Hulu's Queenie: Cinematographer Nathalie Pitters
July 1, 2024

Hulu's Queenie: Cinematographer Nathalie Pitters

In Hulu’s Queenie, Dionne Brown stars as 25-year-old Jamaican/British woman Queenie Jenkins, who lives in South London, where she is trying to straddle two cultures while fitting neatly into neither. The series is based on the novel by Candice Carty-Williams and also stars Bellah as Kyazike and Samuel Adewunmi as Frank.

Cinematographer Nathalie Pitters shot four of the series' eight episodes, including Episode 6,  which incorporates flashbacks showing the roots of Queenie’s trauma. Here, she shares insight into her work on the show.

Hi Nathalie! How did you can involved working on Queenie?

“I first signed on to the project thanks to the block 1 director, Joelle Mae David. We had worked together on our previous show, Dreaming Whilst Black and had got on really well. She introduced me to the team, who in turn introduced me to the block 2 director, Makalla McPherson. During my initial chat with Makalla, we did a real deep dive into Queenie's character and discussed her emotional journey. It felt as if we were very much aligned. I came away from that interview with a really good feeling, and so I was very pleased to find out I'd been successful.”:

What was the timeline for the episodes you worked on?

“My interview with Makalla was in March, and I began prep towards the end of April. Our block 1 DP, Rachel Clark, very kindly invited me to the lens test ahead of my prep period officially beginning, which was great as we were able to really discuss how the lenses would handle specific moments in our respective blocks, as well as decide together on an anamorphic set for the flashbacks. It was also great to get a bit of a head start from Rachel on some of the locations they had decided on, and some of the challenges and solutions she had already identified with those. We had the same crew throughout both blocks, so it was occasionally tricky trying to find a time that would suit both myself and my key crew for prep, as they were shooting while I was prepping. So, it was decided that I would drop in on-set a few times and catch them during rehearsals and lunch breaks to have a quick chat about a particular scene or shot. There were also a few weekend and evening phone calls. The crew were very supportive about giving their free time to me for prep, which I really appreciated.

“We were prepping for around four to five weeks in total, during which I spent the majority of the time with Makalla bouncing ideas back and forth in our production office. We were very fortunate that our scripts were pretty close to being locked while we were prepping, as it meant that when we would go on recess, we were able to plot our key angles confidently, with the knowledge that not much was going to change script-wise. It's always a challenge when scripts are not locked, and you try to plan your visual approach, like trying to build foundations on shifting sands! Luckily, as we did not really have that problem, we were able to come up with a really solid visual arc for Queenie, which would take her through her emotional journey. 

“We had a four-week shoot, wrapping at the very end of June. We shot everything in my block in South London. I think every shoot wants more time so you can perfect your approach, however I fortunately did not have to make too many compromises in the end, as we'd had such a productive prep period. This meant that we were ready to adapt as we had really come to inhabit Queenie's world and her mind.”

What was your approach to the visual language in your episodes of Queenie?

“Makalla and I were very fortunate to have a lot of time to go through the script in very fine detail, and she's a very collaborative director, so I lucked out there. We spent many, many days in our production office in Brixton, doing page turns and breaking down the script scene by scene. We, of course, had a few elements from block 1 to keep in mind, too, such as how to cover what we were calling 'the tinny sound,' which was Queenie's panic attacks. Our scripts deal with Queenie trying to turn her life around, but then immediately hitting rock bottom before then working through it to the other side, so we wanted to represent that visually by isolating her in the frame and closing her world in on her as she turned increasingly inwards. For Episode 5, that meant using longer lenses on her and showing her in clean singles when we could, with a very shallow depth of field. Our lighting was on the darker side, and we were using the cool-toned LUT for this episode.”
Can you talks specifically about Episode 6?

“Episode 6 was our flashback episode, so that was almost a standalone thing, on separate lenses and with a separate visual language. We wanted to show the passage of time from the perspective of ‘The Child,’ and we wanted the audience to feel like Grandma's house had allowed them to be a fly on the wall throughout time. In order to convey this feeling, I suggested to Makalla to shoot the movement from one time period to another in transition sequences so that the passage of time would feel like a seamless flow. We analyzed the script and found the moments where we wanted to transition and moments where we wanted to hard cut. Unfortunately, many of our transitions were unable to make it to the final edit, or our episode would have been far too long! 

“In Episode 7, we wanted Queenie to start opening herself back up to the world. Her therapy is starting to help, so we wanted our lenses on the mid-wider end and to slightly deepen the stop. She still occasionally has her moments where she slips back into old mindsets and feels overwhelmed, so we wanted to bring back the tinny sound lens (Canon Dream Lens) and some longer focal lengths when the scene called for it. We also used our warmer LUT. Episode 8 shows Queenie's transformation, so we were shooting around T2.8 ½ - T4, using wider lenses and a lot more developing shots, which show Queenie interacting with her friends and family, and having a nicer time.”

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

“We had a single camera for most of Queenie on the Sony Venice 1, which was great for the dual native ISO. Another thing the Sony Venice was able to give us was the ability to go into Rialto mode. Block 1 had set up a visual language of utilizing top shots when Queenie was in bed, which we continued in key moments. Queenie's new flat had a very low ceiling, which the Rialto mode Sony Venice was perfect for, as we didn't have to factor in a big bulky camera, bringing the height of the lens plane too low for a nice wide on a flattering lens. It also came in useful in-car shots and for certain long handheld takes.

“We only had a B camera for maybe six or seven two-camera days, primarily days with a lot of cast, in order to get the coverage we needed in the time allocated. At times, I would cross-shoot if the lighting state allows for it, but I preferred using it to double up sizes on one character if the scene called for it. This was always more effective for sound, too. A scene where the two cameras came in very handy was Queenie's birthday in Episode 7. We had so many cast members all weaving in and out of the house throughout the scenes so having a second camera truly saved us on those days! Whenever I have two cameras on a show I usually prefer to put myself on B cam, so that when B is not playing I can watch the scene with the director and script supervisor, and understand how the scene is shaping up and identify if we're missing any beautiful details. I also feel it's a shame to not fully utilize the talents of a professional operator when I have one on-set with me, so I like to put them on A cam and take them through my ideal approach ahead of time. I like to make sure I'm in all discussions regarding shots and lensing to make sure it's in line with the approach the director and I carved out in prep.

“Lens-wise, we were on the Canon SKs for the modern bits and Todd-AO anamorphics for the flashback scenes. The decision to have anamorphic for the flashbacks was in order to differentiate scenes that have direct relevance to Queenie's day-to-day at the center versus scenes from her family history. Once I started using them during shooting I really fell in love with the unique characteristics of the Todd-AOs. I've used a lot of vintage lenses throughout my career, I like the way they infuse the image with a subtle element of memory."

What would you say was the biggest challenge of shooting this show?

“There were some exterior scenes that we were shooting in and around Brixton, South London. Both my block and the first block experienced a lot of difficulties shooting these exteriors because Brixton is an incredibly busy and populated area, and we found that a lot of people were very angry about potentially being caught on-camera. So, a lot of extra time and consideration had to be given to finding locations that were easy to control and slightly out of the way, but that still felt as if they were in the thick of Brixton. 

“Some of our exteriors were in quiet streets that were a lot easier to control and a lot quieter, but one scene we had to think about very carefully was a scene towards the end of Episode 5, when Queenie is walking home from having met Ted's wife at work, and she bumps into Adi and his wife. We were only allowed to section off half the street to allow for the general public to still be able to pass, with marshals on the corner trying to limit the amount of people crossing. Initially we were worried that the shots would be quite restricted as we were limited on angles. However, as this scene takes place in Episode 5, where we wanted to employ longer lenses and a shallower depth of field anyway, we were able to hide a lot of sins and have a lot more freedom than we initially thought.”

Can you share one or two scenes that were most interesting for you to shoot?

“For me, it was definitely the scenes in Episode 6, “She's Royal,” where we dealt with the generational trauma in the Jenkins family. It's hard to choose a favorite! I really enjoyed shooting the dining room table scenes, of which there were originally four, as each one had a different look due to the different emotions of the scene. Initially, we transitioned from the bedroom scene where Maggie comforts 18-year-old Sylvie after returning home with baby Queenie for the first time. Our grip, Suellen, designed a rig that would allow us to track along the telephone cord on the floor behind Maggie's feet as she walked into the room, then up to Sylvie lying in bed, adjusting for a two-shot and then transitioning off them into the window — in one shot. The idea was then to transition from the dining room window along the length of the table with the family sat around, revealing a seven-year-old Queenie. Ideally, we would have used a telescopic camera crane to track the camera across the length of the table, but we were unable to do so due to budget constraints and not having enough room for the crane. So once again, Suellen and I came up with a scaffold tube rig that would allow the camera to be underslung and pulled with a rope. It worked perfectly, so it's such a shame the world will never see that shot! 

“The four table scenes each had different moods, though only two scenes were able to make it into the edit due to timing. The first two scenes were the family at maximum joy, first with Queenie, aged seven, as the only child in the family, spoiled and loved by everyone, and very close with her mother. We then transitioned with a wipe into Queenie's 11th birthday party, which is in the show. This was the first mention of Roy, so (we) wanted to show a slight separation beginning between Queenie and her mother by not seating them quite next to each other, and having objects between them. This scene followed one of the characters out of the doorway and then locked the camera off to start a transition into the next scene, which was the first dinner without Queenie and Sylvie. The family is missing them, but no one is worried yet. We decided to hard cut to the fourth table scene, which is months later with the family now fractured due to the effect Roy is having on everyone. The reason for the transition was to seamlessly float through the ages, but unfortunately, very few of the transitions remained in the final cut.

“I also enjoyed shooting the scenes in Roy's house and the women's refuge hostel because of how raw they were. It felt like a real privilege sharing that space with the actors. The emotions on-set that day were very heightened, from both the cast and the crew. The scene of 11-year-old Queenie in the bathtub at Roy's was a very lucky accident for us. The scene was not actually scripted until after our location recess, upon which we found this incredible avocado bathroom. Queenie is shown throughout the show as taking baths, so I suggested to Makalla that it'd be great if we could do a very short scene in the bath, where we could combine the visual language of the top shot as well as create an origin story for why Queenie seeks refuge in baths. I was also keen to call back to her body language in the bathtub scene at the end of Episode 5. Luckily, the producers agreed. The location was just too good to let go to waste!”