There’s a strong argument to be made for the idea that the general public is spoiled by the extremely professional and exceptional entertainment available to them these days. Internet and streaming services have provided a greater opportunity for the artists who make these productions to create whereas the “gatekeepers” in previous decades had engineered the types of stories to be told. Someone who doesn’t take this situation for granted is Junbai Zhou who has worked on films, television productions, music videos, and nearly every variety of storytelling medium being created. The cumulative benefit of this enables her work as a chief lighting technician to apply styles in a sort of cross-pollination approach, as Junbai did for the Amazon Prime Series Breakfast with Granny. When the producers of this scripted streaming comedy series wanted to adopt the look of a Reality TV series, they turned to Zhou to help manifest this. Adopting the aesthetic of a Reality show but making specific alterations to highlight the comedic moments was a key part of landing the jokes, subtle or hyperbolic, for Breakfast with Granny. The show has received immense praise for its originality with countless mentions about how the look of the show balances the humorous situations presented in the story lines. While Breakfast with Granny has a vastly different tone from other productions Junbai has worked on, such as the Justin Bieber: Seasons documentary series (starring the pop icon and winner of Grammy, Brit, AMA, and host of other awards), an exceptional visual style is always essential to great storytelling; a facet Zhou established in Breakfast with Granny.

The Simple Life (starring Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton) was an extreme version of manipulated Reality TV in the early 2000s. This sort of overly engineered “reality” is still in existence today but the idea of playfully mocking it is often attempted. The creatives behind Breakfast with Granny may have perfected this with their “small town meets Hollywood” core which winks at the idea of the fine line separating comedy and reality these days. There’s more than enough comedic finger pointing in the story lines of this show to nudge viewers towards the idiosyncrasies of small town folk and metropolitan entertainment professionals. As per the show’s namesake, Granny and her not so bright grandson welcome a number of different notable personalities into their home, from adult film stars to beauty queens to actors like Michael Jai White (Image Award nominated actor known for Oscar Winning film The Dark Knight, Spawn, Black Dynamite). There are more than a few instances in which the divide between people is proven to be not so wide, such as when Granny exhibits her affinity for recording artist and TV personality Channel West Coast (known for her work on MTV’s Ridiculousness and The Hard Times of RJ Berger, and as a rapper signed by Lil Wayne to his Young Money Entertainment label).

Director James Maynord and the show’s DP wanted to adopt the aesthetic of Reality productions while still utilizing a comedic framing. ala Junbai relates, “Most of the frame language was to be geared towards ensemble comedy framing with static wide shots rather than too many coverage shots and crazy camera movements. I suggested that we utilize an approach similar to The Office (NBC’s Golden Globe winning comedy series) type of lighting to achieve what they are looking for; very low contrast and desaturated in lighting.” She continues, “At the risk of sounding like I’m putting too much emphasis on this approach, we really could have disrupted the whole feel of the show if we didn’t appropriately match the comedy. Sometimes lighting can be used to emphasize and exaggerate the action taking place but a show like Breakfast with Granny needed to blend with the flatness of the humor. The enjoyment of the show is in the believability of it, not some ‘over the top’ events. In making the lighting feel ‘common’, we allowed the viewer to not think about it and as a result focus on the characters. That’s not such an easy accomplishment.” Testifying to this idea is the fact that the show takes places in Granny’s ranch house with numerous picturesque windows with its constantly changing natural light. On an hourly basis, Junbai readjusted the lighting to maintain a common look for filming. Anyone who has ever worked on a set can confirm that the quickest way to derail filming is with inappropriate lighting.

In contrast to much of what she manifested for Breakfast with Granny, Junbai will take a decidedly dramatic approach to her work on the upcoming documentary The Fight by Kathy Woo. The film depicts the female aspirations and pursuit within the Punk Rock music world. Tarah is the featured artist whom the camera accompanies as she seeks to prove that a woman is both as relevant as any male artist of the genre and still allowed to define who she is in terms of her own femininity. This presumption of duality allows Junbai to cultivate both soft and strong lighting looks to illuminate the personal and professional life of this exciting Punk artist.

Writer : Cecil McCoy