Taron Egerton as Jimmy Keene in Black Bird

Courtesy of Apple TV+

Paul Walter Hauser as Larry Hall and Taron Egerton as Jimmy Keene

Courtesy of Apple TV+

Ray Liotta as Big Jim Keene

Courtesy of Apple TV+

Sepideh Moafi as Lauren McCauley and Greg Kinnear as Brian Miller

Natalie Kingston

Natalie Kingston on the set of Black Bird

Courtesy of Apple TV+
Natalie Kingston

Natalie Kingston and Paul Walter Hauser on the set of Black Bird

Courtesy of Apple TV+
Black Bird

The pastel set of Black Bird

Courtesy of Apple TV+
Fill 1
Fill 1
July 08, 2022
Online Originals

Natalie Kingston Helps Black Bird Soar

The cinematographer keeps it real — and pastel — in the Apple TV+ crime drama starring Taron Egerton.

Libby Slate

A maximum-security prison painted in pastels? Yes, indeed: a 1979 study found that pink, especially, has a soothing effect on inmates, and photographer Gordon Parks's 1957 photo essay The Atmosphere of Crime showed images of prisons in several U.S. cities in subdued pastel hues.

The Parks photos in particular inspired Natalie Kingston, cinematographer for the Apple TV+ crime drama Black Bird, when deciding on the look for the six-episode limited series. The show, which begins streaming July 8, tells the real-life story of Jimmy Keene, a charismatic former high school football star sentenced to a ten-year prison term in 1996 for drug dealing and gun possession.

But he's offered a deal: move to a far more dangerous prison, use his charms to befriend a suspected serial killer and elicit a murder confession — in exchange for his freedom. Taron Egerton stars as Keene and Paul Walter Hauser as suspect Larry Hall; Ray Liotta, in one of his last roles, plays Keene's father, a retired cop. (The actor passed away earlier this year during the filming of the movie Dangerous Waters.)

"It's based on a true story, so I wanted to keep everything grounded in naturalism, and then elevate that, taking it to a place that is very gritty and dark and full of rich contrasts," says Kingston, who had been the cinematographer for documentaries (Bathtubs Over Broadway), short films (Si, for which she won a cinematography award at the New Orleans Film Festival) and Billie Eilish music videos (You Should See Me in a Crown - Live Performance). "That realism and that visceral feeling create more tension; it's scarier."

The Parks work, she says, "became the thesis for the cinematography. It really informed a lot of the look. It's all real. And the way he captured the available light is very expressive." She used the subdued color palette to maximum dramatic effect: "The crazy, creepy relationship between these two prisoners, one being a serial killer, against this pastel pink and green backdrop? That juxtaposition is very intriguing."

Kingston unexpectedly found herself spending time with Liotta, who liked to hang around the set when he'd finished rehearsing. "My first reaction was intimidation, because he'd done so many iconic roles, but he was so warm and gentle inside, when you got to know him," she reflects. "It seemed like he really enjoyed the process of filmmaking. He would stay and ask questions, about how was I lighting something, or what diffusion was I using? He was really interested in all aspects of the filmmaking. It was really cool having him there with the crew."

Black Bird takes place in the Midwest but was shot in New Orleans, about 150 miles from the small town of New Iberia, Louisiana, where Kingston was born and raised. It was there that she first became aware of the concept of creating moving images, when her parents bought a VCR and camcorder.

"I got my hands on the camcorder. I was just infatuated with it," she recalls. "I would go to the library, to the children's section, and check out these stageplay books and convert those into little movies and film them. That's where I caught the bug. I didn't know anything about filmmaking, or even what a cinematographer was, but I was obsessed with the idea that you could record these images and then show them back to people and tell a story."

After college she learned how to operate a professional camera and to direct and edit at a TV station. Working on film sets as a camera assistant, she decided to pursue a career as a cinematographer. Much of her work has been in Louisiana, including projects with her husband, DP-turned-director Brian C. Miller Richard.

Louisiana itself is an important factor in her filmmaking, Kingston says. The heat and humidity add a thickness to the air, creating a texture that she tries to incorporate in her visuals, while the deep sense of soul in the people of New Orleans adds a humanity to her images. "It doesn't ever feel manufactured," she says. "It feels rich with soul."

Indeed, while she's now based in Los Angeles, living in New Orleans has left a permanent mark. "The people there aren't trying to impress others; they're just themselves," Kingston says. "I try to always stick to that in my work, and remember the idea of, I can only be me, and I have to do it unapologetically. That always inspires me."

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