After its first successful season the creative team behind the hit HBO series Insecure decided they wanted the show to have a more cinematic look. For that they turned to cinematographer Ava Berkofsky whose efforts have already earned her a primetime Emmy nomination in the category outstanding cinematography for a single-camera series.
Now that season four is underway viewers have continued to enjoy Insecure’s cinematic look, which was created by Berkofsky, the lead cinematographer for the series, and director/executive producer Melina Matsoukas. Throughout the past three seasons Berkofsky has relied on a set of Cooke Optics 5/I prime lenses.
“The Cooke 5/i lenses became an important part of the cinematic, stylish look of the show starting with season two,” said Berkofsky. “This was very much what Melina and I discussed when I was first brought on to execute the change.”
Insecure follows the sometimes-awkward experiences and racy tribulations of a modern-day African-American woman living her life in Los Angeles.
“After season one, the creative team wanted to change up the look,” explained Berkofsky. “I hadn’t done much TV before, but had shot a number of features. And when I was interviewed, I guess the team liked my ideas — to give Insecure a more specific, contemporary and cinematic look. This was also Melina’s first foray into TV, but with her hands in so much of the culture and art of LA and its black community, I knew that I could really explore the style, feel and colors of an LA that most people don’t think of when they hear Los Angeles. I felt that Insecure was different than anything I had seen before on TV. It’s unapologetically black. Showing how LA is lived in, from a first-person perspective.”
One of Berkofsky’s ideas was to look outside the obvious lens choices for a half-hour TV series, which typically would have been compact zoom lenses. That led her to the Cooke 5/i T1.4 series of prime lenses — two full kits of nine focal lengths ranging from 18mm to 135mm that accompanied the two Arri Alexa Mini cameras rented from Keslow Camera in Culver City. Although often a single-camera show, Berkofsky would make use of both cameras as much as possible.
“I tested a lot of different lenses for Insecure and I was surprised by the Cooke 5/i’s,” remembers Berkofsky. “I had often used the S4/i primes for commercial work but initially I didn’t think Cooke lenses would be right for this project. The 5/i’s were slightly bigger than what I wanted for the Alexa Mini, but they turned out to be so perfect for the look I was trying to find, and they really weren’t overly big. I didn’t want to use too much diffusion or bring out the digital sharpness. What I got was a gentleness that fit in with our visions of the look of the show.”
Berkofsky had her go to focal length choices for different aspects of Insecure. For breaking the fourth wall, when Issa Dee (played by the show’s creator Issa Rae) is talking to herself in a mirror, Berkofsky shot with the 5/i 32mm at 3.5 feet, just above the eyeline. But for most of the storytelling, she found the 65mm her lens of choice.
“The 5/i is such a thorough set, they’re matched so well, even the 135mm,” said Berkofsky. “We would bounce all over the place. Always trying to figure out how to compress space; there was always a choice between focal lengths that gave me a consistent look.”
Working with colorist Dave Hussey from Company 3, Berkofsky went in to season two with a handful of look up tables from the previous season, creating six or seven more for the show’s new look. “While I didn’t always have a DIT on set the entire time, I found that it was less of an issue than I thought it would be,” explained Berkofsky. “I just got used to the workflow. I would get the LUTs loaded into [Convergent Design] Odyssey for viewing, and that was it.
“For season three and overall, I never had to use diffusion for people when using the 5/i lenses at a 2.8 or 2.0. They’re really gentle and beautiful on skin tones. And it’s nice having that extra 1.4 that stood up unlike older lenses. They really are great for modern TV, but have a cinematic feel that really shows through when you’re just augmenting existing light.”
Berkofsky’s lighting was colorful; inspired by fashion and music video culture that celebrates the spaces. “It’s not a gritty south LA/ Inglewood look that we’re used to seeing. It’s very naturalistic and darker, especially when compared to season one. I try not to overlight — I don’t think you need to when shooting people with darker skin tones. The lighting celebrates color, which all goes back to Melina’s vision and our original discussions.”
In post, Berkofsky and Hussey worked together very closely. “On season four, the second DP, Michelle Lawler would work on her episodes, while I looked after the scope of the show episode-to-episode,” Berkofsky said. “There are certain things that it gets easy to shy away from when you’re working quickly in post that I didn’t want to lose, like keeping dirty shadows and not indiscriminately brightening. I try to keep pushing myself and the team as it’s easy to ignore that particular element of that look, but it’s important to keep the show’s personality.”
Berkofsky concluded, “The 5/i’s really are an integral part of developing the look of Insecure, they are so specifically engrained in the DNA or the personality of the show. These lenses have been really, really good to me.”