Cinematographer Markus Mentzer offers advice for shooting on a fast-paced set, like Netflix’s “I Think You Should Leave.”
Between cinematography and the rest of the camera department, Mentzer has been in the comedy scene for over 15 years. He “watched the best people do it,” getting credits with Seth Rogan, Adam Sandler, The Lonely Island, Tina Fey, and more.
He’s the cinematographer for “I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson,” which just debuted its third season on Netflix. The cinematography is the best it's ever been. Mentzer’s team were shooting “over 24 days, 40-plus locations, 300 pages of dialogue.” It’s an impressive rate that means he needs to be one step ahead. Here’s how he broke down his competitive edge to us.
Lean Into New Tech
Shooting on Sony’s original VENICE system gives three distinct advantages. Firstly, Mentzer is able to record full frame proxy files. “It’s a speed issue, trying to get the footage into post as quickly as possible. Those proxies go straight into editorial with a LUT burned in.”
Secondly, they’re shooting everything in 6K. Mentzer can shoot a little wider, knowing that there’s plenty of cropping room in post. This helps speed things up. In addition, they don’t usually waste time swapping out prime lenses. “We shoot 90% of the show with zooms. This season, it was the full frame Angenieux zooms, which turned out beautifully.”
Finally, the VENICE ecosystem brings the new Rialto system on set. This significantly reduces the size of the camera. “Rooms and cars are always going to happen.” Mentzer has been shooting on Sony’s VENICE since it came out. “I got to work on' Top Gun.' At one point they had like 29 VENICEs out.” It only makes sense that he appreciates the Rialto system after seeing its use on "Top Gun."
For lighting, “everything is wireless,” I was told. Mentzer and his team are able to dial in the look quicker than ever, with the help of a dedicated dimmer board operator. No more waiting for lamps to heat up, or cutting non-dimmable fixtures. “I Think You Should Leave” requires lots of different lighting setups for different genres, and flexibility is key.
Mentzer also makes sure that “practicals are always part of the shot.” In particular, Astera’s NYX bulbs. “Some of my favorite sketches are shot in these tiny 12 x 10 offices. Without practicals, I don’t think we’d make our day.”
“Unless it’s real, it’s not going to fly,” he mentioned. The creative team wants “to keep it as grounded as possible.” This gives a basis to every lighting setup. It also avoids giving away the joke, which brings us to our next part.
Get Out of the Way
“It starts with the talent,” Mentzer divulged. “Trust the people who have been doing comedy for their whole lives.” Over the years, Mentzer has learned to stay out of the way. He doesn’t want to allow the cinematography to lean into the joke too hard. It may give the punchline away too early, and the role here is to bring life to a script.
“You have to be close with your producers, and you have to be close with your director.” Mentzer knows that they’ve been scripting for over six months and that every performance is calculated and purposeful. “We almost take it for granted how well oiled we are. Alice (Mathias) is such a huge part of it. She’s our lead director. She’s the one who can see everything coming from a distance.”
Working with great talent is a time-saver in itself. The crew should never be waiting for an unrehearsed bit to get teased out. Mentzer cites Tim Robinson’s performances. “There are a couple times every season where he has to deliver this paragraph of lines, and he just kind of has it.”
This also extends to on-set playback of footage. They don’t use it. “We shoot everything with a film style, in that sense.” If you’re trying to save time, this will certainly help. “The creative team, they’re all SNL alums. The whole show starts with Akiva Schaffer. They’re not intimidated by any of this. Not having playback is so normal to them.”
“If some magic happens, you’re not going to get it on take two.” This is why “70-80% of the show is cross shot.” This saves time and aids the creative process. It’s clear why the lighting relies on practicals when so many camera angles need to be accounted for. “Sometimes the reactions are more important than the dialogue on this show. It’s the only way, time-wise, that we’d make our day.”
Mentzer makes use of the Sony VENICE cameras, but also an a7S III to make sure he gets coverage in tight spaces. Sometimes, there are three or four cameras running on set. “We’re constantly surprised in the grade. ‘Wait, that was an a7S III?’”
The Future of Comedy
Mentzer agrees that “'I Think You Should Leave' has really connected with a younger audience” and that “'Please Don’t Destroy' are incredible.” A new generation of comedy shooting is here. I asked where he felt that came from.
“It really starts with the talent, comedy talent that is willing to try new things,” he explained. “They’re doing what the Lonely Island did 20 years ago. If there’s any rule out there that you’re not supposed to break, they all break it. They do that because they make it themselves.”
Today, more than ever, small crews are just made up of friend groups. “The Office” found its grounded reality in ENG reality television shooting. TikTok sketch groups find reality in smartphone shooting. Less cuts, more handheld and democratized. “The indie way works, and people connect with that."
If you’d like to keep up with Mentzer’s shoots, you can catch him on Instagram. Aside from “I Think You Should Leave”, he’s got a new movie called “The Secret Art of Human Flight.” Directed by H.P. Mendoza and debuted at Tribeca Film Festival, it’s a drama that details a widower who “employs this self-help guru to teach him how to fly, to literally fly.”