<i>Sugar</I>: Richard Rutkowski on shooting the Apple TV+ series
May 21, 2024

Sugar: Richard Rutkowski on shooting the Apple TV+ series

Sugar takes a contemporary take on the private detective story. The Apple TV+ series stars Academy Award nominee Colin Farrell as John Sugar, an American private investigator, who is trying to uncover the mysterious disappearance of Olivia Siegel, the beloved granddaughter of legendary Hollywood producer Jonathan Siegel. As Sugar tries to determine what happened to Olivia, he also unearths Siegel family secrets - some very recent, and others long-buried. In addition to Farrell, Sugar stars Kirby, Amy Ryan and James Cromwell.


Richard Rutkowski (pictured) was the director of photography on Episodes 103, 104 and 107. Here, he reflects in his contributions to the eight-episode series.

Richard, what was your visual approach to the series?

“From the start, the visual approach was a work of collaboration with the pilot block director Fernando Mireilles and his longtime DP Cesar Charlone. This team had worked together for decades and brought an aesthetic familiar from their earlier films, such as City of God and The Constant Gardener. When director Adam Arkin asked me to join the show for his episodes, I knew that our path forward would be collaborative, making sure all episodes worked together to tell this unique, compelling story. Our show would harken back to the ‘noir legacy,’ particularly noir stories set in Los Angeles, tipping its hat to those examples in both subtle and obvious ways. Noir themes abound: the missing girl, the detective with his own secrets, a conspiracy among powerful people, family intrigue and dark truths, and a merging of the high end of society with lower corrupt elements.

“But here, I also sought a renewed appreciation of more modern ‘color noir’ films such as LA Confidential and The Long Goodbye or The Grifters. No one example was dominant, but instead, I saw an opportunity in multiple aesthetic choices from these terrifically-filmed works. To answer the question most fundamentally, our approach was to be gratefully open to experimentation and to take calculated risks in the visual language, letting the story take us outside of normal conventions and be bold. It really had that spirit throughout, thanks to the combination of creative forces, including designer Tom Foden and his very talented art department, and supportive producers.”

What did you face as the biggest challenge when working on your episodes?

“In many respects, the biggest challenge was also our biggest opportunity, which was to keep our creative spirit on point at each opportunity. It was made clear from the outset with the participation of Fernando as the pilot block director that we’d make work outside the norm and, more than that, taking the image into new directions whenever it made sense. Combined with the very ‘meta’ nature of telling a classic ‘LA private eye’ story with clear references to the legacy, all in the modern day, bright light and color-rich, moody nights of contemporary Los Angeles, this had me asking daily where less expected paths could lead us in our camerawork and lighting.

“Specifically, there were days and nights spent filming Sugar driving his classic Corvette through the LA streets and alleys, and being exposed to the changing light of day. I didn’t try to filter the daylight with nets or silks, but instead picked routes that offered backlight or involved dappled light through trees. Our cameras were set up with remote iris controls being adjusted throughout the run. Then, for the evening work, very little lighting was used beyond small LED tubes located on the floor or dashboard of the cars, while picking routes that offered street lamps or some dynamic street-front lighting to edge and glow the actor’s face. It produced some truly gorgeous effects in the end and brought the ‘world of Los Angeles’ into the shot very fundamentally. Overall, Adam and I wanted LA to become a character itself on-screen. This approach with the car worked helped immensely.”

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

“Testing beforehand led to working with the Sony Venice 2 and Venice 1 out of Panavision Woodland Hills, along with a mix of PanaSpeed primes and lightweight Panazooms. The exposure latitude was a big factor, especially being able to bring back detail in overexposed areas of the frame. Cesar’s lighting style would trend towards letting highlights go and exposing for the shadow, which made the fast 1.4 open T-stops of the PanaSpeed lenses a big part of the image making. Also, a plus that the Rialto mode with the Venice created a smaller capture block, apart from the main body of the camera and free to flexibly move handheld through scenes or around the performers in specific setups. In working with the exteriors and bright windows on-location, I brought in both graduated and attenuated ND filters to shape the image and contain exposures, allowing the LA landscape to be a part of interior sequences also.

“But the main cinema camera bodies were just the beginning, as we began using Apple’s iPhone camera with special lens adapters to film setups directly or from hidden positions inside the set. Sometimes very close to the actor and even underwater, the iPhones were deployed creatively and liberally. We were framing up the iPhone from every angle imaginable and planting cameras into the nooks of bookshelves and furniture. The resulting angles are all over the show and proved especially useful in shooting the open-top Corvette. 

“For Episode 4, involving social media posts from the missing character Olivia, as well as a set of surveillance angles for the Warner Movie Palace location, (with) images seen by Sugar in a monitor on the wall of the projection booth, I utilized the iPhones and also small Sony RXO camera blocks with internal recording SD cards. We could hide these on door frames and in the darker corners of the location, framed up to capture needed angles while our main unit cameras moved in or out of their frames. So it was truly an accumulation of cameras that made up the resulting episodes, all chosen for the potential of experimentation in the storytelling while capturing the work with efficiency as well.”

What scenes would you point to as highlights of your work?

“In Episode 4, we had a terrific opportunity present itself — the screening of a classic film in front of Sugar and most of our main characters, leading to a key clue in the form of a dress our on-screen actress is wearing. Once I’d scouted the theater, a classic and beautifully restored Warner Movie Palace, located in Long Beach, and realized we could project an actual film on-screen rather than rely on VFX solutions, I advocated for creating the widescreen film print that the audience and our cameras would see. This led to shooting a short, four-minute segment one night then carrying it through development and print at FotoKem Labs in Burbank. 

“We made a 35mm reel that repeated the sequence several times, allowing us to shoot creatively around the actors during its projection. Embracing a Douglas Sirk-style of dramatic, colorful, night lighting, vintage vehicles and wardrobe, and a rainy alley of the Paramount backlot, we shot a fictional stage-door sequence, complete with the femme fatale and the tuxedoed bodyguard joining a passionate first kiss. It's totally Hollywood's dream-factory material and a delight to shoot in anamorphic splendor.

“The process itself also proved pleasantly efficient, realizing a print for us just a few days after the photography. Placing Sugar’s characters in the context of an actual film screening that they could view and relate to altogether, while freely allowing our cameras to find those reactions and to tie the actors to the projected image, was an essential contribution to the show’s intentional referencing of Hollywood legacy and a continuation of its mysteries becoming dramatically revealed.”