Emmys: How ‘USS Callister’ DP Stephen Pehrsson Lensed a Visually Stunning New Dimension of ‘Black Mirror’

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Each episode of Netflix’s acclaimed anthology series Black Mirror explores our deepest fears about technology and its implications on humanity. Over the past four seasons, each standalone episode of the series dives deeply into realms of techno-paranoia from creative new angles.

Season 4’s USS Callister tells the intriguing tale of Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), the brilliant yet troubled CTO of a successful tech-entertainment company. Every night, Daly retreats into his own private interactive universe where he is the fearless commander of a starship, and every detail is derived from an iconic sci-fi series that he loves. When a new recruit joins the crew, she discovers that the starship is not the harmless fantasy creation that it seems to be.

A breathtaking achievement in television, USS Callister is beloved by fans and critics alike and received seven Emmy nominations for acting, writing, music composition, picture editing, sound editing, cinematography, and Outstanding Television Movie. Director of Photography Stephen Pehrsson spoke with us about lensing this compelling, visually stunning story.

S&P: What interested you most about this project, especially from a cinematography perspective?

Stephan Pehrsson: What excited me was the fact that it took place in space. It was my first opportunity to actually create a space adventure on this kind of scale and with this kind of budget. When I got the script it just sounded so exciting.

S&P: How did you work with the Black Mirror creative team during pre-production to develop the look of the story?

Pehrsson: Many people were involved. The main person for me would be the director, Toby Haynes, who also happens to be a close personal friend. We went to film school together and graduated back in 2003, so we’ve known each other for a long time. We stayed friends and worked on various projects along the way since graduating. Then this project came up and it just seemed like the perfect opportunity to get back together and shoot another project.

Toby, the production designers Phil Sims and Joel Collins, and the visual effects team and I would all work together on these things. There were also concept artists [Alex Fort and Justin Hutchinson-Chatburn] connected to the project who was part of the art department. They would all chip in with their own ideas and with different mood boards.

Toby and I shared a little office. He started it off, and when I came in a few weeks later the walls were filled with all these different spaceships and different color schemes and different styles. We have similar ideas about how things should look and how things should work. So we just sat and looked at those walls and honed it down and tried to find the right thing that would work for us. So a lot of collaboration took place.

S&P: Did you make extensive storyboards and shot lists, or did you work more organically on set?

Pehrsson: It’s a combination for me and Toby. If it’s a dialogue scene and it just involves people talking in a room, we want to see what the actors do. We come in and we watch. We let them block it out and figure out the best possible way to approach the scene. Then we work out how we can best cover it, and then we shoot it. That’s how we do dialogue scenes.

If certain sequences require quite a lot of visual effects or have stunts, then those sequences are heavily storyboarded (we used Neil Maguire). It then becomes a great tool and a good starting point for discussion. During prep, we would sit down with the visual effects supervisor Russell Dodgson and his team so we could look at the boards and determine how to shoot that particular sequence and what we would need to achieve it.  For instance, all the scenes with the Arachnajax [monstrous insectoid creatures], both when they meet one on the red planet and later on when Shania [Michaela Coel] is turned into one, was boarded. I remember a shot when we had Michaela Coel’s face up close to camera and these tentacle legs were going to be sprouting out of her back. Seeing that shot drawn, Russell (VFX) noted that on the day of the shoot we should make sure the costume was moving around because the tentacles would rip her shirt. There were all of these little discussions that came out of the storyboards, so they’re very important for those sequences.

We also storyboarded the sequence when Nanette [Cristin Milioti] wakes up in the spaceship for the first time. We drew all of that to know exactly how we should film it. We adapted it a bit on the day of shooting, but we stuck mostly to it.

Another sequence we storyboarded was when Walton’s [Jimmi Simpson] kid gets thrown out of an airlock. We had to work out how we would shoot that, and I remember there were a few discussions of whether we should see the boy in space or not. We did draw that image, but we found it too cruel. We didn’t want to actually see a boy crack like porcelain in space, and that’s probably for the best.

S&P: How did you work with your camera crew on set to capture all of the shots you needed?

Pehrsson: I’ve worked with this camera team lots before. I don’t always work with the same people but there’s a core team that I rely upon to help me out on various projects. This time I worked with a camera operator called Joe Russell. Joe, Toby, and I have worked together on Doctor Who and other projects, so this was a great opportunity to work together again. Joe is an amazing camera operator. He has a beautiful eye and a really fantastic sense of aesthetics. When we work together we have an instinctive way of knowing how the shot should be, and we have a small discussion before we do the shot. We work with two cameras, and we work our way around the room and get all the coverage we need. It’s a very organic process.

The rest of the camera team is great as well. We’ve got a grip I’ve worked with for years that’s called Gary [Norman], and the gaffer was new, Mel [Hayward], and he’s brilliant. We thought we had a week to light the spaceship, but we ended up with just a few days because the set wasn’t finished in time. We had to work out a way of being in the construction process together and getting all the cables laid at the same time as the paint was being done. So that was a very interesting, very creative process of making that work and going through all the different color schemes that we could then create. I’ve had a great time with all of them. It’s a fantastic team.

S&P: Can you tell us about the cameras and lenses you chose to use?

Pehrsson: We used RED cameras. We wanted to use anamorphic lenses and we needed to shoot in 4K, as is required for Netflix original productions. There was only one camera at the time, two years ago, that had a sensor big enough for anamorphic lenses and could provide a 4K solution: the RED Weapon.

We mainly shot on a set of lenses called Master Anamorphics [ARRI/Zeiss] which are very, very sharp. We were told by the visual effects team that this was the only anamorphic lens we could use, because it’s very clean and perfect, and every line is straight. Every shot has to be tracked in post before a visual effect can be applied. This lens makes it very easy for the team to do their tracking, so there are fewer problems. We actually save money on visual effects by choosing this lens.

In the beginning of the show, we had the sequence that emulates classic 60s Star Trek, or it could be any sci-fi program of the era. We shot that with a static camera in a 4:3 format and used spherical lenses, [ARRI/Zeiss] Super Speeds and zooms. Then at the very end they go through the wormhole and come out the other side, and suddenly it becomes a very similar spaceship to J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek with all the flares that go on. The rep from the camera rental company [Arri Media/Simon Surtees] suggested that we used Toyo anamorphic lenses, and he was right they just had the most fantastic flare. With the way the practicals light the spaceship, they were bringing up those blue stripes and these beautiful flares.

S&P: What types of camera support systems and rigs did your operators use?

Pehrsson: We had a Steadicam which we used, but we actually shot most of it handheld. I like to use an Easyrig when I operate handheld, which is a vest rig that helps you hold the camera. It takes the weight off your shoulders and arms so you’re able to hold the camera for a bit longer. Also, I’m quite tall, so the cable on the rig helps me getting the camera to right height below the eyeline without breaking my back [see photo]. We had a couple of crane shots moving through the spaceship. When Daly [Jesse Plemons] is flying in his mini ship, we used the crane to get moving shots and make it make it feel like we’re rotating around him and he’s going past us in space.

We also had a couple of drone shots. One of them is a shot on the red planet when we fly around what looks like a volcano but is actually a huge crater. Valdack [Billy Magnussen] is standing on the top with his big gun, and we fly around that space. We did one more drone shot in London when Daly [Jesse Plemons] is catatonic in his chair and possibly dead. We pull out to this big wide shot of him alone in the city.

S&P: Can you tell us about the lighting that you used for the USS Callister set?

Pehrsson: The set was certainly bigger than any set I’ve had to deal with before. The art department built this beautiful spaceship. It was a very interesting challenge because it had to have multiple uses in the sense that it needed to look like a 60s spaceship but also, with minor dressing changes, had to look hyper-modern. So the changes had to happen mostly with the lighting and colors. The way it worked out was that the art department cut lots of holes in the set, and the gaffer and I then had to fill them with various types of LED lighting. Because of the odd shapes of the holes, we had to build some of the lighting units ourselves, so we went to a local hardware store and got little strips of LEDs and stuck them together on pieces of board behind some of the panels.

We also used a company that deals with game shows and events with big LCD screens. They came in and provided hundreds and hundreds of meters of LED cable to run around the corridor, so every single panel could have its own light source. We had a fantastic desk operator [Martin Winton who programmed every panel with its own code, making it easy to change them to any color we wanted. It was brilliant. That’s how we did those lighting changes between “game mode”, which is the colorful version where everything’s pink and warm, and “Tron mode” when the game switches off. All the lights are switched off above and the floor became the main source of lighting, turning everything a bit colorless, white, and cold.

S&P: What did you enjoy most about working on this project?

Pehrsson: All of it! I had a blast, and it’s very hard to pin it down to one thing. The cast was amazing. We had such a wonderful time and they are the nicest people.

If it has to be one thing it’s probably the trip to Lanzarote [Canary Islands]. We filmed for three weeks in that very cold spaceship in Twickenham [England]. We were shooting in January, the stages didn’t have heating, and it was a super cold winter that year. It was even worse when we got to the office location. It was an abandoned office building which looked modern, but they had switched the heating off. We were freezing. So when we got to go to Lanzarote for a week at the end, that was a great joy to wear shorts and work and just be comfortable. So I would say that that was the greatest thing about that shoot, the warmth of Lanzarote.

Learn more: https://www.netflix.com/title/70264888

-S&P-

Images courtesy of Netflix

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