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Ula Pontikos Reflects on Lensing Season 2 of “Russian Doll”

What do you do for an encore when a series’ first season is critically acclaimed with 13 Emmy nominations and three wins? It was a major challenge for the creative minds and artisans behind Russian doll (Netflix).

Part of the answer lay in embracing and embracing a new direction while maintaining the series’ character-driven foundation – and setting in motion a narrative that helps nurture those characters’ further development. Whereas Russian doll and its time loop had Nadia Vulvokov (portrayed by the series EP, director, writer and co-creator Natasha Lyonne) dying repeatedly in season 1, we are taken in season 2 to the pregnant body of her mother, Lenora Vulvokov (Chloe Sevigny). Moving from recurring death in Season 1 to how one begins to live in Season 2 provided an engaging context and perspective that took the series into a fascinating new space.

And cinematographer Ula Pontikos, BSC, who helmed Season 2, breathed visual life into the space, taking over from Christopher Teague who filmed the first season with distinction. In fact, Teague’s work on Russian doll, specifically the episode “Ariadne”, won the Emmy in 2019 for Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera (Half-Hour) Series. (The other two Emmy wins for Russian doll were for production design and costumes.)

Not only did Pontikos have to cross a high creative bar in terms of cinematography, but also deftly navigate a non-linear time travel path while adapting to production during the COVID pandemic. On this last point, Pontikos noted that Russian doll was one of the first shows to resume (after being shut down about 10 months earlier) full-scale production in New York City as restrictions began to be lifted. She described the experience as a journey into the “scary and unknown”, recalling that after-scouting meetings could not be in person but rather on Zoom. There were limits to the number of background artists on set, and mask-wearing was the norm. Much of filmmaking, she observed, involves “physical and human interaction” — with Zoom and the like “a step forward” from that ideal of collaboration. Still, the cast and crew came together to help realize the creative vision for Season 2.

Pontikos noted that she was a big fan of Season 1, describing Teague as “a fantastic cinematographer” who laid a great visual foundation for Russian doll. She in turn retained elements of that foundation, giving the audience a familiar feel that is an important anchor in the context of the shifting reality fueled by the dynamics of time travel. Still, there was room for new wrinkles as Season 2 transports us to eras spanning the 1940s to the 50s and 80s as the characters delve into family history and we get a sense of the impact. that one generation has on the next and soon.

While Teague rolled out the RED camera (with HELIUM sensor) in Season 1, Pontikos switched to the Sony VENICE for Season 2. She considered the VENICE the best fit for the second season, relating that the camera could retain the saturated aspect of the previous one. season while harmonizing perfectly with the low light levels and variations of the different eras needed for Season 2. Pontikos opted for lenses such as Leica, Baltar and Super Baltar to work in conjunction with the VENICE.

One of the main challenges was to do justice to crucial New York City subway scenes. A huge wall of LEDs was built to create the desired effect, the projection of these visual elements giving a measure of control that could not be achieved in the subway system itself. The LED solution gave heightened reality, Pontikos explained, as Nadia walks on trains and jumps through the bodies of her mother and grandmother, eventually giving birth on a platform. There were various shots outside of carriages, of trains going through tunnels, of figures walking on rails. Extensive on-stage planning was done to match the actual locations, a massive lighting rig was built – efforts that reflected a combination of what Pontikos described as “manpower and brain power” to orchestrate and coordinate moving elements.

Pontikos relished the planning for Season 2, citing his close collaboration with Lyonne (who co-created the series with Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler), EP/director Alex Buono, and storyboard artist Peter Beck, for example. Pontikos recalled three weeks of working together, immersed in ideas, storyboarding, preparation and getting to know each other. “The most rewarding part for me is the pre-planning,” Pontikos recounted, laying the groundwork for making the most of when you’re on set and very well into “leaving moment.”

Pontikos, originally from Poland, graduated from the National Film & Television School in London. His first feature film was directed by Andrew Haigh Weekend which premiered in 2011 at SXSW where it won the Emerging Visions People’s Choice Award. Pontikos also shot director Hong Khaou clocked which won the cinematography award in the World Cinema-Dramatic category at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, the film directed by Debbie Tucker Green second coming who earned a BAFTA Award nomination in 2016, and director Paul McGuigan Movie stars don’t die in Liverpoolwhich also received a BAFTA nod.

Other Pontikos TV series credits include Showtime three womenand British broadcasts Glue, The Game, Humans and marcella. She was invited to join the British Society of Cinematographers in 2015.

Pontikos has shot commercials for notable directors such as Traktor, Tarsem, Vincent Haycock, Kim Gehrig, Pep Bosch, Tim Godsall, Mike Maguire, Nacho Gayan and Marcus Soderlund.

This is the ninth installment in a 16-part weekly feature series The Road To Emmy that will explore the realm of Emmy contenders and then nominees spanning disciplines including directing, writing, producing, showrunning , cinematography, editing, production design, costume design, music, sound and visual effects. The Road To Emmy series will then be followed by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners on September 3 (Saturday) and 4 (Sunday), and then the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony on Monday, September 12.