Creating The Look & Feel For Netflix Series ‘Mo’ With Cinematographer Timothy M Burton

Timothy Burton shares his insight into how the Netflix series ‘Mo’ tackles a potentially difficult subject with humour and style, with a look and feel that captures the heat of its location and pace of its narrative.

It would be easy for a drama about an undocumented immigrant in the United States to be leaden and worthy, given how heavily politicized a subject that can be. The Netflix series Mo, directed by Solvan “Slick” Naim, steers deftly around that concern, relying on a generous helping of good humor to depict the tragedy and comedy of the immigrant experience. Starring comedian Mo Amer in the title role of a Palestinian refugee seeking United States citizenship, the series spans eight thirty-minute episodes.

The look of Mo was developed by cinematographer Timothy A. Burton, working with colorist Juan Cabrera, founder of post house Lightbender. Burton’s background behind the camera began with some straightforward advice. “I bailed out of college and moved to LA wanting to just start getting into movies somehow,” he begins. “A DP I really liked asked me what I wanted to do, and said - go for that, don’t worry about working your way up any ladder. If being a focus puller is just a stepping stone, if you don’t truly love it, you’re doing a disservice to that crowd. I work with plenty of career focus pullers who you can’t touch. So, he said, commit to being a cinematographer, and that’s what I did.”

Burton and director Naim had collaborated previously, and Burton recalls discussing the project that would become Mo. “They tried to get this show made for some time, then they found this window in the late summer of 2021. I had an interview with Mo, with Slick the director, and the folks at A24. I’ll tell you what was cool about it – I just came off a bunch of more traditional network things and the way this was pitched felt like we were making more of a passion project, on a topic that doesn’t get touched too much. Slick is a very collaborative director. He just wants to be gutsy and bold and go for it, so I gave a pretty aggressive pitch about how I didn’t want to fall into the traditional trap of a TV show. I wanted to be handheld, like an independent film.”

Something mentioned by many reviews is the way Mo captures a sense of place. “It’s a climate where you have a lot of bright sun, then these almost tropical storms that roll in and out,” Burton notes. “I do think you feel the heat of Texas at times.” The cinematographer chose to capture those environments with Alexa LF and Supreme Prime lenses, a choice he balanced carefully against older, perhaps more characterful options. “I’m a total old lens fan. That’s my go to; I’m that guy. Everything I do is old lenses. But this… this is quite politically charged, and I didn’t want to affect that with an opinion, to glorify or not to. I wanted to be a fly on the wall as much as I could. With older anamorphics it could have been a really sexy piece but I didn’t feel like it wanted to be that.”

Mo was shot in two months at the end of 2021. With the style of the show so dependent on handheld work, Burton shot with what he calls “One and a half cameras. I generally light and block with one camera in mind. Then, sometimes, it’s obvious that there needs to be an additional camera added in, but I refrain from it where I can. I had one of my favorite camera operators, Gevorg Juguryan, who’s a gear junkie and just a great camera operator.” Keen to implement that independent-film aesthetic, to move fast and travel light, Burton minimized his equipment footprint: “I thought, let’s get a good camera and good lenses and call it a day. We had a really small lighting package – we didn’t have dollies. We had a slider. No big lights.”

Similarly, Burton kept his monitoring package simple, working with Cabrera to produce just two LUTs – one for general use, and one solely for flashback scenes. “We had basic Sony monitors”, Burton reports. “Nothing fancy at all. We operated just off a basic LUT. It’s something I feel like I’ve been doing more and more. I feel like trying to get people to commit on set. When the dailies come in, I want them to be happy with that picture. I don’t want to say we’ll fix it later.”

That confidence comes from a long professional collaboration with Cabrera. “Tim and I have done eight projects together,” he says. “I’m comfortable with how he shoots, he’s comfortable with how I color. There are DPs out there who don’t really understand what can be done in color. Sometimes they don’t exploit to the full extent of the tools we have. To have this communication with Tim, to have this experience together, gives him more tools on set to know when he has to fight the battle, and when he can be confident that we can fix it. People say ‘fix it in post’ without knowing what that means, and it causes a lot of trouble. But Tim knows.”

“I’ve been on projects where they wanted to deal with show LUTs and CDLs and precoloring,” Cabrera goes on, “and in my experience, that’s a distraction for everybody. The problem that now everything is digital and instant, people want to see things as polished as possible, as early as possible. There’s a component to it that a lot of people are losing the capacity to abstract themselves. When you try to stylise it too much on the shoot it can put people’s minds at ease, but sometimes they’re seeing something that’s easier to watch but it’s also biasing their perception of the show and it constrains the possibilities you have later.”

Though the production would take a deliberately minimal approach to on-set color work, there are, Cabrera says, benefits to being involved early. “We like to be involved with shooting and prep. It’s not just at the end of the edit, once we’ve locked picture, that we can start working. We can start color when they’re still not on locked picture. Maybe we have a director’s cut, that’s when we started. I wanted to be sure we would have time to sit down, review things, have a session with Tim to make sure we were going to the same direction.”

Mo was graded in Mistika, with which Cabrera has more than fifteen years’ experience. “We have three Mistikas and two Resolves and I still prefer Mistika.” With the production destined for Netflix, both HDR and SDR versions would be needed. “I like to work on the regular grade first,” Cabrera says, “then on the HDR pass. We have our own workflow so that we don’t damage the signal at any stage. It has a few advantages – everyone’s providing feedback and reviewing things in a way they’re used to. When you start working on the HDR, you can start second guessing yourself about the style of the show. We had a look we liked, episodes that work, and when you do the HDR afterward it’s like a breath of fresh air. You take the show to the next level. The other way, it feels like you had something and you’re taking away from it.”

Given all that Texan sunshine, there was plenty of opportunity for HDR to literally shine, though Cabrera sounds a note of caution. “Say there’s a sequence where you’re in darkness, and suddenly you go out to the sun, you want that blinding feeling of wow, it’s too bright - that’s justified by the story. You can use HDR to enhance story like you are normal grading. But most of the show, if we have an interior, most of the stuff is within SDR. In the house, for instance, they have their blinds down and you see the streaks of light are a bit brighter, but it’s not to the point of it being blinding. It’s rare we go over 600 nits anywhere in the show. I don’t like super bright skies just for the sake of it.”

Cabrera and Burton varied their techniques for sequences depicting the family’s escape from Palestine, as well as other flashbacks. “You know how generally flashbacks tend to be warmer and a more beautiful version?” Burton says “Well, we did the opposite. The main storyline is quite warm, but there are flashbacks where we go back into a much cooler, Three Kings kind of world. Juan really did that nicely. Everyone’s biggest fear is flashbacks because it’s been done wrong so many times.”

Cabrera based his work on those flashbacks on a single sequence. “In episode six or seven, you see them getting ready to flee the country - that was the hero sequence and the look that was pretty much what came out of the camera with the flashback LUT. Otherwise that sequence had very little tweaking.” For the most part, though, Burton and Cabrera worked to keep the story in the real world, as Burton had always intended. “The first brief I got from Tim about the project was that we’re doing a show that’s based on reality,” Cabrera confirms. “Day by day, not a reality show, the real story of these people. We are there with them, seeing their real lives.”

The end of post production on Mo involved some last-minute recuts, provoking some regrading work, with the final media output at the end of June and beginning of July 2022. The photographic results speak for themselves, as does a hugely positive response from both critics and the audience, with both scores over 90% even on the merciless review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. The highly mobile approach, Cabrera concludes, paid off. “Tim was making a conscious decision to do it this way, so he was approaching it from that point of view from the beginning. When you are forced to be nimble because of lack of time or budget that’s problematic and you may have a lot of problems which may carry into your post. Tim approached his setups in a way that made it easy.”

Burton’s dedication to building a camera department that could move fast and capture that real-world aesthetic created a memorable experience for everyone involved. “The actors were very gracious,” Burton says, “excited to do the show with Mo, and Mo was very gracious too. You end up missing those shows down the road. You have other problems, of course, but that part of it was really nice. Just a nice group of people.”

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