Welcome to Emmy Contenders 2019. This month, SYFY WIRE is speaking to a long list of actors, artists, and artisans whose work earned them Emmy nominations this year. Today we speak with cinematographer D.J. Stipsen, nominated for his work on FX's What We Do in the Shadows.
You'll want to be extra careful going into the Sassy Cat Club, Manhattan's hippest vampire venue. If you're not, you might become a part of the bottle service.
The Sassy Cat is a popular bloodsucker destination on the dark comedy What We Do in the Shadows, and when featured creatures Nadja, Laszlo, and Nandor (and their perpetual tagalong energy vampire Colin) venture forth from their home turf on Staten Island for a night out in the big city, they bring along a fictitious camera crew to document their glamorous adventures. Naturally, there's also a real-life camera crew on hand to capture all the action, this one under the direction of cinematographer D.J. Stipsen. He's the man who determines what we can see in the shadows of the vampires' creepy mansion, or — as in this Emmy-nominated episode, "Manhattan Night Club" — the bright lights of Manhattan.
The Sassy Cat is actually a Toronto club (formerly called Uniun, now called the Toybox), a warehouse-sized space with LED lights dropping down from the ceiling (a subtle suggestion of dripping blood). At one point, the production toyed with the idea of lighting the club completely in red to take advantage of the dripping lights, but then decided this would create a technical problem, making it harder to separate colors later. So Stipsen chose a palette of blue, orange, and red as his primary colors in the club, and used green for the designated room for vampire familiars, which needed to feel extra-horrible.
The first order of scene-building was the addition of humans in cages, which Stipsen lit with fluorescent tubes and programmable lights to create moving patterns over the club crowd. "We had to make sure that the people were lit properly so that you could see who was wearing a cape," Stipsen explains, since a running joke in the episode is that our out-of-touch outer-borough vampires think capes are still in style.
They're not — but flaming arrows are. A character called Simon the Devious (played by Nick Kroll), who runs the club, greets guests with a party trick, firing off a flaming arrow and then teleporting across the room to catch it. "That was a long debate," Stipsen says. "Should it be a VFX arrow? How do we safely fire a flaming arrow in a nightclub full of people? Do we take the people out and replace them with VFX?"
Ultimately, he solved the problem with a bit of camera trickery: Simon fired the arrow, but he aimed it into a fire blanket held up by the special effects team. The rest of the scene is all whip pans — the camera catches the arrow leaving the frame, whip pans from the actor, then through the crowd, then back onto the actor when he already has a flaming arrow in his hand, but looks as if he's just caught it. Timing, of course, is everything.
Another shot that required debate arose when an undressed male body had to be carried out on a steel tray surrounded by dry ice and sparklers (vampire cocktails all around!).
"When I read that in the script, I was like, 'This is really funny, but how we are to do this?'" Stipsen says. "When you really get into the nitty-gritty of it, it's a lot of work for what is barely on camera for four or five seconds." Among the concerns for staging this shot was finding a tray large enough to hold a human body. Then the question of whether real dry ice should be used, or tubes with smoke pumping out of them that looked like dry ice. (The solution turned out to be plastic "ice" and fake smoke.) The sparklers were an issue, considering they'd be next to a naked stunt man. "It came down to the angle of the sparklers," Stipsen explains. "If they're facing slightly outwards, on the edge, he wouldn't get hurt much, probably. Although he might at first!"
One of Stipsen's favorite gags didn't make the episode. He shot a sequence in a downstairs bar in which Guillermo, one of the familiars, walks through a throng of vampires. In the mirror over the bar we see Guillermo appearing to be by himself, but being shoved around by some unseen forces (the vampires, of course, who create no reflection). This was a tricky shot, requiring a camera pan from the mirror — where we saw no vampires — over to the room, where we saw plenty of them.
"It was really quite complex," Stipsen says. "We had to make sure the lighting matched between the mirror and the room, and if anyone moved or blocked a light, it could create a shadow." He captured the shot, but in the end it turned out the episode had a surplus of gags, so this one didn't make the cut. But while it may be gone, Stipsen hasn't forgotten it. "I really hope we get to try it again in Season 2," he says. "It's really funny!"