Manifest Season 2: Cinematographer Sarah Cawley Teases Stylized Callings, Altered Reality, and Favorite Episode

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The mystery of Flight 828 continues on Manifest Season 2 as the Callings intensify, the death date looms over the passengers, and the Stone family scrambles to figure out what the Major wants.

However, the world of Manifest with its mystery, intrigue, and mythology, wouldn’t be anything without the cast and crew that bring it to life. 

At the helm sits Sarah Cawley, the Director of Photography on the show’s second season, whose impressive resume includes pilots of Ugly Betty, Salem, and Ringer, in addition to plenty of TV movies and documentaries. 

What Do We Have Here? - Manifest

TV Fanatic had a chance to catch up with Sarah and talk to her about how she approaches the visuals for the show, how she styled the Callings, her creative process, what her background brings to the season, and so much more. 

She also gives fans a tease into her favorite episodes of the season, which includes something “big” in the season finale! 

Tell me a little bit about the work that goes into cinematography for an episodic series filled with mystery and mythology.

So, I came out for season two, I was not on for season one, and I really wanted a stylized show a bit more for season two, like the Callings feeling a little bit more subjective and a little more dreamlike, so we did a lot of testing before Manifest Season 2 Episode 1.

Making the Call - Manifest Season 2 Episode 3

Joe Chapelle directed that episode, so we had to we had to figure out our look for the Callings, which ended up being the lens' baby.

And we had to figure out the nose dive sequence in the airplane. And some of the key props like in 201 the calling is a form of shaking, so we tried out a couple of different ways to get the image to shake, and we landed on the Keslow camera image shaker.

There was a lot of a lot of testing, which I actually think is really fun and creative. When you say you're going to do a day of camera tests, it doesn't sound that exciting, but really it's a great thing to get done before you show up on set to shoot.

And there's a whole mythology aspect to season two which actually was present in season one as well. A lot of key props that give clues on, and a lot of times for us that would be like a macro shot if it's a small prop some of which you'll see coming up in upcoming episodes.

Standing Up For What's Right - Manifest Season 2 Episode 2

How is that different from feature films and episodic television? Does it require a different approach?

Yes, it does. Features are different than TV, and it takes a different approach from the D.P

One big reason that a feature is different is that I'm working with one director and we spend so much time together and prep.

Gathering visual references and visiting our sets, so that by the time we're shooting the film we have a very developed idea of what we're striving for. And we're both totally on the same page.

On TV, there's a rotating slate of directors, so sometimes I’ve worked with the director before, but if it's somebody who’s new to me we have to get through that prep process really fast during our prep time, so the fact that there's different directors coming in all the time on TV makes a difference.

Doing The Right Thing - Manifest Season 2 Episode 3

And then there's the aspect where, as this season’s DP, I alternated with somebody else, John Inwoods, so the two of us were the stewards of the visuals on the show, so we definitely welcome new ideas from the directors.

And then, if it turns out that some of those things don't seem like they're gonna mesh especially well with the visual look we can talk about that and see how much of it we want to hold onto and how much of it we want to modify, so it fits in well with what we've established.

I've done a lot of indie features and on those there's some room for flexibility like if you get to a location and there's beautiful light happening over this way, you know sometimes you can be flexible and change your blocking so that you get that.

You get that beautiful light, or you change which way you’re going to look, and I would say on television, that's less the case.

Like once you've tech scouted, especially in New York City, you're kind of locked into the way that you're looking, you got permits, you got trucks, you got locations and you've got TV show time pressure, so you don't have as much maneuverability once you’re tech scouted.

When you show up your executing what you planned as fast as you can and then you're moving on to the next set.

Also, one challenge of TV is just that frequently even though it's single camera, you do have two cameras rolling at the same time. And if you're looking at more than one direction that just adds a lighting challenge that in feature you don't usually get into quite as much.

Baby on Board - Manifest Season 2 Episode 2

What's the typical time between when you start filming an episode to when your done and you're onto the next one?

On Manifest, we had about nine days to prep and nine days to shoot. Sometimes it would be eight days of prep in nine days of shooting, and for the season finale I think we had a couple extra days, but there was roughly nine days as a prep and nine days of shooting.

That’s tight. 

Yeah, it's a tight schedule. They really stacked it up very efficiently, and it was scheduled to get maximum screen time.

How is Manifest different from other shows you’ve worked on, ie. Ugly Betty, Salem.

Well, one thing is Salem was a pilot.

I've done a lot of pilots and they are a different thing than shooting an entire season of episodic because on pilot you usually have a bit more time and you're creating the visuals for the whole season, so any location that you establish you definitely think about it because once you establish in the pilot, usually they'll be building it if the show picks up and you go to series.

On Salem, we built that whole town in Shreveport, Louisiana. The entire town of Salem was constructed, trees were planted. You know, everything was created from scratch.

And that one was especially challenging because it was a period piece where there was no electricity. But once I did the pilot, I was done with that, and some series people came in and completed it. That's the difference in shooting a pilot and shooting a season of TV.

Holy Grail - Manifest Season 2 Episode 1

But Ugly Betty season one is, in terms of schedule, was pretty similar to Manifest because it was a breakout hit and just the fact that the show was such a hit, even almost to the point where it was unexpected, so they were putting a lot of attention to the ratings which meant script pages would come to set pretty frequently.

A lot of long days, a lot of tandems which is similar to what we did on Manifest. We did do a bunch of tandems where an odd episode and an even episode would be shooting at the same time.

What elements did you bring to season 2 that maybe weren’t as present in season 1 or not as big of a focus? 

I think more expressionistic everything. More expressionistic visual style; you'll see a lot more of it coming where reality and an altered reality are intermingled.

And it takes longer to pay off. It’s a more stylized and expressionistic viewpoint of visual language where it's not just naturalistic photography. 

The Law - Manifest Season 2 Episode 2

You mentioned that you use specific lenses for the Callings, how do you approach the differing timelines?

Yeah, the lens baby is like the signifier for when someone having a Calling and then for things that are from the past we didn't do too much really to the photographic image. 

You know there are some flashbacks, and it might be ever so slightly desaturated, but we didn't do anything optically too much for flashbacks.

We put a lot into the Callings, and I will say that only a few episodes have aired and it might be that they build as the season goes on and take on more dimension and take up more screen time on the show.

So we would do the special effects and visual effects, and everybody was involved in the Callings. 

I had the lens baby; we would also take an Artemis picture.

I would take on my iPad intake line up the exact shot with our exact lens and take a picture of what we wanted to do because as the season builds in the episodes that have not aired yet, you'll see there is more style to the Calling even beyond just the lens baby, there's visual effects, special effects, there's more expressionistic lighting that comes up.

The Major - Manifest

How do you bring the Manifest world to life? Do you do anything to put yourself in that mindset?

The Calling’s many times feel like it's a snap into an alternate dimension and a snap out of an alternate dimension.

And in addition to the shaking that characterizes the Callings early in season two, there's other different kind of sensory input coming up, so the director and I would just try to really think objectively about how that would feel if that happened to you.

How that alter-reality would come in and then go out. And that will be revealed in the episodes that come up.

But I would also say that Callings aside, bringing the world of Manifest to life like with the word dynamic came up a lot, and we really wanted to move the camera when possible and be out in the fabric of New York City whenever possible.

The Callings are stylized but there's also a lot of more naturalistic organic cinematography where the cameras on the shoulder and our people are out in the streets in Manhattan and Brooklyn and Queens and they're in that river of humanity of New York because that was something that came from the producers like very much trying to be out and be shoulder to shoulder at times in New York City like it was literally a character in the film, and they really wanted to feel like we were here.

Important Meeting - Manifest Season 2 Episode 3

Is it hard to film those scenes and gets those shots in the middle of a crowded New York?

I didn’t do any scenes in Times Square, but we have a similar piece in 2x13, the season finale, I would say we were out in a very populated landmark in Manhattan, and you know, it’s great to be there because the showrunner kept saying is "we're in New York I want to be out in New York.

I don't want to feel like the show could have been shot in Toronto."

It's difficult but it's not. It's doable like our production was pretty able to get a large group of background, control traffic, get us a lock-up so that we could Steadicam across an avenue as happened in 201 when Michaela is walking away from Central Park and we Steadicam right across Central Park West.

It's difficult and it can be slow, but it's so worth it that we got it done.

It really does feel like New York is a character, you’re right. 

Yeah and really, Jeff Rake would say, "I don't want this to feel like it's Toronto."

Without digging into too many spoilers what's been your favorite part of season two?

My favorite part of season two, 207, really has a special place in my heart. It had a lot of great challenges, and it was the middle of the season, but things really culminate, and there's a lot of amazing big events.

I got to put to work like literally everything I've ever learned. Also, the season finale, 213, is so great. It was a lot of great challenges and a lot of suspense.

That’s exciting, I can’t wait for that. 

Yeah, it's exciting for sure.

A New Friend - Manifest Season 2 Episode 3

What’s your ‘rule of thumb’ to being a successful cinematographer?

I think my rule of thumb at this point after I've been doing it for quite a while, is like I really feel like I only have one game now and that's my A-game.

If I'm doing something I'm doing it a hundred percent, so if it's a big show I'm doing a 100% percent or if I'm shooting a public service announcement it's 100% percent.

When I was younger, and I was coming up I would differentiate in my mind between this is a bigger job, this job is just a favor for a friend so I'm going to handle these two things differently.

Now, I just don't differentiate. If I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it a hundred percent, and it just takes all the guesswork out of it. If I'm on this thing, I'm gonna do my very best.

Nasty Look - Manifest Season 2 Episode 3

Would that be the advice you give to anyone trying to pursue a career in cinematography?

Yes, I would say that that's part of it, and I also think that pursuing a career in cinematography is challenging so I'm just going to say if somebody has talent and excellent communication skills and a tremendous work ethic then they have a platform to start from.

One thing I think people might overlook is that there's so much personal connection in this business that it really pays to show up and meet people as opposed to like email or an electronic kind of communication.

It's just always worth it to go to the screening, to go to the trade show, to go to the demo, to go and see people because you’re building your network.

A lot of people prefer to work with people that they've met before, so you can form all these friendships and then, later on, they'll pay off. Some other producers on Manifest I'd met very early on in my career.

And when Season 2 came up, and I got a stack of resumes from the agency, and they got the UTA resume, that’s who reps me, they see my name there and they're like "oh I remember her we did a couple movies together," and we had that past to build on.

I think those types of things are very important. I think social media has some value, but I think that actually building your professional network has a lot of value as well and should not be neglected.

Exes & Partners - Manifest

It’s all about making connections. 

It's true.

What’s the most challenging thing you’ve faced within your career?

I mean I have two answers for this like one of them is 213 was a big episode, and there were some challenges in it that were tough to crack.

We had a lot of success, and it came out great.

You know, I guess that would be like the most challenging episode of the season, but I would say the most challenging thing about being a DP is the human side of things like big group of creative people working long hours with time, pressure, and all the pressures of being on a film set.

It's my personal goal to keep calm and non-reactive and professional when things are hectic, and I would say that's an ongoing challenge.

Lizzy Buczak is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow her on Twitter and read her personal blog at CraveYouTV.

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Manifest Quotes

Michaela: I am still the same screw-up you said goodbye to in Jamaica.
Grace: The universe just gave all of us a giant do-over. Everything that happened before goes out the window.

Ben: Why are you fighting this when all it's gonna do is make you happy? That's all we want for you.
Michaela: That was really sweet of you. You must be drunk.