DoP Manuel Billeter on Jessica Jones

Manuel Billeter using the CRLS on Jessica Jones Season 3 

Manuel Billeter was raised on Italian cinema. Filmmakers like Federico Fellini and Bernardo Bertolucci strongly influenced his creativity – especially how to present both fantasy and reality. When he moved to New York, to pursue his career – he found a home in television, on shows like Law & Order, Person of Interest, and Orange is the New Black – working with established looks for long-running shows. When he became a cinematographer in 2009, he got to stretch his creativity – melding his youthful eye with superhero shows like Luke Cage and his current Netflix series (which he calls “a kind of dark noir”), Jessica Jones.  

“I’ve always been more interested in the art of filmmaking than in the technique,” he admits. “But the process of creating images with different tools and challenging myself with new approaches as they become available, are a big part of what I do as a cinematographer. New systems can open new paths of creativity.”

One such tool that allows him to bring this unique look to Jessica Jones is the CRLS (Cine Reflect Lighting System) designed by cinematographer Christian Berger and manufactured by long-time gaffer, Jakob Ballinger of The Light Bridge. “Reflective lighting has always interested me,” Billeter says. “Several years ago my agent mentioned that another client of hers had developed a new system. Since I’m a big admirer of director Michael Haneke’s films (shot by Christian Berger), I was naturally interested. I did my research – and played around with CRLS for a day. My gaffer, Tom Landi, and I were really pleased with the quality of light and the ease of handling.”

The CRLS reflectors are now a big part of the Billeter/Landi package. They’ve used them in practically every way possible and on a broad spectrum of light fixtures including ARRI T12 tungsten units, 5K Mole Richardson Beam Projectors, Source 4 Lekos, Dedo Lights and also practical sources. “Essentially you can use any light source – but the narrower the beam hitting the reflector, the more control you have over bounce-back and spill.”

Sometimes the team sets up a source outside of the set, bounces it into a primary reflector, and then picks up the bounce light with a secondary reflector inside, “into the path of the actors or even into a muslin bounce tacked onto a wall,” he explains. “The resulting light is very even, and very pleasing. The reflectors are intuitive to use, since they are very directional – in essence, they behave like a lamp; the slightest pan and tilt changes the shape of the light; not unlike with
PAR can lights, you can choose to bounce a horizontal or vertical light pattern into the scene – but unlike a crude par can, the light is soft, natural and pleasing – and the falloff is gradual. The amount of control you have over the light, without the need of any additional grip equipment to shape the light, is astounding.”

For Billeter, the CRLS reflectors are totally unique. It’s the four different grades, ranging from hard to soft, as well as the power and controllability (not just light bouncing off in every direction) that allows him so much more creativity. “They behave like a soft source with a narrow-angle honeycomb attached to it – yet they take up much less space, are easier to rig, and you don’t have to deal with electric cables,” he says. “In that sense, they are very time-saving, as you don’t need to set up many flags to cut the light.”

Soft, chiseled, directional sources. Moving quickly on a television schedule. More freedom of camera movement. What’s not to like about CRLS reflectors? “They have quickly become the best way to light – artistically and quickly,” Billeter says. “Tom and I wouldn’t go anywhere without them – no matter what the project.”