To pay attention to what is happening on the screen while you watch WandaVision is to notice how the screen itself keeps changing. When the show first introduced us to Wanda’s seemingly idyllic life (Elizabeth olsen) and Vision (Paul bettany), did so under the guise of a 1950s-style multi-camera comedy, and as the show has delved further into the chaos of Wanda’s state of mind, it has continued to change through different eras of television, with frame dimensions changing to match.
[Editor’s note: The following contains mild spoilers for WandaVision, Season 1, Episode 7, “Breaking the Fourth Wall”]
An important part of bringing that journey through the history of sitcoms to life was the cinematographer. Jess Hall, which not only worked hard to match the visual styles of the past, but also ensured that the aspect ratios of WandaVision it reflected what world the characters were experiencing. No episode highlighted this more than Episode 7, which highlighted the modern era of mockumentary sitcoms like Modern Family, while also featuring footage shot in the 2: 40: 1 framing traditionally used by the Marvel Cinematic Universe … a framing that eventually infiltrated Wanda’s perception of reality. (Oh, and we also got some blasts from the past.)
I spoke with Hall after Episode 7 about the show’s approach to making cinematography a more active part of storytelling than usual, from the decision to play with aspect ratios to the custom lenses and digital cameras used to create each. unique look. She also revealed which eras she felt were the most (and least) comfortable to recreate, when they filmed key moments from Agatha Harkness’s great song, and how she made sure the SWORD sequences felt like watching an MCU movie.
Well, for starters, when did you know this would be a series that would require you to work in a bunch of different aspect ratios?
JESS HALL: I mean, I knew early on that if we were going to do this right, we would embrace aspect ratios as an aspect of period work. But I think I was always wondering if, with the new streaming platform, if that would be acceptable to the producers and if the fanbase would really accept it. So I think there was that desire in my mind because it was very authentic and it was for authenticity, and I think the show, in general, was aimed at that. So it felt like the right decision, but it was a conversation until it started relatively close to principal photography on whether we were going to be able to do 4: 3 and eventually the decision was to go 4: 3 for Episode 1, 2, and 3.
And I was really delighted with it for various reasons, partly because it was authentic, but also because it gave me the opportunity to use the aspect ratio as a dramatic tool, using the contrast of that within the series to enhance a bit. these moments of transition. And also because of the lens science I was developing with Panavision for the first three episodes, they worked better with a square format because I was able to get this kind of even drop at the edges, which was a point. -appropriate. It was a conversation from the beginning and a reality relatively close to when we started filming.
What was the deciding argument in terms of being able to go ahead and play with aspect ratios?
HALL: I mean, I think ultimately everyone had their say, but I think the final permission came from above: as filmmakers, we all have desires, but we all work for someone. In the end, the studio’s decision was that they were comfortable with that, and that was great because it was a real commitment on their behalf to the vision and integrity of the show, I think. And it was a bold choice, I mean there were arguments that the public doesn’t like 4: 3, but I think this has shown that if the content is good enough, the public will accept 4: 3 and accept black and white.
So he says he had specific lenses that he was developing. Did that match the elements of the period?
HALL: Exactly. Yes. So we walked with a camera rig, a very high resolution Alexa wide-format camera, 4K HDR finish, highest quality finish. But then we were trying to replicate or reference this aspect of the first movie, so it was a bit of, you know, a mismatch there. I knew I had to do things on camera, work on camera, to get that look, and one of the things was to do it through the lenses.
So I did a lot of testing with vintage lenses, but they were quite fragile and I could only manipulate them up to a point. So we ended up building our own set of lenses for that. I [used them on Episodes] 1, 2, 3, and actually we used them in 5. And they had very specific characteristics: somehow the highlights bloomed and they were soft and they had a focus that fell from center to edge. And a certain amount of lens coverage. All of which were items that we could custom mark to taste. I worked with Dan Sasaki from Panavision on developing and building those, so it was a really exciting aspect of the production.
However, in one element, you have all the period-specific aspect ratios, but something we’ve been seeing, especially in episode 7, is the idea that reality is represented by a very specific aspect ratio. And I wonder why, very specifically, that aspect ratio to represent reality, and what was it like having to make these transition points happen?
HALL: Well when we talk about reality, I guess we are talking about the MCU, so we are part of that lineage, we are part of that history. So for me, it was really interesting to use the legacy and the strength of the franchise to build and make our own version of that, but actually to have some level of continuity because the audience, you are driving them. in all of this, asking them to accept all these different periods and then giving them something that’s like, well, I know where I am. It was really important to build for the audience, so that they would place themselves quite concretely in the MCU. And the MCU really is a 2:40 [aspect ratio] world, for the most part.
So that’s what he was playing with there. And I went one step further, which was to get the lenses that we used to photograph. Endgame Y Infinity war, the Ultra Panatar lenses. And I used them for all of our MCU work. So the idea was that I was encoding that work with the kind of subtle reference that some in the audience have seen before, probably not really aware of it, but maybe unconsciously. They are very specific lenses that are executed in perspective in a very specific way; It was a little nod to, okay, this is the reality world of the MCU. So, you know where you are when you hit it.
In episode 7, when Wanda goes down to Agnes’s basement, we literally see the transition happen on screen. Is that something that happens digitally? Is that something you have to work with on set as well?
HALL: Well it’s a combination because on set we obviously have to protect ourselves for the transition. You don’t want the [2:40:1 aspect ratio] go down and create a bad composition. So we are aware that we are going to do it and we have our frame leaders set up so that we are framed for both aspect ratios, and then finally the transition is done in post, because the timing is very specific and Matt Shakman, our director , you will have a point of view on exactly how long you want it to last, how fast the dropdown menu appears, etc.
Absolutely. So we have this montage at the end of Episode 7 that includes a lot of shots from previous episodes that of course we didn’t see before. Were those moments filmed while they were in production on those episodes?
ROOM: Yes. Mostly, yes. Because you know, she’s in that period costume, there’s a transition where she goes from one costume to another, which was obviously a little different, which was shot slightly out of sequence. But in general, we got those shots when we were on those sets, because the sets were dressed for a specific period and we didn’t want to have to go back and repair a house or repair the street for that period. So we’d try to get out of our comedy world at the end of that job, and we’d say, okay, right now, we’re going to do all of our “Agatha All Along” moment. I mean, they are very specific shots, they are all unique shots, so they often required a type of camera rig or a type of crane or some type of camera movement that might not be used in the rest of the episode. It would require a kind of change and methodology for us. But yes, we largely did them in sequence.
In closing, you have all these different styles that you’re playing around with, and I’m not going to wonder what you could be doing in Episodes 8 and 9, because I know you can’t tell me. But from what we’ve already seen, what was the most comfortable for you in terms of style and format, and what was the least comfortable for you?
HALL: I felt very uncomfortable when we approached the later-era sitcoms because, in a way, they are quite close, in terms of camera rig, to what I’m using. But nevertheless, it is a very different language than how I would film something. So it was easier to go for the romantic look of black and white or early color film, which is a departure from the real look of the digital camera. But it was a bit more difficult when we got closer to the MCU look – it’s a modern digital camera too, so building an identity around that was a bit more challenging. However, in terms of complexity, Episode 1 was one of the most complex just because it was a three-camera live show, so I’d say I was out of my comfort zone too.
New episodes of WandaVision air Fridays on Disney +.
KEEP READING: ‘WandaVision’ Episode 7 Guide: All the Questions We Have After “Breaking the Fourth Wall”
How is ‘The Bling Ring’ ranked alongside ‘Lost in Translation’? We’ll see.
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