Posted on Tuesday, September 5, 2023
Judd Overton is the sole cinematographer behind both seasons of Killing It. Craig Robinson’s sharp satire returned to Peacock for season 2 on August 17th with eight new guest stars, including Dot-Marie Jones, Beck Bennett, Kyle Mooney, and Timothy Simons.
As Craig tries to overcome vicious criminals, nature runs wild, and, worst of all, corporate America in the upcoming season, Judd maintained the heightened naturalism established in season 1 while introducing visual elements of other genres to keep audiences captivated. For example, inspired by the Westerns, he opted for low angles, and a 2:1 aspect ratio to introduce a new villain and a feud between dueling families.
In this exclusive interview, we learned more about his professional work, creative process, and some of the challenges associated with filming in Miami.
PH: Hi there Judd! Can you share your production background? How did you get into cinematography?
Judd Overton: I grew up in the desert in the middle of Australia, half an hour drive to the nearest neighbor and 3 hours to the nearest town. My brother, sister, and I would watch the couple of VHS tapes we had, James Bond, Terminator, all totally age-inappropriate. We would watch, them over and over then recreate the scene with our JVC camcorder.
One day we had a documentary crew come to the property; the camera operator was filming while hanging off the back of my motorbike as we bounced up and over the sand dunes. I thought this is a job? Lets go!
I moved to the city (Adelaide) for Highschool and started working in TV news, I got a break on a drama series and ended up camera assisting for 10 years before getting selected to attend the national film school AFTRS.
PH: Can you share some of your first few projects and what those experiences were like?
Judd Overton: Straight out of film school, I shot independent feature All my friends are leaving Brisbane, and a silent, hand-cranked film called Dr Plonk. These really taught me how to make the most out of real locations.
In Australia, you work across all fields. I started in TV news and drama, then did a lot of commercials as an assistant while shooting short films and documentaries. I learned how to use visuals, the lens, and natural light to tell a story. I also traveled the world shooting documentaries, so I developed the ability to shoot fast, be in the moment, stay alert, and be open to what is happening around me and also, how to work with limited resources.
PH: How did you become involved with Killing It?
Judd Overton: A key part of Killing It is showrunner Luke Del Tredici’s preference for real, practical locations, which really aligns with my previous work.
Much of the shooting is outdoors, in swamps, and with multiple location moves in a day. Since moving to the US, I have developed a reputation for shooting improvised and comedy in a stylized way. My first big opportunity was remaking my Australian Series No Activity for Adam McKay and Will Farrell’s Funny of Die. Shooting great guest actors with multiple cameras gives the director and the performers so much freedom and, in fact, buys me time to really craft the establishing shots and spend time on transition scenes which otherwise would not be possible on a half-hour comedy schedule.
PH: What was your creative process? How did you infuse your own creativity and personality on screen?
Judd Overton: Cinematography is an interpretive art form; I am the conduit, helping the showrunners and directors translate what is on the page and build a space on the set where the actors can bring all those ideas to life. An immediate example which comes to mind is in the cold open of episode 2. This season introduces new bad guys in the form of the Boones, a hardened swamp family that has been compared to Justified.
I was instantly reminded of the old Western movies. I suggested this similarity to set up director Mo Marable, who loved the idea. We embraced widescreen close-ups and low angles with a lot of negative space to really enhance our use of the wider 2:1 aspect ratio to constrain the friction between our dueling families.
My preferred approach to filmmaking is to select a crew the same way you would cast a film. Build the best fusion of diverse, talented individuals and challenge them to invest in the project, give clear guidelines, then encourage creative contribution so everyone in my team feels an attachment to the show.
PH: Speaking of creativity, how do you continue to push creative boundaries for your projects?
Judd Overton: My creativity is twofold. I need to keep abreast of technical developments, but I try not to get lost in the technical. I get inspired by the world around me - I travel and take photographs.
What I really enjoy is the ‘Find It’ phase of prep. I test everything with a director to make mistakes and learn together what the visual language of a project will be. We look at all the cameras, lots of lenses, found images, and art. Sometimes the imagery is very clearly spelled out in a script, a lot of thought has already gone into the production design, and sets are being built. I try to get involved as early as I can, to walk locations with the director and the production designer. These conversations, even if it’s not the right location, inform me so much and really get me in sync with what is important creatively.
PH: Can you talk about how you utilized heightened naturalism as a tool to find comedy in a bleak everyday life?
Judd Overton: The approach with Killing It has always been to ‘keep it real,’ that means not forcing the comedy with super wide lenses, not pushing the saturation up because ‘Its a Comedy!’ If anything it's my background in documentary work that influences the naturalistic look. We choose the best time of day and look for locations that support often shooting with 3 cameras.
The heightened monuments are often the cold opens, the one-shot steadicam scenes, and transitional sequences which show visual counterpoint, the cracks forming in the everyday veneer.
PH: How challenging is it to balance creativity as a cinematographer? What other challenges do you face in this role and what is your approach for addressing those?
Judd Overton: It's always a balancing act, like the work/ life balance. Cinematography is a creative calling however running a team and shooting the schedule is all about management, logistics, and personality. My mantra is to always look for the creative and prepare for any obstacles so that I can be open in the moment to capture the magic when it happens.
PH: Speaking of challenging - what were some challenges of shooting scenes set on Miami swamp on the top of Universal Studios lot?
Judd Overton: This season was shot in Los Angeles instead of New Orleans, which meant we got the opportunity to build a full swamp location at the top of the Universal Studio lot. Production designer Claire Bennett and her team did an amazing job recreating the Miami Swamps, planting hundreds of palm trees, and creating 360 degrees exterior Swamp set in one of the wettest LA Winters I’ve experienced.
They then fabricated the interior of Craig’s sideways office on stage so we had total control - rain or shine. We had a lot of fun matching the interior with a limited amount of blue screen and fun gags like windows on the floor, a toilet seat up the wall, and a ladder through the ceiling/ door to enter. All the walls and light fixtures could fly out so that we could get cameras in position, but we really tried to shoot as if we were confined in an actual trailer, again, always conscious of ‘keeping it real’ in an unusual environment.
The wet weather did keep the set green, though very muddy. In the end, one of the show’s creators, Luke Del Tredici, suggested that we embraced the weather and used it to echo Craig’s downward spiral from bright sunny beginnings to our stormy finale.
PH: What can you tell us about foreshadowing in the cold opening and other details we may have missed in season 2?
Judd Overton: The cold opens are some of my favorite sequences. Apart from the episode 1 trailer drop, another favorite was episode 5, which begins as a commercial for a tequila brand and ends with the demise of a well-known celebrity. As the episode progresses we discover that it was actually a Pitbull celebrity double who died in the prologue. In fact, there is a company of Pitbull certified celebrity doubles who, like many other these days, are quite disgruntled about their working conditions! Once again, it’s a lesson for Craig and the gang that you can accept what you have, your position, money, and power, or take a gamble and risk losing it all, including your morality.
PH: Can you talk about some of the equipment you chose to use for this film to make this project come to life? (and why did you choose it?)
Judd Overton: Being that each episode was almost a stand-alone, we had all the toys we needed for the show. We only had a handful of days with the super techno crane, but Condors with flyswatters and HMIs on articulating arms really helped our battle with the elements. For cameras, we shot the second season on 3x Alex LF Minis and a range of Blackmagic cameras.
In front of the camera, we used Gecko Glass Vintage 66 lenses and a combination of Cinema Modified Canon K35s and FDs. I had tested these through Keslow Camera for the first season and loved the combination of the full-frame LF Mini with vintage glass. It gives a contemporary feeling in camera but a flattering softness to skin tones which is important, especially when shooting 3 camera coverage on big outdoor sequences. Also, some beautiful soft flaring when needed. We also carried Premista Zooms, which I used occasionally by adding Glimmer Glass diffusion to reduce the contrast and better match the Prime Lenses.
PH: As with many roles, the ability to adapt is incredibly important. Can you talk me through how you identified the specific needs of each project you work on based on the script, cast and crew involved, and the overall goal for the project?
I believe the film industry is one of the most versatile and adaptive industries in the world. We showed through covid how we could change our systems to work in challenging conditions, and we show every day how we can overcome the challenges of time, weather, and budget to sometimes produce even more creative solutions. Each project has a particular set of challenges, and my role is to offer solutions and value add where I can, always leading with creativity, which helps get the message across.
PH: How do you envision your role evolving in the next few years?
Judd Overton: I love my job. More than just an outlet for creativity, it fuels and nourishes me. We are in an interesting time, technology is developing at an explosive rate, and there is a huge demand for media of all types. Obviously, some types of content are easier to mass-produce than others. It is my hope that there will always be demand for quality in all long and short-form varieties and that my background across multiple visual forms, my versatility and enthusiasm for cinematography will lead me through whatever twists and turns the industry takes.
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