Nominated for 5 Emmy Awards, the Netflix five-episode miniseries Halston captures the imagination—and, for some, brings back memories—of an era when the legendary designer redefined American fashion and Studio 54 was the place to be. Period pieces require acute attention to detail and the team that created Halston was more than up to the task—even when challenged by a pandemic that began to emerge early during production.
Cinematographer William Rexer, whose credits include Hunters, The Tick, Sneaky Pete, Solos and Ed Burns’ Beneath Blue Suburban Skies, joined the team as DP. He was excited to be working with Director Dan Minahan, whose long-term commitment to this project Rexer admired. Rexer was also drawn to Halston because “I love working on a series where you get time to create a look and tell a complicated story that might require more time than a feature affords.”
Rexer completed Episode 1 and was 7 days into production on Episodes 2 and 3 when everything was shut done due to the pandemic. By that time, Rexer, Production Designer Mark Ricker and Director Dan Minahan had made great strides in setting the look and tone of the series as well as designing some of the sets.
Bring on the Sigma Cine Lenses
A huge fan of Sigma Cine FF High Speed Primes and the newer Sigma Cine FF Classics, Rexer had two sets of the Primes and one set of the Classics on set for the Red Monstro he shot with. The Classics played a major role in this series, both aesthetically and on a practical level, thanks to the beautiful flare that the lenses’ unique coating produced. “Dan Minahan wanted a specific look [for the series] and when we did our testing, I showed the Sigma Cine Classics and their specific flare and he loved them.” Rexer explains that with the Sigma Cine Classics, “The flare feels organic and not so modern. They have a nostalgic look and having them in my tool kit makes magic possible.” And, he added, these Sigma lenses are lightweight, solidly built and at a price point where he can afford to have full sets of each.
Used selectively in the first episode, Rexer shot with the Sigma Cine Classics for the nostalgic flashback scenes of Halston as a child, the Bergdorf’s scene, one of the fashion shows and for the Liza Minelli club performance. Rexer jokingly commented, “Gregor [Tavenner] my B operator loved the Classics so much that I had to reign him in at times. He loved playing with the flares in that first fashion show.”
After several months of being shut down, the series got the green light to start production again. Unfortunately, Rexer had a previous commitment to return to Hunters for season 2 and couldn’t continue on Halston. When Minahan asked Rexer who he would recommend to take over as DP, Rexer unhesitatingly said Tim Ives ASC. “Tim was the obvious choice,” Rexer said. “He is a huge talent and is someone I’ve always wanted to work with. I have admired his work for a long time and think the world of him. I know his work and he knows mine so I knew he was going to make the transition seamless but put his mark on it.” In the end, Rexer said, Ives’ “work on the show is extraordinary.”
Ives, whose credits include Fosse/Verdon, House of Cards, Manifest and Girls, happily stepped in as DP when Halston production started up again. “I’d had five months off [due to the pandemic] and this was an amazing project to come back to. I was happy to do it because I’ve liked Dan Minahan’s work for a long time. . . .and Will and I have been friends and I have high respect for his work.”
Referencing the Past
Along with costuming and hair and make-up, locations play a critical role in period pieces. All the scenes were shot in and around the New York City Metro area, including the Battle of Versailles fashion show and Studio 54. Ricker deftly reproduced the Palace of Versailles locally. Since the original Studio 54 location wasn’t available, Ricker also worked his production design magic, turning the Manhattan Center into the famous disco hotspot.
“We looked at a lot of archival footage and archival photographs,” Ives explained. “We were shooting at locations that Halston had been in or were replicating them. I felt that my job was to sort of pay homage to those locations and make them feel as much as possible like the photographs and footage that we’ve seen.”
As luck would have it, there was a Studio 54 exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum during production and Ives made a visit to the Museum “to look at the costumes, the posters and the archival footage” in the exhibition for other multiple photographic references.
Ricker “designed an incredible [Studio 54] set,” Ives noted. “He had the moon and the coke spoon and all the vertical lights hanging. . . .It was remarkable.” But, Ives reports, the Studio 54 scenes were “super tricky.”
Creating Style with Sigma Cine Classics
“On Halston, all the characters were smoking and then we had the big Studio 54 set and you can imagine that every single person in there was smoking at the time.” However, Ives explained, “We filmed the whole thing during Covid so one of the prerequisites was that we were not allowed to use smoke because, at the time, nobody knew if atmosphere was going to possibly make the situation worse. . . .so I had to go into shooting that without atmosphere.” People have a perception of Studio 54 as glamorous but, in reality, says Ives, “the people were glamorous and the lighting was glamorous but the space was pretty raw and I had to figure out how to get that rawness without smoke.”
Fortunately, the Sigma Cine Classics provided Ives with the tools he needed to create the grungy, gritty look he was after. “We shot with the Sigma lenses and the Classics have a unique flaring capability,” Ives explains. “They kind of haze the image and looks almost like we had a light leak if we were shooting film and that really was the best thing I could find to give us a sense of atmosphere” without smoke. He goes on to say that, “We were working in an environment that already had very deep blacks and [by lowering the contrast] it gave sort of a wash over.” While this effect is “not something that you would want for most applications,” Ives added, “. . . .it saved the scenes because it gave it that grungy feeling.” Since the show had started with a Red, Ives said “I didn’t want to change that,” nor did he change the lenses saying that they “were great” and “definitely lenses that are a major player now in our business.”
Both Rexer and Ives stressed the importance of the team on this production, frequently crediting their colleagues for their contributions to the series. As Rexer says, “You’re creating these families that you have to really trust. I try to work with people I really, really like and who have an aesthetic you trust and have a common language.”
Even under trying circumstances, “Every single department on this show was remarkable,” Ives said. “The support around us from each other and from the studio and from Ryan Murphy Productions was immense. . . .We [brought] our A game and I’m super proud of the show.”