As a renowned cinematographer, Frank Byers had a crucial role in the creation of Twin Peaks’ stunning visual look. Using filters, low-key lighting and lengthy takes, Byers built upon the stylistic foundation which had been established in the pilot episode by David Lynch and Ron Garcia. Byers was a cinematographer (DP) on every single episode, apart from the pilot, and he has also worked on TV series such as CSI (CBS, 2000-2015) and Switched at Birth (ABC, 2011-present). Also, he is credited as director of photography on numerous different films, including Jeffrey Bloom’s thriller Flowers in the Attic (1987). I talked with Byers about cinematography, about creating a visual aesthetic and about the changes in the television industry over the course of the last 25 years.
AH: How did you get to be a part of Twin Peaks?
FB: I had done a rock video with Gregg Fienberg where I had used magician flash powder, and that was why I got to do the show. Fienberg was a line producer on Twin Peaks.
AH: You use an optical filter in Twin Peaks, and it is shot on film. Both of these elements contribute to a sort of timeless and almost cinematic style. Did you attempt to give the show a cinematic feel, and was it meant to have a sort of timeless quality, as if it could have taken place in the 1950s or any or time period for that matter?
FB: There are numerous filters. The first season I shot on Aeroflex, and I have to say that I am not too happy with it. I think it’s too contrasty, so I would use different filters. The first season was shot on Fuji film, and for the second season they would change to Kodak. That changed the show very slightly.
The colors came from David. He wanted a warm look, because he wanted all of this evil to come from a warm setting. Because of the transmission from ABC we had to back it off a little bit. The first episodes looked very red.
AH: In the first episode of the second season, there is a lengthy scene in Dale Cooper’s hotel room where he meets The Giant. According to Carel Struycken, David Lynch chose to stop the production process from more than an hour, for someone to get some sort of prism or a certain objective in order to make a very untraditional low-angle shot (in terms of television and given that you were not shooting at a sound stage). How do you remember shooting this particular scene?
FB: It’s called a low-angle prism. David said he wanted a low angle, and I said, “Sure”. The thing is that it was never conventional coverage. We shot it one camera, and we shot it film style, and we also used wider lenses. I looked at Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. That was my visual template for the show.But the other thing is that the takes would play longer. It wasn’t like MTV cutting, and that was David. That’s always been David. He knows how to let things play. That, I think, was the real piece of innovation. And that took a long time to be integrated into TV.There were people back then saying, “Hey, this is like watching paint dry.” I know they didn’t understand David, but he didn’t care. He couldn’t deal with it otherwise.
AH: How about the final episode of the second season? That had a truly exceptional look. Could you say a few words on that episode?
FB: We shot the last episode with a reverse mag, and Michael J. Anderson would learn to speak the lines backwards.
The day we shot that – and this is beyond the pale for television – David came in and said, “We had to rehearse this,” and they rehearsed for four hours. I’m sure that some of it was devised during those four hours. That was probably the most innovative episode.
AH: Something which is visually striking in terms of Twin Peaks, if you ask me, is the way that the camera often lingers – often for a markedly long time – on something, and, also, the use of different shots of seemingly irrelevant objects that contribute to the mood and general symbolism of the show (e.g. the ceiling fan, the traffic light at Sparkwood and 21). Was this something that you discussed with David Lynch or was it intuitive?
FB: That’s David. That was an element that was there for moment one. Most of them are inserts, and often times on television, someone comes in and does those inserts, and they don’t look correct. But not here. David did it, and he spent as much production time to do those inserts – very intently – as he did doing other shots. There are scenes where nothing much happens, and he said, “Frank, set the mood”. If you watch Eraserhead. The way it’s cut, the shots, the use of inserts and the tempo – all of these elements are similar in a way to Twin Peaks.
AH: The use of lighting, just like the pacing, seemed quite different from what you would usually expect on a television show, and many people have argued that Twin Peaks was a groundbreaking show. Would you say that it changed television drama in any way, and how, in terms of cinematography, was Twin Peaks groundbreaking?
FB: I absolutely think that it has changed the standards of TV, although it was an evolving process. ABC wasn’t really behind it when it came out, and it didn’t have a long run. David Lynch told me that his initial take on it was to do something akin to a six hour miniseries.
I think it was enormously influential, but it took a while for it to be so influential. I went to a seminar at USC, and they showed – digitally projected – all the episodes over the course of four Sundays. And they’d have a number of speakers for each episode. When I went, it was Tim Hunter, Piper Laurie, Paul Trejo and myself. Anyway, the room was packed, and it was obvious that it was no average screening. It’s in 1.33, the old television aspect-ratio, and to see it in that old aspect-ratio was mind-blowing.
[Twin Peaks] had an enormous visual effect on TV. When I did that show, what was nominated for best cinematography was Jake and the Fatman… Personally, I don’t think TV was ever the same. It was like The Godfather. When it came out in 1972, everyone said, it was too dark – ‘You can’t see the eyes’. It was shot by Gordon Willis, and that has been hugely influential. That changed the minds of many people, but the producers weren’t happy with it to begin with.The idea of the look came from David. He would even go overboard in terms of what the network wanted, saying, “Make it darker, make it darker, make it darker”.
AH: The ratings dropped during the second season (from 34 million viewers in the pilot to 7.2 million viewers late in the second season). Why do you think that the ratings started to drop?
FB: Once they solved the murder case, the show really changed. And at that time, Harley Peyton became a major player, and his scripts were really different, as I recall.
AH: How can we see the influence of Twin Peaks on today’s so-called quality-TV shows in the US and abroad, and which series are, in your view, most clearly inspired and influenced by Twin Peaks? And why?
FB: If cable had been around, when Twin Peaks was originally done, Twin Peaks would never have been on a network. It would have been a cable show. To be honest, I haven’t watched network television for years. Cable television is far better. Just look at shows like True Detective or Breaking Bad. Also, the nature of true-crime drama shows has changed over the course of the last 10-15 years. The other game changer, to be honest, is Game of Thrones. It’s actually a very good show, and that wouldn’t have been possible without Twin Peaks.
All of the directors on Twin Peaks had been feature directors, but they were mostly doing independent film. Uli Edel had done some independent films in Germany, Caleb Deschanel was a cinematographer, whom David knew from The American Film Institute, and Tim Hunter was hitting it big at the time with River’s Edge. I don’t think that any of them came from television, and Twin Peaks may have been the first instance of that.
The visually stunning opening of the second season which uses low-key lighting and extreme low-angle shots: