Manifest DP Sarah Cawley talks making the callings stand out and more

MANIFEST -- "Contrails" Episode 111 -- Pictured: (l-r) Josh Dallas as Ben Stone, Melissa Roxburgh as Michaela Stone -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/ Warner Brothers)
MANIFEST -- "Contrails" Episode 111 -- Pictured: (l-r) Josh Dallas as Ben Stone, Melissa Roxburgh as Michaela Stone -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/ Warner Brothers) /

Manifest has a new Director of Photography for Season 2. Sarah Cawley has taken over, bringing a new look to the callings.

Throughout Manifest Season 1, it was sometimes difficult to tell the difference between a calling and the normal storytelling. Sarah Cawley has taken over as Director of Photography for the second season, bringing a new look and feel to the series.

She talks exclusively with Hidden Remote about the series and the changes she made. Not sure what a Director of Photography is responsible for? She also breaks down her tasks. And there are a lot!

Hidden Remote: Some people will know little about what goes into the role as DP. What’s your role in the cinematography on Manifest?

Sarah Cawley: The DP is on the job weeks before the show starts filming. We hire the key creative people, which is an important step.

After that, we start with the rigging and lighting and creating the options for standing sets, which in Manifest are the police precinct, the Stone home, etc.

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While that’s happening, the DP will prep with the director, whoever directs the first episode of the season, to help set the tone for the season while aligning it with the established look for the show. We’ll test a number of different looks to see how they work for specific scenes, so we know which mode we’ll be in.

There’s the lighting as well, and location scouting. At first, I’ll look at the scenes and look for locations for them, then I’ll look with the tech scout to see where vehicles can be parked and if there is any special lighting needed.

Then it’s time to shoot. That’s the part most people are familiar with. The DPs run the lighting and camera side, work with the directors to get the right shot, pick the shots and lighting for the shots. We man the people to get the best work on the TV schedule.

HR: And it’s a tight schedule.

Cawley: It feels like they’re getting shorter.

HR: How many days does it take to film an episode of Manifest?

Cawley: It’s eight to nine days of prep and then about nine days of shooting.

HR: You’ve come into this for the second season. What’s it been like developing on from your predecessor, keeping some elements similar for the audiences but making your own mark? How have you done this?

Cawley: The first thing I did was to watch the whole first season. It was pretty naturalistic and fairly straight forward. Then, once I was on board, I had conversations with the key creatives and the showrunner. It was a lengthy meeting to get the priorities and goals for Season 2. It was a little bit of a reboot, so they were open to a more stylized approach.

Some of the content I viewed as more expressionistic, such as being immersed into the callings. I’d make suggestions to see if people liked my idea, and they did, so it was then time to test things. We tested the lenses, the grip rig, everything. A lot of the process for Season 2 was to see where the visual language could grow.

I wanted to see how we could make the show more dynamic and contrast with the big set pieces with the slower moments.

Photo: Sarah Cawley.. Image Courtesy Tai Lam
Photo: Sarah Cawley.. Image Courtesy Tai Lam /

HR: Manifest Season 2 is bringing this interesting view of the plane crashing. What steps did it take to create what could be a calling but could also be what really happened?

Cawley: Joe Chapelle, Manifest’s producer, directed Episode 1. We crafted the look of Season 2 together, agreeing that the naturalistic style of the callings was something we could grow on and improve.

I used the word subjective as we looked into their minds. It’s hard for me to understand what’s going on, and we needed things to be more stylized and bizarre.

We used a lens called the Lens Baby, which we kept with us at all times. Whenever someone was having a calling, as the audience, you’re signaled with it by the blurriness on the outside of your screen.

HR: Was there anything from the first season that you kept?

Cawley: All the standing sets were basically the same, and we kept the same lighting for the same look. These are all touchstones for the show, so we have to keep them going to create that environment.

The way we covered it varies throughout Manifest Season 2. Things will start to blur, and you’ll start to struggle with what’s a calling and what’s real.

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HR: Oh, that’s interesting! Something I know is tricky for TV is on-location shoots. You do a lot outside on Manifest. What’s that like trying to manage all that natural light?

Cawley: Shooting the exterior in New York City is tough because the weather changes so dramatically during the day. And on top of that, we’re in Manhattan a lot. The skyscrapers cause shadows that come and go. After I got this job, I tried as hard as I could to pick locations where I wouldn’t have to use big overhead silks to stop the shadows and light.

It’s a tough schedule. It’s possible to control light with equipment but that takes time that we don’t usually have on a TV shoot. When I scout, I try to put the scenes in order to match the time of day we’ll be filming. That’s when you have to be on your toes prior to the tech scout, and it does take talent and experience to arrange it all.

Even inside can be just as difficult with the windows.

HR: Is there anything in particular in Manifest Season 2 from your work that you’re especially looking forward to play out on the screen? (without spoilers).

Cawley: All the episodes were great and a challenge, but Manifest Season 2, Episode 7 is very exciting in terms of action. There are a number of big set pieces, and it was a challenge for me to do. I think we were totally victorious.

The episode is like a midseason peek episode, where there’s a lot of great narrative and cinematography. I can’t wait for viewers to see that.

And, of course, the season finale. A ton of effort went into that, and it definitely had its challenges for specialty work.

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What are you looking forward to learning in Manifest Season 2? What do you think of the new look to the callings? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Manifest Season 2 airs Mondays at 10/9c on NBC.