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March 20, 2017

Time, Framed

DP goes for grit and noir in Marvel shows.

Libby Slate
  • Bruce Soyez-Bernard

Growing up in his native Zurich, Switzerland, Manuel Billeter didn’t have a television set at home — and he believes that served him well.

“Without a television, you were making a commitment to go see a certain movie at a certain time at a certain place,” says Billeter, now the cinematographer for three Netflix series in the Marvel superhero universe: Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, premiering March 17. “I saw images that were much more composed and cared for.”

Billeter earned an MFA in cinema studies in Berlin but nixed his university’s theoretical approach in favor of actual filmmaking. He came to New York in 1996 for a film workshop. He was encouraged by instructors to remain in the city for another workshop, and he never left.

A good thing, as the three Marvel shows use various city locales as essential environments for the action: Hell’s Kitchen for Jessica Jones, Harlem for Luke Cage and Chinatown for the martial arts–themed Iron Fist.

“All the shows have some degree of grittiness and noir, and a very grounded feel — they don’t take place in a fantasy world that’s all CGI,” notes Billeter, whose previous credits include Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black and CBS’s Person of Interest. “I like to show angles of the city that are less explored, and photograph them in a more artistic way without ever losing focus on the protagonist.”

Billeter gives each show a distinct visual style, in part via different camera lenses, such as the vintage 1970s glass lenses he uses for Jessica Jones’s nostalgic feel. This composer of shots is also inspired by music, often hearing songs that evoke atmosphere as he reads scripts.

“Music has a beginning and an end, but in between, there is a continuum in time,” he says. “That’s how I approach each shot — between the beginning and end, within the frame, each movement of the actors, every part, come together as one.”

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2017

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