Comics On TV

How WandaVision Recreated the Sitcoms of the Scarlet Witch's Childhood

No, it wasn't Agatha Harkness' magic. Cinematographer Jess Hall reveals some production secrets that made Wanda's manic sitcom fantasy world possible.

by | March 4, 2021 | Comments

Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany in WandaVision

(Photo by Marvel Studios)

As revealed in last week’s episode of WandaVision, the sitcoms recreated in its earliest episodes truly mattered to Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen). The homages to The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, The Brady Bunch, and Malcolm in the Middle literally recall a suitcase her father carried around Sokovia. The shows continued to offer her solace into her adulthood, as seen in the moment when she and Vision (Paul Bettany) first bonded at Avengers HQ. Although there is some discussion as to when the DVD box sets in the suitcase were available at the time, and a few other questions about the timeline, this thematic connection is key to the overall story. And, as the program’s director of photography Jess Hall told Rotten Tomatoes recently, it was there from very early on.

“It was in the first draft of [showrunner] Jac Schaeffer’s episode eight script that I read early in pre-production,” he said. “So it was in my mind and informed my approach from the beginning.”

In the flashback to her Sokovian child, viewers learned Dick Van Dyke was Wanda’s favorite of the old American sitcoms exported to the Eastern European country. Naturally, it was the one the series took the greatest pains to recreate.

Although, as Hall explained, “It was never simply about recreating specific shows; we were also interested in eras and the stylistic and technical approach that defined specific periods in the history of television sitcoms,” which led to many more visual departures in subsequent episodes. It also created a mission for Hall to find the line between completely recreating the visual look of a 1950s sitcom and that of the contemporary story the series is actually telling.


Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany in WandaVision

(Photo by Marvel Studios)

One vintage look the show avoided, for example, was that of the kinescope. Prior to the adoption of 2″ videotape in 1957, many live programs were recorded by simply pointing a film camera at a TV monitor. The resulting image garbled the intended contrasts and warped the overall image, but created a “good enough” copy for these programs to be shipped off to affiliate broadcasters outside of, say, the New York area. For WandaVision, it would’ve been distracting. But even in terms of series originally shot on film, like Bewtiched, Hall noted it is still rare to actually see the original quality of the recording.

“One of the things in going back to the original [broadcast of shows] was you’re obviously not looking at an ‘original original,’ because you’re looking at something that was shot on film and then transferred to video,” he said. “What I was able to do on the early footage [of WandaVision] was get some prints of some of the early sitcoms on film. I got some from the original negative and I then projected those and I looked at those.”

The research led to the first episode’s recreation of The Dick Van Dyke Show’s lighting scheme and camera angles. Although, thanks to the rare negatives he looked at, the WandaVision footage is sharper than most people’s memories of that vintage program.


Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany in WandaVision

(Photo by Marvel Studios)

Creating that clearer-than-you-remember image became the working philosophy for the subsequent recreations of shows like Bewitched, The Brady Bunch, and even Family Ties – itself now a vintage program to the horror of many viewers.

“In my mind, the reference was actually much closer to the original, not necessarily what had been seen by viewers on the televisions of the period,” he said. “I think once you go to that level, you’re potentially degrading the image so much that you’re losing some of the original characteristics. So our objective was not quite that.”

He added the aim of the photography was to “look at the [vintage] material and then create something that somehow has a modernity to it.”

That modernity matters as, ultimately, The Brady Bunch and Malcolm in the Middle prove to be what Wanda was watching at pivotal moments in her life. Presumably, Bewitched and Family Ties held similar positions her memories for traumas yet to be explored.

Series director Matt Shankman “identified shows that were iconic both in terms of era and integral to Wanda’s history via an emotional connection established in her childhood,” Hall explained. Thus, recreating the camera movements of Family Ties became important on both the technical and thematic levels. And, as it happens, those details would create a strong connection for the audience young enough to remember when that show aired on NBC or when some of the older programs ran in syndication — to say nothing of the people who may remember when Dick Van Dyke first aired!


WandaVision

(Photo by Marvel Studios)

To younger viewers, though, notions of fuzzy images caused by poor antenna reception, overworked videotape sources, and even the lower resolution of television in the 20th century would require explanations all their own and had the potential to get in the way of the story. In situations like those, Hall, Shankman, and the rest of the crew would look critically at what they could do with the image and judge whether it was too much.

“This is maybe [correct for] the era, but does it really serve the dramatic purposes of our narrative?” was the question Hall would ask. “That’s what really leads the choices,” he said. This is why the boxier aspect ratio of the first three episodes gives way to the wider 16:9 frame of HDTVs in episode five.

The cinematography adds a dimension to Wanda’s story — something Hall called “the difference between an original and the memory of an original.”

“The reality that Wanda’s creating is quite fragile. So I think absolute replication was definitely not the goal. It was more about kind of whirring the audience into this kind of comfortable sitcom reality that was vaguely nostalgic,” he said.

Creating that comfort also meant the visuals could be disrupted to “bring in some of the more sinister aspects of the narrative.” A great example of this in episode one when Mr. Heart (Fred Melamed) starts choking; the Dick Van Dyke–inspired staging and lighting gives way to more modern photography for the series’ first chilling moment.


Elizabeth Olsen in WANDAVISION

(Photo by Marvel Studios)

But even with the elements he wanted to recreate – the filmic look of 60-year-old sitcoms shot on 35mm film, for example – technical limitations still appeared by virtue of the changes in filmmaking technology. Hall called it an “inherent challenge” as the 4K resolution High Dynamic Range digital cameras used to capture WandaVision result in a substantially different image than a film camera from the 1960s.

“You’re taking that highest level of quality and then trying to degrade it. There’s a kind of contradiction there,” he said. “But it’s a really interesting way to approach it. If someone asked me to do [a show like WandaVision] five years ago, I might’ve said, ‘Oh we should shoot that on 35 mil,’ or ‘Let’s shoot that shoot on 16 mil, let’s get an old video camera to do that.’ With this show, I really decided to do the whole show on one camera and to really try and use the technology to actually create the different looks.”

In fact, a whole field of filmmaking is devoted to making the qualities of specific vintage film stocks available to cinematographers like Hall. The results can be striking, as seen in the first three episodes of WandaVision.

“There was a lot of in-depth color science work that I did with Technicolor to place a huge-bandwidth, raw high-quality camera signal in ‘an envelope,’ which restricted the signal down to a 1950s black-and-white look, or an early color film look, or an early video look.”

There are plenty of algorithms and lots of computer tech behind that color science, but Hall said he really relished “exploring the digital platform to its full capabilities. That was really one of the exciting things about this project and sort of appropriate to Marvel, who I feel are always kind of at the cutting edge technologically.”

And by shooting the entire series in 4K HDR, Hall delved into the higher end of what can be captured on the format.

“The potential to have richer colors is actually technically a possibility now,” he said. “That really opened up a whole world for me in terms of what I looked at on the comic book reference, which had this incredibly vivid color.”


Teyonah Parris in WandaVision

(Photo by Marvel Studios)

The results lead to the dynamic contrast in scenes set outside Wanda’s Hex, the colors on display when Monica steps through the barrier in episode seven, and the beauty of the images within Wanda’s recreation of classic sitcoms.

Of course, recreating sitcoms led to one more challenge for Hall: the three-camera set-up itself. Unlike movies, which typically light and shoot one angle of a scene at a time, sitcoms typically light an entire stage with three cameras following the actors as they play out a scene. In many productions, the job of editing the shots was done on the fly as a videotape recorded the resulting program. Other shows would take the material caught be the three cameras to the editing room and build the episode there. For WandaVision’s debut episode, the production mounted a full live-to-tape recording in front of a studio audience. episode five — the Family Ties-inspired episode — was also shot in the three camera set-up, but lacked a studio audience, a difference sure to please fans of television production.

Nevertheless, lighting for three simultaneously running cameras taught Hall — a veteran of single-camera productions — a new set of skills.

“You’ve got to light for the 180 [degrees of the stage]. You’re shooting a wide shot and two medium shots at the same time or you’re shooting a two shot and two close ups at the same time,” he said. That means finding a lighting scheme which serves several cameras at once while still conveying the intent of each shot. He credited Shankman, a veteran sitcom actor from shows like Just The Ten of Us, with putting him through a “sitcom bootcamp” to hone the multicamera discipline. As a result, they wound up shooting scenes outside the Hex with multiple cameras.

“There were action sequences that required coverage. And if you’ve got a stunt, you might as well put a third camera on it because it might not be replicated again,” he said. Nevertheless, he admitted there were times he was happy to be out of the studio and on location with the S.W.O.R.D. crew or in Westview’s beautifully manicured exteriors. “I think the location work definitely provided some light relief from the set work, which became quite intense,” he said. “But this show had so much diversity in it, you never had a chance of getting bored because every day was different.”


Kathryn Hahn and Elizabeth Olsen in WANDAVISION

(Photo by Marvel Studios)

Near the end of episode eight, Hall had the opportunity to turn the camera at his own lights just as Wanda came to understand why she started recreating old TV shows in the first place. As he put it, “it’s a self-reflexive moment that exposes the constructed reality of a show which thematically features a constructed reality at its core.” And though we may not yet know the full extent of what Wanda, as the Scarlet Witch, can construct, the moment stands as one of the most fascinating in terms of what it took to tell her story.

“We are revealing the mechanisms of the medium itself and illustrating to the spectator that their perception of reality is manufactured, subject to change and transformation,” Hall said.

With one episode or revelations yet to be transmitted, we can’t wait to see how Hall and his team photograph WandaVision‘s conclusion.

The WandaVision season 1 finale premieres on Friday, March 5 on Disney+.


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