The Subtle and Cinematic Visual Language Supporting Max’s Hacks
June 12th, 2024

Season 3 of Max’s award-winning Hacks echoes the original pilot with an audacious tracking shot following the sequinned back of a blonde coiffured performer as they make their way into the heart of Ceasars Palace before the vanity of the moment is deliciously undercut.

Created by Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky for HBO Max, Hacks continues the odd couple dynamic between legendary Las Vegas comedian Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and Ava (Hannah Einbinder), the up-and-coming writer she takes under her wing.

“From our earliest conversations Lucia, Paul, Jen and I agreed that just because this is a half-hour comedy, it doesn’t have to look like a classic sitcom,” says Hacks’ Cinematographer Adam Bricker, ASC who has photographed the seriesfrom the beginning.

Bricker’s work has garnered two Emmy nominations (for Season 1 episode ‘Primm’ and Season 2’s ‘The Click’), and ASC Award nominations (for Season 1’s ‘There Is No Line’ and also the ‘The Click’).

“The script and the performances are so funny on their own that the visuals don't need to emphasize them any further. It freed Lucia and I to develop a look that's totally based on where the characters are emotionally."

For the first season, Bricker selected the Panavision DXL2 with the RED MONSTRO 8K VV sensor, but when the second instalment shifted its story from grandiose Vegas spaces to gritty bars and a tour bus, he needed a camera with a smaller footprint. The RED V-RAPTOR, a camera that had just been released, fit the bill because it deployed the same size sensor but in a body about a third the size of the DXL2.

"We were more than thrilled with the V-RAPTOR from just a size perspective, but then I was blown away with the camera itself," Bricker says. "It was so fun to shoot on and I knew it would be perfect for Season 3."

The show has a HDR finish, and Bricker works assiduously with his lighting team and DIT Tyler Goeckner-Zoeller to preserve detail in the highlights.

"I found that the V-RAPTOR has impressive latitude and really nice roll off," he says. "Not only was I getting the small form factor, but I was also getting a camera that captured beautiful images, making my job easier."

Adam Bricker, ASC on set

Consistency of look continues with the reunion of V-RAPTOR and Primo 70 lenses.

"The idea was to find a look that would harken back to Deborah's heyday while staying grounded in the present. It's a story about a generational clash, so it was fun to pair the vintage qualities of the glass with a modern digital sensor."

The Primo 70s were heavily detuned at Panavision Hollywood to Bricker’s specifications in a collaborative process during which he was able to make minute adjustments, for instance to halation or flare.

“Rik DeLisle and Guy McVicker of Panavision Hollywood have been wonderful collaborators and really believed in the show from the start,” Bricker says.

With the show creators, Bricker had drawn on Steven Soderbergh films Oceans 11 and Behind the Candelabra for Hacks’ cinematic take on Sin City as well as Judy Garland biopic Judy and classic photos of Vegas for color palette and composition.

"For Season 1, we had a wide array of outside references as we tried to develop the show's visual language. But once that was in place, our references for Season 3 really became our own previous work on the first two seasons," Bricker explains.

Episode 6 of the latest season, ‘Par for the Course,’ is set on a golf course in Reno, where Vance is trying to curry favor with regional TV executives in a bid to host a late-night talk show.

“Having developed a look which was intended to convey the smoky atmosphere of Las Vegas comedy clubs I never imagined having to take that and make it applicable to a regional golf tournament,” Bricker grins. “It’s been a fun journey trying to figure out how we can keep the visuals cohesive as the world expands and goes in directions that we could never imagine when we started off.”

Hannah Einbinder and Jean Smart on set

Hacks is shot with three to four cameras, but the cinematographic approach is closer to that of a single-camera show.

Having multiple camera bodies dates back to the first season which was produced under Covid conditions and provided some insurance for continuity of schedule should an operator test positive. Since then, Bricker’s access to multiple REDs has become integral to the whole visual language.

"We typically use our A and B cameras to cover a medium and a close-up shot, leaving our C camera operator Charlie Panian free to find interesting compositions, things that weren't shot listed or storyboarded. Charlie always comes back with wonderfully cinematic frames, many of which are among my favorite shots in the show."

The camera movement is also used to keep the show feeling grounded. "Lucia and I strive to keep it as naturalistic and real as possible, so we shoot a lot of handheld. Our operators do a great job of being restrained and motivated by the actors’ movement, just enough to feel some degree of spontaneity. The fun thing about shooting handheld is that when you switch it up and move away from it, the audience really feels the change."

Jean Smart on set

Every episode has been graded by Shane Reed who runs color shop MOM&POP.

“He and I have been collaborating for over a decade now,” says Bricker, who supervises. “Shane has colored essentially everything that I have ever done. He is a key collaborator in my workflow, and I am so proud of his grade. It’s absolutely beautiful.”

The opening shot of Season 3 is a two-minute oner that glides over the Las Vegas Strip before plunging the viewer into the lively action of the casino floor.

The most challenging aspect of the shot was the transition from aerial drone to handheld gimbal.

Ben Ellingson piloted the drone down the Strip. Bricker recounts that as it descended toward the casino entrance, operator Daniel Perrier, who had been hiding off-camera behind a car in the valet, ran out and caught the drone in one fluid motion. Perrier continued the remainder of the shot through the casino floor using the drone as a gimbal.

Las Vegas

"I'll be honest,” Bricker admits, "I wasn't sure it was going to work. But these guys were so elegant in their execution that the handoff was seamless.”

Coincidentally, the opening shot of the season was the last shot on the production schedule.

"It was five in the morning, and we'd done probably a dozen takes involving this complicated handoff, hundreds of extras, just so many moving parts. When we nailed it right before sunrise, everyone cheered, and that was a wrap on Season 3."