s American films. The show creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang met each other on Parks and Recreation, and that show had a very hand-held, documentary-style look. They wanted to do something different for Master of None. James Ponsoldt was the director of the pilot. The four of us got together and wanted to do this ‘70s wide-screen style. We looked at a lot of Robert Altman movies and Hal Ashby movies. We wanted to settle the camera down a little bit more, use a wider frame so you can have more actors in the frame at the same time, cut a little bit less, and use longer takes. And yet, find a way for the camera not to be boring, to have a little dynamism to it. That is what informed most of our choices.

S&P: What are your go-to setups for capturing the picture? If you weren’t going the hand-held route, what did you choose for your setup?

MS: The camera we chose is the Panasonic VariCam, and we use two for this show.

If we are shooting in a restaurant, a lot of work goes into picking the right restaurant. Aziz and Alan are both very into food, so they want to shoot in restaurants where they actually like the food. On the other hand, we are looking for certain kinds of looks in places. The locations guys are great. Amy Williams, our production designer, chose a lot of awesome locations.

Often we are shooting night scenes, and no one wants to shoot all night if you can avoid it. So we often have to black out a location, and that means there is always one wall you can’t look at because the wall with the windows is covered with black tarps. Remember, in a typical New York restaurant you just have windows on the street side. The kitchen is in the back and unless it’s on a corner there aren’t any windows on the sides. So we’re looking for places that have a few good angles looking back into them, hopefully without a wall of mirrors in the back.

We typically start with a wide master shot where the camera is doing a little zoom, a little dolly — something where it stays in a frame that holds all the characters. We want our master to be wide enough to have the sense of the location yet be close enough to get the characters’ performances. We want the camera to keep moving so there’s something dynamic, but we don’t really want the shot to change very much. It typically floats from a slightly too-wide version to a slightly too-tight version of the same shot. If we are very lucky we will find a location that has three pretty angles and all of our coverage looks good. More often we have to choose.

If it is a long talky scene, and we feel like we are going to be in the singles a little bit more, maybe we will set things up so that we have the best angle for the singles. If it is a short scene, and we think we can play it in the master, maybe we will use the best angle for the master based on the architecture.

S&P: The show is shot in New York City, and so many of the restaurants feel cramped. For example, the Indian restaurant that Dev (Aziz Ansari) and Chef Jeff (Bobby Cannavale) visit in “Door #3” (Season 2, Episode 7). Was that restaurant chosen for its food over its being an ideal shooting location?

MS: Well, that was a tough one. Another consideration in choosing these places is production efficiency. Our stages are in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. If we can find a restaurant in Greenpoint, then we can schedule a shoot for half a day on the stage and then move to a restaurant in the neighborhood. I believe on that day we also had to shoot in an apartment that was nearby. You want to cluster your locations so you spend less time moving the trucks and you have more time to actually shoot.

I don’t know if the food was good because I didn’t eat there. It might be a great restaurant; it probably is. They don’t like to shoot at bad restaurants. Also, it’s a certain kind of restaurant. It doesn’t have that glowy, magical New York vibe but it does have an authenticity to it. It’s your typical real NYC Indian restaurant. So it being a little cramped and feeling real is a good thing.

S&P: How is shooting this series a unique experience? What were some of the challenges and opportunities that stood out for you?

MS: It’s a great job for me. I love the collaboration with Aziz and Alan, and the directors on the show. It’s a show that has a point of view and an aesthetic and we get to do fun things. We are not just plopping people down and shooting them talking for a long time, and even if we are, we try to do something interesting. Aziz’s aesthetic keeps growing and he keeps pushing us hard to do more interesting things with the camera, and to integrate the camera into the scenes. He thinks more in terms of it being a movie, and that makes it more fun for me.

Some opportunities were we got to go to Italy for two episodes this season. That was amazing.

This is a show that I politically agree with. The writing is great. The world of it is interesting and rich to shoot. It’s a great job for me.

S&P: Let’s talk about Italy. Episode 1 of Season 2 was in black and white. Was it shot in black and white? Or, shot in color and posted in black and white?

MS: It was shot in color and posted in black and white. There are cameras that will record in black and white but that’s a big commitment to get a digital camera that will capture black and white.

Also, we had to shoot half of our work in Italy in color, so we would have had to carry two sets of cameras and keep switching back and forth. That was more trouble than it was worth, so we developed a black-and-white look. We did some testing with our normal cameras in New York. We came up with some shots and test material and we went to see our colorist Alex Bickel. We brought in a few specific references, like the Criterion transfer of Bicycle Thieves, and L’Avventura — some of the films that were becoming important references throughout the season.

Alex took that test footage and we held up our iPad with the reference movies next to his screen and came up with a couple different black-and-white looks based on the textures of those transfers of those movies. Then we loaded those looks in the camera. When we were in Italy, shooting the black and white, we pulled up our De Sica Heavy Look, or Antonioni Light Look. We were monitoring it in black and white while we were doing it, just as a look file on the camera. The camera was actually always recording color.

It used to be that if you were shooting in black-and-white film then you would use color filters to affect the contrast. You could use a red filter or a yellow filter to make a blue sky darker. Now if you are recording color video, you can transfer to black and white in the color correction. Because you have that color information, your final colorist can tweak the contrasts by changing the relationship between the different color channels. So it’s a nice thing you can play with in black and white.

S&P: What were some of your favorite shots from Italy?

MS: We were based in a little town called Modena, which is central-northern Italy between Milan and Bologna. This is a town where Aziz had moved after we finished the first season of Master of None. He moved to this town and lived there for two or three months. He apprenticed in a pasta shop. He learned Italian, and lived there, and folded tortellini for a couple months.

So when we went to that town to shoot, he knew the town and he knew everyone there. The shop where we were shooting was the shop that Aziz had actually worked in, and a couple of the restaurants where he had worked a little bit we shot in as well. So it was a special thing. And this is not a town that was full of American tourists. It was a wonderful little town. It was really nice getting to spend some time there.

Then we went down to Tuscany, Siena, Pienza… there was a lot of scouting. It was amazing. We got to look in some beautiful places.

S&P: That alleyway in Episode 2, “Le Nozze,” where they got their car stuck, what town was that?

MS: We scoured the region for that alleyway. That was based on something that really happened to Aziz and Eric [Wareheim] when they went to a wedding in Sicily. This event really happened pretty much like we filmed it. They had a photograph. If you look at Aziz’s Instagram account, you can dig up this photo that we were trying to reproduce.

But, we weren’t in Sicily; we were very far from Sicily. And we weren’t going to move to Sicily just to shoot an alley. So we spent a shocking amount of time searching for the perfect alley that had the right attributes to do that shot.

And, we needed the right car that would fit. A car that seemed like something they would rent, that had the right dimensions. We needed a car with a sunroof because Aziz wanted to climb out of the sunroof and have Eric get stuck there, because that really happened. But it was the height of the tourist season and there were no cars with sunroofs available. So we couldn’t get the car from any car rental companies and we couldn’t get the car from any picture car companies. An enormous amount of effort went into this. I think our Italian producer ended up buying, with his own money, that Fiat. Then Eric couldn’t fit in it and so we had to take the seat out and rig this whole other thing. We had to make sure the seat was safe enough to drive on the highway.

There was some digital set extension on that scene. They built this bit of brick to make the alley seem just right. We spent more time talking about that alley than anything else this whole season.

S&P: Back in New York City, what were some of your favorite episodes to shoot and why?

MS: There is an episode that shows three different stories of characters that stray from our main characters (Episode 6, “New York, I Love You”). We had three different worlds and three different characters, and we were able to come up with three different looks. That episode was a little bit different than our normal show. Politically I love that episode, and the cast was great.

S&P: What were some of the choices you made for the three different looks for the different people?

MS: The first story was of these doormen. That had a lot to do with the location choice. That was very constrained by practicality. We needed a building with a pretty large lobby, with sightlines from the desk to the front door. We needed a place that was willing to let us shoot in their lobby and take it over for three or four days — a lot of those buildings aren’t interested in our little money to let a film crew interrupt their lives. That also meant we needed a building that had a second entrance so that you could divert the people, so that we could do our work in the main entrance. That really meant we needed a corner building.

You put all that together and try and find a building that will let you do it, and you find you don’t have a lot of options. The location team found a great one. It was very cool and had this beautiful marble lobby. The look of that trickled down from there. We kept that story clean and static, and it’s pretty similar to the rest of our show.

For the story of the cab drivers, they are living in a little apartment deep in Queens. It’s not a luxurious situation. We spent a lot of time debating whether or not we should change up the style there. If you want a place to seem a little grittier then you go handheld. It makes the scene seem grittier, kind of neorealist. We were very concerned that putting that style on that story would separate that story from the rest of the show in a negative way. In the end, we did do a bit of it. Sometimes it just seemed right for the energy of the scene and the way they were playing it. When you have those actors together in the room, their energy got really interesting, and we wanted a bit of that neorealist feel but we were always conscious of not making it feel like poverty exploitation.

The middle story follows a deaf woman. On those scenes, the sound completely drops out for the viewer. We were all really excited to actually do that. I had some friends who said that when that scene came on and the sound dropped out, they started turning up the volume on their TV to figure out what was wrong. I’m guessing that if this was on broadcast or cable TV that would be a problem. I’ve heard that some TV outlets won’t let you shoot widescreen because every time they air something letterbox/widescreen, people call the cable company and complain that they’re missing the top and bottom of their screen. I can imagine the same thing for this — people getting mad about the sound until they realize what is going on. So people turn up the volume, realize what’s happening, forget to turn the volume down, and then when that story ends with the slam of a cab door it shakes their whole living room because they turned the volume up so high. That is perfect.

So our biggest concern for her story was that we frame the show in widescreen, in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio. That means if we want to do a close-up of a single person, then they have to be somewhat far away from someone else. Because the screen is wider than usual, if you have a normal shot of someone from the torso up, and you have someone standing two feet away from them, well that’s a two-shot. You can’t really get the other person out of it. If it is a two-shot and we want to cut between the different characters, we can go closer to clean the other person out of it. But since they’re using sign language, then we had to be a little wider because you can’t really go above their hands signing.

Plus, if there are two people, in our show, we try to do a master where we can hold on that. In that case, it would be a profile shot of the two people. But if they are signing, we were concerned about clarity. Does the signing read from off-axis? Will people who speak sign language be able to understand? Sometimes in sign language there is a gesture that will go lower than the torso. How much of that do we need to include for it to be legible to a sign language audience?

We had a deaf cast and we had ASL experts on site to always watch the monitors, to help us improve our framing, to make sure we were getting the elements that we needed to get. Also, there was a sound element of that. Alan, who was directing, doesn’t speak sign language. So we were sending another camera feed to a monitor where an ASL expert was doing a live translation into a microphone so that we could hear the translation in our headphones. And that translation would go along with the footage on a separate sound channel. This way the editors could work with it and everyone had the translation. You’d need to have the translation done somewhere, no matter what, so we figured we’d just do it on-set as an isolated audio track. The ASL experts were involved every step of the way, approving all the edits to make sure the pick-ups happened in sensible places, and they approved the subtitling.

S&P: In Episode 4, “First Date,” Dev uses a dating app and goes on numerous first dates. There’s a rooftop bar at night with the New York skyline behind it. It looks so beautiful. How did you handle that location? 

MS: That was at an amazing location called the William Vale Hotel in north Williamsburg. It was just about to open. I think we are the first people to shoot there. This rooftop bar has an amazing view of the NYC skyline.

The Panasonic VariCam can wind up to very high ISOs very cleanly, which means it lets us work in extraordinarily low light levels. So if we can crank the camera sensitivity up very high we get this beautiful, glowy New York City background. Then the trick is to make sure that our lighting on set stays at a very low level, so that we are not overwhelming it.

We didn’t need a whole lot of lights but we did need to get them in the right place. For that, we wanted to feel the glow of the city coming back up from over the rail. Gary Martone, our key grip, got the idea of attaching lights to a Fisher jib arm [a small camera crane that mounts onto a dolly and can hold a camera out 15 to 20 feet]. He attached a couple Quasar Science LED tubes in a Kino Flo housing to the jib arm and then hanging that over the side of the balcony so that we had a little light glowing back up at our characters. That key lit them from over the side of the rail. We had some more Quasar tubes glowing down from another balcony above us. Then, the rest we accomplished with LED lights that we taped up where we needed them, and a couple of little bounce lights.

We started with that big Steadicam shot that went through the whole place, and that was lit by the architectural lighting. They did such a good job there. Because we could crank up the ISO so that we can see through that low-level light, most of our work was done for us. We just had to fill it in a little bit to make people look pretty in their close-ups.

-S&P-

Images courtesy of Netflix

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