Veronica Mars cinematographer Giovani Lampassi (center, blue hat) with his crew on the set. (©2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.)
When Veronica Mars first premiered on UPN in September 2004, the series had a particularly unique, stylized look that differentiated it from other television series of the period. In present-day scenes, primary colors were dominant, with the frame bathed in soft reds, yellows, greens, blues, and oranges. (All of the windows in the Mars Investigations office seemed to be made of stained glass.) The frequent flashbacks, with their emphasis on distorted low angles, were filtered a dark blue. This look continued through the series’ initial three seasons. (The series’ third season was broadcast on the CW, which replaced UPN and the WB after the two networks merged with CBS.)
But when the characters reappeared in the 2014 Veronica Mars movie, they were accompanied by a darker, less stylized look. The deliberately unrealistic use of color gave way to a more subdued palate. (No more stained glass windows at Mars Investigations.) This more naturalistic visual style continues in the series’ belated fourth season that debuted on Hulu last month, with Giovani Lampassi taking the reins as the new Director of Photography. Lampassi was kind enough to talk to me about his contributions to the show as well as the how and why of the series’ current visual approach.
“I started working in professionally 1994 in Seattle on feature films and smaller projects in the set lighting department and worked my way up to working as a chief lighting technician,” Lampassi said. “I moved to Los Angeles and, after working on many bigger-budget feature films with great cinematographers such as John Alonzo (ASC), Peter Levy (ASC, ACS), Geary McLeod (ASC), and Krishna Rao, I began shooting smaller projects until being offered Party Down, which was produced by Rob Thomas. It was this show which established me as a full time cinematographer. Since that show, I went on to shoot various TV shows, such as Up All Night and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. After Veronica Mars wrapped, I was offered A Million Little Things to shoot for ABC, and I am currently in Vancouver working on season two of that show.
“The greatest challenge on Veronica Mars was to pay respect and keep enough of the original series in tone and style, but also update it and show that Veronica had grown up. We were also shooting a large page count, so being able to move quickly, but also keep a classic look, was important. There were also some sets which were intentionally built smaller than a standard set to force Kristen’s character into a claustrophobic atmosphere. Those sets were particularly challenging because lighting was so close to the actors in proximity. In addition, because we were rushed into production so quickly and we were limited in stage space, lighting fixtures were literally rigged on top of each other facing opposite directions.”
I asked Lampassi why Veronica Mars abandoned its original stylized approach and how he achieved the show’s darker, subtler look. “The main reason for the change was that, while the look of the first three seasons was iconic to Veronica Mars, it was dated to that particular period in time and also in tone with Veronica’s life,” he explained. “It also had a look to fit into the CW world. We wanted people to know when watching the current version they were seeing a grown up version of Veronica. We wanted to suppress the color palate and create an updated look. This was achieved by working with production designer Craig Stearns to find a color palate which didn’t venture too far into saturated colors. Then we desaturated the final product in color timing in places we needed to.
“We used the new Panavision DXL2 with Panavision Vintage Prime glass and we used Panavision zooms purposely detuned to match the vintage glass. I used Hollywood Black Magic filters with Classic Softs to augment the softness. The lighting was a mix of classic tungsten units with Arri S-60’s and custom made LED lighting by Custom Entertainment Lighting. The new CEL custom made lights allowed us to put lights where standard lights couldn’t have been rigged and allowed for more flexibility in color, intensity, and also softness. They’re a pretty amazing product because they’re so lightweight and have such a great output. My chief lighting technician Larry Sushinski was able to take these new lights as well as our standard lights and have them all controlled through our lighting board; he really made it simple and fast.
“We did post color with Gareth Cook at The Foundation. Before we went into production, Gareth and I had a meeting about the updated Veronica Mars look. Gareth had done the color work on the original Veronica Mars, as well as the feature film, so he was a great asset in forming how we would embrace the original but yet update the look. Typically, once the cut was finalized, Gareth would do a first pass on the episode, and then I would go in to sit with him for final adjustments. We would use power windows and work together on the final color and contrast. It was great working with him and pushing the look.”
Since much of Veronica Mars is filmed on actual locations, I was curious about how the requirements of location shooting differed from working on a soundstage. “Both actually have their advantages and their draw backs,” Lampassi told me. “I love shooting on location because, for me, the environment is what dictates the lighting of the scene. Style follows the environment, and when you are able to capture the style of the project in conjunction with only what the location allows, then you’ve accomplished the task at hand. That’s the job of the cinematographer. On a soundstage, it’s great because you can say, ‘I want 8 – 20ks for the windows and give me bounce fill to reduce the contrast,’ but you have the ultimate control of the soundstage. On location, you may be shooting where the city won’t allow the apparatus to have any lighting coming through windows, or you may have to rush to shoot before the sun goes down, or in fact the sun did go down and you have to make it look like day, so you’re forced to improvise—and that’s what I love, the problem solving. One scene in particular stands out: when Logan goes to City Hall and sees Parker, this was shot completely at night and I think we pulled it off pretty well. At the end of the day, you still need to achieve the look of the show, so being able to figure it out when everything goes wrong is key.”
As with director Scott Winant, who I interviewed for the first article in this series, Lampassi found working with Veronica Mars cast and crew to be gratifyingly positive experience. “The entire cast and crew of Veronica Mars came together incredibly quickly—on some shows, it takes an entire season to get to the point where everyone works cohesively—but I felt like we all moved together to achieve the daily goals by the end of the first episode. I would begin to describe what we wanted or needed and the person I would be talking to would finish my sentence with exactly what I was going for.
“Working with the cast was a special experience. We began to call Kristen a ‘unicorn’ because she was aware and capable of so many things. It’s hard to explain, but she just knew what all our little tricks were and, not only knew what we were trying to achieve, she worked to help us make things happen. If it weren’t for her technical expertise in the behind-the-scenes activity, I’m not sure we would have been able to pull off some of the things we needed to accomplish.
“I would love to be involved with another season of Veronica Mars; there are so many things I would like to attack differently. I think I’m my own worst critic, but having had time to reflect on the show, I know now what I’d like to plan for the next one. Kristen, Enrico, and the entire cast were such a fantastic group to work with and watching them perform was an honor.”