DP James Kniest on The Midnight Club
James Kniest is a cinematographer known for his work on The Midnight Club, The Haunting of Bly Manor, and Annabelle. I spoke with James about his DP inspirations, his work on The Midnight Club, his selection of camera and lenses and the biggest challenge on the production.
Where did you train as a cinematographer?
I studied cinematography at the Brooks Institute of Photography and specialised in commercial photography. Underwater photography is why I originally went there because I was really enamoured with Jack Cousteau and all the nature channel programmes and really wanted to do documentary work to start with. While I was at Brooks Institute, I did an underwater programme and started doing commercial photography because it was part of the curriculum. I really liked lighting and part of that involved the cinema programme. That was a turning point for me in terms of crafting things. I really gravitated toward this painting with light idea and choosing cameras, lenses, and lights to craft a certain vision.
When I was in school, I’d take whatever jobs that came to town, as a stills assistant, a grip, a dolly grip, and a camera assistant. So, I was able to get a lot of experience from all kinds of different productions. I learned from first hand experience and made a living working my way up through the ranks.
What cinematographers did you look up to?
I was fortunate to be a gaffer to some really good cinematographers, such as Derek Wolksi, Sal Totino, and Claudio Miranda. Not only were they really generous to me, but I learned a lot from them while working closely together. Surprisingly, I learned a lot of management-type things, like how to deal with clients, production, and sound photographic education, which helped me early on. The politics and management part are more complex, but the technical part is quite a bit easier. There was also Pete Romano, who started this company called Hydroflex. I was always enamoured by his work and the projects he did as an underwater cinematographer. Getting to meet and work with a lot of high-end cinematographers inspired me and I learned a lot from them.
How did you first get involved with The Midnight Club?
I’d done a movie with the producer Trevor Macy, called The Bye Bye Man. The director Stacy Title, unfortunately, is no longer with us. I built a relationship with Trevor who is Mike’s producing partner. He came to me and said his partner had a little film he wrote and wanted to do. It was called Hush. His normal cinematographer, Michael Fimognari wasn’t available to do it. We went into the woods of Alabama and shot this movie for eighteen nights in a row and built a relationship. Hush did really well and it was how Mike solidified his relationship with Netflix. Then we always stayed in touch.
Then I did The Haunting of Bly Manor. The cinematographer had to leave and Trevor called me and asked if I was interested, so I came and filled in for him and it did really well. Then I did the same for Michael Fimognari on Midnight Mass. During Midnight Mass we talked about The Midnight Club and we were able to do some prepping and have discussions. We were working with the same production company in Canada and the same studio and stages, so it was a little bit easy to start focusing on that project as we were finishing up Midnight Mass.
What were your initial conversations about the look of The Midnight Club?
We were talking about how every episode could really have a different look and what would be the best way to achieve that. We started talking about inspirations and we fell back on the time period that these young convalescing adults would have seen and been influenced by as they grew up and watched films, even TV and art. They would have drawn upon the styles of those shows to use in their storytelling. So, we used those types of influences as inspirations for tone, texture, and camera language. Everything leading up to the 90s really, with a large influence from the 1980s and early 90s. We talked about the movies out then and the ones that these young people would have seen that would inform their tone, texture, and style.
Did you have any conversations with any of the other cinematographers working on different episodes of the series?
That was one thing that I was very happy with and interested in, I had the ability to set the tone for the rest of the episodes. Be really stylised and push the envelope, use all of my tools, or lenses. We used lots of different lenses for each episode because in this digital era that’s something that we use to differentiate looks is the glass that captures these images, that focuses the light onto the censors. We had a vendor who was really behind us and really supportive, William F. Lights in Canada. They opened up their toolbox and said all of these lenses are available to you guys. I don’t think without that support that we could have done it financially.
The episodes are not meant to be rooted in reality. It is about these young people telling stories and it is a reflection of what they would use in their toolbox. The conversation was let’s ground this in reality and make it seem like it is real and something that would really happen, but we could go off the deep end with all the different periods. Some episodes there are six or seven looks, between different periods, different flashbacks and stories, so the variety is really fun as a cinematographer. You are not trying to match stuff from another episode you shot four months ago. It is all open terrain to explore and have fun.
So, there was lots of creative freedom?
Absolutely. I often times check in with producers and directors and ask if it’s too stylised, but they say to go for it. It was very encouraging to have free reign in that regard.
Which camera did you use?
I used the Sony Venice, which I hadn’t really used that much before. Because of all these different lenses that we wanted to use, we needed to have a higher resolution chip that we could scale, according to the framing, but still have that resolution. On a Super 35mm lens, we have to push in quite a bit. On the ARRI cameras you start to lose resolution, so that was the proponent that pushed us to the Venice. It also has one stops, internal NDs and it has a rialto mode. You are able to get this camera into all kinds of small places. It’s really helpful. There is also a dual ISO, where the native ISO is 500, but you can rate it at 2500 for low light situations, or in anamorphic situations where we need a little more stop so we can hold focus. The initial reason was resolution, but all these other advantages came to light.
What was your approach to lighting?
It was to be stylised. It is tricky with episodics because you aren’t afforded a lot of time. The manor was built on stage. There are a lot of different hallways and rooms. The idea was to create some global lighting that could be easily changed for all these different looks and periods. With today’s LEDs it is so much easier than it used to be with dimming, changing colour temperature. We used to have to run up and down ladders with gels to change all that kind of stuff, but now it’s pretty much controlled on a dimmer board or iPad with the gaffer standing right with you on set. You can make these really minute changes and it really helps to speed things along and find a really interesting stylised look quickly.
What was the biggest challenge on the production? How did you overcome that?
Time is always a challenge. Covid was also a challenge. We were one of the biggest shows to shoot first season during Covid, so there were a lot of constraints in terms of how many people can congregate together and every day testing, masks and a shield. Trying to gage images with all this plastic in front of you and reflections etc. We had stand in actors and then the real actors come in and it looked totally different. Once actors are on set, there is only a small group that is approved to be around them, so you can’t have a camera assistant come in on set and change a filter. All of that stuff has to be done and thought out beforehand. That could be frustrating at times, when you want to make a slight change, but your hands are tied.
Shooting in Vancouver, the weather can also be a little tricky. Finding some of these locations that fit the periods and fit the logistic necessities of making a schedule and staying on budget. We’d find great stuff, but it would be outside of the zone, or we couldn’t find the time to go there. Locations were a little bit of a hinderance and we had to make it work.
How long was the duration of the shoot?
We started shooting and Netflix wanted to make a cast change, so we had to stop and figure the cast change out. We had to reshoot a lot of stuff, so it elongated the process a little bit. I want to say it was six months of shooting roughly, maybe longer. I shot five of the episodes and some of them were back-to-back. It can be a little hard giving the incoming directors time to do a lot of prepping. It’s very time consuming, but during Covid it’s nice to see new people and bring them into your fold and socialise to some degree.
Do you have a favourite moment, or shot from the series?
I really liked working with some of the colours we worked with at night like the neons. We worked with a production designer, Lauren Kelsey who is really cool. She was really embracing the idea of adding practical lights that would be motivators for colours, like neon and florescent things. Some of the locations depicted were really cool because it looked like a whole hospital, but there is only a front door and porch, everything else is blue screen. There was an interesting cliff where you could see all of southern Vancouver, it was really different coming from LA, I love working in those open spaces. Working with Mike and Trevor Macy and the team they put together. It’s hard work and there can be lots of expectation, but it’s really rewarding and super fun.
Are you currently working on any other projects?
I’ve been doing commercial work and staying close to home. I’ve just finished American Horror Stories which is airing on Hulu. I have a couple of scripts I’m reading. There was another movie I was meant to start, but it has been pushed till next year. I’m hoping that brings more money and a better budget.