On March 20 of this year, cinematographer James Laxton, ASC accepted the American Society of Cinematographers Award for Outstanding Achievement for his work on the multi-nominated Prime Video mini-series, The Underground Railroad. Laxton, who became a member of the ASC in 2019, had been previously ASC- and Academy-nominated for his stunning imagery in producer/director Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, which won the best picture Oscar. Among his other credits is If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins’ take on the James Baldwin novel.
Like his other work with Jenkins, The Underground Railroad uses the power of cinema to examine issues of race and humanity. The ten-episode miniseries tells the story of a group attempting to escape from slavery in the 1800s, but with a strong element of magical realism – in this tale, the underground railroad, which in historical fact was a metaphorical name, is an actual railroad complete with engines, tracks, tunnels and engineers.
"THERE’S A DEEP HISTORY THERE WITH BARRY AND ME, AND IT GOES BEYOND LEARNING WHAT A LENS OR A CAMERA TOOL DOES"
Magical realism is a literary technique that began in novels. To make it work in the more representational world of cinema required a delicate balance and nuanced understanding between the filmmakers. Laxton, who met Jenkins in film school more than two decades ago, says that their longstanding collaboration served as a strong foundation.
“There’s a deep history there with Barry and me, and it goes beyond learning what a lens or a camera tool does,” says Laxton. “It has to do with who we are as individuals, and knowing where our hearts are at in the world. When you take on a project like The Underground Railroad, it opens your heart to all kinds of things. To be able to experience that, and to be willing to feel all the emotions that one feels capturing the scenes that take place in the show -- you have to do it with people you care about. Otherwise, your feelings might be too much. You might break down. It took a toll on us emotionally. The only way we could have made this show was with our friends and our families.”
As a concrete example, Laxton mentions the distinctive close-ups that are a notable aspect of the visual style. “There’s something intimate about a character looking directly into the lens,” he says. “It breaks down the barrier between motion picture and real life. Of course there are a number of reason that we chose to shoot them and use them as we did. But I think the real success of these shots has more to do with who Barry is as an individual, who I am, who the subjects are, and to put it simply, how much love and respect we have for the characters that we’re photographing. How we light, and how push in, has everything to do with who we are as people, more than it has to do with the technical craft.”
The shoot lasted 117 days, but Laxton, Jenkins and production designer Mark Friedberg were on the job for more than a year counting prep. Laxton says that the extended prep allowed for “deep and appropriate choices.” He adds that all of the project’s department heads are filmmakers first, meaning that their input was valuable across every aspect, helping to ensure a unified result.
"I’VE USED PIX ON EVERY PROJECT I’VE DONE IN THE LAST SEVEN OR EIGHT YEARS"
Throughout, the team used PIX to facilitate communication. The industry standard tool for securely sharing dailies, PIX is designed to streamline the flow of all varieties of information across complex webs of human talent and technology behind media content creation.
“I’ve used PIX on every project I’ve done in the last seven or eight years,” says Laxton. “Of course, I’ve used PIX simply to see dailies, but in addition to that, to share edits and rough cuts of scenes to help us all make the project better. It’s a huge tool in our arsenal to facilitate the communication that our filmmaking team requires. It’s something that I use all the time. Really, I’m on it more than five times a day, whether it’s dailies or a set of edits.”
The Underground Railroad uses a bold approach to color, including shocking shifts in palette tied to story points. Laxton shot on the ALEXA LF camera, using CODEX Capture Drives to record in ARRIRAW. He says that he prefers to use strong LUTs during the shoot, likening it to knowing a film stock and how it will react. “The ability to see something closer to the desired result, right from the beginning, means I can make more subtle adjustments in terms of exposure, lighting, color and other creative choices,” he says. “I can get with the production designer or the costume designer as we’re shooting.”
Regarding the large format, he says, “It’s actually a wonderful performance tool. We often think of large format making things bigger and stronger, and that’s not untrue. But in addition to the nuance in performance, you can get more of the actor in the frame. You can simultaneously feel like you’re in closeup. That allows the actor to be more expressive physically, which to me is a win-win. I’m always looking for ways to give them more stage on which to perform, and large format oftentimes gives us that.”
Laxton is now working on a Lion King prequel with Jenkins that will require extensive VR. They are considering shooting with the ALEXA LF, and using PIX extensively in preproduction to collaborate on the visual design of the animation and other imagery.