Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople in the industry. In this entry, we chat with cinematographer James Kniest about shooting Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Bly Manor.
The Haunting of Bly Manor reunites creator Mike Flanagan with some familiar faces from his hit series The Haunting of Hill House, just in a different time and place. Cinematographer James Kniest is not one of those returning collaborators, though he has worked with Flanagan before, on the 2016 slasher film Hush, which he refers to as a “Netflix darling.”
Kniest joined the Haunting of Bly Manor team partway through the season, serving as the Director of Photography for episodes six through nine. Ahead of the series’ release on Netflix, I chatted with him about shooting on location in Vancouver, completing remote post-production during a pandemic, and how Bly Manor measures up against Hill House.
Note: this interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
What discussions did you have with Mike Flanagan about the look you wanted for Bly Manor?
Well, it’s interesting. I took over the cinematography of the show halfway through production as a Director of Photography, and they were already several episodes in. I got a baptism by fire and was thrown into it. If there was ever any question about anything, Mike’s initial response was, “Look back at The Haunting of Hill House” for any blueprint, or stylistically, or flow, or pace.
That was the only real mandate, to keep us in the same vein. But, as these things go, projects take on their own level; they evolve and become their own thing. So they were already doing certain things that, when I came on board, I changed. It also happened to fit perfectly in the arc of the season as things were starting to get more complicated in the episodes; things were starting to get a little darker thematically. So we were able to slowly transition to a darker feel with more weight to it.
I started moving the camera a lot more. They had kept things really symmetrical and static, and I started to employ some of our technology like techno cranes, Steadicams, and a lot of dolly moves. That’s my style. I like to keep things moving and flowing. I think it helps the editor in terms of giving a more poetic edit. I also think that our viewers and audiences are so sophisticated now that if you’re not keeping things flowing, I think it’s hard to keep their attention. So I try to keep the camera moving all the time until there is a reason not to, and then I keep it static for a silent pause or if you want somebody to really analyze the scene or the setting of that.
So I basically had a mandate that if I had questions, I was to look back at The Haunting of Hill House, but other than that, Mike was pretty supportive in letting me put my own spin on things and let me go with my gut. We had a rapport, so I think he trusted me in that respect. And a lot of times, it’s funny when we’re talking about looks and styles. A lot of people know what they don’t want. [laughs] So it’s almost easier to not do certain things but feel free to do other things until you get some backlash. Which I never did, knowing Mike’s sensibilities and how to stay within those boundaries.
Could you tell me a bit more about how that darker tone and how your style tied into the narrative of Bly House, and how it might be a little different from Hill House?
Well, I think it’s going to be more on track with Hill House and a little bit different than the beginning of The Haunting of Bly Manor. It is more in the lighting style where some of the key lights on people’s faces are more shadow, with a darker shadowed side and more fall off, letting a lot of the backgrounds fall off into the darkness. Especially in the genre, the pallid tone gives the audience a sense of dread or moodiness. I also think it helps the actors pop off the screen a little bit more.
And then at this point in the story, things are starting to get a little bit darker. Some of the ghosts are starting to dictate the story a little bit more. There is a sense of eerieness already in the dialogue and the action, in the storyline. It just happened to fit well serendipitously, with us picking the images a bit darker and heavier.
The Haunting of Hill House is a family horror, but Bly Manor has been described as a “gothic romance.”
Yeah, it’s not really a horror show at all. I think it is just in the themes of ghosts and things like that. It’s really a sensitive story about the characters, their relationships with other people, and about their relationships with themselves. There are a couple of love interests that happen along the way. It’s set in this Manor with a long history of death and sadness and a melancholy feel, so it truly is an interesting love story about all of the characters to some degree. It’s set in this eerie place. Of course, some of the people who have relationships die, and there is some love lost there. There’s a lot of heartache in it. It’s really a tear-jerker in a certain sense.
It’s interesting because the actors carry a lot of that through the nuances of their performances. Through the subtleties of their facial expressions and body language. It’s fascinating to watch that. My job is to set the tone. We didn’t rely on visual trickery or anything like that to set the stage for these amazing actors to act out some of these heartwrenching ghost stories.
It’s interesting to me that you say this isn’t really a horror story because I am actually very new to horror. I used to find the genre just too spooky, but Hill House was one of the things to have come out in the last couple of years that have been a good gateway horror for the people like me who don’t have such good nerves as the hardcore horror fans.
Oh, it’s changed so much, and I’m so glad because I am not a slasher fan at all, but that whole horror genre terminology encompasses almost anything that has slightly darker themes. And that’s something that’s amazing about Mike Flanagan is that all of his work has such depth to it: depth of character, depth of the storyline. There are many layers to peel back. I think that is something that’s very cool for the audience to watch and rewatch this material, always gleaning new information and new insights into these characters and the story plot.
I think that there is maybe no blood…maybe the tiniest little bit of blood. A lot of stuff is implied. You know, there is the horrific stuff in a sense, but nothing gratuitous. And I think that’s so fun. Maybe ten years ago, they wouldn’t have considered this a horror—a ghost story. But there is a lot of stuff in the past that would easily fall into the horror genre now, even super old movies like The Serpent and the Rainbow. Gosh, all kinds of things that have dark themes, but aren’t really scary movies, you know? It’s not like they’re all Carrie these days or Freddy Kreuger or you know, like that. I don’t really subscribe to those movies as much, I’m not afraid of Chucky or something like that, but I’m definitely afraid of what humans can do to one another.
Absolutely, the slasher sort of horror is really just one facet of what the genre is.
And a really small facet, right? I mean, a tiny thing. More and more shows come out and movies coming out nowadays that play with these themes. What’s interesting to me is how much the audience loves it and what a large segment of the audience does like these new genre type films.
The genre is certainly growing.
As an image-maker, I like to see the images at sixty by thirty feet, not on my phone, which is really hard because we shoot and design things to be seen in these optimal viewing environments. Now, with all of these different viewing platforms and different viewing environments, we don’t really know how people are going to watch the content. We always knew for a long time that they would be sitting in a dark theater, with a large screen, and things were created knowing that. But now, we don’t really know what people are going to watch, and when and where, So it’s hard to tailor it to any one specific experience. As an image-maker, it’s new uncharted territory.
And even if people are watching it on a big screen, they might be limited by [streaming] bandwidth as well; that’s a whole other side of it. It can erase a lot of detail if you’re not watching it in high quality, which you know you’re going to get in a theater or IMAX.
Oh god, compression kills me. I hate that. And every streaming service has its own compression algorithms. It’s funny that you say that because, in The Haunting of Bly Manor, there are lots of hidden things and story points that fall off in the darkness. While shooting, the discussion was where to place them and how much to light them and stuff, but that was thinking that people would be watching it on a sixty-inch TV screen. But who knows now, right? They could be watching at the bus stop on their iPhone and how that translates.
In fact, we finished production just before the COVID pandemic, and we ended up having to do post remotely. So I had to do the color grade remotely on an iPad Pro, and I’m still pretty nervous about how that is going to turn out on TV. I can’t wait to see it on my television to see how much of the tonality is darkness and contrast all, how it’ll really play out on TV because I only got to see it on an iPad Pro remotely. It was less than ideal.
So post-production largely happened during the COVID pandemic?
Yeah, it started at the beginning of March.
What was that like — not necessarily exclusive to this project — working on things remotely instead of in studios. How has it been different?
It’s been new and frustrating. I’ve been doing this for years, and there is a little bit of shorthand that we have and a little bit of an understanding of the technology. New technology all of a sudden pops in, as gradually happens, but with this situation, it’s a complete unknown how it’s going to translate, and especially the color gradient.
For me, I think editorially, we did fine, but it is a lot harder when you’re not sitting in a room with people to have discussions and make changes. Everything is a process. I would watch the episode, and then I would put notes per time code, and then others would go back and make adjustments, and then I would watch the episode again.
Usually, I am sitting in a room where we would go frame by frame; it happens very quickly, and we all know exactly what happened. But with this, there is a lot of back and forth, and some stuff never gets done, and other stuff gets done that we didn’t talk about, and it’s definitely frustrating. It’s definitely not ideal, and I hope I never have to do it again.
You can’t collaborate like you used to, and some of the coolest parts of the business are working together as a team to elevate each other. Usually, ideas blossom or grow [together]. When you’re sitting right next to each other, you can throw things around and have some banter, but when you’re typing an email, and someone reads it an hour later or even on a Zoom call where things drop out, and everybody is afraid to speak up. We’ve had Zoom calls where it seems like nobody says anything, and then suddenly, everyone is talking at the same time, and it’s really frustrating. I think it’s limiting a lot of the creative process.
The house in Hill House serves as a distinct character, or maybe even villain. Is Bly Manor similarly set up that way?
I think so. It’s absolutely a large element of the story as a setting for everything, and it’s not so much the house itself as it was in Hill House, but it’s more what has happened and the history of the manor. Some of the spirits that have remained there are more of the character than the actual structure, and that has played a huge part in the show.
It was pretty interesting, logistically. When I came on board, they had already had shooting and sets on stages they’d built that were huge. One of the most interesting things, as you watch it, you’ll see a lot of scenes where people migrate from the upstairs to the downstairs and downstairs to the upstairs. In Vancouver’s studio space, they had built the downstairs in one complete studio facility and then in a totally different place, a couple of miles away, was the upstairs of the manor. The upstairs floor was all green screen so that we could comp the upstairs and the downstairs together so we would shoot somebody traveling the upstairs part one day, and maybe a week later, we would shoot the downstairs part.
It was a little daunting in terms of tying it all together. It happened several times every episode, so it was a large part of our logistical planning. At first, I was a bit daunted by it, but after we did a couple of scenes like that and it came together seamlessly, it was no problem. I don’t think the viewer would ever think about that, and they would be surprised to know that scenes on different days and different studios were all tied together. And that is just the interior. The exterior was built at a farm, south of Vancouver. They built the lake, and they built a chapel and a long driveway and all these topiary gardens. The exterior of the manor itself is mostly CG. It was storage containers stacked on each other with greenscreen. It was this huge thing.
We shot through the winter, you know. They had dug this huge lake, and as you watch the series, you’ll see there was a lot of action in and around the lake. But in the wintertime in Vancouver, it snows, and it was supposed to be set in spring. Inherently, there were a lot of schemes because we had to keep the lake to eighty degrees Fahrenheit, I think, for SAG rules. So, we had this big steam bath kind of thing that we had to deal with.
That was a little bit of a problem. I don’t think it affected them early on, but as winter approached and the temperatures dropped, we started struggling with the lake producing all the steam. Luckily, production was very supportive, and we got a bunch of fans and were able to turn these huge fans on right before we roll. You know, the actors are leaning against the wind, and then we cut the fans and do as much of the work as we can before the steam rolls again, and we had to start it all over again.
It was cool, actually, because the steam lends itself to an eerie feel. We ended up adding ground fog and adding more atmosphere to the location, which helped us a lot. We had other constraints that we had to hide. There was a grow-op two farms away that had their lights on at night. So there was this eerie orange glow that came from a couple of fields away that we were able to mask with some of the steam and atmosphere. It’s funny that something that gave us trouble at first ended up helping us in the long run.
You mentioned the history of the house and how that plays such a big role in the season. Are there time cuts again, where it jumps back and forth between the past and the present?
A bit. And some of the times, it was something that was really hard to track, even when I first got involved. I had to read and reread it to try and understand what was going on. It was a time cut in a sense. Basically, it’s called being Tucked Away. It’s complicated to explain, and it’s going to be challenging for the viewers to really track a little bit, but I think that makes it inherently interesting. They go to this Tucked Away place where they are almost in a dream state, but it’s part of their living memories of what the ghost has experienced.
So it jumps around a lot, and one of my biggest questions was “Are we going to differentiate the feel and tone between these?” The idea was not to; Mike doesn’t really like to do things that are kind of gratuitous and kitschy and trickery. So we didn’t change the look [between time periods], but I think you can really start to read when somebody is in their Tucked Away place by the way the actors handled the material and the way their performances changed a little bit. There is just something interesting about what those small, very subtle, telltale changes are. Usually, within that scene, it’ll wrap up and be explained to the viewer what has happened and what is going on.
Hill House has an incredible episode where it was cut together to look like a single take. Could you tell me a little bit about a visually distinct episode that you did this season?
Episode 8 is set in the 1600s at the manor, and we shot that in black and white. It was a really interesting episode because it explains what’s been going on in the manor, the history of people’s spirits getting trapped there, where it comes from. It was a lot of fun. Kate Siegel, this is where she shines; it was really her episode. I know she has a huge following from the Haunting of Hill House — she was the lead actress.
The wardrobe made all these handmade dresses to fit the 1600s period, and on the set deck, there were props and horses. They changed the grounds around a bit. To show a couple of hundred years of history of the manor in this episode. It was super fun, visually, to do, and I think all the atmosphere and steam and the manor itself really translated well to black and white. It gives it an older, antique horror movie vibe that I think audiences are really going to like; I’m very proud of it.
The black and white really stands out compared to the rest of the episodes in the series. We took a pretty aggressive black and white approach. It has teeth, if you will, with some heavy blacks and snappy whites. We did some things that made it more simple and stark. There are so many little elements that come together to accentuate the period, you know? The dialogue, and the pace the actors have in the way they walk and move, and the way they speak coupled with the wardrobe and the art department stuff, props, so all these little elements that people contributed all came together to make this amazing stand-alone episode.
The Haunting of Bly Manor is streaming now on Netflix.