<I>Lessons in Chemistry</I>: DP Jason Oldak
May 21, 2024

Lessons in Chemistry: DP Jason Oldak

Apple TV+’s Lessons in Chemistry is set in the 1950s, where Elizabeth Zott dreams of being a scientist, only to restricted by a society that believes women better serve in domestic roles. She accepts a job on a TV cooking show, where she sets out to teach overlooked housewives much more than recipes. The show stars Brie Larson, Aja Naomi King, Stephanie Koenig, Patrick Walker and Lewis Pullman.

Jason Oldak (pictured) served as director of photography on Episodes 3, 4, 7 and 8 of the limited series, which spans eight episodes. Oldak was nominated for The ASC Award for his work on the series and recently shared insight into the show’s challenges.

Hi Jason! How did you approach the visual language in your episodes of Lessons in Chemistry?

“It all starts with the story you are telling. As a cinematographer, you have to be truthful to the pages you’re given.

“Lessons in Chemistry, based on the best-selling novel of the same name, tells the story of Elizabeth Zott’s journey. Each episode of the limited series tends to create a different emotional and physical stage in Elizabeth’s life, and it gave me a jumping-off point for tone and the visual language for our particular episodes. Where I start in Episode 3 is a complete 180 in tone from what Episodes 101 and 102 were building.

“The term naturalistic lighting often comes up in contemporary cinematography, yet it doesn't always seem successful in its final execution. I truly feel like this was one of the first shows where I got there. We really strived to feel like the light was coming from our window sources or from a fixture that you can see on-camera in the interior sets. We definitely augmented these frames with our own lighting, but just enough exposure to feel as if that practical was creating that luminance on the subject’s face. At times, it was about finding a source that may be more of a three-quarter back angle to the subject, and we would wrap that light subtly with atmospheric smoke and grip attire so the lighting never felt heavy on the face. If we did bring units inside to help enhance the source of light, they were always used very subtly.”

Can you talk about some of the challenges of the show?

“With the camera, our consistent challenge was taking, for example, three shots needed in a scene and making them work as one. We would design the blocking so that the camera moves from one piece to the next and tells our story in a non-cutty aesthetic. I love subtle camera moves and equally enjoy staying completely static and letting the actors perform within the space. We incorporated both ways of storytelling throughout.

“In the beginning of episode 107, our story starts in the 1930s. There is a distinction between where Calvin (Evans) starts in his life (1930s) and where he ends up in our present-day story (1950s). As a young man, he was stripped of a family and a home, but he had drive and perseverance. After reading the 1930s portion of Episode 7, Tara Miele (director of 107) and I decided that if there was a place to depart from the ‘Lessons’ look, this was it. We felt inspired to strip the color away and create a cooler palette with blooming highlights to contrast the warmer 1950s AGFA film stock aesthetic.”

What do you see as the show’s biggest challenge?

“Like any show, there are always challenges and curveballs.  My episodes had a good number of babies, dogs and young children incorporated into the story that kept us on our toes, problem-solving.
“Throughout Episode 107, one specific visual challenge was the friendship Calvin and Rev. Wakely formed through letter correspondence, leading them to open up their minds to each other’s beliefs and worldviews. The letters are penned in the script as VO with minimal scene direction to match and could appear to be a giant montage. It was up to Tara (Miele) and I to create a cohesion of imagery that would flow back and forth, sometimes metaphorically, to the spoken word being said. A lot of this voiceover imagery was found in the water, filming Calvin rowing.
“Every cinematographer will tell you that their biggest fear is watching that sunset and knowing they did not complete the daylight work for the day. Our day on the water, shooting all of our row work for multiple episodes, was an extremely tight schedule. The plan was to shoot the row work on a lake in San Dimas, CA, in early December, when the sun sets at 4:30 pm, if you’re lucky. We arrived way before the sun came up and had everything pre-rigged to get out on the water as soon as that sun was rising. We had a large pontoon boat that carried the crew and a 35-foot movie bird crane with a camera on the end of it. We treated the row work as you would with a car-to-car sequence, trying to keep the team placed on the right side of the sun.

“Tara, myself, and our AD worked out a precise timetable. With little room for error, we had our work cut out for us. In the end, the light was always in the right place at the right time, and our team was on their A-game, resulting in a stunning final result!”

Can you walk us through the camera package you were using?

“We photographed the series on the Arri Mini LF camera system, along with TLS Canon K35 lenses. We shot in Arriraw framing for 2.2:1 inside of 4.5K, 3:2 full sensor. I love the Arri camera, and its color science does seem to react slightly better to skin tones and has a softness to the image. The camera is small enough never to be an issue when mounting to cranes, remote heads or Steadicam. However, I really feel that your lens choice is your paintbrush when it comes to designing your visual language for your show. The TLS Canon K35 lenses, supported by our friends at Keslow Camera, are rehoused vintage glass that really accentuated the period we were after. We added a mix of atmosphere, and it was exactly the right recipe for the series.

“One of our consistent camera tools on the show was a stabilized remote head called an Arri SRH 360. Our A camera would live on this head when we did any studio work. This head also helped immensely when we had to do any of our dog work, allowing us to be low enough with the eye line and not have to lay down track to do dolly moves.”

What scenes would you point to as the most interesting from a cinematic standpoint?

“When Tara Miele and I discussed the opening sequence for Episode 107: Book of Calvin, we wanted to show off how Calvin, as a young man, was always so curious about the world, which took his attention away from his schooling. The opening was not one shot but intended to feel like one. Because of the geography in front of the boy's home location, we used a 35-foot move bird crane to tell our story. As our first nun calls out to Calvin to get to class, he is startled and starts to run towards us. The camera proceeds to telescope back, leading him. As the boy rounds the corner, we shift our crane on the dolly track down the line with him, and as he runs up the stairs, the crane telescopes forward, feeling as if we were running to class with him! The location was built on a pretty steep hillside, making it a game of measurements to see if it could be achieved. But, thanks to our key grip, Adam Kolegas, and his team, it was a success. I also wanted to limit the ambient sunlight surrounding us and build on the contrast, so Adam constructed a cluster of large black solids to take away the unwanted light in the scene.

“Once upstairs, we actually did the whole shot as one move on Steadicam (operator Mikael Levin). The intention was to tie the boy’s name, Calvin Evans, to his face at the very end of the sequence. We start on his feet as he enters the hallway and pull back with him. The camera leads him as he rounds the corner, wrapping around the back of Calvin, and is now in follow mode as he approaches the class door. As he opens the door, we creep in behind to get to the seat before the nun turns around. As she says his name, we wrap around and reveal Calvin in the light, sitting in his chair. 

“The second half of the sequence was all done on stage. As we reveal Calvin, we see four to five large windows in his background. We had to flood them with a handful of T12s and Q10 Fiilex lights to make it feel like the sunlight was beaming into the classroom and for them to be rigged just high enough that we couldn’t see the units. I loved the orchestration and the timing of that shot. It told the story in the most effective way possible. This was truly a collaborative effort with our G&E team, AC & operator, our director, and myself. 

“In Episode 104, as more clarity appears in Elizabeth’s world, she decides to convert her kitchen into an industrial lab. The directors, Bert & Bertie, and I created an elaborate number of shots, all feeling like it was one fluid movement of the camera, creating the feeling of time passing. The camera moves in and around the kitchen with Brie (Larson) in what feels like a circular motion, with stitched edits in a few places, as the viewer watches the kitchen transformation to a science lab unfold. Different characters come and go, building the passage of time. 

“We worked closely with the art department, shooting this sequence over a week’s schedule, slowly replacing parts of the kitchen that would appear seamless in the edit. In the end, we land on Elizabeth and a vision of Calvin reminiscing about their past and their love for one another. The way they are both lit in this moment is one of my favorite scenes in the show. They are gazing into each other’s eyes. As the viewer, you know this is in her head, but at this moment, I wanted it to feel so real! We enhanced this feeling through dreamlike lighting on their faces. We do a slow dolly push into each of their faces as they talk about their pasts. I truly love how we orchestrated that sequence.”