Welcome to World Builders, our new ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople in the industry. In this entry, we chat with two-time Emmy-nominated cinematographer Ava Berkofsky about the evolving visual language of Insecure.
Two women sit across from each other in their favorite restaurant. There’s a lot that’s not being said. There’s been a lot not being said for a long time, nearly the entire run of the fourth season of Insecure. Issa (Issa Rae) and Molly (Yvonne Orji) love each other, but they’ve allowed an impenetrable barrier of frustration build up between them. With their romantic lives flailing, they recognize the power they have in each other. It’s time to let go of grudges and be present in the friendship that came before and will remain after.
The camera pulls away from their table. The two women speak, but we don’t hear their words. The camera continues retreating, slipping through the restaurant’s window and across the street while Tyler, the Creator’s “Are We Still Freinds?” plays on the soundtrack. We leave Issa and Molly satisfied, knowing their pain will heal through the conversation.
“Lowkey Lost” is one of two Insecure episodes nominated this year for an Emmy in the category of Cinematography For A Single-Camera Series (Half-Hour). The season finale concludes the emotional cold war between the two leads, and it required a climax that didn’t skimp on their mutual anger but instead offered hope that the steam would eventually settle. In a series noted for its lavish visuals, the final shot quietly needed to stitch old wounds.
“Merkato [the Ethiopian resteraunt] is their place,” says Ava Berkofsky. “It’s where they go to have their time, and we wanted this moment to be one of coming back together, or joining together. The idea to go through the window came after, but the feeling was right. We wanted to blend the scene with the bigger landscape of LA and the city street.”
Berkofsky joined Insecure as director of photography during the second season, and she’s helped to redefine not only what a half-hour series could look like, but how Los Angeles could be portrayed. She’s not here to shoot a sitcom. She’s here to reveal the city’s forever mutating canvas.
“The idea of Issa’s neighborhood changing,” says Berkofsky, “and South LA gentrifying and what it means to take ownership over your neighborhood that’s been your neighborhood since you were a kid, it’s an important theme of the show. It’s an important theme in our culture now, really. Rents are pushing people out. Not to get dramatic about it, but neighborhoods are changing. I’m always aware of wanting to show off the character that is South LA.”
The nooks, crannies, and skylines of Los Angeles are central to the characters. Merkato is not a mere hangout; it’s a friend. The concrete is a foundation where friendships are solidified. Berkofsky wouldn’t skimp on the composition of an actor in the frame, so she sure as hell wouldn’t curse a location with a simple exterior shot.
“Issa and [showrunner] Prentice Penny are both so specific about their locations,” she continues. “That gives me permission to get specific about how we shoot them, and how we present them. I’m trying to keep it away from being generic. I’m trying to show an LA that is specific to this show and specific to these people. It’s really fun. As a DP, what could be more fun than trying to bring a landscape into a specific character?”
To achieve such specificity, scouting becomes a crucial task in her role as the cinematographer. While many locations are called out in the script, neither Rae nor Penny has the time to go out on the hunt. Nailing locality falls on the shoulders of Berkofsky, the location managers, and the producers.
“It’s up to me and them to find the heart of these places and figure out how to portray them faithfully,” says Berkofsky. “We have discussions between production design, and we go back and forth with Issa and Prentice. It’s always about specificity.”
However, as the series evolved over the last batch of seasons, Penny wanted to transform Insecure‘s visual aesthetic. The final episode is a prime example: act one begins as any episode would, but as we move into act two, the visuals take on the flavor of the true-crime-show-within-a-show, Looking for Latoya. In the past, such a visual changeup might have bucked against Berkofsky’s particularity, but having recently made her directorial debut with episode eight (“Lowkey Happy”), the cinematographer threw herself into the spontaneous modification.
“If I hadn’t directed,” she says, “I would be like, ‘Wait, hold on. Why? What?’ I would have needed to have considered it more and figured it out, or gone deeper into it before I understood the why of it. Having just been in that role, I got it right away. I felt free in a way.”
Opening herself to adaptation resulted in the most glorious shot in the finale: Issa on her porch, devastated from her revelatory exchange with Lawrence (Jay Ellis), kicking back with a joint while the setting sun blazes behind her. Somewhere between the images is relief, agony, and acceptance.
“It’s a very precarious space,” says Berkofsky. “We didn’t have our normal production unit there. It was literally just me with the camera, my focus puller, our first AD, and Prentice. It was the idea of throwing out the rules. What does this moment call for? We never do that kind of thing, letting loose with an almost music video kind of emotional language.”
To achieve the appropriate headspace, Penny only needed to mention a movie.
“We shot it at that hour when the sun is sort of setting but beating down,” she says. “Prentice was like, ‘Have you ever seen American Honey?’ Which is one of my favorite films by one of my favorite filmmakers, Andrea Arnold. I was like, ‘Dude, say no more. Totally get it.'”
While Berkofsky considers herself an experimenter, improv was never a tool in her bag of tricks. That’s changing. Her stint as director, adapting to Looking for Latoya, and freewheeling on Issa’s patio, unveiled new psychological possibilities.
“The porch was really fun because it’s obvious what the feeling is,” she says. “We’ve all felt that feeling. To be able to get in a different kind of emotional hit than we usually do on that show, it was really fun. It was great having the showrunner come at me with this new reference because it gave me all the more permission to try new stuff.”
Berkofsky didn’t bother to watch the Emmy nominations on the day. Having already received a nomination the previous year, she simply did not believe a second one was in the cards, but here she is, sharing the category with her Insecure co-DP, Kira Kelly.
“It’s crazy,” she says. “It’s an honor and a testament to how good I think the show has become and how much everybody’s game has come up.”
As the characters strive to evolve beyond their past selves, so does Berkofsky. What was once a strict idea of how her camera should behave has developed into something a little more freeform. Like the leads of the show, she aspires to be open to the moment.