From the moment Netflix announced the cast for I Am Not Okay With This in June 2019, thousands of memes and fan accounts appeared on social media.
The show, released this week, comes from the producers of Stranger Things and the creator-director of Emmy-nominated The End of the F***ing World, and it's clear to see the similarities—not just in narrative themes but in its visual language, too. With coming-of-age stories that focus on friendship, young love and self-discovery—including Sex Education—gaining such success, how much do lighting and color enhance their appeal? And what goes into making them look so great?
We spoke to the show's director of photography, Justin Brown, and colorist, Toby Tomkins, to get some answers.
"I'd been talking to Jon [series creator Jonathan Entwistle] about this project forever," says Brown. "We had a very definitive, timeless world we were trying to create."
"That sort of American cinema '90s film world is kind of what Jon and Justin gravitate towards," adds Tomkins. "Something that's very photochemical, but natural, maybe with a slight flare in some regard."
This isn't the first time the trio have worked together. They've known each other for a decade, most recently collaborating on the hugely successful The End of the F***ing World, which aired on Britain's Channel 4 before being released on Netflix. Such an achievement can be a hard act to follow, and there are inevitably high expectations the second time around.
"I think the source material is really good, and I think that's all you ever really need to believe in," says Brown. "The End of the F***ing World was such a small show with a small budget—it wasn't really supposed to do what it did. It was just supposed to come out and it would be cool or good and that would be it, but somehow fans latched onto it and it became really successful."
Rather than introduce an American feel to a British story in British locations, like they did for The End of the F***ing World, this time they committed to making something "inherently all American"—shot in America, for America.
"Luckily, Pittsburgh is quite timeless," says Brown. "So you can avoid LED street lights, you can avoid having brand new cars on the road, you've got steelworkers' houses from the '40s that are just here, and you've got these old Victorian schools that we were filming in ... so it was quite easy to form into the vision we were after, which was this timeless Midwest of America. Something that didn't feel grim ... that felt optimistic but had the ability for this supernatural story to play out."
The seven-episode season was filmed in Pittsburgh over a few months, requiring some extensive production. The exteriors are all real locations. Most of the interiors are sets, built for two reasons: The style of house they needed was physically too small, and Brown wanted to have as much control as possible over the lighting. Around one-third of the shooting days were on stage.
"The weather there is crazy," says Brown. "That was the main challenge. There's a scene in Episode 1 where we had this low sunlight coming through the kitchen, which you'd never be able to do on location because that took a whole day to film, and those are the real benefits of shooting on stage. It just helps with the vision to be able to just completely create it. Otherwise you'd have to guarantee the sun is out and film the whole scene in 10 minutes to get the light we had in that scene."
With everything increasingly moving from film to digital, it's a major challenge to apply a filmic look to a digital image. Most people want the filmic look now, particularly in music videos, with many directors of a certain generation opting to use film over digital, regardless of price or speed.
"The problem with shooting digitally is you have to work within that color space," says Brown, "and Toby's color science process is quite unique in that respect. You've got a head start straight away with your grading to get it into a film world, so all you're doing is really just finding that world. Then it's not as hard to put a small line through it and make it feel like it's of an era."
With most people choosing the same cameras to shoot on, colorists have become more important than ever in the image making process, helping cinematographers and directors differentiate themselves. "I think now grading is the last bastion to make your film or narrative piece feel like it's got its own identity," says Brown, adding that Tomkins helped him "establish that timeless world" for I Am Not Okay With This.
Film emulation is a passion of Tomkins' and has led him to spend many years developing unique techniques and tools to craft the desired effect. He originally created LUTs, which are his version of film stocks, for The End of the F***ing World pilot in 2011. Since then, he's continued development and they became a big part of the process for I Am Not Okay With This.
"I think everything benefits from being in that filmic world. We have an emotional connection to that type of color," says Tomkins. "I think when we formed our emotional relationship to images on a screen, for most of us—or my generation, at least—that was always shot on film, printed to film, so that's what we see cinema as. And when you see colors that look like that, I think you're brain goes, 'This is cinema, this is a world, this is a story.' You're meant to get absorbed by this story and escapism and all of those sorts of themes of cinema. I think color is a part of that emotional response as well as everything else."
Tomkins says the memories and stories that people associate with the colors of film are like "Kodak moments."
"There's a heritage to it," he adds, "and there's prestige as well because there's certain filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson whose films are known for their aesthetic—not just because they're shot on film, but I think you associate that look with a certain level of care, attention and polish."
To get their own look for I Am Not Okay With This, the pair conducted pre-production tests, both with cameras (Brown tested the Sony, Red and Alexa against each other) and with color (Tomkins crafted some extra LUTs).
The end result was the rare freedom to be able to grade in London while everything else was happening in America. The pair sat together in the CHEAT studio and found that the first grade pass had very few notes back from Entwistle. Brown and Tomkins' long working relationship has helped them develop a shorthand and makes less work for them down the line.
"I think at the end of the day it's about seeing the world in the same way," says Brown. "Many collaborations throughout film history which have been decades long are because they just click with that person at the right time in their career and you ride the wave with each other."
"Exactly," Tomkins adds. "A junior colorist said to me, 'How do you get to work on these cool Netflix shows?' And I said, 'Work with a really good DOP and wait 10 years!'"