Emmy nominated cinematographer Mark Doering-Powellhas on again impressed his TV Academy peers with his work on Freeform’s Grown-ish, the hit spin-off from ABC’s Emmy nominated Black-ish starring Yara Shahidi.
Doering-Powell has earned back-to-back Emmy nominations for his season three and season four episodes of Grown-ish, both helmed by director Jenifer Rice-Genzuk Henry.
“Jenifer Rice-Genzuk Henry, who is also one of our Executive Producers, deserves a lot of credit for being such a great director,” says Doering-Powell. “She’s always very prepared and comes in with a clear vision, a look-book, and even reference photographs.”
The episode Doering-Powell is nominated for, “Put Your Hands Where Eyes Could See,” forces the series’ protagonists to confront a very timely and serious issue — the police killing of an unarmed African American.
The episodes has powerful scenes of protests and the potential for riots, which escalates the tension new heights in the series. Of the episode’s three featured protests, Doering-Powell took a different approach on each one, which he details to Awards Focus in the conversation below:
Awards Focus: Congratulations on your latest Emmy nomination. With back-to-back nominations, what do you think makes your work resonate with your voting peers? Additionally, I’d love to know how you decide on which episode to submit for Emmy consideration?
Mark Doering-Powell: Some might simply file a show under “half hour comedy” but there’s a lot of room to be an inventive filmmaker. So some of the good fortune might come from the fact that we’re encouraged to be creative. I prefer to submit an episode that is strong from the storytelling perspective, not necessarily the one which has my favorite lighting or look.
For example, my most recent Emmy nomination for Grown-ish had more location day-exterior shots than we might normally have on the show but it was a strong episode with visuals that supported the story and a tonal shift that was interesting to explore.
We managed to keep the look in our Grown-ish world while letting the protest scenes stand out a bit with some poignant scenes in that short half hour slot.
It’s also worth noting that both episodes of Grown-ish that Iwas nominated for, last year and now this year, were directed by Jenifer Rice-Genzuk Henry. Jenifer Rice-Genzuk Henry, who is also one of our Executive Producers, deserves a lot of the credit for being such a great director on these episodes. She’s always very prepared and comes in with a clear vision, a look-book,and even reference photographs.
AF: With the episode, “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See,” there’s a great spirit of protest through the music utilized and the actors preparation. How did you go about capturing the energy and feeling of that?
Doering-Powell: We handled each of the three protest scenes differently. The cold open is the campus protest, almost idyllic until the police impose a curfew. It’s what has our group of friends split their different ways for the rest of the day, including four that would continue to the street protest.
We accomplished this with a fifty-foot Technocrane antwo other cameras, all drifting to give a very poignant feel to this protest. It’s all meant to feel peaceful and almost bucolic with the idealism of the student protest.
The second protest scene gets more serious, now that a curfew has been violated.
Protesters are in the streets getting tear-gassed and hurt, while Aaron, Doug and Kiela try to stand up to the police for the right to assemble.
We handled this with a crane on track but most of the feel was meant to be handheld and Jens Piotrowski being rougher on the Steadicam that used a 65mm and 75mm Summilux to reach into the conflict with a lot of foreground to obscure the frame and add to the chaos.
Throughout, we check in with the experiences of the rest of the crew, finally landing on what we called the “night protest.” This last protest scene is meant to bookend in the same way we began the campus protest, by moving through the protest and past a burning police cruiser, to find Aaron, Doug, Luca and Kiela in the aftermath, and the consequences it held for them. The camera movement was meant to be slower and more deliberate, giving it an elegance amongst the chaos.
We were inspired by the photographs of a Minneapolis protester holding an upside-down American flag that was backlit by a burning police cruiser. There were quite a few photographs from that protest over the death of George Floyd, but I recall a couple that Julio Cortez did for the Associated Press. We emulated the grainier, rougher nature of those photographs. We took some liberties to make it our own.
For example, some of the photographs appeared to have cameras set for dusk making the flames very warm, but we pushed our version colder and grittier overall, with police lights in the distant background. Sure the flames are still warm, but overall it didn’t have a golden patina over it which didn’t feel right in the context of our show.
AF: Have you been involved with any activism or charities yourself? And if so, how does that inform you as an artist?
Doering-Powell: My daughter became President of the Students Demand Action group in her senior year in high school, so our family is no stranger to activism. I took the entire day to attend and photograph the Women’s March in Los Angeles which was an incredible experience.
We also took part in the March for Science with my wife and daughter and her friends, both of those finishing at City Hall. I also took my daughter and her friends to a Los Angeles BLM protest.
I always bring a camera since in many ways Los Angeles can be a somewhat bucolic setting for a protest with its beautiful sunlight, foliage and architecture. That juxtaposition helps frame the passion and solidarity among strangers at these protests, all of them looking to enact change. It definitely helped shaped the way we handled some of the protest scenes on Grown-ish.
AF: There are so many collaborations on a show, whether it’s talking to the showrunner or working with lighting, hair and make up, etc… what do you find most enjoyable about collaboration and what makes that experience unique on Grown-ish?
Doering-Powell: As with any project, we have to build trust, including in the camera, grip & lighting crew I brought on board, all of whom are integral to making Grown-ish work.
The easy part is listening, hearing the concerns. What exactly is it we’re after? What do the Editors need? The hard part is sorting through it all, because invariably there will be conflicting needs.
Help came in the form of our Executive Producers Julie Bean and Craig Doyle, as well as our EP and Director of the Grown-ish episode that I was nominated for this year, Jenifer Rice-Genzuk Henry.
Another major player is Producer-Editor Jamie Nelsen,who is also our “Style Czar” and was essential in keeping the show on a path to trying out different ways to cover something, and yet we knew we’d also need a lot of coverage with an ensemble cast.
We might have several pages with seven characters in a scene and it can turn into a lot of work. Even though Yara Shahidi is always good on take one, there are other dynamics in a scene that might require more takes.
It might simply be a reaction that someone has to the conversation at hand, and the story would be flat without us seeing that. Oftentimes a third camera lets us capture those moments, other times it may be a Steadicam one-er. Grown-ish is unique in that it allows us the freedom to find the best approach.
A lot of credit also goes to Producers Micheal Petok and Lina Wong. They really know how to steer this ship and Lina is often solving our biggest dilemmas with filmmaking sensibilities – she always has a solution that serves the story.
Kristan Andrews is our Production Designer, and her team delivers the best sets for our “aspirational” world as we like to call it. She’s also integral in helping to find the best locations for us, and giving me a heads up when new challenges are coming two to three episodes away.
The other partners-in-crime are: Gaffer Jay Yowler, who we are lucky to have along with Key Grip Paul Schmidt. They are both unbothered by the biggest challenges, and they keep delivering their best constantly. Much credit goes to A-Camera Operators Jens Piotrowski, our Focus Pullers Robert Schierer who’s been with us through it all, as well as our Final Colorist, Gareth Cook at The Foundation – who is my main collaborator to deliver the best palette and our mantra to draw the viewer to the eyes.
Finally, we often say half-jokingly, “it’s a show about hair and what they wear” and each episode is proof that the freedom they have makes for top-notch results.
Michelle R. Cole and her costume department will often check with me on certain things, and I almost always sign off on it because I know much of what they do is more important than what I’m managing with palette or moire, but they also have such a good handle on all that.
I may not be a fan of the rare neon colors only because its difficult to compose for a color that insists on too much attention in a frame but at the same time those choices are part of the character and story of the show. I can’t think of a single episode where any of that felt wrong.
AF: What considerations do you take when filming with a larger cast in a public space? Were there any challenges or factors that came into play during the shoot?
Doering-Powell: It can be a real challenge, but the most difficult ones are the ones that have trickier locations such as Terranea in San Pedro, which doubled as a Mexican resort, or the Ontario Airport, in a fully open international terminal.
At that time, most of the public was no longer masking for COVID, but the cast is the most vulnerable when shooting a scene as they are without masks at that time. We tried to create a buffer zone between the scene we were shooting and the crowd at the airport. We placed our background artists in between both so that you’d be able to hide people that might otherwise be staring into the camera or trying to interact with the cast. We also adjusted our shooting schedule in order to shoot the remainder of the scene near the airport entrance once it became less crowded.
It can be a real challenge, but I have to credit our UPM Lina Wong, our Director and AD’s as well as our Location Manager, Taylor Boyd. They really do their best to help and we’d fail miserably without them.
AF: You’ve had the pleasure of working with Chris Rock as a director and producer for many years. What can you share about Chris as a collaborator that readers might not expect from only seeing his stand up?
Doering-Powell: I’ve witnessed Chris Rock basically hold a master class in storytelling techniques, characters and casting during our prep. It’s fascinating to listen to his input and concerns.
I’ve never seen him mistaken on story and character, even when others cannot see it in advance like he does. He doesn’t make a big deal about that skill even though it seems to drive nearly everything he does in prep.
AF: With all the recent momentum in your career, what are some upcoming projects or goals that you want to finish or accomplish going into 2023?
Doering-Powell: I’ve learned that “comedy is hard” so why not do one that combines large reptilians or dinosaurs along with space lasers, preferable all taking place in zero gravity. Then I’ll feel complete (laughs).
Most of all, I want to continue to work with people that aren’t afraid to take risks and solve things in interesting ways. There’s a lot of room for that.