Natalie Kingston on Filming an Apple TV+ Series
Podcast

#001 Natalie Kingston on the Challenges and Thrills of Filming an Apple TV+ Series

OVERVIEW

DP Natalie Kingston’s most recent work is the acclaimed Apple TV+ series, Black Bird.

In episode #001 of the Musicbed Podcast, our host Christian Schultz talks to Natalie Kingston about navigating the Black Bird’s accelerated interview and pre-production process, the value of trusting yourself when you’re up against the clock, advice for shooting with intention, getting the most from every rep, and doing a lot with very little. Subscribe to hear new episodes every other week.


Show Notes

Natalie Kingston — https://www.nataliekingston.com/

Black Bird — https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4301160/

Solar Driftwood — https://vimeo.com/409671696

Michaël Roskam — https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1742427/

Dennis Lehane — https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1212331/

Lost Bayou — https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7974156/


Natalie’s Musicbed Playlist

Looking for musical inspiration to write your next treatment? Need a song that brings emotion to your edit? Take a few minutes to listen to this playlist, personally curated by Natalie herself.

Hear Natalie’s Full Playlist


Episode #001 Transcript

Christian   

You were one of the first cinematographers that I got really challenged about my own process.

Natalie   

Part of it is just in my personality to ask why.

Christian   

Natalie, thank you for inviting us into your home. It’s beautiful. How long have you been in LA now? How many months? Has it been over a year?

Natalie   

It’s been two and a half years. We made the plan to move right before the pandemic. Pandemic hit, and we just went through with it. So we moved here, April 2019. Then, beginning of 2020, I get a really big job—Black Bird—which just happens to be shooting in New Orleans. They had no idea I was from there. So, spent most of 2021 back in New Orleans.

Christian   

What was it like working with—I know you’ve worked with talent before, on a high level, but I feel like Paul and Taron are some of the best.

Natalie   

Absolutely. It was just so inspiring, watching them. And they have totally different processes, you know.

Christian   

What’s the difference in the process?

Natalie   

Paul is very kind of, you know, less formal in a way. More in the moment. He’ll maybe tweak some things, bring different things from take to take, and he can kind of like, snap out of it. You know, and he would have to, he said, just because it was so dark, he would have to bring some humor in between takes and do a high kick or something. And Taryn is very, you know, he was more formally trained. And I wouldn’t say he’s, like, all the way to “method.” But yeah, I guess more more formal in his approach and stayed more in character.

Christian   

You guys are doing single camera, right? Or was it was a two camera?

Natalie   

We wanted to shoot it like it would come off as a single camera show. So that was always the goal and to never compromise lighting by cross covering. Plus, we didn’t have a lot of room in the jail because it was a real location. So a lot of times, like, in the cell, of course, that was single camera. And if the second camera didn’t work, then it didn’t work, and it would be single camera, but a lot of the show is two people sitting down and a lot of dialogue. And so we do, you know, cameras side by side or one in a profile, one more straight on.

Christian   

So it wasn’t sort of true, like, we’re doing the master for the next two hours. Or was it sort of really progressive?

Natalie   

We’d do the master first. B camera would usually find a more unconventional “off” angle, usually a little more compressed version of a wide. If it works, you know. If it didn’t, it would stand down, and then we’d come in for the coverage with two cameras most of the time. 

Christian   

What was it like working in that jail for so long?

Natalie   

It took a toll on you after a while, you know, it was quite hard because of just not having all of the control in the world. Do you know? It’s OPP—Orleans Parish Prison. It closed down after Katrina and basically just movies shoot in it now. So there’s all the existing lighting in there. We changed out all the bulbs so they all matched. But just the housing, just to access individual housings was, like, it’s a jail, so they’re all bolted shut. So to manipulate an individual fixture required the grips to cut out these blacks or diffusions and those would be affixed by magnet one by one, so stuff like that was just time consuming, shooting in the cells was too, of course, because it was so small, and getting cameras in there was tricky. We did have one small portal per cell, like, Jimmy and Larry each had one in their respective cells, and we could get the camera through for another angle.

Christian   

Portals like holes?

Natalie   

Yeah, that our department made. It was maybe six feet wide by four feet tall. It was a big deal. You couldn’t just pop in and out. We’d have to factor that in the schedule of like it coming out putting the small GF-8 arm through, the dolly base next door, then, you know, if we’d want to shoot from that wall, that’s what we do. And then, just, yeah, being in a jail for that long, you know? Yeah, it was pretty much the whole second half of the shoot so, like, three months or something.

Christian   

Wow. Where did you guys shoot all the exterior stuff?

Natalie   

A lot of practical locations. Most of the exteriors, like the cornfields, were sugarcane fields converted to corn. So, they planted corn—acres of corn—months before we shot. It was a lot of, like, outskirts of New Orleans that we shot for Illinois. And then the the stage work, like with the mess hall of the jail, that was on a stage, the psych office.

Christian   

What they would pick for on-location versus stage stuff—do you look back and go, man, I wish we could have just shut everything on location or everything on a stage?

Natalie   

No, it actually worked out great. We actually had locations lined up for the mess hall and the dentist’s office and  the psych office, pretty much everything. And that was just because of schedule time, money, you know, all this stuff. They ended up being built on a stage, and we had so much more control. It was great.

Christian   

What was the interview process for this show?

Natalie   

it all happened really fast. So, I got the call. Hey, they’re interested in you. My agent sent me the scripts, right? I’m, like, oh my god, this is fantastic. This is right up my alley. I’m never gonna get this, but I’ll talk to him. It would be cool to, you know, know these people. So I interviewed with Michaël Roskam, the first director, just him alone first, and we hit it off. We talked for like an hour. So, he liked me. He told Dennis and the other producers and so they set up a meeting with us, Dennis and three other producers. And that was a pretty intense, intimidating meeting. Just because it’s, you know, a panel of these producers, and it’s something I really, really wanted in a really big project. And there was a lot at stake, and they asked me some tough questions, but I feel like I really nailed the interview.

Christian   

What are some of those tough questions?

Natalie   

They were, like, so what would you do in a situation on set, where things weren’t going right, or something like that, and you had to problem solve. I forgot what I said, but I remember being happy with my answers. I was like drilling, you know, and rightfully so. Like, I’ve done smaller indie films before this, you know, and commercials. So, on paper, it’s, like, okay, I’m the new gal in the mix. You know, I’ve never done a TV series before. Much less shoot the whole series myself. It’s not like I was alternating with another DP that I could work under, which is also pretty rare. And it was a huge opportunity for me, obviously, to like, come in and be able to establish the look of a show and keep it up and it just be my own. So it was nerve-wracking, but I felt like I did good. And, it was shortly—like, that was on a Friday, And it was, like, less than an hour later, my agent called and they’re, like, they love you. They’re going to Apple and United Front and saying they want to hire you. So by Monday, I got the final word, and I was on a plane by Friday. 

Christian   

What does that feel like?

Natalie   

It was wild. I was ecstatic. Like I said, this was a really huge thing for me. And it’s something that I really, really wanted to do. And the material is just—I felt really ready to level up, you know? I’ve been waiting for something like this, and before I got it, I lost out on four or five different bigger projects consecutively. So I was just ready to take this opportunity and prove that I could do it, you know? It’s also scary, but I tried to block that out. And, just the fact that I had never done a lot of things before, I could figure it out. That’s what I’ve always done. But also the other scary thing was, I didn’t have much prep at all. I had five weeks total. And it being a location-heavy show, you know, I got in and just like scouted for weeks,  just to catch up and try to see all these locations. So a lot of the process, it was me just telling myself to trust my instincts, and a lot of that is just relying on what I feel is right, just relying on my past experiences and trusting myself, you know, because I had no other choice.

Christian   

It’s got to be scary having that little time, because for you, it’s a chance  to show that you’re ready to  level up, but you’re under the gun now. It’s like you said—I have to trust my instincts and put in the work so my instincts can pay off. But I will tell you, as soon as I saw the trailer, I texted you. I was just, like, dude—what the f*ck? It looks incredible. There’s not a moment where you see something even a little subpar. Every moment is dialed in. I was just watching the whole series, beaming the entire time. It was, like, that’s my friend, Natalie. She’s cool. 

Natalie   

Well, I see stuff I don’t like, of course. And I guess this is a good thing, and I think all DPs do this, but just see— I’m like, [sighs].

Christian   

That’s so sad, though you can’t—and I feel this way about anything that I make—I can’t enjoy it like anybody else.

Natalie   

It’s hard. I just see all the flaws. I see where I went wrong. I see where I didn’t have enough time. Okay, maybe cut yourself a break, there’s only so much time. But I see, like, what I could have done. I see how my lighting got better as we were in the jail longer, and I got the rhythm of this location. And I saw what worked and didn’t work. And it’s little nuances. 

Christian   

You were one of the first cinematographers that I felt like—you challenged me about my own process. I think it was because you made me dive deeper than I was willing to go. We haven’t done a long-form thing yet, which will happen. But on the short form stuff that we’ve done and the commercial stuff, I feel like I come away with this sense that I’m not asking “why” enough. I could have more intention. You know, I think like a lot of your work has so much intention behind it.

Natalie   

Yeah, I think it’s just—my personality is to ask “why?” Why am I doing this? What’s going on with these characters? What’s going on with this scene for me to know how to execute the cinematography? I just need a starting point, you know, some motivation, kind of similar to how actors work. What’s the motivation? What am I trying? What are my goals in this particular moment? I have a hard time doing something for just the sake of doing it, you know, just the aesthetic. Sometimes you can do that on certain projects, like commercials or music videos and projects where there isn’t a deeper meaning and it’s just style comes first. But you know, for narrative projects, the why has to drive the script, the character, the emotions, everything. 

Natalie   

I remember you sent me a document. Do you remember this? I’m sure you use this on a lot of stuff. But could you tell me what’s in that document?

Natalie   

Yeah. It’s just scene by scene, asking the questions of what’s going on emotionally with these characters? What’s the subtext of the scene? What is the purpose of the scene? What’s the function? You know, why does it exist? That’s such a huge question. Whose perspective are we in at this given moment, you know? Perspective in terms of emotional perspective in the scene and stuff like that, you know? Really just getting down and dirty with the “why” and then letting that inform everything.

Christian   

What I remember feeling going through each scene—I forget what which project it was, I think it was probably Solar Driftwood or something—I was, like, I guess this scene doesn’t have any subtext, and then I add some bits to it. Just from asking myself what, you know? When I’m writing narrative stuff now, I have a list of questions when  I’m sitting with my script and writing. And it’s not like you’re trying to check everything off, but it’s just a reminder to add something deeper into this moment. I’m sure you felt this a lot too on a lot of things that don’t necessarily have that specificity to it. Is that something that you felt with Black Bird? Did you connect on on that level? 

Natalie   

Absolutely. Because it wasn’t just a plot-driven series. It was very character driven. Yes, there is the plot, the truth, you know, based on a true story, but it was about how Jimmy Keane, Taron Egerton’s character, sees himself in Larry Hall, Paul Howser’s character, and how that causes him to evolve. And in those layers is what really got me excited. And that’s what Dennis Lehane, our showrunner and writer, was wanting to explore with this story. He wasn’t interested in just going beat by beat with what happened in real life. Let’s get to the why of it all and the complex, uncomfortable stuff where you start to feel a little empathy at times for Larry Hall. And you laugh at his jokes. And Jimmy Keane does the same. And you know, it’s not it’s not like you condone any any of the rapes and murders and, you know, condone him being a serial killer, but you can see him as another human. You can see how he got there and how maybe Jimmy Keane could potentially go on another path that’s deep, dark.

Christian   

There’s a fine line, and I think you guys nailed it really hard. Also, Paul’s performance is so terrifying. 

Natalie   

Wild.

Christian   

In the first episode, if you haven’t seen it, obviously you guys need to see it, but he has this very specific voice for this character. Is that true to life?  

Natalie   

Yeah, it is. It is. That was inspired by Larry Hall. 

Christian   

Have you gotten to talk to Taron or Paul about it at all?  What are their thoughts?

Natalie   

They’re just extremely proud of it. 

Christian   

Taron was really instrumental in the whole thing, was he not?

Natalie   

Yeah, he was a producer. I know Dennis had Taron in mind. And then Taron came on board, and he’s the one who suggested Paul. And that’s how Paul got it. And I know Ray Liotta was always—Dennis wrote that for Ray.

Christian   

That must have been wild, too. I mean, so sad. I don’t know if it was the last thing he did. 

Natalie   

I think it was the last TV series he did. And I think he was on a film.

Christian   

He’s really good.

Natalie   

I know. He was a legend. That was pretty surreal. Getting to work with him. 

Christian   

I imagine you framing up, and you’re just, like—sick. You know what I mean? You shoot people like that, and they just pop.

Natalie   

Oh, that’s how Taron was for me. And of course, Ray. But I just remember the first time I saw Taron on camera for the camera tests. I’m like, f*ck, yeah, I see why you’re a star. There’s a transformative effect. It just it makes the imagery. It just elevates the cinematography in a way that makes your job look real. Makes me look better. And I remember, you know, Taryn realized early on—it was like my first day shooting with him. And we had done maybe two takes on this complicated camera move. And he saw that camera needed another one. Like, we kind of made eye contact and then he’s, like, “I need another one.” Because he he really cares about the craft. He respects the craft. He understands it’s about all of us coming together and being solid, you know?

Christian   

it’s weird how, at some level, like, we’re all just filmmakers.

Natalie   

Exactly. That’s really such an extraordinary talent to be able to be in the moment, inside of a character, and then also be technically aware and to, not only hit marks, but also just maybe turn a certain way—20 degrees to catch the light on your face and step forward slightly because the camera has a precise ending mark. All while remembering the dialogue and being aware of where the camera is. And you’re shooting out of order, so where are you in the story? 

Christian   

I think they get taken for granted a little bit. Especially when you’re on the come up, and you don’t have a lot of experience with a lot of actors. A lot of directors may view them more like pawns, but if I had to go back ten years, I would do everything I could to just work with actors more. And, not just work with them, but get to know more actors. Yeah, just in New Orleans or something, because there’s a ton of great talent there. And there’s a ton of great talent, and every city has actors trying to make it. You know what I mean? Were you guys still seven months? What’s the total runtime? Do you remember? It’s seven episodes.

Christian   

616 hours?

Christian   

Did it feel like three movies when you were making it?

Natalie   

I mean, it didn’t. It felt like one very long—like making a feature on steroids. But there’s this, like—at the end of it on day 95, I knew that’s where I belonged. Because it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, because it’s leveling up. It’s the longest shoot I’ve ever done. And by the end of it, I’m like, as hard as this was, I can’t wait to do this again. This is exactly what I want to be doing. And as exhausted as I was, you know, of course I needed a break. But I was just ready to do it again.

Christian   

Yeah, it’s not weird. 

Natalie   

I love long shoots, because there’s this thing, almost this addiction of wanting to do better than you did the day before. If something didn’t go so well one day, how can I make this better the next day? If something did great, okay, you know? You just feed off of that, and you learn so much in that period, just doing it day after day after day. You’re just doing reps every day, you know, you’re building that muscle, and it feels so good to be in such a rhythm of shooting.

Christian   

What’s something that you took away from it, whether it’s technical, or—

Natalie   

It’s not that I didn’t know this before, but it’s really, really reinforced on this, just how important the right collaborators are and how that can make or break things. Experience is one thing, but the right personality match and sensibilities—I mean, that’s everything. Something that long? Yeah, people get tired. They get over it. They bring a different energy. That was interesting to observe.

Christian   

You guys didn’t have one director, right? It was like three or four? 

Natalie   

Three directors.

Christian   

That’s got to be interesting, because you’re on the entire thing. And then a new director comes in and they’re trying to stake their claim, like, yeah, this is how we’re doing things. It’s got to be kind of a whirlwind to go from one month to the next and you’re like, yeah, okay, I gotta get used to this.

Natalie   

Exactly. That was a challenge and also a learning experience. Just being adaptable that quickly within the same project. I mean, DPs are used to that, because we work with different directors all the time. But within one project, yeah, that was a first for me, and all three of them were very different with very different processes. So just being open and flexible, but also guarding the visual language of the show. And it wasn’t ike the other two directors that came in after Michaël  and I had set up the show were trying to fundamentally change anything. They were just trying to continue the visual language and enhance it in their own ways. And then with something this big, you know, there are just so many people. It’s just a huge circus. On indie films, you see a magical moment, a sunset across the way of your set—you can just go run and get it. On this, I remember seeing that and I’m. like, I really want to go shoot that. And then I turned around and looked at all the trailers and the tents and the trucks and the 100+ crew, and I’m like—there’s no way that could happen. And just the sheer number of people you have to communicate and over-communicate with, that was also a learning curve.

Christian   

That kind of makes you miss some of those Lost Bayou sets where you’re like—obviously, it’s hard in its own right, with its own challenges and whatever. But do you still have a love for that? 

Natalie   

I mean, there are positives and negatives to both. The magical thing about indie films is that creative flexibility. You can change things at the last minute and be more in the moment than you could on this big of a show. But then you’re also limited by budget, so maybe you don’t have enough crew or tools. But then you learn you’re more creative in a way that way, because you only have a limited amount of tools.

Christian   

I remember talking to Shawn Porter about our movie that we did in the Virgin Islands. I was telling him how nimble we were. I was, like, I’m gonna shoot this dialog scene at sunset, and then I’m also gonna shoot this other thing. And he was, like, the only way you could do that is if you had $30,000,000 or $30,000.

Natalie   

Yeah, one extreme or the other.

Christian   

That’s so much of how that movie was made. We’d just see something and just go. I remember Dave Davis was just shaving in the bathroom, and I was like, Dave, can you come shoot this real quick? And we have this location in the mountains and it looks like we planned that. 

Natalie   

You can just f*cking play. Those sensibilities came in handy to have, like, sometimes not making things bigger, just because I had all the tools. You know what I mean? Like, maybe just a little bit of negative fill in some natural light. Because the scene is very short. I could pull that off and then spend more time on this.

Christian   

Such a mindf*ck, too, because you’re like, yeah, it’s in some negative, and I have 100 people with me. And you’re, like, should I be doing this? 

Natalie   

Yeah, you have that voice coming. But like solitary confinement? I let that with a tweenie. But that’s all it—some negative fill and a bounce, you know? That’s all it’s all we needed.

Christian   

Were there moments where you had to talk yourself down from doing too much? 

Natalie   

Yeah, when I realized, okay, less is more here. I don’t need as much as I thought. Maybe I’d be set up but I could turn things off. One big thing that was very new for me and very liberating and amazing, was having a rigging team. You know, just having a rigging gaffer, a rigging key grip who did everything beforehand based on the plan, and then we show up to set and it’s like, 90% there. And then it’s just tweaking,

Christian   

So they’re working ahead of you guys..

Natalie   

Yeah, and putting all the units, whether it’s a practical occasion or on stage, you know, lining up the windows with ARRIMAXs or any kind of softbox, you know, doing all the lighting basically. So it’s all in place, everything we talked about, you know, so it’s nice. So, the first thing, when I get to set, I like to get there at least 30 minutes early. The riggers are there. I’m, like, hey, can you turn everything on? And then I just sit in the space and I can prepare myself mentally for what needs to be done.

Christian   

You’re so talented at making stuff look just as good as the stuff that is really low budget. Like I look at both your images, and obviously there’s differences in like scale. I think that’s probably like one of the bigger differences that you get with more money. But I wonder if there’s some advice that you have for younger filmmakers or cinematographers of how to approach smaller budget stuff in order to also achieve something really elevated like you’re able to achieve. 

Natalie   

I mean, locations are so huge. So that’s step one—find a great location that almost lights itself. You don’t have to do much. You’re just modifying, you know, or keeping consistent if you can or shooting it at the right time of day. You’re just diffusing the windows or adding some negative fill. That’s huge. Obviously production design goes a long way. it doesn’t have to be over the top. can be very minimal and still transform a space,

Christian   

it’s such a good point. Places and faces is half the battle, you know? With good talent in a good space, you don’t have to do that much.

Natalie   

You really don’t. You can do a lot with a little, you know? Like, Lost Bayou. We didn’t have much at all. Shapeless, we didn’t have much at all Those are both under $1M projects. It was about finding the right location, shooting them at the right time of day, you know, maybe night exteriors at blue hour if you can. We did that a lot on Lost Bayou.

Christian   

What was the hardest thing about balancing you and Brian’s relationship during that movie? Maybe we should get him in? 

Natalie   

Hey, Brian. Yeah, we had just gotten married.

Christian   

I remember that. It was real recent, a few months before. Okay, so for people who don’t know, this is Brian , Natalie’s husband. We were talking about what was the hardest thing to balance with y’all’s relationship during Lost Bayou being freshly married and whatnot.

Brian   

There wasn’t much. I don’t think the balancing was the hardest part. We’ve always had a very good line of communication manner. There was more of a kind of pros and negatives with it. The challenge is, you know, there’s a relationship balance that you have at home that is not the same on set. You have to learn how to put that to the side and be creative partners. The pros of it is just talking about shots all night long. You know, like talking about it the night before and just being ready. And we get up together still talking about the shot, talking about the day, ridiing to the set together, still talking about shots. You’re just so prepared at that point, in so much sync.

Natalie   

I mean, if you go back to before Lost Bayou, when we would do shorts and music videos together, we were very young in our careers. And then it’s like we’re in a relationship, and he’s my boss, technically. So there’s that dynamic, and there’s a lot of tension and growing pains and stuff we have to figure out. We had to. You know, there’s therapy involved. You just figure out how to balance it and what works and, like, we’re at work and this is not about being boyfriend and girlfriend or whatever.

Brian   

It’s more about exploring more than trying to get what you want, right? It felt felt like maturing and being an artist. Earlier, I’d go into a project with—this is exactly how I see it and how I want it. And you feel, like, that’s the way to do it. I’d have animatics, lenses, everything. But I was always so unhappy with the product. I hated everything that came out from it. Because it wasn’t anything even close to what you would expect until I started letting go more, interacting with collaborators, and being more of an explorer than a dictator. That’s when I started loving my projects and having fun with actually creating and being happy with the end products and feel like they’re better too.

Natalie   

And I feel like I’m at a better place. Just because I’ve worked with so many more directors since the beginning of our collaborative relationship. I’m able to support you better. 

Brian   

See, it’s funny how it works. When we did that, we were both rookies, and it takes a lot to get another film off as a director. So when this next film gets made, I’m still gonna be technically a rookie, and she’s a seasoned vet.

Natalie   

No, I’m still a rookie. Yeah, we get to be on set so much. And directors, you have this downtime and writing.

Brian   

You don’t really get the practice. To practice is very expensive. 

Natalie   

Like I was saying, being on Black Bird for so long, just getting those reps in day after day after day after day for 95 days. That’s so much practice that. For someone starting out their career as a director, I’m sure every time you get on set, you hold that so tight.

Christian   

You know, Ryan and I were actually talking about how a good analogy for this is surfing. Like, there’s people out there who have priority over rookies, and it’s not the most welcoming environment. He was saying that it felt a lot like filmmaking in that there’s only a certain amount of projects that you can make, and there are limited resources to learn how to do something, The amount of time it takes you to learn how to surf, it’s just so grueling, you know, because it’s so limited access. Which is why when you see like the greats, it’s, like, are they just savants? Is there something that you guys would tell to—this isn’t supposed to be like Dr. Phil—creatives in long term romantic relationships? Like, what is something that you feel like people need to have, just a standard of how you guys coexist?

Natalie   

I mean, don’t be afraid of therapy. Communication is everything in your romantic relationship.

Brian   

Yeah, when you work with a DP who doesn’t communicate well, it sucks. I just constantly work on my communication when I do get a chance to work. And that’s kind of how we run our our home lives, too. We are constantly communicating about things.

Natalie   

Don’t take things personally on set. You know, if he loses his patience with me on set, it’s not the same dynamic as at home. You can’t be offended. And for some people that doesn’t work. It either works or doesn’t, and some couples just cannot work together. But that was the draw from the beginning. It’s just our sensibilities toward filmmaking. We were drawn to similar artists and had similar tastes.

Christian   

Being married is hard enough. I think it just takes a real level of dedication to make it work on a creative level. I hope you know that people back in New Orleans really miss you guys. We talk about you guys all the time. I think you guys left like a super big impact in that scene that’s still there.

Interested in contributing to our blog? Send your articles and ideas to blog@musicbed.com.