In Disney’s Ms. Marvel, a teen in an exuberantly colored Jersey City discovers super powers after slipping a magical bangle on her wrist. In FX’s The Old Man, a septuagenarian dusts off a long-dormant aptitude for violence when his former life as a CIA operative catches up with him. In the overlapping Venn diagram of these seemingly disparate shows, you’ll find cinematographer Jules O’Loughlin. The Australian DP shot two episodes of each series, which also share critical flashbacks set on different continents than their main story, as well as shoots that were greatly affected by COVID.
With both shows now streaming in their entirety, O’Loughlin spoke to Filmmaker about shooting California for Afghanistan, his philosophy on night exteriors and his aversion to “smotherage.”
Filmmaker: Let’s start by sorting through the production history of The Old Man. So, it’s March 2020. You’ve finished work on the California portion of the shoot and you’re about to leave for Morocco for the Afghanistan-set section of the story.
O’Loughlin: I always say that there can be any disaster and a film crew will solve the problem and solve it quickly. It’s what we do, right? Filmmaking is literally lurching from one disaster to another and solving the problems of that disaster. At the beginning of March , we knew that the world was in somewhat dire straits, but there was still this funny feeling that somehow we could go on—that we were going to be on that plane on March 15th to Morocco, that somehow we could solve this problem. We ended up getting shut down on March 13th with so many other productions around the world. I remember it was Friday the 13th. On Saturday, I booked a flight home to Sydney and was there until October or November.
Filmmaker: Where did you ultimately shoot those Afghanistan scenes?
O’Loughlin: Unfortunately, by the time we shot, Morocco had disappeared [as an option]. We ended up shooting all those scenes that we were going to shoot in Morocco in California in the deserts of Santa Clarita. That really concerned me. I’d been to Morocco a couple of times and I’d been to Northern Pakistan. So, I knew what the Hindu Kush looked like and thought, “How the hell are we doing to pull this off in California?” I tell you what: I may be biased, but I think we did it. Hats off to Erik Henry and his VFX team and to Julie Berghoff, our production designer. I think we really pulled a rabbit out of our hat.
Filmmaker: One of the references I’ve heard mentioned for the show is Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. There’s a night exterior flashback scene in episode four with Bill Heck playing a younger version of Jeff Bridges’s character that reminded me of the final scene in that film. In a driving rain storm, Heck takes out the Russian soldiers who have commandeered a small village in Afghanistan. The village is dark but we get these glimpses of Heck illuminated by lightning flashes.
O’Loughlin: In the first episode we’ve seen the character be able to handle himself as an older man. Now we’ve got to show where he’s come from to understand just how deadly this guy was as a CIA operative and how all of that is still buried deep within him somewhere. So, that scene you described is starting from story. As a cinematographer, it’s like, “How do we make it realistic that he’s this stealth beast coming in under the cover of darkness?” We came up with this idea that it’s happening in a storm and using lightning to show snippets of the brutality. It’s that thing of the audience thinking that they’ve seen what’s going on, but in reality they’ve just gotten a snapshot or a glance of it. Certainly Unforgiven was a reference for that scene, but also Kurosawa and bringing movement into the imagery. Something that I often love to do is have some kind of movement in the frame—wind or rain, something of the natural word.
Filmmaker: In a post-LED world, do you accomplish those lightning strikes differently than if you were doing the same gag 10 or 15 years ago?
O’Loughlin: Yes. In the past, we would have used HMI sources, or even tungsten sources gelled up with a shutter effect. It used to be a much more mechanical type of effect to create lightning. On The Old Man, we used SkyPanel S360s and S60s. You can create a super effective lightning effect with them. You can link a chain of them in one section in a Condor, then have another chain in another section. Rather than relaying information to a spark [known stateside as an electrician] who would use shutters to create the effect, I can actually have control [remotely] over when those lightning strikes hit. With modern technology, it’s awesome because you have precision control. I can watch the actor and literally time the lightning strikes to a specific moment.
Filmmaker: The reverse angle of that lightning strike shot is great too. It is a wide of a guard booth lit by a small unit inside and some firelight from a nearby building.
O’Loughlin: For that wide shot we couldn’t just rely on the lightning. We’ve got to be able to see the encampment to set up the environment. We’ve got to know, to a certain extent, the geography. So, for that shot I can step away from the true reality of the moment and bring in some faux moonlight that’s penetrating the clouds, so we at least can get a sense of depth and the environment that we’re in. Then it becomes a choice of color. What works best for this show? How does the color of the moonlight mix with the tungsten sources in the shot? For me, one of them has to dominate. If it’s a lantern source and that’s only in a small pool of light, then I can flood the rest of the area with the color of moonlight, which here was a greenish blue. Often I find that if you have both too much firelight and too much moonlight in one frame, it can look quite theatrical. For fantasy or something that’s more hyperreal you can do that, but for The Old Man it was super important for us that the world looked real, that it was gritty and something the audience truly believed.
Filmmaker: That’s a good segue into Ms. Marvel, because in episode five you have a flashback night exterior scene set in a rose field that is again motivated by moonlight and warm lantern light. For that scene, you veer more into the fantasy realm with the color.
O’Loughlin: Yeah, absolutely. There we can be a little bit more fantastical. For that rose field sequence, it also had to feel romantic, because you have this great love story and we wanted to infuse it with a certain amount of romance. It’s still a fine line. That section of the story takes place in India in the 1940s and it’s dealing with the era of Partition. So, that was a bit of a juggle that our director Sharmeen [Obaid-Chinoy] and myself had to do. The closer the story moved to Partition, the more the gravity of what we were telling became really important, because it’s an extremely important historical moment for Pakistanis and Indians, and Bangladeshis as well.
Filmmaker: For those two night exteriors from the different shows, are you using similar units to get different results?
O’Loughlin: For the Russian encampment in The Old Man, I used a series of moon boxes with S60 and S360 LED fixtures in them. We had a reflective surface in the frame because a vehicle moved through the shot. So, rather than creating a square moon box, I created an iris using black card so that the moon box effectively became a round source. So, if anything was reflected, it would be a circular object and could play as the moon poking through the clouds. So, it was moon boxes, then some bare S60 and S360 banks for the harder lightning flashes.
On Ms. Marvel I once again used a moon box. I always like to use larger, softer sources over actors in a night scene, but for Ms. Marvel we were shooting on location with this big expanse in the distance. I also needed something harder for the background. So, while I had a moon box over our characters, I had two M90s—HMI units—backed off on towers giving me some hard light into the background and lighting the smoke off into the field. So, I did use a similar methodology and similar kinds of units on the two shows, then it just comes down to the color choice. What is the color of night in this show? Is it super realistic or can I go a bit more expressionistic with it? It’s all story-based. It comes from the script. What is the show that we are trying to make and how do I render that as a cinematographer?
Filmmaker: One of the visual hallmarks of The Old Man is the long takes in the action scenes. You have one in episode three, with a long shot that tracks with Amy Brenneman’s character as she walks up to her house’s front window to find Bridges mid-fight with an assassin.
O’Loughlin: There was this idea that whenever we could do a oner, as long as it supported the story, let’s undertake that rather than shooting loads and loads of coverage. One of my mantras is, “Over-coverge is the enemy of style.” You always want enough to cover yourself and to get you out of pickles, but you don’t want “smotherage.” It was really important to our showrunners that they didn’t want a cutty show. They wanted to sit with the actors, and we wanted to move through the space with the actors. That scene was a combination of Steadicam, jib on a track, dolly track and then moving into handheld. In the end, I think there may have been four cuts and we tried to hide them as best we could. To pull a shot like that off requires camera trickery, great operating and a lot of planning.
Filmmaker: Once you get into handheld inside the house, there’s a great Texas switch after Bridges’s dogs attack the hitman. The actor is wrestling with the real dogs on the ground. In the same shot, he stands up and the camera tilts up with him, then he pulls a fake dog off the ground and hurls it at a glass door. I love those little tricks.
O’Loughlin: That’s the fun of filmmaking, when you’re doing that stuff and pulling it off. Hopefully an audience sees Jeff Bridges in those scenes and goes, “Holy shit! Jeff Bridges did that?” That guy is fucking amazing. There were times that we had to switch to his stunt double, who looked very similar to Jeff, but Jeff did so much of that himself.
Filmmaker: Ms. Marvel certainly has a different style to its action set pieces than The Old Man, with many of those scenes incorporating the hero Kamala’s ability to project crystal-like structures from her hands. The crystals have a purplish hue. How did you get interactive lighting on set for those colors?
O’Loughlin: There was a real handshake there between lighting and visual effects, because we didn’t want the interactive light to be a visual effect. We wanted as much in-camera as possible. So, it was going through references and previs and working out exactly what the sequences were, then working out what the color would be. We worked very closely with Nordin Rahhali, the VFX supervisor, to figure out the specifics. What is this power? How does it form? What does it do? For example, when Kamala creates a big wall, that’s a soft lighting effect. When she does more of a punch, that’s a harder lighting effect. So, it was using different lighting units to represent that interactive light.
We also had to figure out how to avoid seeing our units in the frame. VFX can erase those things, but you don’t want to create a nightmare for the VFX guys and have it end up costing a fortune. I can’t just populate the frame with lighting units and ask VFX to erase them all. So, we had to find clever ways to light. Sometimes it was just LED strips right on Iman Vellani’s arms or hidden behind an object, then coming off screen with other units. It was a real dance. The other thing is, we wanted to move the camera. We didn’t want a static camera. It’s easy when you just have a locked-off shot, but we wanted to use Steadicam and crane arms. We wanted to infuse the photography with energy and movement, especially during fights. So, it was tough, but super important for us, that the photography was infused with real interactive lighting.
Filmmaker: You didn’t end up getting to go to Morocco for The Old Man, but you did get to shoot your episodes of Ms. Marvel in Thailand. As you were shooting, the country went into a large-scale COVID shutdown, but you were allowed to keep filming.
O’Loughlin: At the time we decided to shoot there, the COVID situation wasn’t too bad. This was in January of 2021. I’d been living in L.A. from October through December shooting The Old Man, staying up on Sunset in an apartment. The streets were like a ghost town. There was no one around. It was a scary place to be at that time. Afterward, I went back to Sydney and Australia was handling COVID really well at the time, and Thailand was pretty similar. When I first got to Thailand I had to quarantine for two weeks. At that time, all the people in Bangkok were still out and about. There were people in shopping centers, but everyone was masked. It was rare to see someone unmasked and invariably if you did, it was a Westerner. When you hear “We’re all in this together,” it’s mostly bullshit, but it really felt like that in Thailand—that everyone was doing their best to keep the numbers super low.
So, we started shooting and there was no drama. Then, about a month from finishing the show, there was an explosion in Bangkok and COVID just spread like wildfire through the place. It really became this thing of, “We’ve got to get to the finish line.” Everyone became super vigilant. The city started to shut down and it became harder and harder for us to shoot, but we solved those problems. We’d lose a major location at 5 pm, and by 7am we had found somewhere else and were back shooting. We got to the end of the show and finished it on the day that we were supposed to finish. I just think we’re a pretty remarkable industry, the way we’ve handled COVID and the way most shows have gotten through it and have continued to shoot. Even just talking about the logistics side of things, there are a lot of remarkable people in this industry that do remarkable things.