Q&A with Manny Tapia, Gaffer behind the LA unit of “Barbie,” and over 65 other notable films and episodic.
Since Manny Tapia’s impressive career in film began in mid-90s, and since then he worked on some of the most notable productions, with highlights including 2nd unit of “Barbie,” “Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” “Neon Demon,” and “Booksmart.” Throughout his career, Tapia has witnessed the evolution of lighting and rigging technology, adapting to new advancements such as wireless dimming and fixture control.
How did you get started in film?
I got started in film in the mid 90’s. I wanted to be a journalist, and part of my classes at LA Valley College also involved radio and TV. Radio wasn’t good for me, but I always loved cinema and TV. Part of my AA requirements was taking an internship. I decided to take the internship at ch. 52 Telemundo, a Spanish TV station. It was a daily variety show, and my job was to get musical acts, political personalities, restauranteurs, artists, and any other hot-topic people to come to our set to be filmed in our small studio. Other parts of my job detail included getting coffee, logging videotapes, and other PA-style duties. I did it for free for a couple of semesters. Finally, in 1995, the producer from that show set me up with a producer friend who was looking for a PA to help film on a 3-week traveling show for ESPN. We flew to Ottawa, Canada, and followed this antique car rally to Mexico City. I was on a 3-man crew (me, DP, and a sound guy), and I was the driver, PA, runner, etc. It was a great experience and the first time I was paid for my work.
Through that show, I met a talented DP named Tom McDonald, with whom I would later work on many projects as an electrician. The internship and this ESPN job opened my eyes to the world of film/TV. After Valley College, I changed majors and knew the film was for me.
I went to CSUN and, in 1996, graduated from the Radio-TV-Film (RTVF)program with a BA in Film Production. While at the university, we learned history and theory, but I also shot several 16mm projects of my own and for classmates. We shot and spliced/edited our films on old moviola tables. Very rudimentary today, but it was an awesome experience I would never change.
My cinematography professor was a working DP on independent features, commercials, etc. He allowed our class to visit his sets and work as a non-paid intern aka PAs. Through these freebies, I made several contacts in the movie industry. I generally gravitated towards the G&E departments, learned the basics of the equipment, and started putting gear to use on set. I’d grip or be an electrician or be a swing; whatever it was, I would do. Of course, they taught me and saw that I was resilient and hard-working. Not everyone is cut out for this. So then those various contacts would bring me on to their non-union sets where I could make $0 to $150/day; it didn’t matter.
I was addicted to being on set, so I’d jump at any opportunity to help where possible. Free or paid. I soaked up as much as I could through them and via film school. At the same time, I was finishing school, had a normal full-time job, got married, and had my daughter at 22 years old. I met enough people, and I worked in the non-union world for about four years as much as I could. I worked on student projects, deferred pay shows, and freebies and eventually got my break on a lower budget feature that turned union. I got my feature days and joined Local 728, set lighting technicians union.
What were some of your favorite films to work on?
All of them! Haha. Some of my favorite films to work on have been the ones that challenge me as a gaffer and push the limits of what I’ve done. So cliché!
I’ve had a few of those where we don’t have money to do certain things, so we come up with creative solutions, but on the flip side of things, it’s fun to have a decent budget and have new tech/ toys to experiment and try a different approach. We don’t always have that luxury, so you collaborate with the DP, formulate plans, and problem-solve.
“Neon Demon” and “Booksmart” were challenging because of their lower-budget nature. Both films had younger actors but needed to look beautiful and have some pop.
“Some of my favorite films to work on have been the ones that challenge me as a gaffer and push the limits of what I’ve done.””Neon Demon” was challenging because we didn’t have all the tech yet. The DP Natasha Braier and Director Nicolas Refn wanted to really push the color boundaries, so we did.
Full spectrum LED lights were just breaking the market and expensive to rent, so we had to have Litegear fabricate full-color Litemats for me. We called them Manny Mats and used them all the time in that film. They were special in that we had hybrid LED and RGBA channels, which was a new thing (at least for me) at the time.
ARRI SkyPanels and Asteras hadn’t been released yet, so Digital Sputniks and lots of colored gel on lights (HMI and tungsten units) were how we did a lot of the deep color and saturation for that film. It was a bit of an “old school approach “with gel on lights, but that’s how I was taught, so I was very familiar with that—coming up in film, that was the only way to do it.
“Booksmart” was also very colorful and budget-challenged. Jason McCormick was the DP on that one, and we have a great shorthand together as we have worked together for many years, even before we were the heads of our respective departments—he as an assistant, and myself as a BB making my way up.
In “Booksmart,” there was a very challenging fantasy dance sequence that had a lot of lighting cues and had to be spot on. They unfortunately trimmed the sequence in the edit, but it took us 9 attempts, and we nailed it, and I believe it looked great.
“”Booksmart”, there was a very challenging fantasy dance sequence.”
Share the highlights of your impressive career with over 65 IMDb credits on notable film, music video, and TV projects, including the LA unit of “Barbie” and “Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.”
“Barbie” was a very cool project because of its culture/history and also being able to work with Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto on a long-form project. This feature had a large-scale vibe, so it was a good one to be a part of. I knew it would be a hit because of all the talent/crew attached.
The Principal Photography for “Barbie” was mainly done in a studio in England. The set was massive, and Rodrigo/ Lee Walters (Gaffer) and his crew did an amazing job with the look/lighting rig. I was a part of two separate additional/ reshoots for the film in Los Angeles.
Rodrigo Prieto was the main DP on one and Mandy Walker was the DP on the other. For Rodrigo’s portion, we shot a lot of locations for “Barbie’s” real world in Venice / Downtown / Century City. For Mandy’s additional / reshoots, we shot principally on a WB stage.
Since we only had a few weeks to prep/rig the reshoots, we were tasked with matching their look but on a much smaller scale. We built 8-10 sets on the one stage, and so we had to formulate a lighting plan that could work for everything but also where we could fit in the one stage.
We were given access to a showfile (dimmer board operator) and lots of photos/footage, and by dissecting that, we could match as best we could. I emailed Lee countless times to clarify things, and he was very helpful the whole way. I’ve done several reshoots, and it’s always a chore to get notes/info as most of the crew has moved on and has since done multiple projects. It’s easy to forget the specifics without detailed notes. Especially when you don’t have the budget to have a person assigned to take detailed lighting notes and pics, it’s a very crucial position, but it also adds a cost, and lots of times, production doesn’t want to incur that cost.
Overall, I think we did an amazing job considering the circumstances and timeframe. And the film has surpassed a billion dollars!
“We were given access to a showfile (dimmer board operator) and lots of photos/footage, and by dissecting that, we could match as best we could.”
“Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story Limited Series” was a wild one. My dear friend Jason McCormick was the main DP on this 10-part limited series show. From the beginning, I was curious about this story and how we could approach it differently than anything I had ever done. We wanted it moody and dark, yet still needed to be stunning visually. I did a lot of research on films, paintings, etc., and created a huge mood board for myself and Jason. It was a period piece, so we chose to use lots of sodium and mercury vapor fixtures and that muted color palette. Of course, the production design and costumes helped sell the vibe, but from the start, we were told that “lighting and camera” would be a huge part of selling this piece. Because of the awful nature of the true story/crime, we couldn’t beautify it but simply just make pretty imagery. That’s what we tried to do every day. I took this job very seriously and gave it my all to it.”
“Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story Limited Series” Trailer. “We wanted it moody and dark, yet still needed to be stunning visually. I did a lot of research on films, paintings, etc., and created a huge mood board for myself and Jason. It was a period piece, so we chose to use lots of sodium and mercury vapor fixtures and that muted color palette.”
There was a challenging sequence in episode 1 where one of our actors gets away from Dahmer and runs down the street. We had lights everywhere on cues and period-correct streetlights” cobra heads modified with 2k tungsten bulbs on dimmers) that my Rigging Gaffer Tim Durr had gelled with a Hi sodium gel. We used fluorescents and period-correct lights on camera as much as we could. We also used covered wagons a bunch. In most of our practicals, especially in Dahmers and grandma’s apartments, we used traditional bulbs, not LED.
How has lighting and rigging technology revolutionized since the beginning of your career?
It has changed dramatically. Everything was shot on film, and now at least 75% is digital. Everything is expected to be instant and needs to be that way because that’s how our technology is. We text and expect quick answers in the world these days. We search for information on our phones, and it’s right there.
With that need for quickness out Lighting changes/setups, which took an hour, are now delivered in 20-30 minutes. It was much more labor-intensive, but now we have way more lighting choices. We can now use automated lights; almost every light can dim or change color, and sadly, a lot of the lights we use. They are only operated by an LCP back at their console. I miss that we could switch on a light, and my electricians would actually “operate” a light and be “technicians.” They still are and still do a lot, but their techniques and knowledge have shifted a bit. They still need to be trained as SLTs and know about distro/electricity and how to troubleshoot electrical issues, but they also have to be able to navigate all the techy stuff as well. And they have to pay attention and not be distracted by that same technology! If someone wants to be a gaffer, they need to listen and be close to the action.
Everything has become wireless, full spectrum, multiple universes, faster dimming, and color control on set. It takes much more prep time and crew to rig and set up, but ultimately, it buys me and the DP control and efficiency on set. A Fixtures crew has become the new norm on sets. They are an integral part of wiring practicals, installing a network, and doing all that techy stuff that needs to happen for all the tech to function.
In the past, we had to swap HMI to tungsten for night sequences or bulbs in Kino Flos or change gels on lights. Now I just radio to my LCP, and he pushes a few buttons, and things change.
The wireless dimming and fixture control is insane. The scale can change from a wireless setup with an iPad with two universes to several dimmer boards, operators and multi-networks with hundreds of universes.
It looks like some of the films you work on, such as “Barbie,” were filmed in several countries. How does the communication between gaffers look like to ensure consistency?
Sometimes, it’s phone calls, zooms, or countless emails to get detailed lighting plots/ show files. Sometimes I know the other gaffer, and most times I don’t. The gaffers I’ve dealt with have always been willing to share. Even if it’s just pics off their phone or doodled notes. Any info is great info. Sometimes, there’s a book with lighting notes or digital notes that someone has been tracking during the shoot. Having the original footage is the part that’s usually the toughest to have access to because of all the security barriers.
Please describe your collaboration process with Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto Gaffer Lee Walters?
For Lee, it was just emails with specific questions when I couldn’t figure out certain details with lighting, or at times, they used “nicknames “for lights, so I needed some clarity. I’ve worked with Rodrigo on and off for over 15 years, so I’ve learned a little bit about how he likes things and his nuances.
He’s a perfectionist, well prepared, and it shows in all his work. His process is precise, and he’s very thoughtful when composing frames and always has a general plan. Meaning he allows us room for lighting whenever he can. We collaborate on the tone, and he’s open to suggestions on the tools as long as they achieve the look he’s going for.
What scene was the most challenging to light?
None were super challenging, but there were many moving parts, and we didn’t build out a whole stage of lighting with all the intricate rigs as they did in England for the principal. With the smaller rig, it was a little more complicated to match exactly what the 1st unit did months before in a totally different environment and in a very limited amount of time. Even with the same camera and lens, same camera settings, all the dimmer console lighting notes, and using all the pics and references, it was tough to match “Ken’s dance sequence.” The complication was that there were lots of subtle color shifts in overhead lights, disco ball lighting, automated moving lights (with specific gobos) swirling around, and there was ambient lighting from Barbie’s home that we didn’t have for our reshoot. Ultimately, we got close on the match, but it just took some time and trying things to get it.
There was also a “god’s light scene” with Margot and Rhea Perlman, where subtle color gradations were shot in a white environment. We had to fish around to get that right. We didn’t have the LED walls and big sources/media server, etc., they had on the original shoot. We matched their background by having my Board Op, Chris Pritzlaff, generate various color elements to run through S360’s and Vortex 8 lights, all in pixel mode. It took a lot of work to get it right. For the hands and faces, we used Litemat Spectrums. We also had S60 space lights overhead for a subtle top fill and S360s again through the magic cloth.
What type of fixtures did you use and why?
We used Litegear Auroras for the overhead color shift, we used lots of S360s thru Magic Cloth for our bigger soft color shifts, we used BMFL spot (moving lights) to hit the disco balls and give us eye candy, and SkyPanels S60 for blue screens. In addition, we used day greys/ bleached Muslins here and there for fill.
What gear did you use to power lights and manage data? Did you use any of the Ratpac Control products?
My rigging Gaffer, Tim Durr, deployed all kinds of Ratpac products, mainly PDBs, 12x200w dimmers, 6 x 2.4K dimmers and the 24k dimmers.
What other products do you use to build the complete lighting systems setup?
Also, we used Cintennas on some of our wireless units, some Astera transmitters, and some Swisson equipment here and there.
Do you have a favorite style, technology, or work method that you consistently incorporate into your films?
Every film is unique, and I’m constantly refining my tech as it has changed dramatically in the last 6-8 years. The biggest change is trusting and using wireless more and more. Before, there could be bigger latency issues or delays, and that could be frustrating to see, but little by little, I’ve been convinced it’s a solid system and has its application. I still prefer to go hardline as much as possible, but I am more open to letting the tech do its job.
Feel free to add anything you wish to share.
I’m very grateful for this life and thankful that I chose this industry. It has given me everything I have, financially and mentally, and made me who I am. It’s a tough business to be in because of the time away from family/friends, but all in all, it’s a very unique job, and not everyone gets to visit the places and film at all these odd locations. I’m a small part of the Hollywood magic and get to work with all these famous actors and sports stars, musicians, and artists in these amazing locations all over the world and get paid for doing something I love. I truly love what I do and wake up daily grateful, but I know that I have sacrificed and worked hard to be in this position.
Photos credit: Manny Tapia