Freeform’s hit sitcom Grown-ish takes up the story of Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi), in college and away from her Black-ish family. She’s surrounded by all new friends, romances, heartbreaks, and triumphs. As the young woman learns more about herself and grows, so does the show’s look, thanks to cinematographer Mark Doering-Powell.
PopAxiom spoke with Mark about becoming a DP, how tech affects filmmaking and the evolving looks of Grown-ish.
“I was always an artsy kid in school. I would draw a lot,” Mark says of his early years. “I worked on the yearbook and all that. Then, I went to art school in New York for painting and graphic design.”
While in New York, Mark discovered, “The film department was in the basement of the building. It was an amazing department. They also had a fledgling computer graphics area.” Soon after, Mark says he “transferred my major to film and video.”
Mark’s love for films started young, and he says, “There was probably some influence because my parents owned a video store.”
“I started as a camera assistant,” he shares of his first days as a budding filmmaker, “focus puller, and camera operator. After that, I moved up through the ranks. I was also shooting spec spots to learn.”
Does Mark want to direct someday? “People ask me, ‘Oh, you should direct’ But I feel like, having prepped with other directors, you see how much more there is to that. I’m happy to do certain parts, but I’ve never aspired to be a director. I love this side of the collaboration.”
Mark didn’t work on the first season of Grown-ish. “Kenya Barris and Paula Huidobro set up the first season. I came on through Michael Petok. Paula went on to work on Barry, I think. Michael brought me to meet with the EPs [executive producers]. I loved the show.”
“It was interesting trying to prep it because the first season looked a certain way that was appropriate for the first season,” he explains about taking over the DP reigns. “But if you read the scripts for the second season, I knew that the show had to grow. I had to do more varied looks. I had to figure that out — feel that out — to see how everyone would respond to that as we were tackling each episode.”
A TV show is an evolving process. “There are technical things we changed too with the rig and green screen versus a backdrop. We’re always figuring out how to make things better.”
“I’m very much into not jolting and transitioning in,” he answers when asked about evolving the look of the show. “I didn’t discuss that with anyone. I didn’t feel I had to. I knew that would be something I could do with the lighting, the lensing, and the color palette. Besides what the production designer is giving me. Kathleen [Widomski] was our production designer in the first season that I did.”
As Zoey grows into adulthood, they find a place to live. “When they move into their apartment, it’s sparsely dressed, and they add stuff with the episodes. So we moved with that.”
Mark takes a minute to share the love with his collaborators. “Kristan Andrews is our current production designer. I’ve worked with her for a long time. She’s amazing, and we have no shortage of a great crew.”
The look of the show started “branching out because the story changes. She becomes a fashion major, so we start glamming things up a bit. The show is in this comedy wrapper, but it takes on all these serious topics. I think that’s why it resonates with the audience the way that it does.”
“I always try to find a good excuse to do an interesting light,” he says, “It doesn’t take any longer to put the light in the right place.”
A scene for Mark always “starts with continuity and the time of day. So, I always check with our script supervisor about the time of day and start going from there, whether we’re doing something duskier or sunset-y and make lighting that interesting. Then, the story arc, the character arc, the topics that they’re visiting, and the environments that they’re in; all those things inform us. So, we definitely glam it up and add spice to it up but always anchored in the scene.”
Filmmaking is not an exact science, but we get lots of great shows like Grown-ish with enough practice and knowledge. “We did a scene where Nomi and her professor are having a fling. She comes back to her professor’s apartment, and they kiss. We blocked the scene loosely, and we asked, ‘Okay, what happens at the end of the scene?’ Neither of the actors was sure of what they were going to do. Everyone looked at me like I was going to have a hard time with that. I said, ‘Great, it’s all good. Go get ready, and when we come back, you guys do your thing.”
What was the solution? “I designed it with the camera operator so that when they get over here, they are either going to go left or right. Just be ready. You can work things out so many different ways.”
Where does the understanding of dealing with a scenario like that come from — film school or experience? “Both, but probably from the latter. That situation was unusual. It’s something you might bristle at first, ‘How can I do this?’ But at the same time, in this particular scene, they were right next to a practical [light], so I could silhouette them against that. Paul Sanchez was my A-camera operator, he’s brilliant, and he was going to be on hand-held. So as long as we’re prepared to go the other way, it was an easy answer. If everyone loves the blocking, we can do anything no matter what the actors do.”
For Mark, it’s essential to know what’s a real problem. “You want to know what moments to raise a red flag. You want to do things as few times as possible and solve stuff. That’s your job.”
“People might come to you and say that you have to shoot half a scene on one day and half the scene on another day,” he explains, “and it’s going to be night over here, and day over there, it’s your job to make that look the same.”
It might sound like a terrifying process for some, but for Mark, “It can’t get any more fun than that.”
There are other times when, like this past season’s season opener, we were supposed to shoot it with three cameras in a small space during COVID. It was the one scene that nagged at me, so I raised the flag. The director, Chris Robinson, helped me figure it out. He moved it outside. We did it with two cameras.”
In part, Grown-ish features a creamy, cinematic look because it’s shot on an Arri Mini camera and mostly Leica SummiLux-C’s lenses. Could you achieve the same look with different hardware? “You could. Now, we’re in a place where I could shoot this with a Sony Venice and a different lens and make it match up. But I will say, there are other reasons we pick a certain camera.” Arri Mini is a very filmic, natural-looking sensor out of the box, so that’s helpful to where we’re heading. It’s also got a small body on it; I can put it on a gimbal or steady-cam.”
“The Leica SummiLux-C,” he continues, “are incredible lenses. Paola used them in season one. I probably would’ve picked another lens, but I kept all that because I didn’t see a reason to try to change. I just used filtration. A lot of it is filtration.”
Mark delves deeper. “The cameras and filters are so important. You live with them every shot. It gives you part of your look, and it doesn’t take longer; it’s just a decision. You want to make the right decision because it helps nudge you in the right direction.”
“Those Leica lenses, those are very sharp and could be accused of being clinical lenses,” he says. “They’re amazing … they’re very sharp, but using a little pearlescent filter and smoke filter, two filters that I lean on, and maybe occasionally a soft FX filter; having that recipe helps so much.”
However, Mark explains how the tech has to adapt. “But if I’m on a night exterior and there are all kinds of street lamps and headlights, those filters won’t respond well. It’ll make fuzzy cotton balls from every light out there. But you can deal with that because the camera offers so much versatility.”
Who are some of Mark’s influences? “So many. Roger Deakins, Harry Stradling Jr., Jordan Cronenweth, my buddy Erik Messerschmidt. It’s an endless list of DPs that I love and watch their work.”
“Roger Deakins,” he focuses on a legend. “It’s amazing how well he uses atmosphere. How much he uses it to simplify the frame and get rid of all the busyness.”
Another legend for Mark, “I would say Emmanuel Lubezki. It’s a great way to cover a scene when you’ve got the blocking done. Then, instead of doing a master shot, close-ups, you’re moving with them. There are all kinds of ways that you can build those scenes, and Lubezki does it so well.”
What’s something Mark would love to work on? “I would love to do a whole fantasy-space thing that takes place on another planet. That sort of thing fascinates me. To do something that’s completely out of this world [pun intended]. You’re doing stuff where you’re floating in space. As much as I love doing naturalistic work, I like the idea of bending that into a place we don’t normally visit. Gravity is a perfect example. The rules of light are different in that sort of environment.”
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