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Poolside Gossip

Cinematographers David Lanzenberg and Todd McMullen admire the details in the country-club comedy Palm Royale.

Created by showrunner Abe Sylvia, the Apple TV+ comedic drama Palm Royale navigates the tale of one woman's ambitious journey to make it amongst the upper crust, through extravagant settings that evoke the golden era of Life magazine. Cinematographer David Lanzenberg was behind the camera for the first two episodes, working with director Tate Taylor, and then passed the baton to fellow director of photography Todd McMullen, who shot the remaining eight episodes. With support from Panavision Woodland Hills, the cinematographers opted to pair Panaspeed large-format spherical primes with the Millennium DXL2 camera. Here, the collaborators highlight how the series’ visual language was distinctly enhanced by the choices made by the art, wardrobe, and hair & make-up departments.

Panavision: Were there any particular visual references you looked at for inspiration?

David Lanzenberg: From the beginning, [executive producers and directors] Abe Sylvia and Tate Taylor had very specific references they wanted Todd and me to follow. The idea was really about following the tone and feeling and opulence of the amazing photography of Slim Aarons, which had a very Kodak Ektrachrome feel from the ’60s and ’70s, with vivid primary colors.

Todd McMullen: Slim was a World War II Army photographer who, after returning from the war, turned his lens towards ‘attractive people, doing attractive things, in attractive places.’ Slim was a master at composing frames that were inclusive, stylish, bold, and included the landscape and architecture of the changing time period.

Frame grab from Palm Royale

How would you describe the look of Palm Royale?

McMullen: Visually, the show presents a retro style that is aspirational, inviting, and center-punches a bold new color palette that was blooming in the ’60s. We dig into the patterns, the fabrics and the daring styles that were emerging. America was coming out of the black-and-white, monotone flavor of the ’50s and starting to bleed color. And because the story is set in Palm Beach, Florida, it felt appropriate to keep our world warm and sunny and welcoming. 

Lanzenberg: I remember in my first meeting with Tate Taylor, I said, ‘I'm really interested in telling the story with one camera.' Every show is different, but for Palm Royale, to set that tone and look in the first two episodes, having only one camera really helped. There are some scenes by the pool where the positioning of where everything was placed in the background was very calculated with the operator. There was a certain symmetry. The attention to detail within the set dressing, within the staging, when we would go to a close-up, when we wouldn't — everything was very important. It was great to be able to do that.

Frame grab from Palm Royale

What brought you to Panavision for this project?

Lanzenberg: Todd was on another show when I started prep on the first two episodes of Palm Royale, but this show was a great opportunity to come back to Panavision and achieve something special. Panavision is a very familiar environment no matter where you are in the world, be it Canada, New York, L.A., Paris. There is very much a close-knit community.

McMullen: Panavision is the first collaboration call for me on any project. The reasons are lengthy, but the service, selection of tools, and the experience in crafting those tools is paramount and accessible. Also, the Panavision team is unwavering — they will help you find your solutions without hesitation. And the number of locations they have around the world to access equipment is a sigh of relief.

What led to your choice of Panaspeed lenses and the Millennium DXL2 camera?

McMullen: As David said, I was on another show when Palm Royale started, so David and 1st AC Chad Rivetti had the fun of landing the right equipment for the look, and the Panaspeeds fit the bill. They were brilliant in their speed, look and ‘imperfections’ for framing the colorful world of the ’60s. Also, the DXL2 is such a workhorse and has the large-format capabilities and a sensor that I feel is natural and smooth.

Lanzenberg: I’d appreciated working with that camera in the past because it has a certain ‘print’ quality that’s achievable with its Monstro sensor. To me, it’s reminiscent texture-wise of some of the films of the ’70s that I grew up with and really appreciate. One of the things with shooting digitally sometimes is that you're losing that texture that you were able to manipulate with film. As a cinematographer, you still want to be able to have that input, and one of the things with the DXL2 is that it does allow you to have that. One shoe doesn't fit all, and different cameras will definitely give you different options, but this one added a print quality that I appreciate.

Behind the scenes of Palm Royale

What optical characteristics did you see in the Panaspeeds that made them the right match for Palm Royale?

Lanzenberg: On a previous show, I had tested Panaspeeds and really liked them. There's a certain gentleness within the image, and there’s a three-dimensionality that I would normally get with anamorphic lenses. When the opportunity came to work on Palm Royale, we did quite a few tests with other lenses that Panavision provided, but those were always in the back of my mind. It was great to have them, and we used them with these anamorphic flare attachments that Dan Sasaki has come up with, so we were able to create this very subtle tone to the image that had slight aberrations to the background or the edges and how the focus would react in certain parts of the distance. With that combination, we had the best of all worlds.

How does this project differ from others in your career?

McMullen: Palm Royale was a wonderful project to pivot from the darker and moodier tones I’m normally associated with in storytelling. I felt it was certainly a comedy, but the story emotionally had an edge and layers of underlying darkness, so it was essential to dive into the comedy lighting scheme and then be able to apply the mystery and mood when the story called for it. The other wonderful gift of this show was that the sets and costumes were so well thought-out and so detailed that they were part of the story. Production design, hair and wardrobe were not accessories but main characters. The frames were always alive with the tapestry of color, patterns and ornate set pieces.

Lanzenberg: Every show is different, and every show brings something to the table. But this one, in particular, was pretty wild from the beginning, even reading the script and knowing that this was a period piece — I'm a bit of a sucker for period pieces. The director and showrunner were excited about shooting in an aspect ratio of 2.39:1, and along with the amazing production design and costume design, everything came together so nicely. It was very special. The creative process just kept going and growing, like it had a life of its own. I have to give credit to director Tate Taylor because he was open to allowing those things to happen. That was the most rewarding thing working on Palm Royale.

Frame grab from Palm Royale

What inspired each of you to become a cinematographer?

McMullen: My inspiration in cinematography, and photography in general, is the practice of observation: how moments are told in the natural and real world in terms of light, life and perspective. My goal is to apply those observations and perspectives to the visual story without drawing attention to the process.

Lanzenberg: My brother was a cinematographer doing commercials, and I’ve sort of followed in his footsteps. I started as a trainee, and a loader, and a second, a first. And my mother was an artist and a filmmaker, so I always enjoyed watching films with her. One of the earliest films I always refer back to is Néstor Almendros’ cinematography in Days of Heaven, the Terrence Malick film. That was stunning to watch as a young 13- or 14-year-old. The more I learned about this film, it was even more mesmerizing how they achieved it and were able to, for the most part, shoot the film at dusk. That was always so phenomenal to me, even to this day. You hear about films like Lawrence of Arabia, it took them 360 days, and it shows. There's a certain romanticism I find process-wise about movies, especially some of the more classic ones, that I always want to try to hold.

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