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The Thrill of the Ride

Cinematographer Jeffrey Waldron discusses the distinct styles he helped craft for Haunted Mansion and You Hurt My Feelings.

The new feature Haunted Mansion delivers spooky fun inspired by the famed Disney theme park attraction. Telling the story of single-mom Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and the eclectic group she gathers in an attempt to rid her new home of its hauntings, the movie reteamed director Justin Simien and cinematographer Jeffrey Waldron, who had previously collaborated on the first season of Simien’s Netflix series Dear White People.

After the thrills of Haunted Mansion, Waldron rode straight into writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s dramatic comedy You Hurt My Feelings, about married couple Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Don (Tobias Menzies) and the strains on their relationship after Beth overhears her husband’s candid comments. The gear-shift from one project to the next offered a creative rush for Waldron, who recounts the journey’s twists and turns in this Q&A.

Panavision: How did you become involved in each project?

Jeffrey Waldron: Justin Simien and I clicked on the first season of Dear White People, sharing a love of film history and a lot of visual instincts. When he reached out about Haunted Mansion, I was so excited, not only by the idea of getting to shoot with Justin again but because I love the visual world of the source material, the original Disneyland ride. Actually landing the opportunity was an uphill battle — like Justin, I was coming from independent film and television, so I worked hard to prove my potential and communicate a big vision for the film.

During the final stretch of shooting Haunted Mansion, I got a message from Nicole Holofcener — we had shot together on HBO’s Mrs. Fletcher and had stayed in touch — and she asked if I might be available for a movie in New York City. I was heartbroken that I wasn’t able to do it. When we wrapped Haunted Mansion, I checked back in to see how it went, and she told me it had been pushed. Suddenly our dates matched up, and we did You Hurt My Feelings together.

How would you describe the look that you and the director sought to create for each film?

Waldron: Well, these are very different looks!

For Haunted Mansion, we wanted to create a rich world built upon the visuals of the ride. To me, that meant a lot of color contrast between warms and cools, a lot of practical lamp sources, candles, firelight, shafts of moonlight, and a soft, dusty, painterly feel. There are a number of other looks in the film, from a flashback told through a crystal ball to the ‘Ghost Realm’ — an astral plane painted in stark colors inspired by everything from a film negative to Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

The script for You Hurt My Feelings managed to balance a very natural flow with a bit of a heightened, satirical edge. I took my approach from there: a softened realism lit from real-world sources but heightened to emphasize drama or lightness in parallel with the characters. We shot a lot of exteriors in New York in the spring, which fell into this soft, pastel approach well. I like to think of the result as natural and realistic but filtered through Nicole’s nuanced writing and directing voice for the film.

For both projects, were there any particular visual references you looked at for inspiration?

Waldron: For Haunted Mansion, Justin and I brought in a lot of references: Hitchcock, The Twilight Zone, The Cincinnati Kid, street photography of New Orleans. I looked at lighting references from Crimson Peak and Tim Burton films like Beetlejuice and Alice in Wonderland. I’d say the biggest visual reference for all departments was consistently the ride itself. How did it strike this balance of scary and funny, and how do we bring that into a timeless-feeling but visually modern film?

For You Hurt My Feelings, I put together about a page of images I’d pulled from New York City photographers and some smaller personal films that leaned pastel and soft but felt real. Nicole looked at them only long enough to feel we were headed in a unified direction and then just started putting together the movie.

Rather than trying to emulate the entire look, there's often one small thing I like in each reference. I might use the picture to communicate a kind of green or cyan I love, or a specific kind of framing, or how they're using a super-wide lens - or whatever it is. For me, rather than looking at a few whole images, it's about putting together a lot of them that each have one or two things I'm inspired by to add to the soup.

What brought you to Panavision for each of these projects?

Waldron: In early testing for Haunted Mansion, while they were building the sets, I took a camera around with a handful of lenses. When we put these images on the projector for Justin to see, it felt like a no-brainer that we wanted to shoot anamorphic — the way they bend and fall off and everything, it just felt very … haunted? Right off the bat, I had a lot of ambition for the film lens-wise. I knew Panavision had a long history of anamorphic optics to pull from as well as the ability to match them or modify them, plus the Herculean organizational ability to put all of this together in time.

For You Hurt My Feelings, it was a Tier 1 film with not a lot of money for a camera, and I appealed to Sal [Giarratano] at Panavision New York for help!

You used a mix of optics for Haunted Mansion. How did you determine which series to use for any given scene?

Waldron: I wanted to differentiate our waking world, which we shot with T Series; Madame Leota’s crystal-ball story, shot with a special ‘portrait’ anamorphic lens set; and the Ghost Realm, which was shot with modified G Series. Each of these felt perfect for their role in the storytelling. The Ts felt more classical and buttoned-up; paired with a subtle bit of filtration, they looked great for the bulk of our scenes. The portrait lenses had heavy, glassy smears all around the anamorphic oval, which fit perfectly for a story we watch unfold through a crystal ball. And the modified Gs brought on a lot of fun anamorphic distortion, aberration, focus and light vignetting for our glimpse into the Ghost Realm. We also used Primo 70s for VFX elements that needed to be shot very cleanly.

For You Hurt My Feelings, what drew you to Primo lenses?

Waldron: I wanted a simple, comprehensive prime set that rode the line between vintage lenses and super-sharp modern lenses. The Primos have a very human quality while being optically sound. We did a slight adjustment to add a breath of diffusion into the lens and bring on a hint of veiling glare to play into our soft naturalism.

What inspired you to become a cinematographer, and what keeps you inspired today?

Waldron: I've always loved pulling together memorable images from their component visual parts to find something greater than their sum. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a hand-drawn animator, and this evolved through still photography to wanting to become a cinematographer in my teens. I'm inspired every day by the world around us — the way light falls through my windows, the color of a rainy day — but I'm mainly inspired by the work of my peers. Every day new work shows that cinematography is indeed young and boundless, pioneered by the greats but constantly in flux.

Haunted Mansion unit photography by Jalen Marlowe; photos and frame grabs courtesy of Disney.

You Hurt My Feelings unit photography by Jeong Park, courtesy of A24.

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