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Exclusive Interview: Marvel’s ‘Echo’ Series Cinematographer Kira Kelly

Marvel Studios‘ “Echo” series debuted all five episodes on Disney+ on January 9, 2024.  Additionally, all episodes will be available to stream on Hulu in the United States through April 9th.  The series has premiered at No. 1 on both the Disney+ and Hulu platforms.

What Is “Echo” About?

The five-episode streaming event spotlights Maya Lopez (Alaqua Cox) as she is pursued by Wilson Fisk’s (Vincent D’Onofrio) criminal empire. When the journey brings her home, she must confront her own family and legacy.

“Echo” also stars Chaske Spencer (“Wild Indian,” “The English”), Graham Greene (“1883,” “Goliath”), Tantoo Cardinal (“Killers of the Flower Moon,” “Stumptown”), Devery Jacobs (FX’s “Reservation Dogs,” “American Gods”), Zahn McClarnon (“Dark Winds,” FX’s “Reservation Dogs”), Cody Lightning (“Hey, Viktor!” “Four Sheets to the Wind”) and Vincent D’Onofrio (“Hawkeye,” “Godfather of Harlem”).

Episodes of the series are directed by Sydney Freeland (Navajo) and Catriona McKenzie (Gunaikurnai). Executive producers are Kevin Feige, Stephen Broussard, Louis D’Esposito, Brad Winderbaum, Victoria Alonso, Richie Palmer, Jason Gavin (Blackfeet), Marion Dayre and Sydney Freeland. Co-executive producers are Jennifer L. Booth and Amy Rardin.

“Echo” is the first show under the new Marvel Spotlight banner and the first to have TV-MA rating.

‘Echo’ Cinematographer Kira Kelly Interview

Disney Plus Informer recently had the chance to chat with Echo’s two-time Emmy-nominated director of photography, Kira Kelly, who worked as the lead cinematographer on the series.  Kira detailed what it was like to achieve enough shots to be able to see actors’ hands to capture all of the physicality of ASL, visually differentiating between the flashbacks from each generation of the Choctaw Tribe, and so much more.

Read on for the full interview below:

Could you first tell us a little bit about what your job as a cinematographer entails and what projects you’ve worked on in the past?

 The job of a cinematographer, if you distill it down to the most basic form, my job is to translate the director’s vision of a story.  My job is to make sure that we are telling the story visually the way that the director wants it told or the way the director sees it.

I shot the “13th,” which is a documentary by Ava DuVernay. I also was part of a series called “Y: The Last Man” that was based on a comic and a graphic novel that I absolutely loved.  I’ve done a lot of television along the way that has been a fun, definitely a different way of storytelling, which was really exciting.

How did you become involved in “Echo” and what drew you to the series?

I actually met Sydney Freeland, who’s the director of “Echo,” about a different project.  We were going to do this basketball movie that takes place on a Navajo reservation. We started prepping that together and were going location scouting and getting everything set but when the time came to actually shoot, that is when the Delta variant started to build up.  The Navajo Nation had already been hit so hard by COVID,  they very understandably we’re like you guys can’t bring a full film crew in.  So that job took a pause and we’d already started building a relationship and then when “Echo” came about for her, she immediately was like, ‘what are you doing next year? I’ve got this project and would you be interested in it?’ And I was like, ‘of course! Definitely!’

Echo’s main character Maya Lopez is deaf and a lot of the dialogue is told in ASL. How did that impact your job as a cinematographer and how did you prepare beforehand?

 Yeah, this is such a great question. When Sydney and I started prepping “Echo,” this was one of the very first camera tests we ever shot and really the question was – what is a close-up when you are framing to include ASL?  Traditionally in cinema, you have a close-up which is of somebody’s face and that’s how you get emotion.  That’s how you bring the audience in and closer to your subject.  But with this, we couldn’t do that.

We did all these tests because basically if we just did a close-up, we were framing out what her dialogue was, framing out her emotions, because ASL is not only about your hand movements but it’s also about your body movements and your facial expressions. We even tried a couple of passes where we would tilt down and just show fingers and then tilt up to the face but still that was an incomplete sentence, for lack of a better word because – your hands, your mouth, your eyebrows, your cheeks…It’s all a part of that language.

So we really sort of played with what different lenses we could use to still get an emotional close-up and still have the audience feel close to Maya, but still keeping her full vocabulary.  We played with a lot of wider lenses closer. We played with longer lenses further back and just really looked at a bunch of those tests to kind of find the sweet spot for us.

Of course, for me, it was kind of a dream to be able to shoot this series that has such great sound design because they have cool sections where the audio just kind of dips out completely.  So as a DP, that’s always kind of a dream. I consider I’ve done a job well if we put this on mute, if you turn the sound off…does the audience know what the story is? And this series kind of gave me the chance to really play with what that is like.  We’re no longer depending on dialogue to tell the story. We’re really leaning into how to tell that story with the visuals.

The series features flashes from each generation of the Choctaw Tribe and each flashback was visually different. How did you differentiate between the different flashbacks and achieve this?

Yeah, it was really important that the ancestors kind of felt like they were still in a realm where it could happen, but still felt different than the modern world, the modern day Oklahoma, or even modern day New York. The very first ancestor that we meet is Chafa and that was a real privilege for us to be able to show the Choctaw creation story.  That was something that we really worked closely with the Choctaw Nation.  It’s a very sacred and sensitive subject and so we wanted to make sure that we got it right.

We really worked closely with them.  There was so much research we did – different glow worms in Australia or different cave dwellings and how they looked. It’s not otherworldly because it’s the story of how the world began, but we wanted to make it feel like you’re in the center of the core of the earth and these people have emerged and suddenly become human.  So that was something we kind of leaned into a little bit, more of a fantastical feel with the colors and the makeup.

When we did the stick ball sequence in Episode 2, we used H series lenses from Panavision, spherical lenses.  We used the widest ones that we could which was a 12 and we went really right up close and made the camera feel like it was part of that game.  We put it in the middle and had people run toward it and it was a really dynamic way to get the camera involved.

Episode 3 was directed by Cat McKenzie and shot by Magdalena Gorka and they did some really beautiful infrared footage for that black and white sequence to kind of make that feel like you’re not only looking at black and white but you’re looking at infrared and it kind of gave it this really gorgeous tone.

So there was a lot of nice freedom that we were given to make sure each of the ancestral stories stood out on its own and each of those ancestors and her power stood out too.

From a technical aspect, what tools, techniques and lenses did you use while working on “Echo?”

We worked with the ALEXA Mini LF.  Our usual cameras in the package were Panavision T series anamorphics.  We worked with Dan Sasaki who’s like their lens guru at Panavision and I have this favorite lens which is this macro anamorphic lens that I really adore. So I asked Dan to create a set of lenses for me that kind of mimic the look of this one lens that I love but also trying to be careful because it’s a Marvel show and there’s a lot of effects that end up happening, so you don’t want to add too much of a look that VFX then has to battle when they’re trying to add what they are adding.  It’s this fine line of creating a clean enough image that we could play with in post but still give it a bunch of character.  So that was our main set of lenses.

How closely did you work with the show’s director Sydney Freeland?

Sydney and I worked together really closely. Like I said, we’d already kind of created a bond while prepping for the other movie.  So when we got into prep for “Echo,” we were able to really hit the ground running. Before I got to Atlanta, she was already down there and we would kind of just touch base and she would keep me posted where prep was going.  Once I arrived, our offices were across the hall, so we spent as much time as we could to just flush out what the looks would be and how we were gonna cover it.

Sydney is an incredibly organized director. Every morning, she had the shots listed and shooting diagrams for each and every scene of the show that she could share with not only me but all the other department heads.  So everybody ended up knowing what we were shooting that day. It was wonderful that Sydney could be that focused and know clearly what she wanted and she still was able to collaborate and be so open to ideas.

Was there anything that you found particularly challenging while working on the series?

 I could say the most challenging sequence to shoot was the big set piece in Episode 2 which is the nighttime train sequence.  It was so exciting to see the final piece because that train sequence was over multiple days, over multiple different units.  We shot part of it outside at night in front of huge blue screens with real trains and then we brought a bunch of train elements to set and it was like a logistical puzzle that we all got together and tried to figure out.  We had all the storyboards and we took each storyboard and said – okay, this shot will be shot on stage – this is gonna be shot at the Train Depot. It was very meticulously prepped and I think that’s what saved us.   It was really wonderful to see what VFX was able to do and have it all seamlessly go together. It was a really fun logistical puzzle that that paid off really well.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Many thanks to Kira for sharing her time with us.

Be sure to check out “Echo,” now streaming on Disney+ and Hulu.

You can watch the newest trailer for the series below and read our review here:

 

Michelle Beck
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