Q & A with Big Little Lies Gaffer Paul Samaniego

We recently caught up with the veteran gaffer and discussed his journey into the film industry, as well as his work on Big Little Lies. Samaniego has worked on several major TV shows and films such as The Mandalorian, To Old to Die Young, Angie Tribeca, Transparent, Jane the Virgin, I’m Dying Up Here, Ray Donovan, and The Darkness.

How many years have you been in set lighting? How did you get your start?

I’ve been working in set lighting for about 15 years now. I got my start in film school, at Brooks Institute of Photography, which no longer exists, but that is where my introduction to professional filmmaking began. When I first arrived in LA I bounced between camera and lighting quite often, but eventually settled into lighting, partially because of the importance it provides to cinematography, but also as a means to make ends meet. Early on I used to be a film loader, but it was difficult to find a regular spot with camera crews.  However, there was always a need for a young, able-bodied person to run cable and hang lights.

Was there any film or tv show in particular that inspired you to get into the film industry?

I grew up watching Star Wars and Indiana Jones, but my parents exposed my siblings and I to a variety of classic films, musicals, and Disney animations.  We watched several TV shows ranging from Magnum PI to Star Trek, but my main inspiration for wanting to work in the film industry came from my childhood friend’s uncle. He was attending Cal State Long Beach at the time, and made a short film in my hometown called, The Regulators. It had guns, explosions, and comedy. It was over the top and the greatest film I had personally experienced.

What’s your favorite project you’ve worked on?

It’s difficult to say which project has been my favorite one to work on. Each project is unique and has it’s pros and cons, but currently, I would have to say my favorite project to date is Big Little Lies Season 2. It’s not every day that you get to work with such amazing and talented women, let alone all in one place.

How would you describe the lighting style of Big Little Lies?

A visual style had been set from Season 1, so we didn’t want to deter too much from it, but naturally, we wanted to put our mark on Season 2. It feels cliche to say, but the DP, Jim Frohna, and my approach to the lighting style of Big Little Lies was lighting places, not faces.  We wanted to maximize freedom of movement for the actors while maintaining a natural and realistic feel to the images. In reality, people don’t always fall into Rembrandt lighting with a nice hair/back light. Depending on the emotional content of the scene we would accentuate what we needed to help move the story along. We were constantly shooting from 180°- 360° at any moment. LiteMats and LiteStix, in particular, were essential tools in helping us capture the style and look we were going for this season. We had to create setups that allowed the actors the freedom to move throughout the set and develop the scene without having to rely on hitting specific marks.

How did the locations you shot in factor into your lighting scheme? Were you presented with any challenges throughout filming?  

Locations were an important element in BLL, as it is a location heavy show. The director preferred locations to sets on stages, as I’ve come to see with many directors. It lends itself to the realism of the piece. So naturally, shooting on location has its own set of problems to deal with. Usually logistically i.e. control of the elements, space, accessibility to place lighting sources, etc… Sometimes we’d request a certain time of day to use the sun at the optimal time of day to help set the mood of our lighting.

Locations can provide certain difficulties with regard to power and overall logistics. LiteMats and LiteStix are lightweight and can be easily manipulated into a variety of positions making them suitable for rigging, especially on location. The LiteStix we used were great for hiding in corners or behind lamps to help extend the light we need for the shots. LiteMats are invaluable for work on location for any size of production, and the fact that they can be dimmed wirelessly is a huge plus.

Earlier this year Samaniego finished working on the upcoming Star Wars series, The Mandalorian which will premiere on Disney+ this fall. Currently, he has been working on commercials and doing some 2nd unit work on a few different shows.