ComingSoon’s Jeff Ames sat down with cinematographer Anka Malatynska about her work on HBO’s Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin. The series is currently streaming on HBO Max.
Jeff Ames: What made you become a cinematographer?
Anka Malatynska: Curiosity and the human condition.
Were there specific people in the field who influenced your style?
Yes. Laszlo Kovacs, Vilmos Zsigmond. One of my mentors, Jim Chressanthis, who was also mentored by Vilmos Zsigmond. There is a very specific approach to Rembrant lighting, using backlighting, which for me was most evident in American New Wave. When you see Close encounters of the third kind, it is the most beautiful way to approach the light, that light can be much softer and much harder. That style can have many different iterations. In general, I don’t love flat lighting, I love epic lighting. I love things that, even when they are ugly, sing with their beauty. When I go to the movies, I go to be entertained, and for me that’s part of being able to suspend disbelief in a world that, even when it’s ugly, is beautiful. That there is a poetry about it. These are the specific people that I feel have influenced me.
I feel like early on I was really inspired by Anthony Dod Mantle. He used ten million cameras everywhere. I wanted to Slumdog Millionaire had a lot of fun and inventive energetic framing. I’m always looking for different ways to frame things.
How has your technique/style evolved over the years?
I feel like right now I’m getting up from work to be in the middle of a revolution of my style and technique. The huge way that my style and technique has evolved is that over the last three years the amount of work and the number of hours I’ve worked has been huge. That means I live, eat, breathe film. Cinematography is my church and my daily bread. That’s what my brain does more than anything else. It has freed me to make very quick decisions. I like that Roger Deakins once said that a cinematographer’s job is to be able to anticipate where they will get into trouble if they make a certain decision. Like I’ll have problems with light if I shoot my wide shots last and my coverage first. What will be better for the angle of the sun? Things of that nature. Where should I put the light so I never have to move again and it can do as much work for me as possible?
Again, my whole development and what excites me is to be able to utilize the technology, to utilize the tools, but still be able to give the stage to the actors and to the energy of the story, to the ethereal unspoken aspect of when we watch movies and they really touch our hearts deeply. How do we leverage these tools to not overwhelm, but help bring it to the final product. My evolution to my style has been through the years of practicing my craft, I am comfortable with my technical tools, enough to ask deeper questions about what we are doing. Not being afraid to try something new or approach the stage in a more complicated way because I have a schedule in front of me. But despite all the stress, stay committed to the magic.
What was it about Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin that made you want to work on it?
The daily stills that I saw from the pilot. I thought, wow, this is something really special. I read the script, I met with the team. I felt like I had a good connection with the team and was really welcomed by them. I remember one of our producer’s assistants saying “I knew when we got off the phone with you that it was going to be you”. I felt the same way about them. Then we went into the heart of darkness, into the dark forest of the Catskills, into the cold winter forest and made a beautiful thing.
What was the most challenging aspect of Pretty Little Liars and how did you overcome it?
The weather was one of the most challenging aspects. The Covid wave in January was also very challenging. We overcame that by increasing our schedule by almost two months. We had ice storms that knocked out power for over three days at one point. People had to be moved from their tenements to hotels in the city because there was no electricity or heat. I lived in a cabin in the woods that had a backup generator so I was fine. We had a very challenging site, which was a high school awaiting demolition. That place had bats and heat problems. We had back forest ice roads. We had snow storms. They were overcome with patience and our producers chose to keep us safe rather than work at specific times. It is a great compliment to them.
Do you have any funny behind-the-scenes stories about the making of Pretty Little Liars to share?
Well, we had a lot of fun every day. Even amidst the stress and the cold, we managed to have good energy on set. I can’t think of any stories off the top of my head.
How was your collaboration with the various directors on the show? How challenging was their overall vision?
I had some really wonderful collaborations on the show. We had a great pilot director who had a very strong and specific vision. She shot the first and second episodes, and then I came in with Maggie Kiley. We watched Lisa’s episode and we had to continue the work, which we did. Of course, each instructor brings a little more of their own point of view. I remember when the episode 7 director came in he said he really couldn’t see a change from the first few teams. I feel like Maggie and I did a wonderful job of seeing Lisa’s work and building on it. I worked with Lisa again on episodes 4 and 5. Lisa is a very exciting and challenging director to work with. I think because she comes from animation and animation, you can take the camera and move it anywhere. She also had incredible shot ideas. She really struggled to keep these images in the edits. I want to work with her on episodes 4 and 5, I got to know the series more deeply. It was there that I began to embrace even lower angles. When we came together, we opened the door to these super wide-angle lenses. Then Lisa left and she had to be back for the finale and I had to carry the torch with the look of that show. I can proudly say that I did and accomplished those things while having my own journey and incorporating the future director’s visions. I remember Lisa being very committed to wide angle lenses as much as possible.
When I was working with Alex Pillai on Episode 7, we had a couple of very long editing scenes. I remember Alex saying, “I’ll have to use wide-angle lenses and highlight them.” I remember having this conversation in my head about keeping the look of the show. I think ultimately though we fluctuate the use of certain focal lengths throughout the life of the series. The same language after the same story, it still maintains the look of the show. So every director is different, and I believe that every director is there to include, in the series, what it is that their eyes love and how it is their eyes that a storyteller sees. I got to work with the most spectacular people. Cierra Glaude, Megan Griffiths, who directed Episode 8. Every one of these collaborations was very different, and that’s the exciting part of shooting a series and sometimes the stressful part. I call it blind creative dating for directors and DPs. You never know if you will get along or say the same thing. Maggie Kylie and I had really similar instincts, so it was really easy to get into the Pretty Little Liars world in episode 3.
You also worked with Joe Collins and Teodoro Maniaci… is it hard to fuse your styles or is everyone just doing their own thing? (In other words, how important is consistency?)
I think consistency is really important. I really respected the vision that Joe established in episodes 1 and 2. I thought it was exciting and rowdy. That was one of the things that made me want to be involved with the show. So of course I want to honor that vision and continue that vision. At the same time, I am a human being, and that world through my eyes will have its own stamp, which is slightly different from Joe’s.
I worked for Teo as a loader on the first indie film I ever worked on out of NYU when I was 19 years old. I remember watching him work and the beauty of his light. I remember how masterful he was. When we needed a tandem DP, because ultimately you always need a tandem DP on a series that is this intricate. I have to scout while someone is shooting. He had worked on Katy Keene for Roberto and was suggested as tandem DP. He came in and was so gracious and did such beautiful work. He also had a very high level of attention to detail on how we light etc. I think Teo took what I did and refined it even more. There are things I did that embellished some of the approach to what Joe was doing. I used more eye lights and went softer with the light at times. I think Teo also embellished it even more. I think it was this incredible experience to have this DP that I had looked up to come in and work together on a series that I shot. He was so gracious and kind. He could have come in and stepped on my toes, because he has years of experience on me. It was a super special experience in the world of cinematography and it taught me so much about going in and being respectful and making an effort to keep the look consistent if I’m ever a tandem DP.
Were there things you learned from working on Pretty Little Liars that you’re excited to apply to future projects?
So many things that I have already used on future projects. I really started working with Titan and Helio lights. They are Astera type RGB bulbs, which are single lights. They are a type of light that basically Helios are very small and we could hide them behind furniture. I had used them a bit on I Know What You Did Last Summer, but they became a primary tool on Pretty Little Liars. That was one of the reasons we could use them and keep a certain soft look because we used so much smoke that the smoke would act as a diffusion over the light. I love hiding the little lights in different places. They are very practical and fast.
Do you have other projects in the works that you can share with us?
Yes, I recently shot two episodes of a series called Kindred that airs on Fox and FX. I’m really excited about the work I’m going to do on that series. I also have a movie coming out called The listener, starring Tessa Thompson, directed by Steve Buscemi. It was an incredible collaboration. Really excited to share that movie.