Jim Frohna: The Unseen Character You Need to Notice in ‘Transparent’

The director/cinematographer reveals what it takes to create the naturalism in Transparent and I Love Dick.
By  · Published on September 29th, 2017

The director/cinematographer reveals what it takes to create the naturalism in Transparent and I Love Dick, along with the bold look of I’m Dying Up Here.

The last five years have been unlike any other period in Jim Frohna’s life. He made the leap from photographing commercials to being the lead cinematographer on television’s most progressive show, Transparent. His partnership with auteur Jill Soloway has led to an Emmy nomination and opportunities to photograph other high-profile TV shows, but his greatest achievement over the last five years is deepening his knowledge of himself.

Frohna’s cinematography is inextricably linked to who he is as an individual. He uses every aspect of who he is to create each frame of every episode he photographs and directs. How does that work? As season four of Transparent was about to drop on Amazon, we were able to speak with Frohna to find out more about just how he does what he does.

FSR: So when you’re developing these shows, going back to season one of Transparent, even before that with Afternoon Delight, how do you go about choosing or finding the look of the show or the movie? Do you start with lighting, or do you start with lenses, color palette, feelings…

Jim Frohna: Yeah, in the case of pretty much the majority of the work that I’ve done with Jill Soloway, the way that we talked since the beginning was what is the feeling in the room. What is the feeling of a scene or an episode? Or in the case of the feature, the overall story. I knew that, from early conversations with Jill that we wanted the feeling. This applies to the movie [Afternoon Delight], and then we went much deeper into the style of when Transparent started happening where talking about having a naturalistic feel and how to achieve a feeling that things are unfolding in front of the camera.

So I knew that there were already things that we were going to do in terms of how I liked the light and what the camera might be doing, but what I discovered particularly working with Jill and the way that we talk a lot about the deeper unspoken words or almost unspoken music beneath the script. What is the journey of this character and this point in the season or in this episode? And I learned early on that if I understood the feeling of the scene, then I knew how to shoot it.

You’ve said that with Afternoon Delight you didn’t quite achieve the exact look or feeling that you wanted to capture or evoke, and you were able to do that with Transparent. What tweaks did you make?

One of the things was Jill and I have more time having worked together and with each passing month or now—it was actually five years ago this past August that we did Afternoon Delight. So it’s pretty awesome. I feel very lucky in terms of how much has happened since then. But part of it is just getting to know Jill and how we work together and also trusting myself.

It’s sort of a common theme because at the base of how I ended up shooting, particularly so much of it is very intuitive. Here’s a good example—and I wish this were still true, but as the show grew and we got more directors in and Jill had less time in prep, we didn’t always have time for this—but early on the way that Jill and I worked was Jill would build a collage of images. Sometimes directors or production designers will put together what’s called a mood board where they’re posting up photos or references either from other projects or still photographers or just color palettes from various magazines in terms of what they imagine for a character or a room, let’s say.

But what Jill did that’s different is taking the structure of an episode and saying, “This is the feeling I get for this episode.”

It’s not talking about camera angles or lenses or anything like that, but it is showing a journey through from start to finish of an episode.

For example, the first episode of season two, which is an awesome one, the wedding, Sarah and Tammy’s wedding. I recall very vividly Jill talking about the stark difference between the very bright sunlight, almost blinding sunlight outside, everybody in white and then the darkness of the hallways and what she imagined at the time for the reception would be. So you’d have already this dramatic difference between outside and inside. That was before we even found the location, which ended up perfectly suiting that idea. So Jill’s tearing out images, and basically, we’d have 40 different magazines of different kinds in a room and we’d make a big mess and it would be like playing or arts and crafts class or something where we’re just discovering. Jill would say, “I’m looking for this feeling,” and then randomly we’d both find stuff, and Jill would decide what went up on the collage.

But what is being created is this thing that goes through the shape of the episode. And along with that white and black thing that I was describing, there’s also this idea that even though the wedding has lushness, that right beyond is this sort of barren feeling. And so we found the location where the wedding is. It’s like the wedding ceremony takes place and it’s got all these plants and trees that have been brought in for events, but then right behind it is this dried up river bed.

And some of this stuff doesn’t ever … You wouldn’t walk in and say, “Oh, that’s what they’re doing.” But essentially what happens is in the middle of the episode is we jump out of the reception and dive back into 1930s Berlin. We have no idea where we are. There are a bunch of people dancing in colorful outfits and then we zip right back, right? Over the course of the season, we learn that that’s an actual place and that there’s a person there that is actually one of Maura’s relatives.

Anyway, so in the building of this collage you’ve got this color, this feeling of harsh light, too much shadow and darkness, barrenness, and lushness, and then in the middle of this thing, there’s this visit from the past that is full of color and full of life. So Jill did this little thing where it’s like little scraps of paper that are weaving like a meandering river through the dark and lightness and into the center of what is essentially the collage, but also the center of the episode where this flashback happens.

And low and behold, as this whole thing takes shape, I can look in and say, “Okay, do we want to reference the fact that this flashback is coming, or is it a surprise?” Or I can now see lighting wise the feeling that we want at certain stages of the episode, right?

Then the costume designer can come in and look at this thing and say, “Okay, ah, I get it. Let’s have this and this and have the people in the flashback be so much full of life and color in contrast to all the people at the wedding, who are all in white.” The production designer can come in and look at this thing, and so it’s this very cool, simple, yet multifaceted and actually very complex way of understanding how we’re going to shoot something. It’s not storyboards. It’s not talking about camera angles or lenses or anything like that, but it is showing a journey through from start to finish of an episode.

Even at times when we haven’t had time to make a collage, and obviously other directors have different techniques than the one I’m describing that Jill and I did many times. We still talk in that same way. “What’s the feeling of the scene? What’s the feeling of the episode?” Which then, again, informs me the way in, in terms of what the camera’s going to be doing.

It’s different than I’ve ever worked, and again, it triggers things on the subconscious or intuitive level as opposed to being literal or we do a master here and we do it tight here and etc.

Does that process change at all when you direct an episode? Like for your episode in season two, the light and darkness is really striking when Jay Duplass [Josh] leaves the synagogue. It reminds me of the wedding—how you can feel the sun and feel how oppressive the light is outside of the synagogue. Was the process of directing that episode similar in making those mood collages and that kind of thing?

Yeah, I actually did do that for myself and for the DP that we had for working with me on that episode. Because it worked so well and again, suited me in terms of that I like to work very intuitively. And yeah, so there, citing the scene that you’re talking about, that location was about not just Josh’s turmoil and heartbreak, because he and Rabbi Raquel had split, but also that here they’re enacting this prayer for Yom Kippur where the community is collectively saying, “We have sinned.” That’s what the prayer is about, and the thumping of the chest and everything and so part of it was that there’s a community available Josh if he’s willing to be held by it. But he’s so caught up in his own pain that he’s not able to be where he is, which is why I think he storms out.

So part of it was like oh, it’ll be great. There are these cool, old stained glass windows that already have this amber tint so we just kind of exaggerated that with the camera settings and the lighting so that you kind of left with this idea that amber is also things that are not fossilized, but old. Like things would get trapped in amber and it’s sort of a way of being able to look at the past and these things that were trapped in amber in nature.

Even when I’m directing episodes … I still love to grab the camera and connect to what’s happening.

Anyway, so I was thinking of that and we had lots of older faces and old bearded men in the scenes so that you kind of felt bad. Not that it’s a bad thing to be trapped in the past. But this is history, and then that goal in welcoming softer amber light versus as you pointed out, the harsh outdoors.

It’s funny how even though we knew in planning or in the script it’s like, it says Josh runs outside, but as far as the time of day that we managed to shoot that, it just also worked out that the sun was in the right place to provide that, the kind of squinty feeling. So sometimes, even things you don’t plan or hope for, just you end up lucky to get because you just get outside at the right time. Like 10 minutes later that place was in shadow.

I really appreciated how you bring back that kind of oppressive light in the grocery store later when he’s eating all of the food. It’s that same kind of harsh-

Oh my God, yeah.

Was that a conscious decision, or did that just organically happen as well?

Again, just embracing your natural lighting. It is the cold, fluorescent lighting in supermarkets, and I just think it happens to work really well against the contrast of the family gathering before that where it’s like this is the warmer light of a home and yet for Josh, it’s the least welcoming space because he’s dealing with everything.

But I will tell you, man, shooting that scene because even though we have really amazing, talented camera operators, I operate a lot generally and even when I’m directing episodes and I got to direct an episode of I Love Dick and also there’s one in season four [of Transparent] coming up that I directed. I still love to grab the camera and connect to what’s happening. For example, I was operating on that grocery store thing, so it was really just me and Jay and the store. Man, we cut out a lot of stuff, but he ate probably four pounds of cold cuts. It was so disgusting. You feel it when it’s on camera, but we shot a bit more footage where it was like I could not believe how much he was consuming.

Yeah, it’s like it shouldn’t be that shocking, but it really is.

It’s so sad and disturbing.

You’re not just there as the person holding the camera or making the frame.

You mentioned operating the camera a lot, and your sensibility is very in the vérité style. When was the first time you registered the effect the style had on an audience?

So, on the one hand, I would say I was already drawn to lighting things and having things feel very naturalistic and grounded in reality, even when I was doing commercials. And I did some documentary early on as a DP and really loved that. And there’s certainly something about it in that situation when you’re shooting a doc. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You just have to be ready and open to what might be, right?

So there’s a certain mind state or shooting style that you just have to be ready for. Just who knows what’s going to happen or is a character going to say this or that or walk around, or whatever the situation is. So there was already something in me that was comfortable doing that, but I think the big change came when Jill and I met regarding the feature [Afternoon Delight] and I was the first DP that she met and we instantly bonded and we bonded over two things. One was Andrea Arnold’s movie, Fish Tank.

You feel so totally connected to that main character, the young woman in Fish Tank, and also again it’s like you feel the very grounded, real world that we’re in, and it’s pretty much entirely handheld. So that was one big inspiration that Jill and I bonded over. The other was this woman named Joan Schekel. It’s a bit hard describe her, but she does workshops and teaches classes and things for directing and storytelling for writers and actors. She’s just this overall filmmaking-slash-story guru. Really amazing teacher, really incredible. And I had met her through other directors earlier on.

I did a lot of stuff with Mike Mills and when he made a short film he hired Joan to consult with him to work with the actors because he hadn’t done narrative at that point. I’m pretty sure even though I hadn’t worked with him when he did Beginners, he utilized her wisdom. I met Joan and she talked to me about how the person behind the camera has an effect on who’s in front of the camera, that you’re not just there as the person holding the camera or making the frame, but that who I am and my energy whether I am closed off or open to who’s on the other side of the camera matters.

I was actually in these exercises and moving around with the actors and it established this intimacy and trust from the very, very beginning.

And I never would have thought of it in that way, and I don’t think I ever would have approached cinematography in that way had I not met and then worked with Joan. And it turns out that even before Afternoon Delight, Jill had taken one of Joan’s directing workshops and then when we did the feature, hired Joan and we did a workshop with Kathryn Hahn and Josh Radner, and it’s not about running scenes or anything like that, but doing these exercises where they are able to build a history as a married couple.

Cut to Transparent, and we went into Joan’s space with the core cast, the family of the Pfeffermans and had this really incredible first session where it became about discovering what it was like for the family members to know that there’s a secret but not know what it is and how that affected everybody and closed everyone off to each other even though they’re at the same time crossing boundaries or behaving in inappropriate ways in the family or outside the family. But there’s this whole unspokenness of the secret.

All that is to say that, one, those sessions with Joan, especially at the beginning of Transparent really opened everybody up to the deeper story, to the soul of the thing, and Joan and Jill conversing before and both running the workshop.

And so what happened there is the cast not only got to understand something on a deeper level, but because Jill had invited me to participate, I was there and would bring my Canon 5D and sometimes take stills and other times shoot video, but not just there to observe. But I was actually in these exercises and moving around with the actors and it established this intimacy and trust from the very, very beginning.

Basically, the thing that drew me into this shooting style was Joan planting in me this idea that by bringing my whole self, the fact that I’m a father and a husband and son and artist and a living, breathing human, not just there to make nice pictures changed the way that I would move with the camera. It became about me just being open and connecting with the actors on the other side. And that was made actual, like put into practice when we started doing these workshops as I was describing, with the cast.

And it was something that Jill also was seeking from me. At the same time, to shoot from this emotionally open place, to bring the feeling, to carry the feeling.

Yeah. Jill would say, “Open your heart and point the camera.” Right?

Yeah, that’s the philosophy.

It’s in those imperfections that’s also I think how we get the feeling of this is just life unfolding.

So if you could go back to past projects knowing that kind of just open posture to your shooting style, do you think it would have changed drastically how you would shoot whatever project?

I will say that I notice how I approach the people around me differently, and I guess I’m thinking of times on a commercial when there are real people casting and knowing that they’re not trained actors, I think I would understand that they could use a little extra love or a little extra attention or something from me both before we’re shooting, or while we’re setting up, or even just the posture I’m taking when we’re rolling.

But I will say, it also takes the people around me. It takes a whole team to have the philosophy that we’re talking about. For example, I’m Dying Up Here was a totally different type of show, both the fact that it’s very stylized in a certain period with this sort of theatrical lighting in the club and everything. I took it because I wanted the different challenge, and it was. That’s a show where we have sweeping crane shots and long winding Steadicam shots moving through the club, and so it’s just a different vocabulary.

I think I would still work similarly though, because of the way we work on Transparent and how my crew at this point now speaks the same language. But it’s like early on if the focus puller was off in the scene because the actor kind of was doing something different than they did the take before and I’m operating the camera and I’m just responding to what’s happening and the focus puller was always having to just constantly be catching up and doing their best to follow.

Early on they’d be flummoxed or cursing themselves for not getting the focus right and I would say, “In this scene, the character is trying to figure out who they are, what’s happening to them, or whatever. So the fact that the focus is off is totally fine. It’s part of the story.” And just generally, even if it’s not that literal of a connection to what the character is doing, it’s like to me, life is not perfect. Lighting shouldn’t be perfect. The focus doesn’t always have to be perfect, and it’s in those imperfections that’s also I think how we get the feeling of this is just life unfolding.

So even on the show like I’m Dying Up Here where that’s not the intention, where that’s not the overall philosophy, my camera crew, we still communicate the same way where it’s like, “Okay, we didn’t get it on that one. Now we know what’s happening, let’s try and get it on the next one,” kind of thing. So in other words, I’m still in the more open, receiving, discovering space as opposed to seeking exactitude or perfection.

It’s not about getting something right. There’s not a right.

So going back, you said working with real people you might have a different tactic of relating to them than maybe actors. Is there a difference between shooting or directing actors who are strictly actors and actors who are also directors like Jay Duplass or Carrie Brownstein, people who have more, like a broader skill set in filmmaking.

I think that the good thing and the lucky thing for us in terms of the whole team and the cast of Transparent is that in a way Jay and his brother [Mark Duplass] were shooting in a similar style and seeking the unexpected and not having everything mapped out exactly. And early on Jay would talk about this phrase that they had on their sets for the actors, which is to, “Disobligate yourself from trying.” Which is great and it sort of gets the whole ethos that I’m talking about where that translates for them in to take a chance. It’s not about getting something right. There’s not a right. There’s just a start to go deep into something as opposed to worrying about the rightness of it.

So in that way, it’s not so different. Gaby Hoffman directed for the first time, season four and both with Jay and at the time that we worked with Carrie she hadn’t directed, so I can’t really speak to that part of her experiences. But generally speaking, because there was already such a trust and connection and intimacy it all felt like one whole organism as opposed to, “Oh, these guys are doing something different because they’ve also directed.”

But I actually have one more thing to talk about: often times Jay would be—he amazes me because he hasn’t been acting that long and he’s so good. And he’s also able to dive into his character and also be aware of what the camera’s up to and there will be times where he knew that the camera—let’s say it’s handheld and has to cross a room or move from one side of the space to another, but that’s also where he is. And he was like, “Oh, I’ll help you out. I’ll just back up a couple steps when you guys have to make your move.” So he’s able to stay in the scene, in character, but also dance around the camera for us just to make something work. In that way, I appreciate what he brings as somebody who’s made a bunch of movies and other things.

So you also mentioned in I’m Dying Up Here, the lighting was more theatrical and stuff like that and you were a theater kid growing up. Was that it exciting returning to that more theatrical, dramatic, less maybe natural lighting, and world?

Yeah, in so many ways it was just fun to dive in, in all those ways and to play with the gel swatch book and figure out what the color palette is for a Friday night crowd at the comedy club versus open mic night. I remember in younger days devouring all these articles in American Cinematographer about different techniques and reading about how people would stretch silk nylons behind the lens and how that gave a certain look. That was sort of an old-fashioned technique, but that’s what we did on I’m Dying Up Here. My first AC was able to contact somebody over in France who still had some in stock, the original type of nylon stockings that they used back in the 60s and 70s. I can’t remember the name of them right now, but basically, it’s like, they’re imported. They’re very special I guess. But so getting just to do that, which by the way, also went a long way in terms of establishing the look of I’m Dying Up Here. But so yeah, just being able to know that you’re tapping into the history of camera techniques and tricks to shoot the show was fun.

The lenses that we use for all the flashbacks on Transparent are from the late 1930s.

And also I’ve enjoyed movies that have sweeping crane shots and long steady cam shots, but it’s not something that was in my immediate vocabulary. But again, what partly drew me to the show was to exercise those muscles and to get to work with directors in the spaces we had. Figuring out okay, how do we make this fun and dynamic, with good shots and storytelling? But also a couple episodes in it’s like all right, we shoot a lot in this comedy club, how else can we use this space and how can we use the camera moving or not, to not just repeat ourselves?

Do you have any other examples of practical camera tricks either from Transparent or from I Love Dick?

Obviously this isn’t something unique to me, but the fact that so many older lenses have been brought back from obscurity, or people find these old lenses and they’re rehoused by magical lens elves at places like Panavision and other camera houses where it’s like all these new tools that take us away from the clean digital present or futuristic look that we have sometimes, because digital is getting so vivid that it’s so great to be able to have these other lenses that bring character or texture or feeling or whatever it is that take us. Again, not to say that it’s about trying to get something that looks like it’s film, but it’s a whole dynamic of toolset or group of paintbrushes that you get to choose from these days.

So I like that. So in that way, it’s like the lenses that we use for all the flashbacks on Transparent are from the late 1930s. I know at the time when I used Panavision in Hollywood I was looking for something, the lens guru there, whose name is Guy McVicker, he said, “You know, I just found three lenses and I’m trying to rehouse more of a set, but check them out,” and I instantly loved them. And since then they’ve found a couple other sets, but at the time the only set in functioning or in existence and so stuff like that is also fun.

Moving to I Love Dick and the episode you directed for that show—because I’m sure your relationship with Jill is always evolving—did you learn anything new through that experience, or did you have any new tactics since directing your first episode of Transparent?

I just feel like I’ve grown as a human being and as an artist.

What was great for the episode that I got was it was the first time that you’re spending time with Dick, Kevin Bacon’s character. He’s sort of this enigma, not willing to engage in conversation with Kathryn Hahn’s character. We’re only seeing him through her eyes. And along comes this episode, which as soon as I read I was so glad to have the opportunity to direct. It was going to be a fun challenge again to tell this part of the story where Dick comes over and talks to Sylvere and they have this whole sit down. They go from Dick threatening Sylvere to them sitting, talking about their history, putting together past relationships. You get this whole new side of Dick.

And so, on the one hand, I grew up seeing Kevin Bacon and Griffin Dunne in movies, but Kevin Bacon was huge, bigger for my teenage and college years in terms of movies I saw, like Footloose and all that. And so to suddenly be in a room directing was on its own level really awesome, a real thrill. But to get to tell that part of the story, but I don’t know if there was something different.

I definitely just have been learning and growing so much working with Jill and the other directors. And by the way, Andrea Arnold ended up coming into our family in season two [of Transparent]. Jill figured hey, let’s reach out and see if she might be interested. She had never done TV before and actually at that point hadn’t shot anything in the US. And she’s an incredible person. Really lovely human being, and a filmmaker I greatly admire. So it was really amazing to have her come along and in fact, she shot half the episodes of I Love Dick, or almost half.

So I’m not sure if I can name something specific to I Love Dick, except for that just shooting for Andrea Arnold, working now over these seasons of Transparent with Jill and a number of other very talented directors—I just feel like I’ve grown as a human being and as an artist, and so coming into I Love Dick and getting that episode to direct, I feel very fortunate, and also really ready because I get how we tell stories, and I feel it very, very deeply.

I love directing. I love shooting, and I want to keep doing more directing. It just suits me, especially this style of storytelling, and the methods we use.

Your situation is unique because when you’re strictly a director you don’t really get to watch how other directors move around the set and deal with actors and the crew. But when you’re a DP you get to work with so many directors. So it’s cool that you get to work so many and just get to take little bits from each of them. I bet that’s super helpful.

There are many ways into a scene or into an episode and you have to use what feels right or where your strengths are.

Yeah, that’s a really good point, yes. And again the fascinating way that each director comes in with a different style. By contrast to what I was saying earlier about Jill and collaging, there was a director I worked with on Dying Up Here who took super, super detailed notes, almost like a scientist on graph paper with these diagrams and exacting notions about the camera and it allowed for us to have a very solid foundation and launching point. Totally different than how I’m used to working over on Transparent.

And then another person has a sketchbook where it almost like doodles. But it wasn’t just nonsense doodles. It had to do with for an idea for a part of the set dressing where this or that character, but it was little ways for us to start talking about different aspects of the episode. But if you just saw it lying there you’d think it was just kind of random doodling. So just again, learning from each person who comes in. There’s not only one right way into a story. I think that was the biggest thing, one of my biggest takeaways from all of the different directors I worked with. There are many ways into a scene or into an episode and you have to use what feels right or where your strengths are.

Then for me as the DP in most of those cases, the challenge of very quickly adapting to that different way of speaking or that different way of thinking about a scene or whatever keeps one very limber and open.

This is a very specific question, but I’m just curious have you adopted Andrea Arnold’s on you go and thank you instead of action and cut?

I remember doing it sometimes. I think I did it more in Transparent than I Love Dick. Again, it’s fascinating too, because it’s like the little thing means so much to the actors because it’s this welcoming into and an appreciation of the actor. I guess you could say action and cut in the tone of voice that sounds like on you go and thank you, but just watching and hearing from the actors how much they love that.

She also does this thing where she does a whole take, it’s a silent take. That I have utilized, and I will always utilize. I’ve actually encouraged other directors to do it even when they were not familiar because what that opens up in a scene is really amazing. And you would think it would feel a little bit weird or something, but the actors, again, love it because then it becomes about what the scene is really about as opposed to the words, right?

What I learned was that there’s the story as written, and sometimes there’s the story as you find it.

Like what is the feeling in the room? What is happening between the two characters? What are the emotions that rise up? And not only that, but for Andrea, she’s like, “I can play with the rhythm of a scene if I have these silent takes so that if a character has said something and I can cut to other character and, using the silent take, decide how long of a pause before the answer.”

So it allows her to play with the rhythm and the music of a scene along with the fact that it really gets to the guts and core of what the scene is about. So yeah, that I will never forget. That’s a beauty, and that’s a wonderful technique.

Can you share anything from the episode you directed on season four of Transparent?

I wish I could share many things about what we shot, it was a great episode and it comes at a key turning point in the season. But what I learned was that there’s the story as written, and sometimes there’s the story as you find it. Here’s what I can tell you. There’s a short scene that happens between Josh and Ali during the episode and it’s a quiet, middle-of-the-night kind of conversation. And in preparing for the episode and talking to the writer about the episode and then talking with the actors on set, it’s like these two haven’t actually spent any time together alone for a long time in terms of over the course of the seasons, right?

So even though this scene is not about that, having come so far with these characters being in season four, knowing their history allowed me to look at it from a different angle than what was just on the page and say, “How much are they missing each other? How much of this can point to not just, again the words and they’re talking about something that happened in the family that day.” Is there a way to kind of bring in their past, their history that they haven’t had this sort of connection, whereas early on, especially when we meet them in season one, it’s like they’re almost twins. They are connected and don’t need to always speak to each other to know how the other is feeling. Whereas by the time we catch up with them in season four, there’s a lot of distance and a lot of noise interrupting that unspoken connection.

So again, it may be a little too abstract to be talking about, but essentially the fact that I’ve been around on the show, that we’ve all gone through all this stuff together and that there is a history to point to, allowed the way the scene unfolds to remind the viewers of what used to be so it feels a little bit more bittersweet that they’re not so connected.

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