'Insecure' Cinematographer Ava Berkofsky On Creating The Show's Iconic Visual Style

As the director of photography on Issa Rae's HBO series, Berkofsky has helped to redefine what half-hour comedies can look like.
Illustration: Isabella Carapella/HuffPost; Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

One of Ava Berkofsky’s most memorable “Insecure” moments ended up being a perfect visual metaphor for the show’s farewell season.

“We were literally shooting a night scene as the sun was coming up, as we were wrapping the season,” Berkofsky, who identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, remembered in a recent phone interview as HBO airs the show’s fifth and final season. “I just kept having to throw up more and more black solid cloth around the scene to block out the daylight so that we could finish the scene and finish the season and say goodbye to these characters. It was epic. It was really epic, and it really was sort of emblematic of this feeling of you don’t want it to end. But it’s natural that it ends. The sun’s gotta come up.”

Berkofsky has been integral to developing the show’s iconic visual style as director of photography since Season 2. In collaboration with “Insecure” director and executive producer Melina Matsoukas — whose TV shows, movies, music videos and commercials are known for their stunning visuals — they sought to redefine what half-hour comedies and shows created and led by people of color can look like, making each frame of the show distinctive and undeniably its own. From the luminous California sun to gorgeous color palettes, there’s no mistaking what an “Insecure” shot looks like.

“Melina and I had this real drive to change the look of the show and to try and elevate it and bring it into a more cinematic, culturally relevant or culturally engaged visual style, bring the style into a space that was less generic and more specific to Issa and everyone else who created the show,” Berkofsky said.

“Insecure” first got on Berkofsky’s radar through their friend Deniese Davis, who is a co-executive producer on the show and produced creator and star Issa Rae’s breakthrough YouTube series, “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.” Berkofsky was also just a huge fan of the first season of “Insecure,” which premiered in 2016.

As they watched it, they had a lot of ideas about how to make the show visually unique. As Berkofsky explained, more-conventional TV comedies often have “less deliberate” and “more broad” choices, like wide shots with a lot of characters in the frame and the camera following something funny happening in the scene.

But given HBO’s prestige and Matsoukas’ reputation, Berkofsky knew the show had the potential to aim higher. “When I got the opportunity to interview for the role, when the job became available the next season, I just went in and was very honest with what I would want to do and see, because I felt pretty strongly about what I would want to do and see,” they said. “And somehow I got the job.”

“Having people have your back and having people support you, and you supporting them: It's a beautiful thing. And that show, Issa and that whole crew have lifted so many people into their potential, and I think it's such a beautiful space.”

- "Insecure" cinematographer Ava Berkofsky

In crafting the visual language of the show, Berkofsky drew from a range of visual inspirations, landing on a style “somewhere between the kind of soft-palette work that Melina has done in her music videos that really celebrates color, and work that really celebrates melanin, really celebrates not trying to light everybody the same, really having nuance with how you approach lighting people with all different skin tones, all over the map, because there’s no one way to light anyone,” Berkofsky said.

With those goals in mind, “Melina and I spent a solid month every day testing cameras, testing lenses, testing color palettes, showing stuff to Issa, showing stuff to HBO,” Berkofsky explained. “And we settled on this sort of look that just evolved from Season 2 to Season 5.”

They tried to give each season its own look, experimenting with framing, lighting and blocking, and creating new color palettes. The visual style also evolved as new collaborators joined the show, such as production designer Kay Lee and costume designer Shiona Turini. Notably, in a field that is heavily dominated by men, almost every cinematographer on the show has been female or nonbinary.

Berkofsky is candid about how, without previous models to follow, “it was very hard to get people to believe in doing something different,” they remembered.

There were plenty of times when it would have been easier to compromise and shoot the show the way other comedies had been shot before — and not do it in what ultimately became the show’s signature style. But Berkofsky kept at it because “I really wanted to stay true to the vision that we had.”

“We really push ourselves to do excellent work all the time,” they said. “Certainly, [there were] places where I felt like, ‘It’d be so much easier if…’ But it wouldn’t be as good, and so we do the thing that’s better.”

That persistence is a lesson they hope to carry with them throughout their career. “I am going to continue to not compromise when I think that I’m really doing the right thing,” Berkofsky said. “It’s really easy to do what you think other people want you to do, and it’s a lot harder to do what you want to do.”

One of the many incredible achievements of “Insecure” is how it elevated the careers of so many of the show’s cast and crew members and fostered a supportive environment.

When things got tough, “Issa, [showrunner] Prentice [Penny], Melina and Deniese really, really stood up for me and really protected me,” Berkofsky said. “Having people have your back and having people support you, and you supporting them: It’s a beautiful thing. And that show, Issa and that whole crew have lifted so many people into their potential, and I think it’s such a beautiful space.”

Many people on the show have gotten the opportunity to expand their skill sets. For instance, stars Jay Ellis and Natasha Rothwell have also directed episodes of the series. Berkofsky has also directed two episodes — one in Season 4 and one in Season 5 — and hopes to continue directing.

“I’m a DP, and I love my life as a DP. But there are other muscles that you get to flex when you get to direct. I was like, I want to try using these muscles, and I know I can do the show service. I know I can do what needs to be done because I supported so many directors coming through. So I thought that they would be open to it,” Berkofsky said. “They didn’t say anything other than, like, ‘Yeah, of course.’ It was a real honor for me for them to just trust me like that.”

Berkofsky liked that being in the director’s chair presented new creative opportunities, such as getting to work more closely with the show’s actors and delve deeper into the storytelling and the characters’ relationships.

For Berkofsky, who started out working on a lot of documentaries and docuseries, “Insecure” helped them re-envision what their career could look like and gave them the confidence to pursue a wider range of genres. For instance, they shot the movie “The Sky Is Everywhere,” directed by Josephine Decker, which will be released by A24 and Apple TV+ in 2022. The movie, a dramedy based on a young adult novel by Jandy Nelson, follows a teenager grieving the death of her sister.

“I never would have taken this movie if I hadn’t done ‘Insecure,’” Berkofsky said. “Before I did ‘Insecure,’ I feel like I was always kind of looking for the drama, drama, drama, and not the levity. And I feel like I took this movie because I wanted to explore further the contradictions between drama and levity, happy and sad, complicated and simple, and beautiful and ugly traits in people.”

“I feel open to being able to explore different genres that I didn’t expect I would when I was coming up as a DP,” they continued. “And I feel like it’s just opened my eyes to how wonderfully culturally relevant our work can be — not just to other artists, and not just to a small group of people. It can really be relevant to the culture, and as a DP, that’s just the most beautiful possible thing.”

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