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Inside ‘Insecure’: How the show created the ‘realness’ of Season 4

A photo montage of characters from Season 4 of "Insecure."
Season 4 of “Insecure” has been one the best in terms of visuals. Here’s how it created the colorful, cinematic world that brings L.A. to life.
(Ross May / Los Angeles Times; HBO; Getty Images)
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Warning: The following contains spoilers from Season 4 of “Insecure.”

There’s one “Insecure”GIF that’s probably the most used “Insecure” GIF of them all. It shows Kelli talking to Issa and stating: “You know what that is? Growth.” She says it matter-of-factly and in such a way where you don’t need context to understand. The line is in Season 3, but it’s the most recent Season 4 where it truly applies — to the characters, to the plot, and to the overall direction of the show.

Issa Rae as Issa Dee in HBO's "Insecure."
(Merie Weismiller Wallace / HBO)

Maybe it’s the timing of this season (during a pandemic and in the midst of political unrest) or the personal topics they tackle (getting back with exes, growing apart from best friends), but it’s one of the most arresting so far. And a big part of that has to do with the evolution of the visual storytelling.

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“If you were to go back today and watch the pilot of ‘Insecure,’ you would see that this show looks different from other comedies, but we were also still growing into ourselves,” producer Amy Aniobi says. “I think there were things about it that weren’t always fully artistically consistent — and that’s no fault to who’s creating the show and who’s behind the camera — but it was because we were all learning.”

Writer Phil Augusta Jackson and producer Amy Aniobi on the set of HBO's "Insecure."
(Merie Weismiller Wallace)

Aniobi, who’s been with the show since the first season and started out writing on Issa Rae’s YouTube series “Awkward Black Girl,” gives credit to director Melina Matsoukas for setting the tone, language, and vision for the series from the very beginning (Matsoukas worked on the show for Seasons 1 and 2), while cinematographer Ava Berkofsky was brought in on Season 2 to help elevate it to what it is today — which is, as Aniobi describes it, a show that’s “shot like a comedy, lit like a drama.”

Berkofsky was a fan of “Insecure” before she joined the crew. “I saw the first season, I thought it was so special,” she says, but she thought it could be improved.

Ava Berkofsky on set of HBO's "Insecure."
(Moira Morel)

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“I didn’t think it was taking the tones and the nuance of what it’s like living in L.A. into account and incorporating them into the story,” Berkofsky says. “Instead, it did a flat, bright job of lighting. I just thought it was a missed opportunity and that the show deserved more.”

Together, Berkofsky and Matsoukas, drew inspiration from films like “Nightingale,” “Selma” and “Moonlight,” as well as Flying Lotus’ “Until the Quiet Comes” music video to establish the show’s vibrant yet muted aesthetic. And it’s Berkofsky’s approach to lighting (she has a no-white-light rule at night and leans on filters and reflections) and color that helps give the show its cinematic appearance.

“We embrace color on skin and we embrace color in production design,” Berkofsky says. “I soften the sharpness of all the colors in the camera and bring it into a similar place .… There are a lot of soft pastel colors with a distinct attitude.”

Michelle Lawler on the set of HBO's "Insecure" in Mexico.
Michelle Lawler on the set of HBO’s “Insecure” in Mexico.
(Joey Moran)

Director of photography (and Berkofsky’s right-hand woman on set) Michelle Lawler says one of the most challenging parts about shooting at night are the LED streetlights prevalent in the city. She counters that with color separation (which includes “adding warmer lights in the front and cooler lights in the back”) to add some depth.

While “Insecure” focuses on the lives of Issa, Molly, Tiffany, and Kelli, one of the show’s most important — and perhaps commanding — characters isthe city of Los Angeles. As Aniobi points out, the crew on average shoots about five days on location and one day on stage for each episode (to compare, she says, a typical network comedy usually does four days on stage and one day on location). So, L.A. acts as the backdrop more often than not. Specifically, South L.A. where both creator Issa Rae and executive producer Prentice Penny are from.

Yvonne Orji and Issa Rae in HBO's "Insecure."
(Merie Weismiller Wallace / HBO)

“Issa is like an encyclopedia of Inglewood, she knows so many places already, so that is so useful,” Aniobi says, noting that, a lot of the times, the locations are already chosen and written into the script in advance. “To have somebody at the helm who really cares about showcasing South L.A. in such a positive light really matters.” Rae has made it a point to present a part of the city that’s not always celebrated on television or in films, which can also come with its challenges. “Unlike Hollywood, a lot of people aren’t used to the streets being shut down or the coffee shop just not being open [during filming] today,” Aniobi says. “Season 1 they were like, ‘You’re shooting what for who? Why can’t I go get coffee?’ Now, people know the show so it’s like, ‘Oh, can I be in it?’”

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From a visual standpoint, Berkofsky and Lawler try to take advantage of all that the city has to offer, and that includes its seemingly endless supply of sunlight. “I think light is the thing for me that differentiates L.A. from other places,” Lawler says. “Clear blue skies, super high sun, and a lot of light.” Berkofsky adds that they try to capture those “golden shafts” of light even when they’re shooting on stage or inside. “We’re always trying to motivate from that hot sun and let that give the whole image a warmth,” she says. “We want the whole image to feel drenched.”

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Yvonne Orji and Issa Rae in HBO's "Insecure."
(Merie Weismiller Wallace / HBO)

Something else that she’s tried to incorporate more of as the seasons progress is the overall environment. “There are a lot of murals, there’s a lot of interesting architecture and mixture of architecture, it doesn’t all look one way,” she says. “So whenever we can, we go around and shoot whatever is happening. We got a Nipsey Hussle mural that was just finished and is super beautiful and we try to get as much of that as possible, the realness of the city.”

Production designer Kay Lee was brought on in Season 3 to help advance the progression of the characters and see them through pivotal moments, like Issa’s decision to leave her job and strike out on her own and Molly accepting a job at a predominately black law firm.

Yvonne Orji in HBO's "Insecure."
Yvonne Orji in HBO’s “Insecure.”
(Merie Weismiller Wallace / HBO)

“I wanted to show how, as we age, we also have to acquire slightly elevated tastes,” Lee says. “They’re no longer in their scrounging twenties where everything is from Ikea or hand-me-downs or what you can find on the street.” Her aim was to bump the production up a notch, and one way she went about doing that is via the characters’ apartments.

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For Issa, Lee wanted to stay true to her “warm, rooted, earthy” color palette (which is also influenced by her wardrobe, put together by costume designer Shiona Turini). Since she’s taking over the manager‘s unit in her building, it already comes with character and feels lived in. “We wanted to embrace the wood paneling and some of the existing wallpaper that was already present in the apartment,” she says, and modernize it with the pieces they brought in, including artwork by primarily black artists. “It was really important for her to feel like she is actively leveling up,” Lee says, but also that her space feels different from the one she previously shared with her ex-boyfriend Lawrence. “The story was that a lot of the furniture in the style that was in her first apartment was really more Lawrence than Issa,” Lee says, which she describes as classic, Midcentury modern. “So, it was really about ‘Who is Issa? What is her style?’”

A set from Season 4 of HBO's "Insecure."
(Merie Weismiller Wallace / HBO)

Molly’s space is something of a foil to Issa’s. It’s in a high-rise building and has that quintessential sterile high-rise feel to it. “Molly was always this refined gray; her building is downtown, is very white — with subtle hints of pink — lots of glass, and with dark wood,” Lee says. “There’s something about Issa that balances out Molly’s … I don’t want to say ‘hardness,’ but that’s what I think of the materiality of her space.”

We get a glimpse of Lawrence’s apartment this season, and we also see the giant green couch — the one he and Issa bought together back in Season 1 — situated in the middle of his living room. The same one that, in Episode 9 of this season, we witness the couple re-fall in love on during a montage shot by Lawler and directed by Kerry Washington. “We’re always thinking about ‘What is this saying, what is this doing?’” Lawler says. “Everything is purposeful and intentional and in service of the story.” But before Issa and Lawrence get back together (or do they? we’ll find out soon), we witness them reunite inone of the most romantic episodes and one of the most visually stunning scenes of the series.

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Jay Ellis and Issa Rae in HBO’s “Insecure.”
(HBO)

When Kay Lee was asked to put together the now-iconic scene, it was right after the block party episode, which included around 500 extras, shutting down a section of Inglewood for 10 days, and a lot of headache-inducing logistics. “Everyone was like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe we have to do an art walk now in the middle of downtown,’” she says. One of the biggest challenges was making it look as realistic as possible. “We could have maybe rented all the artwork from prop houses, but we didn’t,” Lee says. “There were some supplemental pieces we did for background that we rented, but for the most part we reached out to local artists to see if they would be willing to come in, set up their booth, or bring in their artwork, let it sit there overnight, and then pick it back up the next day.” Over 30 artists, a majority of them black, participated. Then the question became: how are we going to have Issa and Lawrence navigate the space while keeping an air of allure? Which is where Berkofsky, who directed the episode (Kira Kelly worked as the DP), came in.

“I wanted it to feel like a dream, which is why I asked them to make clouds for the beginning,” she says. “I wanted to make it an environment where you felt like people could fall in love, and it was a time outside of time.” She continues: “A place where they can be honest with each other and have fun. You can see their chemistry and the ease that they have together. And doing it in an art walk was perfect because they were moving through all of these different textures.”

Then there’s a shot midway through the scene that’s quick to take your breath away as a viewer. It shows Lawrence in black and white set against a red neon background and Issa in red set against a blue one. “I didn’t know if it was going to work because neon can be so problematic for camera,” Lee says of the choice. “But I wanted to get it anyway.”

For Aniobi, this is the moment that — in the four seasons the series has been on air — best sums up its ethos. “It’s 50/50 of love and friendship: Issa and Molly, Issa and Lawrence,” she says. “Right there, we are literally black people looking at ourselves. That’s what the show is: It’s black people looking at ourselves for the first time in years.”