The Big Picture
- Cinematographer Nicole Whitaker had prior exposure to One Piece through her son and was excited to work on the project due to her personal attachment to the franchise.
- Whitaker and director Marc Jobst aimed to create a visually distinctive adaptation of One Piece that combined elements from both the manga and anime while adding their own unique touch to the visuals.
- The production team developed special mini-lenses called MiniHawks specifically for the show, allowing them to achieve the desired close-up shots while maintaining a sense of depth and focus on the background. Whitaker particularly enjoyed shooting Buggy the Clown’s scenes.
When tackling a project as visually distinctive as One Piece, which has existed as both a manga and an anime for over 20 years, the challenge for creators becomes one of visually setting it apart from its predecessors. Enter cinematographer Nicole Whitaker, Director of Photography for One Piece, whose storied career and experience across genres makes her a fantastic candidate to capture the high seas adventures of Luffy (Iñaki Godoy), Zoro (Mackenyu), Nami (Emily Rudd), Usopp (Jacob Romero), and Sanji (Taz Skylar).
In this one-on-one interview with Collider’s Arezou Amin, Whitaker talks about her history with the One Piece franchise and what it felt like taking on a project with so much expectation attached. She also talks about having special mini-lenses built for the Netflix series, the process of jumping between genres, and why Buggy the Clown is her favorite character to film.
COLLIDER: What is it that drew you to the project?
NICOLE WHITAKER: I had worked with the director [Marc Jobst] on another project called Jupiter’s Legacy. We shot the finale together for that show, and we just had an amazing time working together, had a real bond as filmmakers, and when he was approached about doing One Piece, he reached out to me to shoot it for him.
Had you had any prior exposure to the manga or the anime before singing on?
WHITAKER: Yes, I was just telling someone else about this. To make a long story short, my older son was addicted to One Piece, so I grew up as a parent watching probably 900 episodes of the show. He read every book in Japanese, learned Japanese, dressed up like Luffy every year for Halloween, and now has a tattoo of Trafalgar Law on his chest. So I am immersed in One Piece, and my kids were so excited when I got this show. They came to South Africa to visit, and it’s beyond part of my family and my whole life growing up as a parent, so [laughs], yes.
I love that!
WHITAKER: I knew more about the show, probably, than anybody else who would have been hired.
It was full immersion, then, going right into the project.
WHITAKER: Full immersion!
With this being a manga and an anime already, both of them are so beloved, and they’re both very distinct in their visual style, was there temptation to draw on inspiration from that style, or rather was this a, “Let’s make it new, and its own thing?”
WHITAKER: No. So it was kind of twofold. Marc [Jobst] and I, both loving the manga and the anime separately, we decided to take cues from both of them—mostly from the manga, for sure—and just to be respectful of what we knew [Eiichiro] Oda would want to do in terms of the different canons for the different characters. We didn’t want to make it a complete redo adaptation of anything. We wanted to put something new into it because one of the things to me, when people remake things, is if you don’t add a piece of your own stamp to it then you’re just showing the same thing that people have seen over and over again. What’s the point, right?
So the thing that was fun for us was we wanted to basically take the manga and make a grounded version of it because, obviously, it’s super fantastical and unrealistic, and make it something that people could relate to and relate to the characters. Because, at the heart of the story, One Piece is about family and about relationships. I think that was, for both of us, he and I felt like that part of the story was what we wanted to convey, especially in the first two episodes. Then it gets crazy afer that [laughs], for sure, but just to draw people in.
Were there other stories, media, visual guides and references that you looked to in putting the show together?
WHITAKER: We found different artists, photographers, and films that we drew inspiration from. We found a photographer that we both love named Jimmy Nelson, who had done a lot of photography in Africa and around the world, that we drew a lot of color references from. [We] just kind of compiled images from things that we loved. I mean, we worked on the project for a year and a half before we started, so we had lots of conversations, and he and I had multiple lookbooks. So, before we started shooting, we came in with a real distinctive look. We had lenses built especially for the show from scratch. It was really from the ground up, then boots on the ground in South Africa for four months before we started shooting doing lots of testing to figure out the look of the show.
I want to dive into the lenses built specifically for this, if you could elaborate on that?
WHITAKER: We had used them on Jupiter’s Legacy, the show we did together; they were called MiniHawks. I knew going into the show he and I both wanted to shoot anamorphic, but the nature of manga is things are very close and tight, so you can start close in on people’s faces and other people, but then throw focus to the background. So, we approached Hawk and asked if they could build a large format version of those lenses, and they were like, “Oh my gosh, that’ll take us nine months,” and we said, “We have six.” They dove in, Netflix approved it, and they built the lenses for us, which is incredible. I mean, it took a lot of convincing, and I don’t blame anybody for not trusting us because we didn’t see them until two weeks before we started shooting [laughs], but I trusted Hawk. I’d done five projects with them, and I knew that they would come through, and I really appreciated Netflix getting on board and having them made for us, which is incredible.
Was there an episode or a sequence that felt particularly challenging from your perspective?
WHITAKER: I would say more in a general sense, just the exteriors of the show, because it’s a lot easier when you can control lighting, especially when you’re dealing with things that are dramatic or dark or scary. We had a lot of practical locations and a lot of exteriors on boats and things during the day, and it’s really tricky to keep those consistent day by day, so that was the most challenging thing for me on this show, but it was also kind of fun to figure it out.
Then on the flip side, maybe this ties into it, is there an episode or a sequence you are most excited for people to experience?
WHITAKER: God, I love Buggy the Clown just because I love Buggy the Clown, but that was really fun. We spent a long time designing that set and designing the lighting cues, and figuring out how we were going to introduce him, and it really came together for me, the show. I mean, I loved everything we did before that, too, but that, as a cinematographer and doing a lighting design, was the most exciting for sure.
The slow burn of the Buggy reveal was just so good. I got goosebumps. Just so well done!
WHITAKER: [Laughs] It was super fun! Just like I was telling somebody, Jeff Ward, first of all, just coming on set – I had never met him, and the first time I met him he was in costume with his prosthetics, and I was just like, “Wow, you are Buggy the Clown,” and that’s not an easy thing to do. So yeah, he was fantastic.
So more broadly, in terms of your career, you recently worked on Special Ops: Lioness, and I’m curious because it’s so different in tone from One Piece, I was wondering how much a change in genre changes your approach, or does it change your approach to prepping into shooting?
WHITAKER: Yeah, it’s funny. That’s a good question. I think every show is just different in terms of the story. It’s not necessarily that I look at it like I’m gonna go into it and do something just because I want to do something. I look at it as what’s appropriate for the story. I’m working on a feature right now—I’m in Budapest in Hungary—and it’s a fantastical very out-of-the-box kind of unusual story, and then the show I did before this was very real and natural. It just sort of depends on what’s appropriate for the script, but I think in terms of lighting and camera, I approach them all the same. I’m super lucky that I don’t get approached to do the same kind of show all the time. I think some people get stuck in the horror genre, more docky genre, and I’ve been able to kind of flip and pivot, which has been really fun. One Piece was definitely– I was super flattered that they gave me so much confidence to do that because I’ve never done anything like that before. It was super fun.
What would you say, in terms of the way you shoot, is your personal stamp? Do you have trademarks, or is there something along those lines?
WHITAKER: I love lighting faces, so to me, it’s sort of like I want to see people and see what their emotions are and their reactions. I think when I was younger I was all about making things really dark, and as I’ve grown up as a cinematographer, I’ve realized that I really want to see eyes and faces more, and I’ve sort of grown into really focusing on that. So I don’t know if I would say that’s my stamp, but I think that’s something that I’ve been focusing on more in the last five years, is just really drawing people into what the actors are doing, as opposed to making it more about what I’m doing. That collaboration, in terms of storytelling with directors and actors as a cinematographer, is something that– I could say that’s my stamp! [Laughs] It’s a little vague, but…
I love a well-lit scene where I can see the emoting. It’s not as common as it should be. So I want to ask something, and I hate that we have to think along these lines, but to this day, there are still so woefully few women cinematographers. I feel our work should speak for itself, and I’m sure you agree, but is there, in the back of your mind, this additional pressure in taking on something this big or with this much riding on it, or do you really just put that out of your mind?
WHITAKER: It’s interesting, I was talking to someone on this show that I’m on right now, my financier, actually, the other day, and he said to someone, “Nicole would not have been shooting this movie seven years ago.” And I said to him, “I kind of think about that sometimes, and other times I don’t really let that get to me.” But it’s funny that you say there are still so few female cinematographers; when I started shooting 25 years ago, there were maybe a couple dozen. To me now, there’s so many it’s kind of overwhelming. I’m like, “There are so many women shooting!” I mean, there are so many cinematographers. On IMDB, there’s like 200,000 cinematographers or something, and I think when I started there were a couple thousand or something.
So, there are so many more people out there, which I think is amazing and wonderful. But I think, and I’m going to be completely honest, and it’s a little ignorant, I never thought about it. I just wanted to be an artist and do what I did, and I never let people tell me that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do or shut me down. Obviously, I felt it big time, but I was just kind of raised in a family that that wasn’t anything that we ever thought about, and I kind of have always carried that through my life.
I think, more so just as a human going on to a big project, it’s daunting. It’s a lot of pressure, whether you’re a woman or a man, even if it had been somebody else on the project. And Marc and I had this great sensibility, and to me, in my career at this point, working with people that I’ve worked with before is a huge plus and bonus because you have a relationship, you have a trust. Even if you go into a big project, you know that you’re going to work well together and have each other’s backs and understand each other’s [creativity] going into the project. So that for me on this project made me feel very secure because I was working with Marc for the second time.
To wrap it up, because you have experienced One Piece in all of its forms at this point I can ask you this; who is the Straw Hat Pirate you identify with the most?
WHITAKER: [Laughs] The thing that is such a bummer is I did not get to work with Sanji [Taz Skyler] or Usopp [Jacob Romero]. Of course, I hung out with them, Jacob and Taz. I love them. The five of them were together the whole time, they were there, they just weren’t in my episodes. I mean, I loved Iñaki [Godoy]…God, that’s so hard. Can I just say I love all of them?
Yeah, you can say that!
WHITAKER: I love them all. They’re so cool. But I do have to say Buggy blew my mind.
I like that. I’m a villain fan, generally speaking.
WHITAKER: I am a huge villain fan! I wish I could have shot some of the other villains, but Buggy was pretty fun to shoot. They were all so amazing.
One Piece sets sail on Netflix on August 31.