When the Marvel Cinematic Universe expanded its reach to Netflix, heaps of praise were given to the new shows for their real-world feel and the tangibility of their characters and stories. Dark, gritty, relatable, human; whatever term was used, it all came back to the fact that people liked these superhero shows because they didn’t feel like typical superhero shows. They were stories about authentic people that we could imagine existing in our day to day lives. These people just happened to possess heightened abilities as well.
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There is no one person that’s responsible for Marvel and Netflix establishing the tonal distinction between the shows and the films, but among the most prevalent players in making that difference a reality is cinematographer Manuel Billeter.
Billeter’s hiring may have been unexpected to some, but it turned out to be an inspired decision and one that has quickly paid dividends. When Billeter started working in the entertainment industry in '90s, getting to work with a huge superhero dynasty like Marvel was not an opportunity that he ever thought would come his way. Instead, he imagined a career more aligned with the films of his childhood. Billeter was raised on Italian cinema, with folks like Federico Fellini and Bernardo Bertolucci playing a significant role in the early development of Billeter’s eye for cinematography. Their movies taught Billeter at length about the presentation of fantasy and reality, but they were still wildly different from anything you might see in a modern superhero movie.
The early parts of Billeter’s career consisted of working as a camera assistant and then a camera operator, before earning his way up to becoming a cinematographer in 2009. At that point, Billeter found a home in television. He worked regularly on TV shows such as Law & Order, Person of Interest, and Orange is the New Black, establishing himself as a cinematographer who could come in and match the established looks of long-running shows. Having shown off his technical talents, the clear next step was to fully display his creative skills by coming onto a program from its inception and designing the visual style himself.
When the opportunity arose for Billeter to interview for Jessica Jones he was instantly intrigued by the concept. He went into the interview with an aggressive plan, and when asked what it was that he had pitched, Billeter said:
"When I was interviewing for Jessica Jones, I was totally Marvel-illiterate. I pitched a visual style influenced by foreign, or 'art house' cinema, knowing that it would not necessarily be a safe bet to get me the job, or an obvious choice for an American superhero franchise. But I really wanted to stay close to what I think is interesting, visually."
He stayed true to himself as a cinematographer instead of offering up what the thought Marvel would want to hear, and the results netted him the biggest opportunity of his career.
Billeter then set out with the rest of the visual team (which included production designer Loren Weeks and costume designer Stephanie Maslanski) to establish the specifics of what this world was going to look like. When they began working on Jessica Jones, Billeter said that the goal for him and the rest of the crew was to “strive to create a very grounded and relatable “real-world” aesthetic while incorporating elements that are created in a fantasy world.” Billeter believes that this real-world aesthetic is the most important constant between the shows, but as he has moved on to Luke Cage and Iron Fist, he has also worked hard at finding ways to distinguish the shows from each other.
In discussing the particulars of how Luke Cage was shot, Billeter was filled with details about the ways in which he developed the show’s unique look. With Jessica Jones, the very first sentence of the very first script called for a “noir” aesthetic, and Billeter was happy to comply, but with Luke Cage, there needed to be a different tone. The use of Harlem as a setting in Luke Cage as opposed to Hell’s Kitchen in Jessica Jones allowed for a look that feels much more alive. With Harlem, Billeter wanted the setting to feel vibrant, so he added modified gels in front of his lights, and in conjunction with the set designers, Harlem was made to include much stronger colors. During the color correction process, Billeter also went the opposite direction of the one he took with Jessica Jones and decided to saturate the colors slightly as well as warm them up, allowing Luke Cage to have a more glowing look. He described many of the changes as subtle, but he hopes that they’re perceived nonetheless. Harlem as a setting is massively important to Luke Cage, and without the work that was done to present Harlem as a bright, living place, the show would lose much of the emotional impact that we feel when Cage acts to defend his neighborhood.
The emotional impact is enhanced by more than just the setting though. Cage himself is obviously incredibly important to creating the show’s emotional strength, and the way in which Billeter presents the titular hero lends itself to generating that emotional punch. When talking about how he filmed the character, Billeter explained that:
Cage is more out in the open, surrounded by space, and the camera always stays very close to him. I favored lower angles, to make Mike Colter’s already astonishing appearances even more heroic.
Bringing the combination of a living backdrop, and the epic presence of the main character, Billeter was able to set up the show to make Cage feel like the powerful defender that he is. The angles and lighting create a perfect blend to subtly show viewers how essential Cage is to Harlem, and how integrated he is into the setting as a whole. He is always the dominant force in his shots, but he also remains a part of the terrain. The shots aren’t of him alone; they’re of him in his home.
Billeter’s work goes far beyond the artistic work of designing and implementing shots though, encompassing the technical side of things as well, where he looks to perfect the look of Luke Cage. Netflix has transitioned into shooting all of their exclusives on 4K cameras now, but that doesn’t completely limit the decisions of the cinematographer. Billeter was still able to pick and choose different lenses for each of his shows leading to his choice to use classic Panavision Primos on Luke Cage. His reasoning for the decision was that:
The Primos are sharper lenses, but also in this case, in order to add something magic, less controlled and more cinematic, they had been custom treated with a reflective coating in between the glass elements in the interior of the lens, causing more flares and bringing down the contrast in addition to very slightly de-focusing them.
When you look at the picture for Jessica Jones versus Luke Cage, it’s clear that there’s been a significant change. The lens selection is an excellent technical fit for the look that he was striving for, and matches perfectly with the artistic build of the scenes.
Billeter’s work as a cinematographer on Luke Cage is intelligent and nuanced, leading to the real-world look that feels right at home with the other Netflix/Marvel shows. That similarity in tone ties Luke Cage to the rest of that world, but Billeter has also created a style on Luke Cage that separates the show from its companions, thanks to the changes in lighting, framing, and lenses. As a cinematographer, Billeter draws experience from the “memories that live within [him] from experiencing works of art – be it a song, a painting, or a novel,” and what he has created with Luke Cage is another work of art that others can now draw from.
You can catch Manuel Billeter’s work as the cinematographer of Luke Cage on Netflix today, as well as his work on Jessica Jones, Orange is the New Black, and in 2017, Iron Fist.
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