Creative Analysis: Part 22 - Cinematographer Jonathan Furmanski On Search Party

New York City has been impersonated by a lot of places, from Gangs of New York (shot in Italy) to Escape From New York (Atlanta) to Wall Street story American Psycho (Toronto), and even the toponymic 42nd Street, which was mocked up in Burbank. One production that did shoot in its purported home town, though, and which has enjoyed a four-season, forty-episode run, is Search Party.

Originally premiering on TBS, Search Party stars Alia Shawkat, John Reynolds, John Early and Meredith Hagner as a group of twenty-something New Yorkers who become involved in the disappearance of an old acquaintance. The series unfolds as a deeply satirical dark comedy, and was developed by Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers and Michael Showalter; Bliss and Rogers would direct many episodes, sharing writing duties with Showalter. From its third season, the series moved to HBO Max, but director of photography Jonathan Furmanski has so far handled all but two episodes of the entire series.

Furmanski’s own background is rooted in America’s most populous city; he graduated from NYU’s film school in 1993. “I went to film school with a blank slate about what my goals were,” he begins. “When I was there I took to cinematography like an addict, and had some friends who were also kind of obsessed with cameras and film stocks and things like that. We were reinforcing each other. As time wore on it became the thing I was doing.”  Furmanski spent a few years shooting shorts and assisting, and eventually “got the opportunity to shoot a scripted comedy show that wanted to be shot like a documentary, to bring the documentary aesthetic to it.”

That show was Delocated for Adult Swim. Later, Furmanski would shoot all 39 episodes of the sketch comedy Inside Amy Schumer for Jax Media, which led directly to Search Party. “Tony Hernandez, who's the founder and CEO of Jax Media, reached out and said ‘I have this pilot. It's not attached to anything, but I think you'd be a good fit’. He knew I could do comedy, and he knew I could work in a few different ways. On Inside Amy Schumer we shot many different genres, and personality-wise he knew I'd get on with Charles and Sarah-Violet who were directing.”

Pilot Recording

Preparations for Search Party began, Furmanski says, in 2015. “When we shot the pilot they'd only written the pilot. They maybe had an outline for season one. In the intervening months they were writing the scripts and fleshing things out, and it changed quite a bit, but creatively it was the same production team. It was me, the same production designer, the main four cast.” Eventually, a few scenes would be reshot to accommodate story changes between the pilot and season one. Since then, Furmanski has shot every episode except the first two of season three, which were handled by Kat Westergaard when Furmanski’s previous production, Good Boys, unexpectedly pushed a few weeks.

Half hour Search Party episodes are each shot in three and a half days. Furmanski describes a necessarily fast-moving production, though one in which he’s tried to give each season its own personality. “We've always used the same camera, we've always used the same lenses, but we try to apply these different approaches from season to season. Season one was a bit more like a mystery – the unknown, people watching other people and feeling surveilled... we're trying to keep everything a bit off balance and off kilter. We used references like Kubrick and Fincher, an eerie mood that kept everyone a bit uncertain about what was going on. On season two, we took a bit more of a Hitchcock approach, and season three was a courtroom drama. We looked at The Verdict and Law and Order. Season four goes into almost a bizarre other world, so we started to get a bit more experimental, how Todd Solonz would approach something.”

Amira And Alexa Mini

Furmanski shot the pilot on his own equipment. “I’d built this Amira documentary package that was very small and lightweight which had everything we needed for a basic shoot. That kind of kept going into the series, except it became a mix of Amira and Alexa Mini. We'd strip the Mini down to its smallest configuration, the body, lens and focus motor, and I'd put a battery belt over my shoulder with a wireless transmitter on it.” Lenses were Master Primes, “unless we were doing something really weird. We wanted lenses that were reliable, that I could shoot anywhere from wide open down, and know I was getting the best out of the lens. The 27mm is the workhorse lens on Search Party. We use it constantly.”

The crew used SmallHD monitoring, which Furmanski would “walk around set with. I wasn't stuck behind monitor, I wasn't stuck behind camera. I could see the frame, I could check lighting, be at one camera and see what people were doing. That freedom and flexibility was invaluable for getting the job done in the amount of time that we had. Being able to pop on the false color, I could see where my skintones were, and I knew where they're going to fall. It was a way to work very quickly.”

Filtration was limited almost exclusively to polarization, which Furmanski used almost throughout for subtle control over the sheen on skin. “I think most people think about polarization as a reflection killer, or to have more control over what the sky is doing, but there's so much you can do if you're lighting someone's face. You can take reflections out or move them around.” Furmanski avoided using the Amira’s internal ND filters, “unless we were getting a filter kick. It was easier to get control with a full set of NDs for each camera.”

Lighting Style

While Search Party is very much grounded in its host city, with only a small amount of material shot on sound stages for each season, the filmmakers were keen to implement some specific style points. “There were some moments that we knew we wanted to target,” Furmanski recalls. “On season one we did a lot of things with colors. Chantal had this teal color and Keith had this mustard yellow. It was all part of this mystery-solving thing. If we had a shot of Dory walking down the street and she's looking over her shoulder, looking like she's being followed, we'd splash a mustard-yellow light across a building in the background. With Chantal we'd bathe her in this teal light to make it a bit more mysterious.”

All of that was done, however, without the sort of resources that block city streets and demand a day of prelighting. “We didn't have a rigging team,” Furmanski says. “Having a generator six hundred feet away and running all the feeder cable in wasn't something our production could handle.” Furmanski’s work on Search Party coincided, in the mid-2010s, with the widespread availability of LED lighting, and he credits that with making things much easier. “It was about the time SkyPanels were introduced… they're amazing tools for everyone, but on a small production they're so versatile and you get so much bang for a buck. There's no substitute. Also Astera tubes.”

“Another thing that came out right about the time we started shooting was from Sourcemaker, who had these four-by-four foot LED blanket lights,” Furmanski continues. “They were really exotic and hard to get at the time. Now, there are many options. We'd take one of those and put some Lee 129 heavy frost on the front so it became very soft, almost bounce soft, and put a four-by-four snapgrid on it.” Being able to plug the resulting large-area, high-power light into the wall is something Furmanski remembers as a huge convenience. “It could do any color temperature we wanted. We didn't need a forest of stands and flags around it. One time we were shooting in a car and we rolled it up halfway and taped into the ceiling!”

Theatrical Representation

Inevitably, Furmanski’s keenness to travel light could not service every need, most clearly when setups became large. “When we're doing night-time exteriors in the woods, it's hard to solve that, so we'd lean more into the theatrical representation of that stuff. We couldn't do giant moonboxes to do that. We didn't have the resources, so we'd get a bit more expressive. Rather than going for something super-realistic and maybe falling a bit short we'd go for the more theatrical representation.”

The first three seasons of Search Party were graded by Troy Thompson at Running Man, with the most recently-broadcast fourth season handled by Roy Vasich at Technicolor. “I think Search Party might be a bit of an outlier,” Furmanski admits. “I was given a lot of freedom, from the very beginning, to create the look on my own. Once I'd done my pass on it I'd show it to Charles and Sarah-Violet and the other EPs, and they'd give notes and we'd move on.”

For the first three seasons, Furmanski says, “they'd have something like a week to do the grade for the entire season. And it wasn't five days in a row, it was a day here, two days there, when edits were locked and episodes were handed off to the rest of the post team. I had a relationship with Troy already. I was given the opportunity to be there if I wanted to be there and supervise. If I wasn’t working I was able to go in and sit with Troy. It was probably three or four hours per episode.”

Detailing Notes

When Furmanski wasn’t able to supervise directly, “I'd send Troy long emails full of notes about everything - here's my intention, here's why. It’s underexposed here, here's why I let it go green or didn't in this location, small things. The red on this person's dress is reading a little electric for me, let's tone it down. By the time I sat down in the room with him he had all this information in his head and we could move very quickly. If I couldn't be there then at least he had those notes.”

“On season four,” Furmanski continues, “[it was] just one of the things that happens - we went to Technicolor for our final grade. Roy did an amazing job considering he was jumping into something that was already going on, and had to match what was going on but give his own ideas.” With season four in grading around the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Furmanski and Vasich found themselves almost alone in the halls of Technicolor’s Hollywood facility. “It felt like Roy and I were the only people in the entire building.” This, it seems, was not entirely a bad thing: “the pandemic actually took some of that pressure off. We got five or six hours per episode rather than three or four. Since Roy was picking up where someone left off, it was nice to be able to take his time to be immersed in it.”

During the finalization of this article, Search Party was confirmed for a fifth season by HBO Max. In the meantime, Furmanski remains busy: “I'm working on a new show with Amy Schumer. It's not a sketch show. It's a serial comedy, but it's not a sitcom. I'm back in New York City and we're shooting that through the spring and summer. It's a lot of the same team that did Inside Amy Schumer, which is the team that got me inside this comedy world, so it's a treat to be able to work with these people again.”

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