INSIDE shooting Cloak & Dagger with cinematographer Cliff Charles

Cliff Charles is a twice Primetime Emmy-nominated cinematographer known for his work on Shots Fired and ABC's action drama Cloak & Dagger. Here he tells Mandy News about his process, his relationship with director Spike Lee and what DoPs can do to succeed.

22nd November 2018
/ By James Collins

cloak & dagger dp cliff charles DISNEY

Cliff, tell us a little bit about how you got involved with the camera and how that took you to the world of film and television?
Oh my goodness [laughs]. There’s several versions to that story. Basically, I’ve always been a lover of film and television but growing up in Brooklyn, New York, I didn’t really think that making films was something that you could do; it seemed foreign. I’d hear about Hollywood and just assume that where I am these things were not a possibility. And then Spike Lee came up. I saw a person, standing on a street that I knew – not far from where I grew up – and it made the whole thing seem a lot more tangible. I thought “if he can do it, then I guess I can.”

I enrolled in college to do a radio and TV major, and while there, realised that television, at that time, was a little different from cinema, so I also started film classes. By the time I graduated, I’d completed a dual major, in both. Unbeknownst to me, film and television would converge some years later, which was completely to my benefit.

I worked as a technician – an electric – for several years and, at the same time, shot anything I could get my hands on. I did a lot of music videos, student films and just built up my credits to the point where I did a couple of indie features with my buddies from college.

When I graduated in ’94, I did an internship on Spike Lee’s Clockers. Fast forward 10 years, I shot a project called Miracle’s Boys and his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, was executive producing and that’s how he came into the project. It was a smaller project and they weren’t looking for any of his usual cameramen – so I basically got the nod and that began my relationship with Spike.

Since then I’ve shot both his Katrina documentaries, When the Leeves Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, as well as his part of the All the Invisible Children (a compilation of films, with his part called Jesus Children of America) in 2005. I also shot various commercials and other projects for him, and to this day we still have an ongoing relationship.

Working with Spike put me into the documentary world and all along I wanted to get back into the scripted narrative world which I originally focused. But then that documentary background started getting me work in television.

So I worked on a show called Shots Fired, which was executive produced by Gina Prince-Bythewood and her husband, Reggie Rock Bythewood. I previously worked with both of them on documentary projects so they were familiar with my work and brought me on board to be the DoP on 3 of the 10 episodes in the series.

The following year, Gina had shot the pilot episode of Cloak & Dagger with her DoP, Tami Reiker, but neither of them had the intention of working on the entire series so they recommended me and…I got hired [laughs]

On Cloak & Dagger, how long was it from coming on board to getting to shoot, and how were you involved in the process? What was the pre-production period like? What kind of discussions did you have?
The pilot is usually the time the showrunner and the producers figure out what the look of the show is going to be, so the initial look was conceived by Gina, Tami and Joe Pokaski, the showrunner. I came in to just continue something that they had already started really.

The look and style had a lot of similarities to what we did on Shots Fired the year before, so it made me a very natural fit, to continue that look. Once I came on board, I adopted that look and, of course, did some modifications to it because there were things that we came across throughout the season that varied from the initial pilot.

It gave me some creative breathing room, to be able to just add on to the original palette that Gina and Tami and Joe created.

What cameras were you using?
The pilot was shot with the ARRI Alexa Mini, so we continued with that. It’s an all-handheld show and very rarely would we use anything not handheld – even if we were doing some sort of a dolly, we’d usually still have the camera handheld. We used Summilux prime lenses.

Was it a single camera show?

Working on each episode, what was the turnaround?
It’s pretty high-paced [laughs]. You’re basically prepping and shooting as you go along.

On this particular show, I was the sole DoP. After the pilot, I did episodes 2 through 10 and there was no break in between the episodes for prepping. It was just continuous. The second we’d completed episode 102, the very next day we’d began 103 with a new director.

It’s definitely taxing and you need to keep your eye on the ball at all times. There’s not a lot of room for error. It was challenging but in a good way. I was happy that I was able to rise to the occasion. I was also glad that it was only four-month period [laughs].

When you have different directors coming in for each episode, how do you help keep the show “on track” and to the original vision?
Well, with each director I would try to have a lengthy conversation, to get an idea of where their heads are at, and what they want to bring to the table, and how do they want to translate the text into visuals. Then we would just talk about the different ways that we work.

All the directors are very respectful to the style and the look of the show; no one was really looking to deviate from that, but everyone definitely wanted to put their own twist and stamp on it. My job was to take the essence of what they want to do and then make it work within the look of the show. In television, time is also a factor, so making sure that everything we discussed would be achievable within the schedule that we had was important.

What are you currently working on or planning to work on in the future?
Well, season 2 is about to ramp up. I can’t talk about it [laughs]. After season 1, I went back into doing some more documentary work. It’s great to be able to move back and forth between documentary and scripted.

Does your approach change working between the two?
No. For several reasons. For one, I just look at them both as storytelling, which is something I actually learned from Spike: I heard him asked how is it for him as a director to switch between telling a documentary story or a scripted narrative, and he said there was no difference and that they’re all storytelling. I feel exactly the same way; it’s still photography.

There are different rules that need to be applied. Obviously, in documentary we don’t have multiple takes, it’s all live, but my approach is no different – I look to connect to whatever the story is. I look to connect to it on a very visceral level, and because I have a technical background, that is always playing at the back of my mind. Then some sort of organic process occurs in my head, where I just say “Hey, this is what I think we should do”, we select our lights and lenses and it sort of flows.

I don’t really rely heavily on my technical background when trying to communicate ideas or a vision to a crew, or in discussing it with the director; for me it’s more of an emotional response to the subject matter and the characters. How we represent the characters is paramount to me – how they’re lit and framed – it’s so important.

Definitely, in Cloak & Dagger, there was nothing arbitrary; it was really thought out and it definitely came from that connection I had to the subject matter and the characters.

What advice do you have for young cinematographers and DoPs wanting to come up in the industry like yourself?
It’s a very different landscape from when I came up – when I began in the industry, we were still primarily shooting on film. Although, because I did both film and TV, I was shooting tape and film simultaneously. Now we’re just in a digital world and there are really no barriers.

When I was in film school, you shot film, took it to the lab, went home and wait until it was developed, went back to the lab, picked it up, took it back to school and rented a projector to see if you messed up the footage or not. Now you have a very instant response, which completely changes the complexion of how you make films. For the DoP that immediacy is incredible. DoPs today have much greater advantages than I had to experiment, and challenge themselves digitally.

I guess “Take advantage” is the best advice that I can give to someone coming up. Take advantage of the fact that your phone actually shoots in 4k [laughs]. Take advantage of all the tools that those that came before you did not have at their disposal. Just shoot and shoot, and shoot.

The second thing I would say is watch a lot of old films.

Why old films? Any in particular that you would mark out as specifically good?
The main reason to watch films that are older is because they didn’t have the technical advances that we do now. When you see something from Gregg Toland and you just see how remarkable the photography is and you know that he didn’t have access to creating vignettes and power windows – there was no “fixing in post”, it all happened on set – it’s great to see.

For me personally, that’s how I think; “Yes, we’re in a digital age and I’m doing a Marvel show that is heavy on post-production but my goal is always to get as much in-camera as possible. Fortunately for me, our showrunner feels the same. We do everything we possibly can practically. I think that really sharpens your skills. Don’t adopt that attitude of “Oh, we’ll just fix it in post.”