Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with cinematographer Kira Kelly about embracing the imperfect image for Y: The Last Man. And why some projects are more special than others.
You don’t expect filmmakers to be obsessive fans of the comic book they’re adapting. It’s a cynical world; a job’s a job. You can work yourself into loving anything with enough proactive thought and drive.
That’s not the case for cinematographer Kira Kelly and her connection to Y: The Last Man. She was a maniac for the comic before it was even released, having picked the first issue off the stands way back in 2002. Small but significant stints on Swamp Thing and Buffy the Vampire Slayer had made Brian K. Vaughan a writer to watch. Y: The Last Man kicked his career into overdrive, propelling him into legendary runs on Saga, Paper Girls, and Ex Machina.
Kelly was there for it all, and whenever news percolated in Hollywood about a possible Y: The Last Man adaptation, she gunned for it. The project swirled through various versions before it finally materialized with FX. Series creator Eliza Clark assembled a predominantly female and non-binary crew to execute Vaughan and artist Pia Guerra’s apocalyptic tale, in which every mammal with a Y chromosome drops dead. Well, all except two, Yorick Brown (Ben Schnetzer) and his pet capuchin, Ampersand.
Kira Kelly’s Love of Y: The Last Man
When discussing the Y: The Last Man comic, Kira Kelly bursts with enthusiasm. Characters and future plotlines spill from her with force. She recalls the first time she placed her hands on the first issue and the fixation that came immediately after.
“That comic is awesome!” she exclaims. “I loved it when it originally came out. Loved it, loved it, loved it. I bought the first issue — actually, all sixty — from Midtown Comics in New York. Brian K. Vaughan is so amazing, and everything that he did after that, I read. And I kept track of the project as a film or as a TV show throughout the years.”
If the cinematographer had a vision board, Y: The Last Man was on it. The comic lived in Kelly’s heart, and she knew it would make for an exceptional live-action experience. The story needed to get in front of as many humans as possible, and when it did, she needed to be there to help make it happen.
“At one point,” she says, “Tom Cruise was supposed to be in it, and it went through so many wildly different iterations. I kept telling my agents, ‘Y: The Last Man. What’s happening with it?’ Then, in November 2019, I had my first interview with Eli [Clark]. And her ideas were awesome, and it was super exciting.”
Y: The Last Man in Lockdown
Kira Kelly was aching to finally get behind the lens and start shooting. Then, 2020 happened. You can probably guess the rest.
“I went to Toronto for the job in March of 2020,” she says. “It was the 13th, on a Monday. I started in my office on Wednesday. Tom Hanks had COVID by Thursday, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to put you on a flight tomorrow,’ and by Friday, I was home. Yep, that was March.”
Forced into lockdown, the cinematographer, and the rest of the Y: The Last Man team, refused to sit idle. They treated the delay as an excuse for extended pre-production, which offered everyone involved an opportunity to drill deeper into their cinematic passion. This extra time allowed the multiple departments to get on the same stylistic and philosophical page.
“It was great in that we all got to know each other so well,” Kelly says. “It was me, Eli, our producer MJ [Mari-Jo Winkler], our costume designer [Olga Mill], our production designer [Alexandra Schaller], our other DP Catherine [Lutes], and our director Louise Friedberg. We created this kind of movie club. We’re all like, ‘Okay, we have to go home in March, but we kept in touch, and every Friday, we would do these Zooms and talk about movies that would inspire the show.”
The Inspirations for Y: The Last Man
From the movie clubs, the television series solidified in the minds of the Y: The Last Man team. As the year extended into Fall, the production felt possible again. Especially in the land to our north.
“We watched Children of Men,” Kelly says. “We watched I Think We’re Alone Now, and the Netflix documentary Disclosure. Then, in September, things were still really horrible in the States with COVID, but Toronto and Canada seemed to be handling stuff much better. So, we went back to the pilot, and I was able to bring my family with me, and we started again, and it was really wonderful. The producers did a really great job creating an atmosphere that felt safe, even if it was kind of heady, too.”
As the pilot’s cinematographer, Kelly, with director Louise Friedberg, established Y: The Last Man‘s visual language. Kelly wanted to insert as much of artist Pia Guerra’s point of view into the show as possible. She happily lifts panels directly from the book, but Kelly also knew that the series required an evolution from the comic’s imagery.
“It’s lovely to be able to nod and wink to the fans who love the comic,” she says. “The source material is gorgeous, but it’s got this hierarchical visual element. We were all feeling the heaviness of the pandemic and of 2020 in general. We wanted to have the series be a part of this time. And, in the pilot, Louise wanted to show this level of excess in our world.”
The Y: The Last Man Pilot
The first episode of Y: The Last Man couldn’t look like any other episode in the series. In less than an hour, Kira Kelly and her crew needed to establish the world before the cataclysm. They had to underscore the absurd wealth and abundance that many folks in positions of power barely acknowledge during daily routine.
“If we’re in an interior,” continues Kelly, “the lights should be on; we should be burning through electricity. There should be food everywhere, and it’s all about to be wasted. Louise wanted to show this sudden change of living in a world without. We don’t think about how much we’ve got, about how much excess there is. To suddenly be like, ‘Oh, shit. There’s no electricity; there are no trucks. There’s no food. We were using that visual language to show the difference.”
For the most part, the Y: The Last Man pilot is shot rather traditionally, bearing in mind the added emphasis on brightness and filling the frame with as much unnecessary crap as they could. After the event, when the Y Chromosome-holders start vomiting blood, the frame demanded a look that matched the brokenness felt by the survivors.
“We found this lens from Panavision called the MAP55,” says Kelly. “It’s this macro lens; it’s gorgeous. It’s really got a lot of character, and by character, I mean, it’s kind of f**ked up looking. It’s wonderfully messed up. Louise was a huge part of this, trying to create a world post-event that is imperfect. It shouldn’t look right.”
An Anti-Hollywood Aesthetic
The series quickly became an exercise in rejecting conventional wisdom. Every cinematographer wants to construct an attractive shot, but that urge on the set of Y: The Last Man was dangerous. When the impulse arose, Kira Kelly smacked it away.
“I would tell the operators to find me a beautiful frame,” she continues. “Then, I’d say, ‘Mess it up, put it on edge.’ The goal was to really have this world off-kilter, and we did that through lensing and through lighting.”
Aiding in the endeavor to populate the image with an anti-Hollywood aesthetic were the actors. Makeup department heads Linda Kaufman and Linda Preston resisted their calling as well, concocting a look that honestly captured the immediate halt to our global supply chain. When the world bellies up, Sephora is merely one of many retail establishments joining the Y-Chromosoners six feet under.
“Once we finished the pilot,” says Kelly, “the actors stopped plucking their eyebrows, they stopped wearing makeup. There was this whole thing about, ‘What does no-makeup makeup look like?’ We leaned into this world where everybody’s roots were showing, and women looked like everyday women. A forty-year-old woman should look like a forty-year-old woman. We should all be allowed to look the way we do gracefully.”
When Cinematography Shouldn’t Look Pretty
In denying the gloss she often sought, the Y: The Last Man cinematographer didn’t so much discover newfound freedom but truth to disaster. There’s nothing cool-looking about the end times. We know that better today than yesterday.
“I was trying to force myself out of the box of making pretty images,” Kelly says. “It was more about showing how this world is a little off. How do we show this from this one character’s point of view?”
Kelly has watched as much television and film as the next movie addict. She has stuffed her gills on her favorites and your favorites. She knows what looks good and what looks better. Chasing imperfection drove her away from the expected and put her inside the heads of the characters living (an almost) unimaginable doomsday.
“We really made a mission of not matching coverage,” she says. “So, if somebody was over the shoulder, we didn’t worry if the other person would be clean. We tried not to make it your standard talking-head TV show. Who knows if we succeeded. I hope that we did, but it was something that we were very thoughtful of in our consideration.”
Waiting for Vaughan
When Kira Kelly originally arrived on location in early 2020, she brought her Y: The Last Man comic. She knew Brian K. Vaughan would be visiting the set at some point, and she giddily awaited the chance for the comic creator to sign her copy. Then, lockdown. No signature. No meeting. There’s a little heartbreak in her voice when she discusses the failed encounter.
“We had to quarantine for two weeks every time we came in and out,” she laments. “He never got to visit. But I know Paper Girls is happening, and I’m curious to see who’ll make Saga. Someone’s got to take on Saga.”
There will be other opportunities. Sometime down the line, Kira Kelly will have her face-to-face with Vaughan and Pia Guerra. Her comic will be graced with their signatures. Patience. It’s a state of being that all fans should know well by now. Y: The Last Man making it to the screen means all good things come to those who wait.
Y: The Last Man premieres via FX on Hulu on September 13th.