Peeling Back the Slasher-Inspired Look of HBO Max’s ‘Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin’ with Cinematographer Anka Malatynska

Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin
"Espionage"--Coverage of the CBS drama BULL scheduled to air on the CBS Television Network. Photo:Barbara Nitke/CBS ©2021 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved

What do Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, CW’s Riverdale, the 2013 remake of Carrie, and Orion Pictures’ The Town That Dreaded Sundown all have in common? Besides being a little sinister, it’s Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Having written or produced all of these titles, it’s evident that Roberto has a special likeness for the horror genre and giving existing properties a dark makeover. His latest project, HBO Max’s Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin, being a perfect example of this. With the constant horror references, the hooded “A” being recast as a true slasher villain and all the uneasy death scenes, the reboot is pure terror. 

Highlighting that terror is the cinematography by Anka Malatynska. It’s no surprise why Malatynska was brought onto the series after looking at some of her previous credits, Amazon’s I Know What You Did Last Summer and Hulu’s Monsterland. It’s safe to say Malatynska has a unique approach to darkness. An approach that is never redundant and one that she keeps fresh through inventive lighting techniques and camera angles. While Malatynska enjoys working with darkness, she explains below that there are a lot of other worlds she would still like to work in. Next up for Malatynska, Steve Buscemi’s feature film, The Listener, starring Tessa Thompson. Read our full conversation with her below.

You can stream Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin on HBO Max.

Pretty Little Liars Original Sin Poster 1024x1281 - Peeling Back the Slasher-Inspired Look of HBO Max’s 'Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin' with Cinematographer Anka Malatynska

Dread Central: Firstly, what attracted you to the series?

Anka Malatynska: I feel like what attracted me to the series was the storyline, the powerful female characters, and the way that they were being framed and portrayed. I think there’s a lot of girl power in front of and behind the camera, including the directors, myself as the DP, and our entire team. I think it gives a very different spin from the female gaze of horror. And that’s actually one of our episodes, the female gaze and turning the male gaze into the female gaze. And that’s what attracted me to the series.

DC: What sort of research did you do before beginning work on the show?

AM: Well, I took the show over after the pilot shooting block of the series and I started with episode three, so predominantly my research was really deeply delving into what they had already been doing on the show. Joe Collins, who was the pilot cinematographer, established a really beautiful dark look with Lisa Soper, that I know Roberto, our showrunner, really protected. So my main research into the series, beyond watching some of the original series, was really all about absorbing the visual style and the visual language that had already been established in the first two episodes.

DC: Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin creators, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Lindsay Calhoon were heavily inspired by horror films, particularly of the slasher variety. Did they make you go back and watch any classics to get inspiration for Pretty Little Liars?

AM: I don’t know that they made us go back to watch movies. But for sure every time we referenced a horror movie in the series I would go out and watch it again, whether I had seen it or not. And we would actually, even intentionally build shots that are taken from those horror movies. It went as far as in the fifth episode, which is the female gaze episode, we recreated a sequence from the original Psycho. Kind of like in our inception of shooting it, we actually shot all the setups in the shower murder scene in Psycho. They weren’t all used in the final cut of the show, but we were very, very true to the genre and very true to doing our research as filmmakers. When anything was referenced, we were diving right into it and pulling inspiration

DC: Each episode of Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin pays homage to a slasher film or character. Do you have a favorite horror film or character that wasn’t covered in season one that you would like to see in season two?

AM: Alien! And I know that’s sci-fi, but it’s more like sci-fi horror, and we did have talks and had inspirations from the alien movies as well. And the other thing that I think would be really fun to incorporate into season two, is actually more of a Twin Peaks, David Lynch kind of vibe to our creeper character. Me and two of the directors that I worked with joked about it being kind of fun if our creeper did some wacky off-the-wall, things that are really like Twin Peaks creepy.

DC: So the masked creeper “A” is pretty scary. Were there certain techniques that you utilized to make them more menacing? Like specific camera angles or lighting?

AM: In general, it was like a season-long discussion between myself, our production designer, and our directors of what it is that actually makes the creeper scary. And what I eventually landed on was the idea that the creeper is scarier when he’s further away or when he’s more obscured. I think he’s scary in episode seven when we come up behind him at the Carnival of Souls and we don’t see his face close up.

Then just embracing really steep, low angles. In episode four where Noah runs away from him, we used a 10-millimeter lens at 8K that didn’t really bend, so it wasn’t fish eye distorted, but it did make him look really scary in low mode on a steady cam backtracking with him at full speed. So, you know, lower, wider, further away, more obscured, silhouetted, all of those things are elements that make a character like the creeper scarier.

DC: You were also the cinematographer on Hulu’s Monsterland, and then more recently on Amazon’s I Know What You Did Last Summer, which are both darker projects. Why are you so attracted to the horror genre? Do you like other genres as well?

AM: I also love so many other genres and actually beyond these three projects, I’ve really worked the gamut of genres from comedy to drama. But what draws me to horror and to science fiction is the darkness, the permission for more inventive visuals. I love anything fantasy, sci-fi, or horror because I feel like there’s a much broader spectrum of what you can do visually and stylistically and build it into the storytelling seamlessly. I’m attracted to powerful shots and interesting framing. Making darkness beautiful and not just dark is like a gold star in my cinematography badges and in my bag of tricks.

What I’ve really worked on in many ways and in many films and projects has been ‘how do you make darkness look sexy and attractive and have shape’ and ‘what does it mean when the lights are off in a house that’s in the middle of the countryside and it’s a whole new night’ versus ‘what does it mean if the lights are all out in a graveyard that’s foggy and dark and it’s a moonless night?’ Like how do you shoot that? How do you show characters without over-lighting?

And I really feel like in Pretty Little Liars, I hit a really beautiful stride with that. I had a great collaboration with our gaffer. We really worked at the very, very toe of the visual gamma curve and kept things really dark and had a lot of encouragement and permission to push the envelope. So that’s what’s attractive—pushing the envelope, doing new things, making darkness beautiful, making the ugly impactful in an emotional way.

DC: Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin takes place in the shared universe of Pretty Little Liars. How is your cinematography different than the original series?

AM: I think there is a very big emphasis in the Original Sin series for HBO Max on how we utilized the visual language of horror. We went over at the beginning of this conversation, that we’re actively referencing so many art house 70s and 80s horror films, and we’re embracing that visual language and we’re pushing it into the show. So I think the show is much more highly stylized. I think it lives in a very unique visual world that has some definite rules.

I feel like the original series was a little bit more shot in the way of ‘this is life as it is’. It’s just trying to evoke and replicate reality of that time period. Whereas really, we were building our own world of Millwood, Pennsylvania where everything is old, all the cars are old, everything is dark, the paint is chipping, the bathroom walls are dirty at the high school, the hallways are dark and under lit. And yet, our characters have cell phones and computers and for all intent and purposes, live in a modern world. Just that modern world is very vintage.

DC: What rules do you follow when mapping out a jump scare? Or in the build-up to a jump scare?

AM: That’s a tricky question. I think every jump scare is a little bit different. But I think what helps is building tension. What I love to use is really slow camera movement to build tension. But you can use the idea of no camera movement to build tension. And then, a lot of it plays on the reaction of the person. Like a classic jump scare is, if you have a steady cam approaching somebody from behind, it does give a really ominous feel. And then you have someone’s hand reach in and they turn around, and give the reaction of a jump scare. That slow-moving camera that’s building tension, juxtaposed with a very strong reaction from the character will build a jump scare.

If there are great elements of contrast, that can also be helpful in a jump scare. Whether it’s contrast in lighting or in the camera angles, whether you’re looking from a really high angle or really low angle. So I think jump scares are both about building tension. One, you can build tension through movement, or you can build tension through denying any kind of camera movement. But I think it’s about a strong decision either way. And then I think any kind of situations that we want to evoke a really strong emotional reaction in our viewers, the more contrast we have, or the more tension we have in our framing, which can be really unusual angles basically.

DC: The show has been well received by critics and fans. Why do you think the series is resonating so well with viewers?

AM: I think it’s a powerful, modern story that is very on point in regards to some of the issues that young women are actively dealing with today in our country. And very specifically speaking to rape, being assaulted, to the repercussions of that, and how as a young woman you can deal with the repercussions of that. I think this is a subject matter that is right now currently in the zeitgeist. And without talking about what’s happening in our country, we’re raising the question of, you know, ‘what is an appropriate way of dealing with this?’ And then we’re pushing it into the horror genre which allows us to break the rules of reality and take things to extremes. I think this is why it’s really deeply resonating with people.

And at another level, I think we crafted the series incredibly well. We have such a strong, beautiful visual language stemming from the production design and the cinematography. And then we have these amazing characters, five beautiful young women. We’re framing them in much more powerful ways. I think these storylines give them a lot of power. You know, I’m just hearing left and right that people are loving it. And I think it’s the craftsmanship from the performances, to the writing, to the production design, to the cinematography, and all of that on top of a framework of a story that is very deeply embedded in the zeitgeist of what is going on for us in this country as women.

You can find out more about Anka Malatynska at 

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