Season 2 of Loki just ended on Disney+, giving the god of mischief a fitting and dramatic end to his complicated story of interwoven timelines and self-discovery.
The second season saw several shifts in the show’s creative team, including cinematographer Isaac Bauman, who came in with a 700-page plan for the show’s visuals (yes, you read that correctly). The result was a gorgeous tapestry of ’70s-inspired cinematography within the TVA, tungsten-lit 1800s locales, and a rainbow-filled control room as timelines shattered in a void.
If you care about cinematography at all, you probably watched the show and asked, “How the heck did they do that?” I know I did.
You’re probably seeing edits on TikTok already featuring some of these beautiful shots, but we decided to Zoom with Bauman ourselves to ask how he got it done. If you’re looking for creative ways to show otherwordly light, you need to read this interview!
Marvel Studios’ Loki Season 2 | Official Trailer | Disney+
Editor’s note: the following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: I read that you came up with a 700-page bible for this season.
Isaac Bauman: That’s correct.
NFS: Can you talk about what was in that and what you used it for?
Bauman: The idea is—and this is an approach I bring to any given project, it’s just that Loki was such a large project—it required a more extensive and thorough breakdown. But the idea is that we want to create as distinctive a look for the show as possible, as bespoke, and customize a look as we can.
So what I do is break down every component of the cinematography. If you think about, just the optical side of things, there’s the choice of the set of lenses, there’s the choice of focal lengths for any given shot size. There’s the choice of the iris setting or aperture, the T stop. And there’s the choice of what diffusion to use or not use.
So just on the front of the camera, on the lens alone, there are four decisions you have to make. I take that process all the way through every single part of the production that I’m responsible for, and the look of the cinematography.
It’s the ISO and the LUT and the types of lights we use and the shot sizes and what focal lengths we use in the shot sizes and every single component of the cinematography, no matter how small it might seem, I delineate that out into its own section of this document and discuss what we’re going to do for Loki and why we’re going to do that and how that contributes to the big picture. Each of these things, each of these small components is meant to contribute to a unified and cohesive vision that creates a distinctive look for the cinematography as a whole.
It’s just an incredibly detailed breakdown of every single possible component of the cinematography that we have to make a decision about. And after that, not after as in linearly in the document, but the next big step really is how many different of these looks are we going to have?
There might not necessarily be a single look for the entire production. Because you might have one look. I like to call these things “Look.” When I say “Look,” I’m kind of saying it as if it had a capital L. There might be one Look for the TVA and an entirely different Look for the World’s Fair in 1893.
There are things that you want to bridge and share between those two looks. Then, there are things that you want to use to distinguish the looks from each other.
There is a section where all of the Looks, like the broader Looks, are delineated and kind of shown in comparison to each other and summarized in a way that makes it clear how they’re designed to play together and how they contribute to what I call the tapestry of Look, which is the overall macro overview of how the show will look as if you’re able to take stills from every different look and overlay them together on a light table or something like that.
Then, I do a breakdown for every set. I talk about how on any given set, there’s usually only going to be one look. Sometimes they’ll intersect, but generally, the Looks are delineated in such a way that you only see one of them at a time.
On each set, we’ll discuss what look we’re doing on that set and how we’re going to achieve it in that specific set. Then, we get into the nitty-gritty of what units are we going to use. Where are they going to be? I have a process for breaking down the lighting of each set, which I call the vocabulary of light and the “vernacular of light,” which is first you start with environmental lighting, like what light would naturally be on that set?
A page from Isaac Bauman’s 700-page Loki bibleCredit: Isaac Bauman
Is there daylight coming in the windows? Is there firelight or is there some kind of motivated practical lighting? Are there lamps or other fixtures on the set? Then, I talk about what we’re going to use for the key light. Maybe the key light is coming from the set. Maybe there’s something on the set that we could use for the key light.
There might be multiple sources of light on the set, which we’ve discussed. And then we talk about, well, which one of those are we going to emphasize for the key? Then, I just keep going. I could go on forever, but I just keep going down further and further. What’s going to play as a backlight? Is there there accent lighting, which is what is designed to light pieces of a set, but not characters? Is there depth lighting? So if there’s a big long corridor, you’ve got to make sure, even though no one ever goes down there, you have to make sure there’s something lighting [it]. You have to create depth.
A very common occurrence of depth lighting is outside at night in a city. You might have light-striking buildings in the background just to show that there’s something back there. There’s a sense of depth. So I have a system where every different type of light I discuss that you could possibly have on any set ever, every single one of them I discuss for every set that we have.
Sometimes. it’s just to say, “No, we’re not going to do [that]. There’s no need for depth lighting on this set,” but I take that vernacular of light and apply it to each set and discuss what lighting needs to occur on that set and then how we’ll achieve it on a technical level.
NFS: I do want to ask about one specific set because I am curious about how you worked on it. One place that really stood out in the TVA is the control room in front of the Loom. It feels brighter, and you have all these really pretty lens flares. So I’m just interested in your approach there. Was that a volume?
Bauman: That’s a great question. No one’s asked me specifically about this yet, and there’s a lot to discuss there. But it is not a volume. No. Marvel is very careful about when and when to not use the volume based on their past history with it. They’ve determined that it is a pool that serves a limited function. We never encountered something that the Marvel book would tell you it was worth using the volume for on Loki at all. There’s no volume. That set was a blue screen. It was a two-story set because you have the airlock below and then the gangway that extends out of the airlock.
All of that was built as one contiguous piece. So that airlock and that gangway and that control room, they’re all on the same set, which was great because it allowed a lot of interplay between those different spaces for the actors.
But that was tricky because we had to emulate the light of the Loom, which was undergoing I guess a process of overheating. There are too many timelines. They’re trying to jam through the Loom and it can’t accommodate them, and it’s overheating and there’s stages to that overheating.
It gets hotter and hotter and hotter until it finally explodes. So the biggest question there was how do we achieve that? How do we progress it and how do we make sure that whatever we decide on set doesn’t end up screwing us over later when they’re doing the VFX?
Behind the scenes of Loki, with Bauman’s lighting set-up in viewCredit: Isaac Bauman/Marvel
There were a lot of reflective surfaces on that set, which complicates the problem even further because it’s one thing to take the lights out of a window. It’s another to take them out of the glass on the floor where the character’s shadows are crossing through them and the floor is rippled.
The VFX supervisor, Chris Townsend, was very helpful the whole time that we were on that set and making sure we were doing what we needed to do. But basically, there were two positions of the lights. There was an array of lights that was directly outside of those windows, like feet away from those windows. Maybe one meter out from the windows.
There was an array of Vortex8 lights that filled the window entirely. There were enough lights … just imagine that entire window just filled with lights right outside of it. We used that for certain circumstances, and then there were multiple arrays of many more lights much further away down near the end of the gangway where the launcher pod was that we would also use at times. The advantage of the farther away lights was that they wouldn’t, because of the inverse square law, basically light falls off exponentially.
The far-away lights stay pretty consistent in terms of how bright they are. Because if you’re 50 feet from a light or 70 feet from a light, that’s not that big of a difference. That’s whatever percentage, 20% different. But if you’re the near lights, if you’re next to them, you’re one foot away from them or three feet away from them, and then you could be 20 feet away from them, that’s a huge difference. That shows up in how bright the lighting is.
The close lights were really difficult to work with because the actors that were close to them were super bright, and the actors that weren’t were really dark so that required a lot of negotiation and dimming up and down as actors approached and fell away from them. We used those lights when we needed to fill the whole space more with light because the disadvantage of the farther away lights was they got cut by the window too much because of that window’s shape.
Behind the scenes of Loki, with Bauman’s lighting set-up in viewCredit: Isaac Bauman/Marvel
When they’re really far away, that window creates a shadow. So all of the sides of the room suddenly aren’t getting hit with this bright light, where sometimes thematically, it needs to feel like the whole room is being filled with this wash of light.
You can’t get that with the far-away lights because the window, it just channels them into a fairly narrow shaft. So depending on the needs of the shot, we would have to alternate between the far-away lights and the close lights, which was they both pose their own challenges.
Then, there were the rainbow effects. I don’t know if you noticed this but you can see the rainbow passes over characters, which actually required a tremendous amount of development over the entire course of pre-production and well into production. We shot the temporal core control room in the second half of the shoot, and, basically, until the minute we had to start shooting it, we were playing around with this rainbow thing.
It was really hard to crack. There’s no light that you can order on the market that has an organic bent feeling rainbow pass over someone. Because if you take, for example, in Astera tube, in which a lot of people use the rainbow type of effects, all of those lights, you could set a whole rainbow on the tube.
You could have red, blue, green, and so on, and if you put it on a character, all of that light just combines together and it looks kind of white or vaguely warm or cool. So you don’t actually see a rainbow when you point a lot of colorful lights at someone.
You have to have a light that’s hard, and each color is kind of like its own light, but the lights are close enough together that it looks like it’s one light. We did a tremendous amount of testing, but we discovered there’s no way to really see a rainbow all at the same time where you’re seeing the full spectrum of the rainbow on a surface as small as someone’s face at once with multiple units.
There’s no way to sync up multiple units with different colors and have it look like diffraction because as light passes through glass or water or whatever, it actually does separate into these rainbow highlights, and we wanted to create that effect. It’s a very natural effect. Any given room you’re in where there’s direct sunlight coming through and there are mirrors and stuff, you’ll probably be able to find a little sliver of rainbows somewhere.
The disc Bauman’s team created to make natural rainbows on setCredit: Isaac Bauman
We ended up creating tiny little discs. The VFX department designed a rainbow for us in VFX software, which was a whole process, a lot of trial and error. We printed it at this one place in Italy on a tiny little glass disc that gets inserted into an LED mover light, like a concert lighting type of light, like a hard LED spotlight.
The rainbow disc was about not even an inch in diameter. It is super, super small, but when you print something that small there’s all in the light, and you have no idea by designing the pattern how it’s actually going to look when it’s projected onto a surface. It’s purely trial and error.
So it would take weeks to design something, get it to Italy, and have Italy send it back to us. It was like a two-and-a-half-week process. So we did as many iterations of this design and tested it. Each time we tested it, we tried to, it was a lot of guesswork. It was like, “Well, why isn’t it working this time? It could be this, it could be that.” We kind of had to piece together why it wasn’t working.
Eventually, we started to understand how the physics of it was working and what worked and what didn’t, and we just perfected it as much as we could.
Rainbows in Loki season 2Credit: Marvel Studios
NFS: For someone wanting to get into cinematography, what advice would you give them?
Bauman: My advice to cinematographers and aspiring filmmakers in general is to focus on finding a team that you’re compatible with. So for DPs, that means primarily finding a director that you are on the same level as career-wise, you have the same interests aesthetically, you love the same movies as, and you’re inspired by similar things.
Someone that you’re able to jam creatively with and you want to find as many of these people as you can.
For a DP, it all starts with finding that one director that they feel inspired by, and that together with you can create something bigger than the sum of your combined parts. You’re looking for that me plus you … it’s not one plus one equals two. You’re looking for one plus one equals 10. You want to find that person.
Loki Season 2 is now streaming in Disney+.