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Loki’s cinematographer walks us through what to watch for in the season’s first half

Breaking down Loki season 1, from the Time Theater to the escape from Lamentis-1

Cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw with her camera on one of Loki’s striking TVA sets Photo: Disney Plus

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Every Marvel Cinematic Universe TV series to date has had its own distinct look and feel, from the sitcom-derived pastiche episodes of WandaVision all the way back to the grim-and-gritty, dimly lit street narratives of Jessica Jones and Daredevil. Marvel’s Loki has been one of the MCU’s more distinctive-looking series, though, from the dimly lit, industrial-brown corridors of Time Variance Authority HQ to the vivid neon city of Sharoo on the doomed moon Lamentis-1.

Series director Kate Herron confirms that some of these designs were directly inspired by classic science fiction, while others were more personal experimentation. We sat down with Loki’s cinematographer, Autumn Durald Arkapaw, to break down what went into designing some of the most striking and memorable sequences from the series’ first three episodes.

This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

Episode 1: Time Theater interrogations

Loki and Mobius face off at TVA headquarters in the premiere episode of Loki Photo: Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios

Autumn Durald Arkapaw: Kate [Herron]’s sensibilities led me to get the job in the first place. We shared those sensibilities, around noir films and more moody thrillers, so we were already on the same page as far as lighting and tone. So when it came to the Time Theater, Kasra [Farahani], the production designer, did a fantastic job of creating a space that had a lot of opportunity to feel textural and moody, and create symmetry. I’m big on symmetry. I like to frame center-punched, keeping in mind the architecture of the room, and framing for the architecture and the people at the same time. Stanley Kubrick does that very well. A Clockwork Orange obviously came up in our discussions. Some of our main references were David Fincher’s Zodiac and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and the original Blade Runner, in terms of creating spaces that feel strong and weighted, with the people in them placed in a way where the conversation feels very heavy, so you’re paying a lot of attention to the lines, and where your eyes are drawn.

We did some lighting changes above, in the Brutalist ceiling. The lights move, so when we’re cutting back and forth, you see the lights change on the actors. We’re trying to time those movements to the dialogue. The editing was fantastic with that scene. We shot a good amount of coverage, and [series stars Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Owen Wilson as Mobius] play in that space a lot. So we’re trying to always keep it interesting, every time they go back there, changing up the lighting and the projections. That’s probably one of my favorite spaces in the show.

And then the acting, obviously — they’re riffing off each other, and you’re in the room with them and feeling the energy. It was very exciting. That scene was up front in our schedule, so Owen and Tom were getting to know each other in general. We got to watch that happen before our eyes, and it was very comical.

One of the most noticable things about that space is the harsh, rectangular overhead spotlights — Tom Hiddleston starts his interrogation under a spotlight, and when he gets angry, he moves himself back under it. How did you discuss that kind of blocking and framing?

The thing with Tom is, he’s a genius. He’s just a fantastic actor, The amount of things I could say about how amazing he is on set, and character-wise, the list goes on and on. You can introduce marks and let actors know where you’d like them to be for a shot, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s where they’ll go. Some actors like to be more freeform. But with Tom, I wouldn’t have to say “Stand under that light.” He just knows, and he’ll play off that because of the space. He walks in, sees how it’s lit, knows our agenda, and uses that in the character.

So there were certain moments where he asked, “Is this what you’re thinking?” or we would have a discussion. But mostly, he uses the environment around him to tell the story as well, and he took in that lighting as part of the character. Actors know how they look in certain types of light. He’s very good at that. So he played with that in that space, for sure.

When we pull back and take in the whole room, the lighting feels punitive — the striped shadows are noir-movie standards, like light coming through blinds, but they also feel like prison bars. Is that something you discussed?

We never talked about prison bars, but in designing that space, Kasra was thinking about what that space was — being arrested, and being judged. It’s a claustrophobic space. Loki is slightly free to communicate and move around, but the walls and ceiling are concrete, there’s this fake light coming in, because obviously, in the TVA, there’s no day or night. You can see the light moving above, but there’s no sun there. It’s just moving at certain moments.

I had an idea, after seeing the latest Blade Runner, where Roger Deakins moves the lights around: Why don’t we have the lights move? It’s not easy to have big tungsten light sources above a ceiling set move like that, because it takes heavy motors. But my gaffer and key grip are amazing, and they figured out a way we could move the lights without causing shadows between each of the sections of lighting. It looks all like it’s moving at the same time. That took a lot of thought, getting those lights to move, and not just creating shafts of light that fade in and out. I think it helped a lot, because it’s very subtle. You’re only going to see it as they’re sitting. You’ll see sometimes the light moves from Owen’s shoulders into his eyes at the right moment, when you get lucky in the edit, and catch it at the right moment. It was great to have the resources to actually do stuff like that.

Episode 2: The Roxxcart Variant pursuit

Owen Wilson and Tom Hiddleston face off under the dim green lights of Roxxcart in Loki episode 2, as two TVA soldiers watch Photo: Chuck Zlotnick/Disney Plus

I’m a fan of green. If we’re designing a clinical environment, or a shopping mall, and we’ve got overhead fluorescents, I like to use cool white fluorescents that have kind of a green kick. I’m a big David Fincher fan, and there’s an undertone of green in his setups that I appreciate. So Roxxcart is a bigger shop that is now closed down, and Kasra outfitted it like a big-box Costco-type place? That wasn’t a full set — we went to this big warehouse, and he made it feel like that kind of store.

Above the space where we shot in, there were a bunch of fixtures. We completely removed those and put in our own tubes. They were RGB, and we could fade them and turn them off and on to our liking, flicker them, make them red when we wanted. When they’re cool white, I appreciate that green kick. I did a lookup-table color correction as well, to give it that tone. It’s meant to be clinical, but make you feel like you don’t know what’s at every turn. And we’re keeping lights on or off depending on which way we’re looking. Kate was a big fan of that space being very dark, with pockets of light. Our antagonist is supposed to come out of the darkness as people change identities.

We’re also trying to make that space look bigger than it actually was. We’re creating depth with light. That was a bitch to shoot — we had so much rigging. My team was amazing. If you go into a space like that, a Target or something, you’d think “The lighting here is not that big of a deal. It’s just overheads.” But being able to control all those overheads and make them different colors and flicker them takes a lot of rigging, with a dimmer board and the programming. In the editing afterward, it really does feel like a space that’s a lot bigger than it actually was. The red sequence is one of my favorites, for sure.

The camera is below waist level a lot in that sequence. What are you communicating there?

I always like to shoot low! It’s just how I see things. Some of my favorite films are detective thrillers from the past, Zodiac being one of those. I’ve always just loved shooting below the eyeline. Obviously there are moments in features I’ve shot where I want to be higher, because it’s more emotional or romantic or something. But in this kind of story, where you have these amazing spaces, and you have multiple characters you’re trying to frame, all facing off and being strong, I’m just a bigger fan of seeing a ceiling than a floor. It’s an appreciation I have, as far as it feeling more mysterious. When a character is looking more mysterious, and you’re not trusting them, you’re trying to figure them out, I love that kind of framing. It’s amazing.

Episode 3: Fighting to reach the Lamentis-1 ark

Loki and Sylvie (Tom Hiddleston and Sophia Di Martino) stride through the disintegrating neon city on Lamentis-1 in episode 3 of Loki Photo: Chuck Zlotnick/Disney Plus

That sequence has a great backstory. I did a lot of prep with Kate. We started prep in Los Angeles before we ended up in Atlanta. We knew that sequence was coming up. but in the script, it just says “Okay, so they end up at Sharoo, and then go on.” The description of that sequence went through an evolution, with the filmmakers discussing things, building the set, and collaborating, so early on, we spitballed about what we thought that could be. Having the support of Marvel and being able to build, and being able to do great stunts, we went bigger.

With the sequence as it evolved, Children of Men was a big reference for us. Kate was really interested in that feeling. She wanted to be with the characters the whole way. We tried to figure out, should the camera be handheld? Should it be Steadicam? We ended up with Steadicam. We looked at some previous oners, because we wanted this sequence to feel like a oner to the audience. Obviously, there are cuts in there, but we seamed certain shots together so the audience wouldn’t feel as though we cut. The intention was to feel like you’re on the run with Loki and Sylvie, racing to the ark, building up tension. You’re there with them as they’re fighting.

My husband’s a DP, and he shot True Detective season 1. That oner in True Detective was something we looked at as well, because it’s just one of those great oners that feels real and has those kinds of textural elements. We did pre-viz, we did rehearsals in the space, prior to shooting there. We went there a couple times and did camera rehearsals. We had an amazing Steadicam operator who I’ve worked with on my last four projects and features. He’s very in tune with my eye, and he’s great with those kind of moves. Kasra understood that we needed certain paths to go down, to help us get from point A to point B, so it feels like a run, it doesn’t feel like people keep entering the same space. Obviously, it’s hard to build really big sets where you can go very far. So he did a great job of knowing what we needed, and then adding stunts, and figuring out how we could feel like we were turning corners whenever we’re moving into different spaces.

How big was the physical space? How much of what we’re seeing there is digital?

Shiroo was very different from Roxxcart. At Roxxcart, we had blue at the end of the aisles, so they look like they’re going on a lot longer than they are. But we traveled to that space. It wasn’t built. Shiroo was built on a backlot. That was a set we had full control over, to build to our liking. Above a certain point, as you’re looking up at the buildings, that’s VFX. But we built the actual buildings up to a certain height, and then beyond that is a digital extension. As far as the depth as well, beyond a certain part of the street, it’s a digital extension. Obviously, the ark is an extension, and we’re using the explosions as cues to do a lot of lighting cues. But it was a very big set, a gorgeous set. It has a lot of texture.

Kasra had the idea of painting a lot of the set in black-light paint, which I’d never seen before, and putting black lights everywhere. Also, we had a bunch of units on top that lit the set for the moon color and those sources, and we had VFX helping us stitch it all together. We had to shoot the sequences and look at the overlays on set to make sure we were creating matchups that would work in the final edit.

For me, that’s a very successful collaboration of in-camera elements — that whole set was real — and having explosions on set along with lighting cues, and then the effects to seam it together and do the extension above and the depth. So everyone really had to play like a good chunk of that. But they’d be effects overall, I think taking what we shot and making it feel like something that big, you know, the buildings are falling. Obviously, we didn’t drop buildings on people. There’s some foam stuff. That was really fun. We shot all that stuff at night.

The camera work in that sequence is some of the most dynamic movement in the series. What was the most difficult part about coordinating that sequence for you?

Rehashing it now, it was the prep. When we were actually there in the space with Tom and Sylvie, running through all of this stuff, it really made sense by that time. We’d been pre-vizing it and reworking it and massaging it for so long that ultimately, once we got on the set and had to follow them with the camera, and the energy was going, and we had the extras there, it all fell together. I think one day, we even wrapped a little early, because we’d just nailed it. When you’re prepping those types of shots, in your mind, you’re always like, “This is gonna be hard, it’s going to be difficult to seam these together, I like perfect headroom.” And you also want it to feel real, and people have to jump and fly and tumble into the frame. But on the day, our execution ended up being pretty good. So that was the most surprising thing to me, because it was kind of a pain in the ass prepping, because there are so many elements. And we’re doing six episodes, so we’re always working, trying to chase the next prep. But it really fell into place nicely.