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Among the talented team members who will breathe new life into the adventures of Monkey D. Luffy and the Straw Hat Crew is prolific cinematographer Nicole Hirsch Whitaker, who works as director of photography on the first two episodes of the inaugural season. Whether capturing Luffy and friends sailing the high seas in search of treasure, or taking on fearsome foes like Buggy the Clown, there are many One Piece fan-favorite moments beautifully reinvented by Whitaker and the live-action team.
In an exclusive interview, One Piece cinematographer Nicole Hirsch Whitaker revealed her personal connection to One Piece, and explained how production approached the difficult task of creating the series' visuals while respecting Oda's original work.
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One Piece is the biggest Netflix original series premiere of the year. How did you want to approach the staging of this manga/anime property?
Nicole Hirsch Whitaker: Marc Jobst, the director, and I had worked together on Jupiter's Legacy . When he was approached to direct the project, he came to me and asked me what I would be doing and how I would approach the project. It was during COVID, so we had a lot of time to talk. We collected a bunch of lookbooks and found a bunch of different inspirations, from photographers to filmmakers to manga and whatever else inspired us. Basically, we found the look we wanted for the series, which was really grounded and also something representative and respectful of what we think Eiichiro Oda would have wanted the series to look like if he'd made it live-action.
It's a pirate show on the high seas, so there's a lot of sun and water. How did you want to take that into account when capturing these pirate ships and characters?
That's one of the things I thought a lot about, because I knew there would be a lot of light open and available where we were going to shoot. In South Africa, where we were working, a lot of boats can't turn, so we were in one direction only and had to deal with tricky lighting situations. I did a lot of research on the subject. I don't want to say that it's easier to light something than to take the light away, but shooting exteriors and keeping them consistent, because some of our scenes would take between five and eight days and would have to stay consistent over those days with sun, clouds. And rain.
It was really a challenge, but it was fun, and I think we did a really good job of keeping the naturalism that I think [Oda] would have wanted with the series. I know he's happy with what we did to keep the basics in the way they presented their manga version.
There are episodes in this season that are as close to outright horror as One Piece , especially with Baggy the Clown . How did you want to play with lighting in this spirit?
It's funny, because in the manga, Buggy is always a cartoon character. When I met Jeff Ward, who plays Buggy, he came in with his hair, make-up and prostheses, and I was so blown away. I had already designed the lighting for his circus tent in Orange Town, and we spent a lot of time figuring out what the transitions would be, how we would light him and how we would make him look like he did in the manga. because he was always excited and super scary.
If you know his story, you know he's just as tortured and fragile as Luffy and other characters. You hate him because he's a horrible person, but he's also a tragic character. We wanted to make him scary and creepy, but we also wanted to make sure we kept some humor and humanity in his character, so we were very conscious of lighting in that regard. I was only able to light him as the horrible Buggy the Clown in his tent. It was really fun to present him as a villain and play with that kind of lighting.
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Like the anime, One Piece contains many close-up shots of individual characters. What appealed to you about these tight focuses, with a softer focus around their faces for these shots?
When Marc and I first talked about lenses, we explained that we wanted to shoot anamorphically, but with anamorphics, you can't focus tightly. Obviously, manga has a lot of wide tights on people's faces. We used lenses on another project and asked Hawk to build them for this project. They were essentially the same lenses but in a larger format. They were originally called MiniHawks, and now they're called MHX. It's simply a closed spherical lens with a long focal length, boca anamorphic, so you get the best of both worlds. You get this reduction because they're ultra-fast, and we were very lucky that they built the lenses for us.
From Jaws to Waterworld , you hear these industry horror stories about open-water productions. With so many scenes on the water, what lessons did you learn to make this production as seamless as possible?
We were very lucky because the studio we shot in in Cape Town had three tanks [of water] and all the people who worked on our series worked on Black Sails . We had all the frogmen, visual effects, special effects and everyone who had ever worked with boats and tanks. I would defer to them and say things like, "This is what I want to do. I want to put a crane on a platform and put this and that," and they'd show up and get it ready.
I have to be honest. I didn't have a huge learning curve because they were very responsive to what we needed to do. It was a real gift to be able to go where people had done the same thing before, so it wasn't too bad. We were never in open water. We were always in tanks. It was all tanks and visual effects, so we were never on the ocean. [ laughs ]
How did you want to modify the visuals and lighting of the flashback sequences to distinguish them from the scenes taking place in the present?
It was a subtle difference. It wasn't supposed to be a huge obstacle to go from the present to the past because, obviously, he's younger. We just changed the color and lighting slightly and gave it a slightly more desaturated, warmer feel, but not a huge difference. We still wanted you to feel like you're in the same world. It was really important to set him up so that you felt you understood who he was as a young child.
You have major characters with green and red hair. How did you want to play with filters and saturation to bring out these colors on screen?
It was complicated. It was one of the first conversations we had with the wigmakers. They probably spent a few months making the wigs for Nami, Zoro and Buggy. These were the three big characters I worked with who wore wigs. Basically, we made sure that our lighting, even though we were trying to come up with something interesting, always brought out those colors. Being out there and trying to find a general light that worked for all these characters was tricky. We probably spent a few months with hair and make-up doing different kinds of tests before the actors showed up to figure that out.
We'd talk to the studio to make sure everyone was happy with the level of saturation. We didn't want to be as saturated as the manga because we wanted people to be able to identify with them and not look like cartoon characters. I was happy with the balance we struck. Watching the series - I've seen the first four episodes - I think you stop thinking about it after a while.
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Having also seen the first four episodes, I can confirm this.
You kind of forget about her, even with Nami when she first appears. I knew Emily [Rudd] and I knew she was blonde. At first, I thought it was pretty strong, and once she started playing the character, it became a part of her. It was a good thing.
Speaking of respect for Oda's work, were there any key elements you wanted to keep in mind when developing the visual presentation, and how did you want to leverage them in live-action?
My son was the biggest One Piece fan in the world, so I grew up as a parent watching 900 episodes of One Piece with him, watching him read all the books and dress up as Luffy. It was in my life, so I was aware of it and wanted to be respectful of that and what they had done. It was scary and there was a lot of pressure, especially having a child with a Trafalgar Law tattoo on his chest. [ laughs ]
It was pretty intense, and once I started thinking about it, all I could think about was that I just wanted to be true to the canon and these little nuggets of One Piece that I thought would be important for fans and also create our own. version of it so that you don't just watch the same version again, but add something new to it, which is the only reason to do it. If you're just doing a remake, you can just watch the anime.
Making live-action from animation of any kind is really tricky. Some people will like it, some won't, and all you can do is tell a good story at the end of the day. I feel like that was the most important thing. With all the prosthetics and hair and everything else aside, if you feel like you're connected to the characters, that's great. I think that was the most important part.
ONE PIECE is a live-action pirate adventure created in partnership with Shueisha and produced by Tomorrow Studios and Netflix. Matt Owens and Steven Maeda are writers, executive producers and showrunners. Eiichiro Oda, Marty Adelstein and Becky Clements are also executive producers. One Piece was released on Netflix on August 31.
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