DP Paul Sommers on EMPIRE’s New Look

For the second season of EMPIRE, the hit TV musical drama from Fox, the show incorporated an entirely new look. The producers brought on a fresh team to create the lavish, flamboyant world of hip hop music mogul Lucious Lyon and his fractious family: cinematographer Paul Sommers

(BOSCH, RECTIFY, THE ORIGINALS), production designer Chase Harlan and costume designer Paolo Nieddu joined the team. “They wanted to amp up the look,” says Sommers, who shot the show with the ARRI ALEXA and ALEXA Mini. “The producers wanted everything to be a little bit bigger and lusher.”

An important part of Sommers’ process is to create a look book. “For this one, I referenced DREAM GIRLS and AMERICAN GANGSTER, he says. “The show is an interesting world because Lucious and Cookie came up rough and now they’re billionaires and he’s a super star. That tension for me is really interesting and it propels a lot of the action in the show.”

EMPIRE’s elaborate musical numbers sets the show apart. It’s also familiar territory for Sommers, who earlier in his career was a Steadicam operator on an estimated 400 music videos. “The music is a wonderful break from the normal dramatic scene,” he enthuses.

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“It’s so much fun to shoot music.” It was also the perfect opportunity to bring on the brand new ARRI Mini which, he says, weighs “about seven pounds less” than an ALEXA on a Steadicam. “Inevitably there will be seven or eight takes in a row of four-minute songs,” he explains. “If I can pull some pounds off the rig, I’ll get better work. The Mini was a big part of the show for the performances.”

Sommers notes that the “small size of the Mini camera body made a huge, huge difference.” “The Mini took away any of the problems we might have had with car rigs, handheld, putting it on a crane or drone,” he says. “It made that all possible, and I didn’t have to make sacrifices in image quality. It minimized rigging problems and allowed me to put the camera in odd positions.”

His lens choices for the show were ARRI/ZEISS Master Primes and the Fujinon Premiere Zoom lenses, which he says match better with Master Primes than any other choice. “Any time we were on the dolly, we were on the zooms,” he says. “The rest of the time, it was the Master Primes.”

Sommers created some inventive looks for the show, and gives kudos to his rental house Keslow for helping him to do so. One example is his idea to create a motorized star filter for a “dreamy” look for a late night in a strip joint. Keslow came up with a working prototype in three days, he says. “There were three cameras on the day of that shoot, so they made three of the filters for me,” he says. “And they got just as excited about the idea as I did. For me, that’s invaluable to have a rental house willing to go down the rabbit hole with me. Keslow never let me down.”

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EMPIRE shoots in Chicago, Sommers’ hometown, and that reunited him with familiar crew. “I’ve known my gaffer Gene Credidio, key grip John Hudecek, A camera operator Jody Williams and so many others for years,” he says. “It’s absolutely wonderful to shoot in Chicago again. The city is beautiful, and Cinespace is a good studio.” Lighting EMPIRE, especially the big musical numbers, has required a fairly large lighting kit, says Sommers, who singles out dimmer board operator Jared Moore. “Jared was a huge, huge asset for me over the course of the show,” he says.

All the collaboration, technology and artistry come together in EMPIRE in the many extraordinary musical scenes. Sommers notes how closely he works with Harlan and Nieddu on color, texture and overall themes. “The wardrobe is so important to the show,” he says. “Everything Lucious and Cookie wear are designer, custom-made. And there are things I do with lighting that riff off what the production designer does.”

One of the most challenging moments of Season 2 took place on one shoot day for Episode 13. “I had three live performances at the Rialto Theater, with over 100 moving lights, LED screens, choreography, three different lighting pilots and programs to run and five cameras,” he says. “And on top of that, we had three scenes to shoot and 300 extras. It has got to be one of the hardest days I’ve ever had on a show.” “The overall challenge is keeping your head in the game and operating at a high creative level when you’ve been working for four months on three or four hours sleep a night,” he continues. “It’s the hardest – but also the most rewarding. When it’s great, there’s no better feeling in the world.”

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