ARRI ALEXA Mini powers production of STARZ’ new “P-Valley”

Cinematographers Nancy Schreiber, ASC, and Richard J. Vialet split duties behind the camera for a show some are calling “brilliant.” We catch up with Schreiber to learn more about her experience, the inspiration for the show’s look and why it was important to hire a diverse crew.

Aug. 10, 2020

Cinematographer Nancy Schreiber, ASC, has made a career out of breaking down barriers. As just the fourth woman ever to be voted into the prestigious American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), Schreiber is lending her talent to bring another trailblazing story to life in STARZ’ “P‐Valley.” The new drama explores the lives of black strippers in the impoverished Mississippi River Delta – all from the female perspective. 
Based on the play by Katori Hall, "P‐Valley" has been hailed as "brilliant" and "one of the summer's best." The drama is breaking new ground in other ways too. A female-directed each of the series' eight episodes, while Schreiber shared cinematography duties with DP Richard J. Vialet. We caught up with Schreiber to learn more about the show, and her experience using the ALEXA Mini.

Watch the official teaser for STARZ’ “P-Valley”

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What made you want to get involved in this project? 

I had been following Katori Hall’s theater work and was a fan. I heard she was mounting a series and intended to employ many women in front of and behind the camera and wanted to diversify all departments. This has been my mandate from the beginning of my career. I think back to when I was first shooting in New York and would consistently hire female camera assistants. I imagine it raised a lot of eyebrows, but I felt even then that if I did not hire women, who would? Plus, if I could make it in the electric department and successfully transition to being a cinematographer, it could happen to others who were grossly unrepresented in the film and television industry. People need that first door opened. Having said all of this, I have always thought of myself as a cinematographer—who just happens to be a woman. 

I was really drawn to the subject matter of “P Valley,” which deals with people in a small town in Mississippi that are on the margins of society. This town has seen better days, with few ways for folks to make a living other than working at this strip club. I wanted to embrace the dignity of these women, pole dancers who have strength and power in their own abilities. I wanted to make sure we were not exploiting the dancers’ bodies through titillating visuals yet not shying away from showing the beauty of bodies while never lingering on any one part. There was extensive discussion about the female versus the male gaze, and Katori was careful in her hiring, looking for those with an understanding of a female gaze. Richard and our camera operators were sensitive to this. You would be hard‐pressed to know which visuals were shot by our “A” operator/Steadicam operator, Dave Chaimedes, our “B” camera operator, Janice Min, or our “C” camera operator, Brigman Foster‐Owens.

The cinematography for “P‐Valley” is stunning. There are lots of colors and a lot of lens flares. Can you tell me about the visual style of “P‐Valley”?

There was a very extensive look book created by my first director, on episode 101, Karena Evans, along with Katori. Karena was known for her inventive music videos with Drake. I found it such a fruitful and inspiring collaboration. The club is called the “Pynk,” so naturally Richard and I used the color pink. Yet we did vary the colors on stage and in the VIP rooms. It is so easy these days to change our hue, luminance, and saturation instantaneously with full-spectrum LEDs, and we brought in golds, oranges, blues, and purples. Katori was not fond of the color green, so we were conscious of how and when we used green.

Katori never wanted this club, which had been a 1950s juke joint, to be too fancy or glitzy because Uncle Clifford, the gender-fluid proprietor, would not have had the means to build anything too high end. Jon Ladd, our gaffer, had the task of hiding modern‐day LED lights inside of housing from old par cans that have been around for decades and really aren’t used much anymore. This way, if one were to look up at our grid, one wouldn’t see modern club lights. It was important to Katori to show that Uncle Clifford got what she could wherever she could, picking up bits and pieces at Home Depot‐like stores.

There has been a tendency to desaturate color when filming down-and-out communities such as our fictional town, Chucalisa. Katori, however, believed that cinematography could have color saturation and still show the underbelly of life. She also called our world “Delta Noir,” which allowed us great freedom with our lighting and composition. 

Can you talk a little about the gear you used to shoot “P‐Valley”?

It was a no brainer to use the ALEXA Mini. I’ve used it a lot, and it’s flexible. It can easily be used with a Steadicam or in handheld mode, mounted quickly on a remote head. I’ve always loved the rendition of color and the latitude that ALEXA has. As STARZ did not have a 4K mandate, we shot at 3.2K. We set our ISO at 1600 because we wanted the visuals to be a little gritty. Sometimes, in post, we even ended up adding grain. The camera handled the 1600 ISO beautifully. We used an assortment of Panavision glass with varying levels of detuning, with coating ranging from extreme to medium to subtle.

Each lens has its own characteristics and did not match in contrast and color, as is common in older lenses, but we watched our monitors in Chris Ratledge, in our DIT tent.

When we were filming the dancing on stage, we used three cameras, usually with 11 to 1 zooms on the “B” and “C” camera. While the long zoom in our main package matched fairly well, we did have to add light smoque filters to make our lenses resemble closer to each other.

You have a long legacy of breaking new ground as a female cinematographer. What did it mean to work on a project like this with such a diverse crew? 

I’ve always been a champion of hiring diverse, whether its gender identity, ethnic group, or religion. I was fortunate that there were so many qualified people in Georgia where we shot “P‐Valley.” I was able to cast our crew to be diverse. On the main camera crew, there were eleven of us, and six out of the eleven were women. The daughter of Ray Brown, our key grip, had been working with her dad for a number of years in the grip department. Our two dolly grips were people of color. And there was a very talented woman in the electric department’s core group. This really warmed my heart, as I came up in the electric department.

Given the current climate in the world, what do you hope audiences take out of “P‐Valley”?

We are a very diverse country, and yet stories of the black and brown communities that are not stereotypical are not as common as they should be.

It’s gratifying to know that we were able to get the showoff the ground at this time, having finished post before the pandemic. We shot at Tyler Perry’s brand-new stages in Atlanta. Mr. Perry has demonstrated the incredible success of black‐owned businesses. This trend needs to be expanded and supported around the country. I do worry about setbacks from the pandemic for the underserved but feel that people’s eyes have really been opened after witnessing extreme violence toward our black and brown brothers and sisters.

I feel fortunate to have been part of the “P-Valley” team, bringing these important stories to life and digging into the inequities that run so deep. I hope the series opens more eyes and hearts.

P‐Valley airs on Sundays at 8 pm EST on the STARZ network.