MTV-Era Bio-Series Cinematographer Uses Visual Language to Tell a Story

MTV-Era Bio-Series Cinematographer Uses Visual Language to Tell a Story

High School, the new bio-series about indie-pop sensations Tegan and Sara, provides a strong example of how filmmakers can use visual language to help to tell their stories. I had a chance to talk to cinematographer Carolina Costa about her work on the series.

Working to Define a Style 

Given that the series is based in the grunge and rave era of the 90s, Costa and director/showrunner Clea DuVall spent a lot of time prepping the point-in-time feeling of the show. If you’re going to create a period piece that most of your audience will remember, it’s important to get it right. After reading the pilot, Costa prepared a mood book for DuVall full of images showing off clothing styling and MTV screenshots. Watching High School, it’s easy to see the value of Costa and DuVall’s work. The show is an immersive 90s experience.

Through Lighting

The low-key lighting that Costa employs for most of the show is both a reflection of the grunge videos that dominated the 90s and a reflection of the characters’ journeys of discovery. It’s not just dim so that we think about Nirvana’s videos. It’s also dim so that we struggle to see the characters a little, just like they’re struggling to find themselves. A lot of cinematographers will use low key lighting for aesthetics only. I appreciate seeing an adept cinematographer use lighting to help tell us about a character. 

The Green Day concert that figures heavily in the plot feels like a neo-punk concert from the 90s. Costa gets the mood and lighting down to a tee. Even when reinventing the lighting setups from old Green Day concerts from New York City and Chicago that were used as exemplars, Costa uses the flashing rainbow of light as cues for the emotions that characters are going through, effectively telling the story through lighting.

Through Framing and Actor Blocking

Costa and DuVall spend a lot of time setting their characters up in different parts of the frame to represent the characters’ evolving relationships. When the characters are closer together, their relationship is deeper; when they’re farther apart, it’s a little more on the rocks.

There are two particular shots from the series that really exemplify the way Costa and DuVall use blocking to help tell the story. At two different points, we see Tegan and Sara tell the same story from their individual perspectives. At the conclusion of the second installment of these stories, we see the characters close, but still separated, a very creative way to show the evolution of their relationship. 

I specifically asked Costa about the logistics of the bedroom shot. Costa explained that it took quite some time to construct the ceiling and plan the camera lift. For Costa and DuVall, the effort was worth it to help tell their story. 

The show is relatively episodic, as we get multiple points of view separated by title cards in each episode. Since we get to see some storylines from multiple points of view, Costa focuses the camera on the prime point of view. This means that we may see exactly the same moment shot from a similar field of vision, but with a different point of focus. When it’s Tegan’s story, Sara drifts out of focus; when it’s Sara’s story, Tegan drops out of focus. The secondary characters also get the level of focus that Sara or Tegan give to them. This allows Costa to tell a story about each of the characters and who they may be aligning themselves with simply by adjusting focus. 

Aspect Ratio

Costa and DuVall planned to intentionally change the aspect ratio of certain moments in the show. Each time there is a point of view shift, the screen changes to 4:3 instead of a more cinematic ratio that is used through the rest of the show. First, the 4:3 is used to represent the MTV era, a 90s TV ratio. For Costa and DuVall, this isn’t just a gimmick, though. The change in aspect ratio actually forces the viewers’ attention to a small screen; it feels more saturated. The aspect ratio switch is used to provide a quick and intense window into the world of the new point of view, before stepping back to show a broader view of the character’s world. 

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I really admire intention in filmmaking. Here, in High School, we’re not just being treated to a class in style and mood, but to a class in using the language of film to help tell a story. 

Catch High School on Amazon Prime.

Images used with permission of Carolina Costa and Amazon Prime.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Mark is a Toronto based commercial photographer and world traveller who gave up the glamorous life of big law to take pictures for a living.

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