‘Black Bird’ cinematographer Natalie Kingston reveals her inspiration for the look of the show’s prisons [Exclusive Video Interview]

When Natalie Kingston was setting up how she was going to photograph the limited series, “Black Bird,” she found a specific piece of inspiration for what look the show would have. “The crux of my visual inspiration was from the photographer, Gordon Parks, and this 1957 photo essay he did called ‘The Atmosphere of Crime,’” she tells Gold Derby during our Meet the Experts: TV Cinematographers panel (watch the exclusive video interview above).

Kingston remembers how visceral the photos were in using natural light but also having a moody and cinematic feel to them. “That really spoke to me. You could just feel the texture almost in these photos. There was this pastel color palette that I really responded to that I thought could be an interesting visual juxtaposition for the tone and the themes that we were exploring in ‘Black Bird.’”

“Black Bird,” which is currently streaming on Apple TV+ follows the true story of Jimmy Keene (Taron Egerton). After being sentenced to 10 years in prison for drug and weapons charges, Keene is given the chance to possibly get released early. In order for this to happen he must transfer to a maximum security prison and get one of the other prisoners, Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser), to confess to several murders even though most people believe him to be a serial liar. At the same time he’s trying to get Hall to talk, Keene is forced to navigate his own paranoia and suspicions that other prisoners might know he’s a snitch.

Kingston also used her camera to communicate the confined space that Jimmy found himself in both physically and mentally. “I wanted to create this feeling with the visual language through the lens and through a format of not being able to escape and immersing the audience into Jimmy’s perspective.” She also wanted to make sure that this was shown regardless of what setting Jimmy was in for a scene. “I wanted to really just plant the audience inside of those conversations whether they’re in the cells themselves or in the wood shop.”

In shooting inside an abandoned prison, Kingston did find a number of challenges, especially with the fluorescent lighting. “Every single fixture is bolted shut because it’s a prison, so all the bulbs were changed out before we started shooting so they were all consistent, but I didn’t have individual control over them.” That issue was able to be worked around with grips and the use of gels but shooting inside the actual cells presented a whole new set of issues. They were able to get a camera portal to utilize another angle but it was still immensely time consuming. “We really had to plan around the time it took to open up the portal, get the camera in and then put it back so we wouldn’t see it on the other shots.”

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