Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building is a comedic crime drama involving three strangers — all living in the same Upper West Side apartment building — who share an obsession with true crimes. When a grisly death takes place inside their building, Charles Haden-Savage (Steve Martin), Oliver Putman (Martin Short) and Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez) employ their own investigative techniques to find the truth, and at the same time, record a podcast to document their findings. The 10-episode series premiered on August 31st, with new episodes rolling out each Tuesday.
Nat Jencks (pictured) of PostWorks, New York (postworks.com), served as colorist for the series, working with long-time collaborator Chris Teague, who shot the show.
“We’ve been working together for probably over a decade — countless feature films and TV shows together — including a (Netflix) series called Russian Doll, which Chris won the Emmy for ‘Cinematography’ for," says Jencks. "I love working with Chris. We share a lot of aesthetic values. One of the things that I think is really interesting about Chris’s work is, he works on a really wide variety of genres, but in his comedy work, he takes a much more naturalistic approach — a more sophisticated approach — than is often done…
Russian Doll exemplified that quite well.
Only Murders in the Building is a totally-different aesthetic than Russian Doll, but it’s similar and in the sense that it’s a lot more interesting visually than your typical comedy fare.”
For Only Murders in the Building, Jencks says that he and Teague took a lot of visual cues from older murder mysteries and film noir.
“When Chris and I started talking about the look of the show, Chris shared stills with me from films like (Alfred Hitchcock’s) Rear Window. We don’t actually want it to look exactly like
Rear Window. It’s not meant to be those films, because it’s a modern show and it has a totally different way of shooting it. So rather than trying to exactly emulate that, it’s sort of trying to be in the same room as it, and sort of reference a lot of those visual ideas.”
Jencks worked to develop a look early on, noting the film stocks used at the time films like Rear Window (1954) were made.
“Those films were shot right at the dawn of single-strip film,” he explains. “Traditionally, people had been using the Technicolor process — a three-strip process. And then Eastman Kodak had come up with a single-strip process that was more cost effective for the studios.”
All of the looks that Jencks develops come from his own experimentation, as well as the color science team at PostWorks, and color scientist/Efilm founder William Feightner.
"I work with those guys and have a library of different looks that I have built over a very long period of time," Jencks explains. "Each film that I do, I do look development. Some of those looks are built using something that I have built from scratch, and some of them are built by profiling a particular type of film.”
Only Murders in the Building was shot using Sony’s Venice. In the past, Teague and Jencks have worked with 16mm, Arri’s Alexa, Red and even a Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera.
“Pretty much every format,” says Jencks of their past collaborations. “The way that he approaches, choosing a camera is definitely not based around allegiance to a single manufacturer, but by looking at what’s going to be great for this show — and the Venice is a pretty amazing camera. We shot most of the show rated at 2500 ISO, and it’s super clean, which is not something that you get from a lot of cameras — to be able to shoot that fast of a speed with very little noise and very high resolution sensor.”
Almost all of the show was shot on a stage. The various window exteriors were green-screen composites.
“There’s a pretty large number of VFX — people passing in front of the windows, of course, the hair, and all the different types of things that can be troublesome with green screen. Having that fidelity in the negative was really, reassuring.”
Jencks builds the LUT prior to shooting. It's then loaded into the camera and also used for dailies.
“I always think it’s really useful for the whole team to be able to have that look in-camera, so that the creative team, the director, the show runners can see it as Chris is imagining it. [Doing] that look development in advance, I find to be tremendously helpful.”
Jencks used DaVinci Resolve Studio for the color grade. DaVinci Resolve 17’s new HDR primary grading palette has customizable, zone-based exposure and color controls, along with perceptually color constant image processing for enhanced control over HDR grades.
HDR, says Jencks, presents a new set of challenges for material that’s lit on a stage, particularly comedies, which often have broad lighting.
“HDR removes the barrier between the viewer and what’s in front of camera. Often that’s great, but it also can make the lighting feel more artificial, which takes the audience out of the experience. The zoned toolset allowed me to control highlight roll off correctly using zones applicable for the whole scene, rather than a more individualized approach with luminance keys, which saved time.”
While a LUT was established for the production, and can often carry through to post, certain tweaks are still implemented later on by Jencks. This might have to do with how quickly production is moving forward and if Teague is keeping up, knowing that Jencks can handle any soft of corrective measures later on in post.
“Every project is different,” he says of the grading process. “For me, getting that pre visualization done in preproduction can be so useful…In some situations, if [Chris] can make the lives of everyone easier on-set by doing something faster and getting to where they need to be a little bit faster, because he knows that I can do it later in the DI, then that’s just a win for everyone. But, he has to be totally confident that he’s not painting himself into a corner by thinking, ‘Oh sure, we can do this in the DI’, and then find out that we can’t. So that’s where it’s really useful to have that kind of shorthand between us.”
A lot of the tweaks are refinements in color, as opposed to a reinvention of it, with Jencks giving it “a nudge” to make it look a bit more cinematic.
“Chris might expose the neg a little bit more brightly and broadly than he is targeting for the final product, knowing that we can adjust that after the fact.”
Jencks completed the series out of PostWorks’ 110 Leroy Street location in New York City. He sent a calibrated monitor to the set for the creative team to see his work, and Teague had a calibrated monitor at his house, as well. The creative team was also able to use iPad Pros for reliable review at their convenience.
While PostWorks is home to both DaVinci Resolve and FilmLight’s Baselight grading systems, Jencks says he uses Resolve on most of his work. The studio’s Linux systems are great for what he defines as “heavy lifting” on jobs that require intense computational power. The Mac systems, he feels, are a bit more nimble for other tasks.
“We have a whole fleet of both Mac and Linux systems, and we use them concurrently on the projects, and choose whichever one is right for the job. I have some plug-ins that I like to use that are Mac-only, so I often end up end up on the Mac.”
While the time he spends on each episode varies, he estimates it falls between one and two days.
“Of course, I’m jumping back and forth between episodes," he explains. "We’re doing an HDR pass. We’re doing an SDR pass. We’re doing Dolby Vision, so all of those tasks get kind of mixed up.”
The multiple formats are designed to future-proof the show, should it extend its delivery beyond Hulu.
“We are mostly just delivering a single file on a show like this,” says Jencks. “The primary deliverable piece is a Dolby Vision IMF, which has the capability to generate both the HDR and SDR version…I’m making sure the HDR version is good, and I’m making sure that the Dolby Vision SDR metadata, which generates the SDR version on the fly from the HDR version, is all doing what we want and reflecting our creative intent. The ultimate file that we’re delivering is fairly simple in that is a single file, but to get there, we still have to look at it and look at the different versions of it to make sure that they’re all in line with what we wanted.”
LA-based editor JoAnne Yarrow (pictured), ACE, is one of three editors that cut the series, which was shot using Sony’s Venice, along with the Phantom Flex 4K for slow-motion work. Matthew Barbato and Julie Monroe also handled editing duties.
“There are various moments throughout the season where we go into more of a surreal moment, and this was excellent for that,” says Yarrow of the Phantom camera. “GoPro was a stand-in for webcams and phone cameras, while driving plates were primarily shot on Red Ones and Red Scarlet.”
Yarrow, who cut Episodes 2, 5 and 8, used Avid Media Composer 2018.12.15 for the edit.
“I would use Adobe Photoshop to tweak some elements we had,” she adds. “I find the combo of the two often makes creating a temp look a little more polished.”
Each episode, she says, has its “own kind of swagger” to it. “There is a really strong point of view in each episode as well. Sometimes the point of view is told through our leads — Steve, Selena or Marty. Other times, it’s through our suspect’s point of view. Episode 3 has this really great fantasy sequence with Oliver (Martin Short’s character). You get to see a rundown of all the suspects in a really fun and inventive way, told through the eyes of Oliver himself. It’s absolutely hysterical.”
Yarrow also points to Episode 8.
“Throughout the series, these fantasy or heightened moments really gave us a chance to play. Since there are fewer rules in that space, I had a really good time cutting Episode 8. We meet new characters for the first time and it really feels like they are so close to figuring out who the murderer is by that point.”
Supervising sound editor/re-recording sound mixer Mathew Waters (pictured, below) was responsible for creating the show’s true crime series sounds. Waters’ credits include HBO’s Game of Thrones and
Lovecraft Country, as well as the features
If Beale Street Could Talk and
Booksmart. When he saw that Steve Martin and Martin Short were doing a series together — “I have always wanted to work with them” — he made a few calls to offer his services, and ultimately landed the job.
“I love to get started early working with the filmmakers to help create the soundscape of the episodes,” he explains. “Once I knew I was doing it, I got the scripts and got in contact with Julie Monroe, the picture editor, to start talking about the sound and sending her stuff over to work with. I did that with all of the editors on their episodes. I just find it to be so helpful and it is fun working together with all of them.”
The show takes place in a New York City apartment building, so Waters says he felt it important to try to make the building a character itself.
“Episode 107 was a blast because it was told from a deaf person’s point of view,” he notes. “So, as always, I got with Julie early on to discuss some ideas that her and I had. I then took her production tracks and manipulated them so they were unintelligible, yet had a very cool quality to them. The only dialogue you hear in this episode is the very last line. They sub-titled the entire episode.”
Showrunner John Hoffman really liked the soundscape.
“It was a fun challenge to make the show interesting yet void of intelligible sound,” Waters continues. “The few times we go back to the real-world sound, it is like you can breath again. It is very effective. This concept has been done before, but never to this extent, to my knowledge, and it was really fun to be a part of.”