“Black Bird” Cinematographer Natalie Kingston Breaks Down Her Technique on Apple’s Crime Thriller
There’s a symphony of visual subtlety threaded throughout creator Dennis Lehane’s psychological crime drama Black Bird (available now on Apple TV+) that harmoniously lifts the resonating performances and moody tenor of the story that can be easily overlooked. Series cinematographer Natalie Kingston (who alluringly photographed all six episodes) prefers it that way.
Based on the life of James Keene (Taron Egerton), a Chicago-area high school football star turned dope dealer and eventual prison inmate, ends up serving ten years without parole until he’s offered a commuted sentence; befriend suspected serial killer Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser) and get him to confess before he’s released. The binge-worthy whydunit has a tremendous amount of gravitas, in part from a rich, character-driven narrative that has Egerton at top of his game, while Hauser’s portrayal of Larry Hall is disturbingly magnetic. Not to mention it’s one of Ray Liotta’s last performances as he plays James’s father (Big Jim), who’s struggling with failing health. The poignancy in the father-son moments are not to be missed.
The series’ visual language expresses a tense, unsettling tone without being overt or ostentatious. The cinematography feels familiar and richly layered. If you happen to press pause on the remote (or keyboard), there’s minimalist expressionism in each frame that complements the foreboding atmosphere. Kingston tells The Credits her main source of inspiration for the painterly look was Gordon Parks’ 1957 The Atmosphere of Crime, a photo essay that depicts crime in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. “What really resonated with me [about the book] was this rich, sort of pastel-like palette where Parks used available light but still felt intentional and expressive. That’s what we were trying to create [with Black Bird].”
Michaël Roskam directed the first three episodes (Jim McKay dir. E4, Joe Chappelle E5, E6), and in establishing the look of the series, the director-DP duo shared similar “sensibilities and taste” and leaned into “creating expressive but grounded lighting.” “We really wanted to play with the nuance and not distract but enhance the performances,” says Kingston.
Kingston takes us on a tour of three specific scenes and explains her thinking and her approach.
They’re Just Dreams
One such scene is between chief investigator Brian Miller (Greg Kinnear) and Larry in the pilot episode. Miller has an interest in questioning Larry after learning about a mysterious van that’s connected to several missing girls, one of them being Jessica Roach (Laney Stiebing). Larry owns such a van. In framing the unnerving sequence, the cinematographer intentionally crossed the 180-degree rule as Larry and Miller are speaking to each other.
“We did this to visually separate them [Larry and Miller] from the other detectives in the room. We shot Larry’s coverage in profile and Miller straight on,” Kingston says. “Then, through Paul’s performance, his choice was to barely make eye contact. We did this combination of shooting until Larry says, ‘In my dreams, I like to kill women, you know.’ Michaël and I thought keeping Larry in profile keeps his character mysterious and creates a visual barrier that hopefully insinuates his mental state by perpetuating his fluctuating confessions.”
In episode two, the cinematographer bookended the visual style in a second scene between Miller and Larry in the same conference room. This time, instead of the camera being on the side of Miller and Larry, it starts off with Larry in a close-up before pulling back to the side with the other detectives. “This was to subtly communicate that maybe Larry didn’t kill those girls, and the other detective might be right. It was also a way to visually express that Miller might have lost Larry in the moment.”
An intimate scene between Ray Liotta and Taron Egerton takes place during prison visiting hours with Big Jim suggesting to his son he dreamt more for him. Kingston covered the scene with expressive close-ups, connecting the audience to the emotional moment.
“It was one of my favorite scenes to shoot,” Kingson says. “We wanted to be very intimate within the conversation they are having privately amongst other inmates. Keeping it close, we felt it emotionally drove the scene. The goal was to visually accentuate the tension and the complexity of this father-and-son relationship. The window and the bars create a barrier between them, symbolizing their rocky past and lack of emotional connection. Then if you notice in Ray’s close-up, Taron’s reflection is positioned over his face. That symbolizes his longing for a deeper connection with his father. I think it also represents the parallels between the two men and how similar they are.”
Kingston lit the scene with larger fixtures providing light through the row of windows behind the actors. Diffusion was used to soften the light. “My general approach to lighting is to keep them outside of the set. It feels the most natural and gives the actors the freedom to perform and the camera to move around,” the cinematographer notes. As for the camera of choice, the ARRI Alexa Mini LF was paired with Panavision H spherical lenses, which add a vintage feel and soft roll-off to the image.
A Sadistic Confession
Episode five, “The Place I Lie,” has one of the most chilling scenes in television. The short clip above is part of a ten-minute scene that begins at the 35:34 mark of the episode.
The unsettling moment is between an imprisoned Larry and James, who sits in a woodshop talking as if they were best friends. But the conversation is not a light affair. Larry shares the grisly encounter with Jessica Roach. It’s the confession James has been trying to get from Larry.
In approaching the coverage, Kingston let the performances do the heavy lifting while the camera and lighting shaped a crescendo of visual nuance. To get into the scene, a wide shot from the door cuts to a medium shot of James looking at several carved birds. Kingston says it’s one of her favorite shots in the whole series.
“Everything is coming down to this moment. The blackbirds and what they symbolize [the girls that Larry allegedly kidnapped and killed] are positioned in the foreground. Then there’s a subtle pop of hard light behind James, which was also a motif that we wove in the series where these subtle pops of hard light in the background or foreground were made to represent freedom and the light outside.”
As the two begin to talk, the coverage moves from matching over-the-shoulders to matching medium shots as Larry becomes curious to how many women James has had sex with. The question triggers Larry to admit that no women will ever talk to him. The camera then shifts to a wide shot with the two characters in profile, a soft grayish light fills the background. When Larry begins to detail how he met Jessica, a slow push-in from profile marks his confession.
“Throughout the whole camera move, the lighting outside slowly dims. It starts to rain, and the color temperature gets cooler,” notes Kingston. “The challenge was the multiple moving parts, and everyone had to be in perfect sync for it to be impactful. We didn’t want to draw attention to the fact we were moving in. It was supposed to be a subconscious where you get pulled into this moment with Larry, and you can’t believe what you’re hearing.”
The design of the shot was a technical symphony, from the camera operator, focus puller, and dolly grip, to the dimmer board operator and special effects team making it rain. Everything had to hit just right over the course of Larry’s monologue. “It was exciting when we knew we nailed it,” recalls Kingston. “The feeling was palpable in the room.”
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Featured image: Taron Egerton and Paul Walter Hauser in “Black Bird,” now streaming on Apple TV+.