On the hit TV Land show Younger, looking youthful plays a critical role. Not only does Liza, the 40-something heroine played by award-winning actress Sutton Foster, have to lie about her age in order to get a job in publishing (after a divorce from her gambling-addict husband leaves her in financial ruin), but she also has to convince everyone she meets that she’s really in her 20s (like her coworkers) and up to speed on Millennial trends.
It’s a fun premise offering plenty of twists and turns, and where lighting has a significant impact – in numerous ways – on the final product. For insight, we turned to Younger Gaffer Richard P. Ulivella, who was willing to provide us with some enlightening behind-the-scenes scoop.
Stef Schwalb: How does the use of lighting showcase the overall theme of the show?
Richard Ulivella: That’s a big question. I will split it up into two categories: the people and the environments. Overall, this show is a whipped-up “rich dessert” filled with delicious sweet visuals that include the wide range of New York City locations we use, to the way we light those spaces and our characters. We light our sets with bright tones and always make sure there is plenty of light on people’s faces, complete with sparkling eyes when we can. This cast is universally fantastic and we work hard to honor their performances so our viewers feel every moment.
First off, we have to design the lighting with the overall goal of Sutton’s character’s age trick to succeed. That means our stages are rigged to prepare for as much “wraparound” soft light as possible. We tend to light faces the way we would on a feature film in that we employ large and thick diffusion fabrics and bounced light instead of simply leaving everything up on the grids using stage/studio lighting. Although we have to work quickly due to the fast pace of a television show, we do take care to protect the key theme — that Liza is younger in her friends’ eyes, even if they do know the truth. It’s also just as important to make the other cast members look their best. Each character receives a slightly different lighting approach, but for the most part, it is all about the soft-wrapping light around their faces, plenty of light in the eyes, and the occasional gentle backlight.
Now for the environments, I return to my “rich dessert” metaphor. This show films in some of the most amazing locations in the city and sometimes at its distant mansions and beaches. We use every trick we can to bring in colored light when appropriate, through sculpted architectural lighting, and sometimes animated theatrical lighting on stages.
For night exteriors, we take the time to light up the streets to paint a deep and rich picture around our characters. That does a lot to enhance production value, but it also tells the story of Liza’s trip into the life of a 20-something living in Williamsburg (Brooklyn). Every bar gets a specific color palette and tone using the typical modern lighting fixtures you would expect on a TV show, but also an armada of custom fixtures my crew and I fabricate. Filming in Williamsburg bars runs the range of tones and techniques. Sometimes I dig deep into my collection of old exposed filament light bulbs and little “birdie” PAR cans to sculpt the more rugged spaces; other times, it is all about the slick cyan-glowing bottles and glassware behind the bars and bright pockets of white downlight over tables.
SS: Do you use lighting to convey an overall mood or emotional state based on the scene?
RU: The tones and textures are largely driven by the locations. There’s a bar in which we film very often — East River Bar — on South 6th Street in Williamsburg. It is one of the most typical bars in that whole area: part dive, part pool table, part jukebox, part patio — it has it all. It’s very rugged inside. This is the bar in which Liza and Josh begin much of their relationship. That’s a space we have lit like a set — complete with our own permanently installed yellowy, super-warm bottle LED lighting. My rigging team deploys these small LED PAR lights we call “birdies” that sculpt the old millwork and rough wall textures from below. Although we spend time crafting the East River Bar into a rich-looking space, the goal is to enhance textures and tones with light and color that befit Josh and Liza. For a Kelsey-Zane [two other characters] encounter, we would take a different approach and film in a different style location. For Charles-Liza scenes, it’s also different! That is one of the most fun things about working on the show. We get to mix it up, then remix it again, as all of these relationships begin/end/transform/grow.
SS: Do the actors find the lighting helpful to get into character?
RU: I cannot speak to whether or not the actors use it as a source of inspiration, but I really hope they do. My team knows that it is an important goal of mine to have at least some of the lighting design lit up and ready for rehearsal. I secretly hope that helps all of us get into the spirit of the scene. There have been several times when Younger Director of Photography JT Thomas and our directors have discussed specific lighting to match a particular moment in a character’s story arc. The short time when Liza and Kelsey were at odds over the truth being revealed is one of the first, but another is the sequence we filmed out in Montauk [Long Island].
SS: How does the cityscape impact the lighting process when shooting outdoors?
RU: I will split this into two categories: day and night. For a feature film, I would use the biggest of the big lights to redirect the sun and craft the daylight exteriors. We favor the use of big soft light sources, and that would carry over into daylight scenes. Given the pace and budget of our show, we cannot afford the time to set up big lights for all of our daylight scenes so JT created a set of guidelines for day exteriors. He works very hard to block [those] scenes so that the sun is always in the best possible place where it is easy to shape, is blocked by buildings, or makes for a strong backlight. New York City, being mostly arranged on a grid, leads to most of our wide shots looking Downtown/south as the sun will likely be there as a “free backlight.” Then we simply liven up the faces with an extra pop of soft light.
Night scenes are an entirely different type of fun! We like to glisten and gleam the streets with warm backlights whenever we can to give good depth and definition to our photography, but also to enhance the 20-something spirit of the show. Oftentimes, one big backlight at the end of the street with a well-chosen mix of warm streetlight colors and a few soft sources around our characters make for a great-looking scene. JT added a few high-speed prime lenses for the sequence that takes place on the Roosevelt Island Cable Car. That’s one more tool that helps us use some of what the city already looks like, since those lenses – paired with our cameras – can see very far into even deep dark shadows.
SS: NYC seems to be a character itself within the show. Is there any particular lighting where the design inspires you?
RU: There’s something about New York City streetlight that looks just a certain way. I lived in a few different NYC neighborhoods including Brooklyn before I moved to New Jersey. Being out on the streets at night always had this golden glow to it. I still can remember the way that amber-gold glow looked on the ceiling of my 30th-floor apartment in the Financial District just as I can remember the way it looked when I lived in a 4th-floor walk-up in Brooklyn, and even how it looks sitting in my favorite café reading a book late at night — and that café is in a basement!
Nighttime in NYC is changing with the conversion to a pale lime green-toned LED streetlight system, but it will always have this golden tone to it in my memory. That is something from which I draw every time I light a night scene on this show. I even brought it into our sets on the stages. There are some LED tubes I use and some tiny little lights that make very crisp shadows on the walls of our interior sets. I use three gel colors spread onto different sources to create that “ragged edge” you would see in those apartments, or especially in that basement café. It’s all about the yellows, golds, and a color I really like called “apricot.”
New York is filled with amazing-looking bars, restaurants, diners, swanky clubs, bodegas, beautiful apartments, speakeasies, unknown nooks, and penthouses. There is such a range of architecture and history to draw from, plus there’s every level of lighting design, too, from a few haphazardly thrown up lights and [vintage] lampshades to old fluorescent fixtures and carefully designed clubs. It has everything, and you cannot help but be inspired. I have walked into a bodega only to quickly grab my camera because of some old dusty fluorescent fixture that just gives it that inimitable tone when you can just feel that 3 a.m. cup of coffee. I also have walked into some beautifully designed public spaces that send me clawing for my camera because of how inspiring the lighting design feels!
We know how we are going to approach lighting our cast. When we scout a new location or consider a new set, it is always part of the lighting plan — but since we know it so well, that leaves me the room to get inventive with lighting the space. It is exciting to consider what I have seen around NYC and how to plug those ideas into our story. It starts with asking, “How would this be lit permanently if it were installed into the public space, restaurant, home, etc.?” or “How would the people who live here light this room?” Sometimes I will be lighting up a restaurant for a Kelsey-Zane encounter or lighting one of the scenes with the children in Charles’ townhouse. Lighting the space with the life and spirit of our stories and our characters’ arcs is when I feel I am breathing life into Younger in my own way. One of the best parts about working in the lighting department on this show is just how many opportunities there are to contribute!
SS: Do you work closely with the production designer on the choice of fixtures?
RU: Yes, Younger Production Designer Ray Kluga and I spend a lot of time discussing ideas. The undershelf lighting in Maggie’s kitchen might have been the first volley of emails [we had]. Since I advocate so much for lighting the set or the space “from within,” sometimes that means eschewing the “movie lights” and building in practicals or some other source. Diana’s closet set is a great example of this as it is entirely lit by the LED tape and luminescent panels behind her necklaces and shoes. This season, I finally got to install LED lighting in the bookcases in Diana’s office and even in the newly constructed permanent Charles’ office set. It is rare, but occasionally Ray and I get to work on something more theatrical. The Self-Help sequence from a few seasons ago is a good example, and [so is] the Comic-Con scene that opens the season. It’s always exciting when I get an email from Ray; it usually means there’s something outside of the usual dialogue scene coming soon!
SS: Any final thoughts on lighting Younger?
RU: I have a spectacular crew, and there are a lot of people who contribute to what I do. I have been here from the first season and count myself very lucky to be a part of this team. My rigging gaffer, best boy (assistant chief lighting technician), my lamp operator staff, shop electrician (who handles all the assembly and install of the architectural lighting on our stages and builds for location work) — they all do phenomenal work.
Collaborating with my crew is one of the best parts of this show as they all bring new ideas and inspiration to what we do daily. This extends to the other departments I collaborate with whether it is our set dresser, art director, production designer, or especially our locations department and producers who secure the beautiful spaces in which we film — it all contributes to the lighting and photography. If all we have is a white room without windows and equally bland furniture then there is not much even the best lighting ever conceived will do for the show’s visuals! It only succeeds when all of the elements are combined.