Kelly and McDonnell fine-tune a shot of actor Cody Fern. (Photo courtesy of the cinematographer.)

On the Set of American Horror Story: Apocalypse

Director of photography Gavin Kelly welcomes American Cinematographer to the set of this tightly guarded FX anthology series and discusses how he approached recalling the look of past seasons into Season 8.  

Samantha Dillard

Director of photography Gavin Kelly during an interview at the ASC Clubhouse in Hollywood. (Photo by Nick Mahar.)

American Horror Story: Apocalypse Footage Courtesy of FX Networks.

It’s a Tuesday morning in September at 20th Century Fox Studios Stage 16, which has serviced such pictures as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Hello Dolly and Fight Club and was home to Season 8 of the popular FX series American Horror Story. The space is completely dark, save for a lighting setup against a black backdrop. Under the lights, a woman, locked in a trance, emerges from a shadow and comes into focus. Compelled, she removes her shirt as her eyes burn with tears. Director of photography Gavin Kelly sips his coffee as he narrows in on the monitor in front of him, studying everything about the shot. “We’re ripping out her heart,” he whispers. American Cinematographer has been granted the incredibly rare opportunity to be on set of the tightly guarded series. “Just another Tuesday on Horror Story,” he adds with a clever smile.

It’s the day before the show’s eighth season — entitled Apocalypse — will premiere, and the crew is shooting Episode 7, “Traitor.” AC is watching the episode’s cold open, in which voodoo queen Dinah Stevens (played by Adina Porter) draws a woman to her, sticks a pin into a voodoo doll — which splits the woman’s chest open — and reaches into her chest and pulls out her beating heart.

“This is a loving look at someone being tortured.”

The episode’s director, Jennifer Lynch, wants to shoot another take of the closeup on the voodoo doll, but this time, she wants the shot to be angled. “Do that voodoo you do so well, Gavin,” she says with a laugh. This is the second time Kelly and Lynch have collaborated this season, and after having previously worked together on Episode 2, they seem to have developed a bit of a shorthand with each other. When they’ve achieved the shot they wanted, Lynch claps her hands, exclaims, “Money in the bank!” and gives Kelly a high five.

Kelly adjusts a shot. (Photo courtesy of the cinematographer.)

The cinematographer joined the anthology series in 2016, and after Michael Goi, ASC, ICS — who photographed the show from 2011 through 2016 — Kelly has shot the most AHS episodes. (Read about Goi’s work on the series in AC Nov. 2012.) Kelly received an honorable mention for the 2005 ASC Charles B. Lang, Jr. Student Heritage Award, and his credits include the comedy musical short West Bank Story — which won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film — as well as the first season of the Fox series 9-1-1 and indie features LUV, Dial a Prayer and the reboot of Cabin Fever.

Also on set is Episode 9’s director, Jennifer Arnold, who stops by to praise Kelly as “a dream” to work with — the two have previously collaborated on the television series TableTop. Since Arnold will soon direct an episode of the show, she’s on set to meet the crew, observe the production and get a sense of what Kelly calls “the beautiful beast” that is AHS.

Six of Apocalypse’s 10 episodes are directed by women — including star Sarah Paulson — and the series employed five women and two men to helm the season. Series creator and executive producer Ryan Murphy — who has also created the popular series Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Crime Story, Feud and Pose — launched the Half Initiative in 2016, which is aimed at making “Hollywood more inclusive by creating equal opportunities for women and minorities behind the camera.” According to Half, less than one year after launching the initiative, the Ryan Murphy Television director slate was 60% women, and 90% of its shows met the diversity requirement. The effects of this initiative — which include mentorship and internship programs — are seen within the on-set crew as well.

The crew preps for the next shot, which involves wrapping all of the equipment — and A and B camera operators BJ McDonnell and Nathan Levine-Heaney — in plastic. The actress portraying the victim, Marah Fairclough, returns to the set with a practical prosthetic applied down the center of her chest. “We do as many practical effects as we can,” Kelly explains. “Eryn Mekash and her team are the best with special effects makeup and the like.” The makeup department puts the finishing touches on the prosthetic and adds glossy tears beneath Fairclough’s eyes. The camera angles so that the light hits the tears.

“This is a loving look at someone being tortured,” the cinematographer jokes, and adds that it is an approach he often employs on the show.

Lynch calls “Action,” and blood sprays from the prosthetic, splattering Fairclough’s face, chest and neck. It then starts gushing. Stage blood douses the Arri Alexa Minis, McDonnell and Levine-Heaney and stretches across the stage and past video village. The set remains silent until “Cut” — and then the room erupts into laughter.

Instantly, the crew descends upon the scene and starts cleaning. Someone from the makeup department calls out to assure everyone that it is a sugar-based blood solution and therefore won’t stain. Levine-Heaney gets up from his position behind the camera and walks over to Kelly, so drenched in stage blood that he looks like the victim of a violent crime. As he wipes the solution from his face, he turns to AC and affirms, “It’s just another Tuesday around here.”

B camera operator Nathan Levine-Heaney and the cameras were doused in stage blood to get the shot. “It’s just another Tuesday around here,” said Levine-Heaney. (Photo courtesy of the cinematographer.)

The stage lights come on so that the crew can find every spot of rogue blood spray, and it is then that the massive structure just left of video village comes into full view. It’s the back of Apocalypse’s main set — a post-apocalyptic bunker that also serves as a warlock academy.

When we move inside the set for the second scene of the day, we discover that it is complete with a ceiling, staircase leading to a second floor and multiple rooms, including a library. In the main room, where the crew is filming a scene between two scheming warlocks portrayed by BD Wong and Jon Jon Briones, there’s a grand fire pit, which is softly burning in the background.

(American Horror Story: Apocalypse Footage Courtesy of FX Networks.)

Throughout the course of Apocalypse, the motivating source of lighting on this bunker set is real candlelight and firelight. Going into a season on AHS, Kelly says, sitting down for an interview at a later date at the ASC Clubhouse in Hollywood, he doesn’t know entirely how the full story will unfold. During prep for Apocalypse, all he knew from the first episode was that “we were going to end up in this post-apocalyptic bunker, [which, according to the script], was supposed to feel lit by candlelight and firelight.” The biggest lighting challenge the team was going to face, he explains, was accomplishing this look. The season opens on a near-future Los Angeles moments before it is destroyed by atomic bombs. The few survivors are then transported to the bunker. “That was supposed to be a big shift, visually,” he says.

Kelly decided to employ accurate lighting sources as a starting point “because one of my pet peeves is very lit-looking firelight and candlelight,” he says. “Generally, I have a naturalism-based cinematography point of view. Lighting has to be motivated for me, even if it's the most outlandish, over the top world or setting. It can be either as pure or stylized as needed to tell the story, but at its heart, it should still come from somewhere that feels true to the environment. I think this always help anchor whatever reality we’re constructing.”

Kelly employed accurate lighting sources. (American Horror Story: Apocalypse Footage Courtesy of FX Networks.)

To achieve this look, Kelly worked with the art and electrical departments very early in the process. In addition to an arsenal of “usual modern lighting gear” a cinematographer employs on set — including Arri SkyPanel, LiteGear LiteMat and Quasar LED units — and the full array of tungsten instruments, real fire and candlelight served to “keep the natural color, flicker and other nuanced qualities of those elements embedded into in the lighting,” he explains. Through camera, lighting and ISO tests, the cinematographer and his crew determined how many footcandles would be necessary as a base for a given situation, such as when a large number of characters were sitting at a table in the dining room or library.

Several characters share a candlelit meal. (American Horror Story: Apocalypse Footage Courtesy of FX Networks.)

At first, he jokes, the set dressers and art department thought he was crazy for requesting a hyper-specific number of candles for various environments. “I need 18 candles on this table, not 16,” he would say. The reaction was understandable, he offers, because the set look was supposed to imply candlelight and firelight, which was present. But, he explained to the team, it was more complicated than that for his purposes. “I’m actually lighting with these candles,” he told them, and therefore needed the specific number. After that, everyone was on board and worked together to accomplish the desired atmosphere. Kelly adds: “The art department was further helpful in incorporating into the set design various movable small tables and stands for candles that could be dressed in different areas and configurations based on desired placement for lighting, on a scene-by-scene basis. It was a constant cooperative effort.”

Kelly (center left) and Levine-Heaney dialog about an overhead shot using a Cartoni Lambda 3-axis head. (Photo courtesy of the cinematographer.)

To supplement the real candles (there was an entire wall with dozens of half-burned candles on candlesticks just outside Apocalypse’s set), the electrical department — under the direction of gaffer Eric Sagot — built what the crew called “light candles” and “meta candles.” Light candles were small LED fixtures wirelessly controlled through the board and had a range of flicker capabilities. “We could hide them behind real candles or behind elements of art or set dressing or just in the background to provide pools of flicker. It was great because we could hide tiny light candles somewhere or make a greater ensemble of flame and vary the intensity and flicker unit by unit. It allowed us a lot of versatility in terms of being able to build and shape our lighting and depth,” Kelly explains. Meta candles were light candles that were embedded into real, thicker candles that had one side cut out. “It got a little candle-crazy,” the cinematographer laughs, “but it was great because we could pump up the level [of light] if it was near an actor or actress and we just needed to give them a little more light. We were often dealing with such low light levels. It felt like painting with candles.”

Kelly calls the process “painstaking,” but the look is something of which he is proud. “It's not every day you get to do something that's ultra-unique and specific, and everyone pulled together to really make that look possible,” he says.

The cinematographer primarily employed three Arri Alexa Mini cameras, recording 3.2K ProRes: 4444, paired with Arri/Zeiss Ultra Prime 10mm to 135mm lenses. He also carried Angénieux Optimo lightweight zoom lenses in his kit, but for these low-light sequences, he says he wanted the look provided by the Ultra Primes. “As soon as we knew we were going into the first part of the season with a lot of low-light candlelight, I really wanted to lean into that. We shot tests with different lenses in different low-light scenarios, but circled back on Ultra Primes because they're fast, beautiful, sharp and modern. Yet the way they flare, halo and scatter light around is a little soft, playful and dynamic.

“It’s not every day you get to do something that’s ultra-unique and specific.”

“We really wanted to feel the haze and textures of the candlelit world. We had a lot of atmosphere on the set, and the lenses played with that well. With Ultra Primes, you always felt the glass responding to the candlelight in pronounced, dynamic ways, like excitedly dancing on the edges of frame or washing delicately over the image. This helped the candlelight feel interactive and alive in the scenes. The goal was to visually reinforce that the candle and firelight was a key character and powerful elemental presence in this world.”

Kelly mostly shot these low-light sequences at 1,280 ISO. “We didn’t use any filtration,” he explains, “except some occasional 1/8 Tiffen Black Pro-Mist for various flashbacks throughout the season.” When Apocalypse partially transitioned out of these low-light settings, he still utilized the Ultra Prime lenses at a wide aperture to “maintain a shallow depth of field. That became a very consistent part of the look of the season, even when we were in different environments,” he says.

Kelly (wearing baseball cap) lines up a 3-camera setup on location at the Sepulveda Dam with camera operators John Zilles (far left) and Levine-Heaney (in front of Kelly). (Photo courtesy of the cinematographer.)

The cinematographer has shot 25 episodes of AHS and was the sole director of photography for Apocalypse. Of being the only primary DP, Kelly offers, “It's absolutely great to be able to have that through line on the show. It's also a challenge prep-wise with directors because I'm always shooting. I'm essentially always on set.”

As an anthology show, this offers another layer of complexity because AHS has a different look and feel every season while still maintaining its overall aesthetic. Kelly mentions it was helpful approaching the visual language of the season through collaboration with Episode 1 director Bradley Buecker, who also directed two additional episodes of Apocalypse and has been a longtime executive producer of the series. Kelly calls Buecker “one of the key creatives of the show” and says, “Doing the first episode with him is always great because we're dialing in overall approaches for the season, what we’ll emphasize and how to tell the story visually.”

Director and executive producer Bradley Buecker (left) and Kelly discuss camera angles for a scene. (Photo courtesy of the cinematographer.)

As the season progresses — and Kelly spends 14-hour days on set while also supervising color correction with Kevin Kirwan at Encore Hollywood — his prep with the directors changes. Often, he says, prep meetings will take place over phone calls, emails and during lunch. “I'm essentially not able to tech scout a lot of the locations myself. I review location pictures and art department designs, etc. And then it’s a constant dialogue with my G&E team who scouts, and I talk with the ADs and directors to give my input [in terms of] lighting, camera and special equipment.” Most often, he adds, a director will approach him with specific questions or ideas about the visual approach for certain sequences and the two will discuss from there. “You are always rolling day by day and trying to stay a couple of steps ahead of the curve, which is challenging but also a lot of fun because the team's up for it and the director is definitely up for it.”

Apocalypse, however, presented unique creative challenges, especially as part of an anthology series. In Episode 3, as a surprise to audiences, in a flashback that extends the length of the season, a coven of witches arrives at the bunker — and they are from AHS’s third season, Coven. Apocalypse also visits Season 1, Murder House, for an episode and briefly dips into Season 5, Hotel.

Episode 5 ends with a reveal of the "Murder House." (American Horror Story: Apocalypse Footage Courtesy of FX Networks.)

Kelly was then faced with an interesting dilemma: He wanted the cinematography of the Coven, Murder House and Hotel sequences to feel familiar to audiences, but he also wanted there to be a consistent and coherent through line in the Apocalypse photography. These earlier seasons were primarily shot by Goi, so Kelly referenced his work and collaborated with the directors on how to meld everything together.

When the witches arrive, the tone and arc of the story dramatically shift. Kelly and Episode 3 director Loni Perestere discussed how to approach this deviation — which Kelly considers one of the season’s most effective sequences — from a visual perspective.

“Our goal was to both nod to some of those stylistic elements that the audience was familiar with, especially with Coven, while fully incorporating these approaches into our overall specific visual language and style we designed for Apocalypse.”

Of how he approached this sequence, Kelly says: “This is a big moment for the arc of the season, which until this point has focused on a group of survivors of nuclear war that are holed up in the bunker. We’ve been locked in the dense, candle- and fire-lit bunker, visually reinforcing their confinement along with a stylized gothic grandeur. There's a certain formality to the look and feel — a sense of restraint and confinement in camera movement and angles. We were composing angles that heighten the imposing, brutalist-inspired architecture and design — whether with extreme symmetry, clean flat lines, tableau-esque blocking and compositions and/or extreme wide low and high angles with heavy foreground, etc. The climax of this episode is a shocking sequence where almost every character we’ve gotten to know dies. We employed the whole gamut of dynamic approaches for this group death scene, including slight rolling, dutch-ing angles, handheld, dolly work, Miniscope crane work, Lensbaby shots and body-mounted camerawork with the camera mounted to actress Billie Lourd’s upper body in a fixed wide-angle CU. We wanted to break the aesthetic that we'd been largely locked into at this point in the season, as the security and structure the audience was subject to was suddenly collapsing around them before their eyes.

“At the end of that sequence, we designed a transition sequence to build up a nice reveal of the witches’ arrival at the bunker — in a grand entrance into the season. This sequence also expands on the visual style of the season thus far, highlighting more dramatic dutch-ing and ‘rolling’ that is a callback to some of the formative, earlier seasons of American Horror Story shot by Michael Goi, including Coven. Our goal was to both nod to some of those stylistic elements that the audience was familiar with, especially with Coven, while fully incorporating these approaches into our overall specific visual language and style we designed for Apocalypse.

“The camera starts by gliding over the starkly strewn dead bodies in the library, introducing a subtle bit of camera roll. We used our Chapman Minscope with the stabilized Arri Maxima head to achieve this shot. The shot delicately lands on a CU of the radio and then drifts and rolls up towards the ceiling.

(American Horror Story: Apocalypse Footage Courtesy of FX Networks.)

“Here we transition to night exterior shots gliding far and wide over the bunker through the post-apocalyptic haze to reveal three silhouetted figures passing through the fog and past the gates in a series of shots. Then approaching the compound exterior, the camera drives in to reveal our hero witches moving towards us out of the fog.

(American Horror Story: Apocalypse Footage Courtesy of FX Networks.)

“We went for a full hero introduction here, with sweeping camera moves; soft, atmospheric lighting; and a moody but glowing key light to highlight our heroines. We used a 50' Technocrane with an Oculus head on the exterior shots, rolling and swirling the camera from extreme high to low angles, to really emphasize that a new energy was entering the Apocalypse landscape and would leave it forever changed: the witches! We then see the witches enter the bunker, and the camera drives directly through the large main fire to a powerful three shot of the witches as they land, ready for action.

(American Horror Story: Apocalypse Footage Courtesy of FX Networks.)

“This ‘rolling’ approach was then incorporated into the overall visual aesthetic for the rest of the season and pushed and elaborated even further in various ways as the story progressed and explored elements of magic and the Antichrist. It’s all part of what I really love about American Horror Story — it’s always full of surprises. It’s a constantly evolving universe where you're encouraged to keep exploring and developing bold, dynamic visual approaches to help tell the story and hopefully keep the audience on the edges of their seat.”

The team works out the camera move on a 30' Super Technocrane. (Photo courtesy of the cinematographer.)
The team works out the camera move on a 30' Super Technocrane. (Photo courtesy of the cinematographer.)

The sequence Kelly considers one of his personal favorites takes place in Episode 6, “Return to Murder House,” which was directed by Paulson and revisits characters and storylines from the show’s debut season. “[Sarah’s] vision, focus and attention to details as a director are every bit as striking as her work as an actress,” Kelly shares. “She has great sensibilities and is constantly pushing herself and the team creatively, which is invigorating.”

In the sequence, Murder House’s Constance Langdon, portrayed by Jessica Lange, dances as she smokes a cigarette and drinks whiskey before swallowing a bottle of pills. “Ooh, that’s what I call a bon voyage,” the character muses in voiceover narration.

“Watching Jessica work is pretty incredible,” Kelly reflects. “With what Sarah and Jessica wanted for the scene, we blocked and mapped it, and, ultimately, it was [more about] building the framework for Jessica to be able to live in that moment and have the camera be fluid and respond and react and be in that headspace with her character.” 

McDonnell served as operator, and Michael Vejar as 1st AC, who Kelly notes were imperative to the scene’s success. The cinematographer explains, “We generally knew where Jessica was going to head and had lit for certain key moments, so that she'd move in and out of the right light. We streamed backlight through the windows and built up some atmosphere. She was smoking, there was a lot of haze and we pushed it a little ethereal. We hopefully allowed Jessica the space to let her do her thing, and we aimed to capture it with the right touch. It was definitely one of the freest scenes, where once you designed the broad strokes for it, you could allow it to breathe and play.”

Kelly (left) and A camera operator BJ McDonnell work out a shot. (Photo courtesy of the cinematographer.)

He adds: “I like that sequence because it feels very much American Horror Story stylistically, but also very grounded to [the character’s] emotional journey. At least that’s what we were going for, so we were very happy with that sequence. I think Sarah was happy, too.”

Paulson was an especially great collaborator, the cinematographer continues, because of her intimate familiarly with the show’s visual evolution. “I mean, it’s her show,” he offers. “She knows everything. It's a great advantage to have a director who has been an actress on the show since the beginning. She could reference any scene or shot from Season 1, so there's a lot of times that visually and stylistically we pushed the look to reference Murder House.”

From left: 1st AD Dan Lazarovits, Kelly and director Sarah Paulson on set. "She has great sensibilities and is constantly pushing herself and the team creatively," Kelly says of Paulson as a director. (Photo courtesy of the cinematographer.)
From left: 1st AD Dan Lazarovits, Kelly and director Sarah Paulson on set. "She has great sensibilities and is constantly pushing herself and the team creatively," Kelly says of Paulson as a director. (Photo courtesy of the cinematographer.)

“I tried to honor and respect the work that was done before us.”

Kelly notes that Goi and the other Murder House cinematographers shot the first season on film, and since he was shooting digitally, to recall the look, he focused on color balance and palette. “I was very conscious of trying to match certain elements of the look lighting-wise and palette-wise to [previous seasons] so that it felt like you were returning to someplace familiar that audiences knew,” he says.

Creating the visual callbacks proved to be a delicate process, the cinematographer adds, because “if you separate the look too much [from the current season], then all of a sudden you're just jumping out of the world that we're anchored in for this season. So, we also had to make it our own to tie into the aesthetics of Apocalypse.”

He adds: “I tried to honor and respect the work that was done before us. It was a lot of fun.”

Certain stylized sequences that called back to earlier seasons required Kelly to shoot on film, such as the “Seven Wonders” test, which originally appeared in Coven and is presented as a silent movie. To replicate the look, Kelly tracked down the same gear Goi employed, including a hand-cranked Arri 16mm camera package from Panavision. With this, he utilized Kodak’s Eastman Double-X black-and-white negative film and pushed it 2 stops. “It was important to be as consistent as possible,” he says.

Another favorite sequence is Episode 5’s cold open, in which Cordelia Goode (portrayed by Paulson) has a premonition about the impending apocalypse and is attacked by scavengers. “It’s a short, elegant sequence,” Kelly says. “I'm proud of how we [accomplished it] and how it ties into that tangible sense of the apocalypse that we know has happened in the first episode. And now Cordelia has had a visceral experience with it, and that's going to inform the trajectory of the rest of the season. I am very proud of the sequence as a puzzle piece in the story and also visually with how we were able to design and execute it. Plus, I'm a sucker for the texture of atmosphere. That's a big part of why this show is so much fun — because, when it makes sense, we can really push the atmosphere.”

The crew performs an early rehearsal on the post-apocalyptic set in Acton. (Photo courtesy of the cinematographer.)

The sequence was shot on a summer day in Acton, just north of Los Angeles, and the team employed several heavy-duty smokers to create the post-apocalyptic wasteland. When watching the sequence, Kelly says, “you're not sure what time of day or night it is,” which is what Murphy wanted, in addition to it looking “very murky, dense — a perpetual dusk.” To achieve that look, Kelly and his crew timed the sun’s position and used atmosphere and smoke effects. “With those large smokers, it was a constant dance with the shifting winds and playing with the angle of sunlight, etc. We embraced the moving clouds of atmosphere as a way to hide and reveal the action as the sequence develops. We’d get these incredible moments where it’d just black out the sun completely. It was eerie, beautiful.”

The atmosphere the team created clears between setups on the post-apocalyptic set in Acton. (Photo courtesy of the cinematographer.)
The atmosphere the team created clears between setups on the post-apocalyptic set in Acton. (Photo courtesy of the cinematographer.)

Though an anthology show, AHS maintains a consistent cast, so in a season like Apocalypse, where it revisits prior seasons, the filmmakers faced a distinct predicament of visually differentiating between characters played by the same actor. For example, in Apocalypse, Paulson plays Ms. Wilhemina Venable, Cordelia Goode (from Season 3) and Billie Dean Howard (Season 1). For Ms. Venable, “we lit with a little more drama and less fill and really highlighted the contours and contrast of her face,” Kelly says. Cordelia was lit with a softer touch, and the team wanted her to feel glowy when compared to Venable. And for Billie Dean, “We kept a natural, classic approach,” he offers.

Place was also a critical factor to achieve this differentiation, the cinematographer explains, because settings were also revisited in Apocalypse, including Miss Robichaux’s Academy (from Season 3) and the Los Angeles “Murder House” (Season 1). “There’s a nice variation in the aesthetics and feel of an environment in the several seasons’ looks we were crossing over between — it’s like traversing an expanded universe. While I was conscious of how different characters were visualized, I was just as focused on how I wanted the ‘character’ of each space to feel.”

Camera operator Liam Clark and actress Billie Lourd film with a prosthetic element for a VFX shot on the set of Miss Robichaux’s Academy. (Photo courtesy of the cinematographer.)

The successful melding showcased in Season 8, he adds, is “definitely a testament to every department and the whole team working together because it really does take a lot from everyone to do it. The team is one of the best around.

“That's why I love the show — being a part of the day-to-day creation of such a complex, constantly evolving world. You get it from the script page, you get it from concept meetings and, of course, from Ryan Murphy. And then you get it from art, hair, makeup, wardrobe, lighting, etc. Everyone is fine-tuning and dialing into what world, taste, sensibility and tone you're trying to accomplish at any given moment. It's a show that shifts between drama, dark humor, satire and, obviously, horror — sometimes all in the same breath. That's the wonderful rollercoaster of it all. Every day is an adventure.”

Kelly’s upcoming projects include the Hulu drama miniseries Wu-Tang: An American Saga.

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