Cinematographer and Camera Operator Manuel Billeter, a graduate from the prestigious New York Film Academy Filmmaking course, has worked across a variety of iconic and groundbreaking American TV shows including “Jessica Jones,” “Luke Cage,” and “Iron Fist”,“Law & Order”, ”Person of Interest” & “Orange Is The New Black.” Most recently he has been DOP on The Gilded Age (HBO Max) and Inventing Anna (Netflix).
We spoke to Manuel about his work on The Gilded Age and his passion for filmmaking.
Hi Manuel, thank you for talking to The New Current, how are you holding up during these very strange times?
It has been about two years since the global pandemic started and in one form or another, it’s still dominating the headlines and conversations. It most definitely shook my existence to the core, as the work I was doing suddenly and completely stopped. There was no ‘work from home’- it was ‘stay home and ride it out’. It made me have a deeper look into the values that I had been living by and somehow grinding to a halt helped me focus my attention towards my family, spending time with them at home rather than working away and barely seeing them. It reinforced my trust in patience and forced me to look to the present, living moment by moment.
Has this time offered you any creative inspiration?
It has awarded me with the opportunity to read books, take pictures and surely gave me deep meaningful moments. Any change always comes with creative innovation and adaptation and opens up new paths you didn’t necessarily know existed.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you got involved in The Gilded Age, what was it about Julian Fellowes & Sonja Warfield’s series that interested you as a cinematographer?
My agent sent me a script to read in August of 2019and the characters just leaped out of the pages at me. I always find it quite daunting to start reading a script that is sent my way, because ultimately I’m always rooting for it to be good, interesting and well written. It’s a potential project that I could be spending a lot of time and energy on, so if it doesn’t inspire, it’s disappointing. During a first read-through, I barely think of it through the lens of cinematography, I let it speak to me through the story, the characters and the tone. With The Gilded Age, I found myself immersed in a world I wasn’t familiar with at all and started discovering it through the eyes of a young character, who abandons her home and moves to New York to start a new life for herself. I realised only much later that in a way, it mirrored my own journey of discovery from 25 years ago, I suppose. But in my case, there were no rich members from the establishment to take me in….
As a cinematographer, I imagined that visually, the canvas that would be set up for this project was going to be grand and the colours and textures luscious - from set design, locations, to wardrobe, props and every detail that was needed to recreate the riches of this bygone era. I had never done a period piece, so the prospect of getting to face a new challenge was definitely of interest to me - I don’t like to be pigeonholed into just one area, doing the same thing over and over - change is needed to keep things creative. I was also intrigued by the developments from that period that shaped the world we currently live in and in fact, many social, political and cultural elements are still very much present today.
What are the first steps you take as a cinematographer when you’re about to work on a new film?
There are many steps one has to take before you even get selected to work on a project, which usually consists of various levels of conversations with directors and producers — unless they have worked with me before — and then putting together some inspirations, any materials that in your mind support the story visually and speak an authentic language. It can be music, it should be visual, it can be also a book, as long as it references the material at hand. Most importantly, I like having conversations, spending time with the director to get to know them and familiarise myself with the project, getting into each other’s heads, just bouncing ideas back and forth. It’s all about collaborating. Time is a very important commodity, the more I have to live with this new project - usually, a director has spent already a considerable amount of time with the project before I get aboard - the more I discover, the better I feel about the stage when time becomes utterly scarce, and a bit scary: during filming.
How did you and DP Vanja Cernjul go about re-creating such a beautifully authentic look to The Gilded Age as well as creating a distinction from the old & new New York?
Luckily our work, to a big extent, relies and thrives on a collaborative spirit. It takes a big village, especially for a project of this scope. We were blessed to be surrounded by a team of great artists in the art department, set decoration, costumes and hair and makeup, all performing some magic all around us and a production and locations department that supported each unit with full force. Vanja and I did a lot of research about the available lighting sources of that period - just before electrical illumination became available on a wider platform. Daylight is quite self-explanatory, but in the daily life of the period, it’s the evening is where light sources differ from what we are used to now. At a certain time of the early evening, all the gas fixtures were turned on and lit, as well as the oil lamps, brought back up from the daily cleaning process, ready to be used again. Then later in the night, the centralised gas supply was turned off in the household (note that ‘curfew’ stems from French ‘couvrir’ and ‘feu’, ‘to cover the fire’, meaning ‘lights out’) and only oil sources or candles, portable or standing, would be used. Vanja and I wanted to stay true to the daily routine of the time and sometimes after discussions with our directors, took the liberty, for dramatic reasons, to decide whether a night scene took place before or after curfew.
As far as the distinction between the warring societal factions goes, we implemented not a strikingly different approach but relied more on the subtle difference created by using different lens systems: anamorphic lenses for Old Money New York and spherical lenses for New Money New York. The anamorphic lenses, with their more blurred bokeh, conjure a feeling of the past, whereas regular spherical lenses render a truer depiction of what our eyes see in daily life, so it feels more immediate, less artificial and they are also cleaner, crisper. I also tended to keep the camera in slightly more rigid and claustrophobic compositions for the old faction, always keeping the camera at zero tilt, so all the lines would be kept straight and square, playing with the notion that those characters were trapped in a cage. In the Russell house, I used more dynamic compositions and also more camera movement, to reflect the mobility and fast-paced determination of this faction.
When working on a series like this how important is the collaborative nature of filmmaking between a cinematographer/DP and the directors?
Collaboration is key. It can’t be stressed enough. We are all working towards the same goal and we each bring our own talent, creativity and expertise to the project, a clear and open communication will ensure that the right and most thoughtful decisions will be made in order to achieve the common intention. On this series, a lot went into historical research, so a wider net of knowledge would help achieve a grounded and authentic end result.
What where the biggest challenges you faced on a project?
There are always many challenges, most of them coming up at the very last moment, so it’s important to stay calm and collected. For some you can prepare, for others, you need to improvise. I would say that the biggest challenge is not having enough time in prep, not spending enough time with the director.
"I’d say that I adapt the approach to each project at hand, so I’m always very happy when I get to work and different projects with different challenges that need a different approach..."
Have you always had a passion for cinematography?
I suppose I have, as I’m somehow naturally drawn towards the poetry of images.
How much has your background directing short films and as a Camera Operator help to inform your approach to cinematography?
Having a varied pool of experiences to draw from is a big help. You understand everyone’s job better and you can relate and adjust. Coming up through the camera department, I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with a numerous collection of cinematographers and you learn a lot just by being in the same room. You have the opportunity to observe and apply things that work and reject things that don’t work.
On a technical side do you have a particular type of lens or camera you like to use?
I like to think that a good set of eyes is more important than a specific camera model… but I do gravitate towards the Arri Alexas. There is a smoothness and cinematic quality that I liked right from the beginning. As far as lenses go, I believe that each project requires a different approach when it comes to the glass you’re using to tell a specific story. I like to experiment and test various lenses before making a decision, sometimes you find something unexpected in a lens that you had rejected for a different project, but now suddenly makes sense for this other project. Lenses create a very specific look, bring a specific character to the images, one that can’t be manipulated in post, it’s sort of “baked in”, it’s a big decision in creating a look for the show.
Has your style and to your projects changed since you started out?
I’m not sure if there is a specific “style” in my work that I can’t shake off, as I believe that each project necessitates careful and thoughtful attention - what fits and works and what doesn’t. I’d say that I adapt the approach to each project at hand, so I’m always very happy when I get to work and different projects with different challenges that need a different approach, I don’t fall into the trap of doing the same thing all over again.
And finally, do you have any advice or tips to offer an emerging cinematographer?
Stay open-minded, be curious and find your own voice.