Creative Analysis: Part 7 - Cinematographer Chris LaVasseur On Warrior Nun

“‘Chris,’ she said, ‘it’s about an order of nuns who’re protecting the world.’”

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Chris LaVasseur is describing a conversation with director Jet Wilkinson during which she introduced him to the concept behind Warrior Nun, a production for Netflix based on the Ben Dunn comic series Warrior Nun Areala. LaVasseur had met Wilkinson while shooting second unit for the Marvel series Iron Fist and again on Daredevil, so both had experience of taking a comic book from page to screen.

For LaVasseur, a career in cinematography had been a goal of long standing. “I went to Brooklyn College and even in college I knew that I wanted to be a cinematographer.” The post-graduation advice to film school students then, as now, was to approach a rental house for an entry-level position: “so I went to CSC in New York and got a job there cleaning camera cases. It's a great place to be, the networking, the camera assistants, the cinematographers that come… it was great. From there I got into the union while I was in the rental house… I came out in the fall of ‘91 and worked on Single White Female. Right from there I went on to Malcolm X.”

Image credit - “Daniel Escale/Netflix”

Image credit - “Daniel Escale/Netflix”

It was, LaVasseur says, “one of the best ways. I know some people who are now doing the route where they'll start as a camera PA and work with the camera crew. I find that way might be a bit beneficial. You're on set, you're learning set etiquette, when I was doing it I had no idea. I worked my way up through camera. I worked as a loader, second assistant, first assistant, operator and cinematographer. Everybody’s different, but for me I had a solid foundation.”

Since then, LaVasseur has worked extensively in film, television and documentary, and joined Warrior Nun in early 2019. The series is based on Ben Dunn’s comic book about an order of combat-trained women who are charged with protecting the world from evil, and stars Alba Baptista as an unexpected vessel for the mythological artifact that is the source of their power. Principal photography took place almost exclusively on locations in places around the Andalusia region of Spain. LaVasseur worked on six episodes, including the pilot.

Things began well when LaVasseur was booked from January 28, a full six weeks before production began. “When you get on a television show,” he says, “the production designer is doing their own thing. You're lucky if you get to talk to them for an hour.” Here, though, things were better. “It was the most prep I've ever had on a television show. Usually you get two or three weeks. You're dealing with sets that are already built, so this was a little bit of a luxury. Sets weren't built, they were looking at locations. Certain locations they'd already chosen, but to get in that early, to have these meetings between me, Jet, the production designer, the costume designer – wow. It really is beneficial, it really helps you out. You all get on the same page.”

Warrior Nun covers a lot of ground to represent both candlelit ecclesiastical cloisters and high-key, high-tech laboratory environments. “What we were dealing with from Simon Barry, the showrunner, was science versus religion. That's the subtext. I got the warrior nun world look because of the candles and the warmth. At ArcTech the walls are metallic, brushed metal, the cooler tones.”

While Andalusia is rich with the architectural spoils of a Catholic history, things were not always perfect, particularly for the location chosen to represent the Cat’s Cradle, the nuns’ base - the Royal Collegiate Church of Santa María La Mayor in Antequera. “When I showed up with Jet in January she said ‘we have this amazing church’,” LaVasseur remembers, his tone hinting at an imminent reversal. “I walked into this church and said ‘Jet, everything’s white and these nuns are going to be wearing dark outfits!’ It was very plain, white walls.” The generous preproduction period, though, made a solution possible. “The production designer, Bárbara Pérez-Solero, did these vinyl covers that looked like paintings on the wall. She also put in the candle chandeliers, and I ordered nine hundred candles, double wick, beeswax which gives off less carbon. It set the tone for that church. Normally it's a museum that people go and visit!”

Meanwhile, LaVasseur was selecting and testing equipment in the knowledge that “once I knew we were going to do ninety per cent locations, I needed a camera that had dual ISO. The dual ISO was an ace in my back pocket. If I got jammed up I could go to 2500 ISO. When I first got the job I was looking at the Red Gemini, the Panasonic Varicam. I shot a test at the rental house after I arrived in Spain, but I didn't feel like Varicam was the camera, I didn't like the results I was looking at. And Imanol Nabea, the DP from Spain, said ‘Chris, did you take a look at Venice?’”

Testing Sony’s camera, LaVasseur was careful to shoot stress tests for underexposure, preferring “to shoot very dark scenes, to see what the blacks do. The blacks are where the noise is. All the cameras look great in day exteriors, I want to see a dark test. We shot the test and brought it into the DI and that’s the one we chose.” Despite the full-frame sensor being the Venice’s headline feature, LaVasseur chose, for practicality’s sake, to use only the super-35 area – although framed for a 2:1 final aspect ratio.

LaVasseur’s approach says a lot about the realities of life as a working cinematographer. “We didn't do full frame. I should've, but I was worried about the size of the files. I went with 2:1 and recorded 3.8K 17:9. I didn't want to cause too many ripples. This is all new clients to me. The only person I'd worked with was Jet, and I wanted to be as low key as possible.” One Venice benefit, though, was high-bit-depth recording. “Something I love about the Venice that people don't realize is so important other cameras is the 16-bit color range. It's amazing. We recorded OCN to keep the files reasonable. There's OCN standard, limited and raw, that's the enormous size. So let’s do limited.”

LaVasseur’s approach to optics is not, he says, “fixated on any one lens. Whatever the story is you're trying to tell, I'll pick the lenses to do it. We chose Cooke S4s but we looked at Master Primes and Zeiss primes. I went with the S4s for the exteriors. Under the sunlight in Spain, I wanted something a bit more soft. Just going with raw sunlight sometimes with Master Primes is too brutal.” To help differentiate flashback sequences, LaVasseur used Cooke anamorphics. “it’s almost a Lawrence of Arabia sort of thing. I told the showrunner and the director ‘why don't we switch to anamorphic and have this flashback be epic storytelling.’ We shot a test, they looked at it and said let's do it.”

Working with digital imaging technician Rodrigo Gomez, LaVasseur shot tests specifically to develop a LUT for the production. “Where the nuns come into where Shannon dies, in the catacombs under the church, I said I want to shoot a test with the set, candles, nuns, with Alba. We lit that and created the LUT right there on set. With that we used CDLs to change accordingly each location. Sometimes I went a bit extreme too. When you watch episodes five and six I put a tobacco filter in when they go to Africa.”

With the production based at Fresco Film Services’ offices in Málaga, the crew were well-placed to visit locations all over Andalusia. “We went to many locations,” LaVasseur says. “The church in Antequera on the outskirts of Málaga. The beginning of episode one, when she wakes up and she's running on the beach, that's in Marbella.” The beach house which features heavily in the first few episodes was available to the production for three days, and LaVasseur took full advantage. “I asked the location manager ‘is anyone staying here,’ he said ‘no’, I said ‘can I stay here for the shoot for three nights!’”

There were many day exteriors, many too large in scope for LaVasseur to completely control the light. His solution, he says, is to “look at the schedule and try to do the wide shots in backlight, if you can. Then you get into the closeups.” Given the action-adventure storyline, a lot of scenes were further complicated by stunt work. “What was hard at the castle that the close action was all stunts so you can't put any equipment in.” Interiors were often more straightforward. “The thing I really enjoyed in the beginning was when they get into the basement of the church, with all the candles, and we introduce the warrior nun as they put Shannon on the table. We'd use candles out of frame. Sometimes I'd use propane flame bars, a little guy like a twelve-inch, just to get a natural fire effect. I even sometimes diffuse the fire, I put an opal in front of the fire.”

With audiences increasingly wise to the machinations of visual effects, LaVasseur collaborated with the VFX department to provide interactive lighting where computer-generated effects would later be used. In the first episode, injuries caused by blue-glowing shrapnel were simulated digitally, but “you can see the blue light on other actors. I was putting little LED lights where Shannon was, off to the side. Wherever I can do interactive light I'll do it, I'll talk to the VFX guy and say ‘do you want this.’ I built lights for this. When they pull the halo out of her back we put a photoflood in. Doing that kind of stuff really helps.”

Warrior Nun is a series with grand ambitions; for episode nine, the crew was required to depict the Vatican in Rome, and used locations in Seville, capital of Andalusia. “We shot how they got into the Vatican,” LaVasseur recalls, “how they sneak around. The tomb of Adriel, the angel, that's a set, but everything prior to that was not a set. We shot in these beautiful museums, these grand buildings.” One Málaga church was also happy to stand in as a Vatican building. “We had this whole scene where Joaquim [de Almeida], the guy who plays the cardinal becomes the pope so they have the whole thing where the cardinals vote, with the black smoke and the white smoke. We asked the most famous church in Málaga. They were like, ‘OK, you can shoot here.’ We couldn't believe it, it's a great scene and it gives it so much production value.”

Principal photography on the first season of Warrior Nun finished on July 8, 2019, with postproduction scheduled for showrunner Simon Barry’s native Vancouver. LaVasseur had intended to supervise grading, but “I got another job and I wasn't available. With Rodrigo Gomez, the DIT, I'd taken reference stills of every scene of every episode, and I sent them that. They’d send it back and I'd say OK.”

The series was released on July 2, 2020 and immediately ranked high on Netflix. The audience reaction even reached LaVasseur, creating a valued opportunity to repay the generosity he’d enjoyed during those early encounters with veteran cinematographers. “When Warrior Nun came out I was contacted by Instagram strangers, saying ‘you inspired me and I want to go to film school.’ Back then, I had the pleasure of working with Academy Award-winning DPs. Just to sit down with Dean Semler who'd just won the Oscar... I was on Last Action Hero, and I’d ask ‘why'd you do that, why's the 5K over there’ and he was very generous. The great ones are very gracious with their sharing, and I think it's important to do that, to give back. I think I have an obligation to give back to the craft.”

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