The Cinematography of Russian Doll
One of the more pleasantly surprising ventures by Netflix, Russian Doll seemed like a rehash of a popular trope but continued to expertly evolve. Helmed by a superb Natasha Lyonne, it became one of the best shows of yesteryear. The premise is simple, and one we have famously seen before in Groundhog Day. Lyonne’s Nadia who is pure New York cynicism embodied, finds herself reliving the night of her 36th birthday party. Now she has to break the loop. What follows is always unpredictable; never boring and sometimes beautiful.
Framing Nadia and her cyclical environments is a blend of rich contrast, emboldened with vibrant reds, orange and blue, (which sometimes vividly clash), against a dark backdrop. Cinematographer Chris Teague, whose work has primarily been on indie films, shot all eight episodes. It was his intention to compose Nadia as distant from her backgrounds, as if she were two-dimensional, to reflect her existence outside time and space.
The loft where Nadia’s loop begins is an interesting component to tackle. It relied on camera movement, and eclectic lighting (see the fantastic mixture of tones below), to convey an Alice in Wonderland feeling.
A challenge for the production was to create a unique palette while shooting in real-life locations. Most of the outdoor scenes were shot in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in a setting they had little control over. At night, the East Village is beaming with a whirlpool of neon, sodium and store signs, which is great for realism but a little difficult when trying to stick to a predetermined style. There was not that much room in the shooting schedule for improvisation and discussion, so Teague had to closely follow a ‘lookbook’ that he created with Lyonne and co-creator Leslye Headland.
There is a seamlessness to style and composition, and Teague brushes the tirelessly-filmed New York with a fresh stroke.
Russian Doll won an Emmy for Teague’s work on the finale.