Juggernaut of the manga/anime world, Netflix’s ambitious live-action adaptation of One Piece hit the streaming platform last week and is already making waves with fans, new and old alike. Key to the series’ success is its bright and zany visual language, which cinematographer Nicole Hirsch Whitaker, ACS, broke down to Hannah Collins.
Were you familiar with the source material when you took the job?
Nicole Hirsch Whitaker: Yes, I grew up with a son who was obsessed with One Piece and still is, even at 22. He had all the volumes of the manga growing up. He knows more about it than probably most adults.
He must have been excited about you working on this, then!
Nicole: So excited! He got to visit the set, too, in South Africa – we used a lot of practical, built sets, including the ships. I’d worked with our director, Marc [Jobst], previously and was happy to do so again.
What were your expectations going in?
Nicole: That’s an interesting question. Honestly, none, other than knowing Marc was going to want to do something very visual, very groundbreaking, and tread on new territory… He’s done work with Marvel on Luke Cage and Daredevil, The Witcher, and I’d done Jupiter’s Legacy with him by that point, so I had an idea from those of what to expect.
What was your approach to adapting something from a comic/cartoon, versus what you might have done if it originated from a more serious novel – or real life?
Nicole: I was approached by Marc back in 2020, a year before we started [production on One Piece], just to spitball ideas and imagery – find a visual language for the show that was still respectful of the manga and anime. At the same time, we also wanted it to be different from them, more grounded. Things like the lighting style ended up being a thread for the whole series.
What were your biggest concerns or challenges going in, and how did you overcome them?
Nicole: Available daylight is always an issue, and not being able to rotate the ships. We had very big rigs and it’s windy in South Africa! It took some time to work out how to make it all look really good, but with a great crew, we learned to schedule things around the sun. When we were shooting inside some of the tanks, it was different, but with the smaller versions of the boats, you could spin them to chase the sun. It’s always easier to light something than control the light.
How large a production was it?
Nicole: It was pretty big… I want to say there were around 400-500 people in total. And of that, 100 on my crew.
Were you aware of the poor reputation live-action versions of manga and anime have, and did this add extra pressure?
Nicole: Yes. You know there will always be sceptics who don’t want you to adapt anything, lay your hands on a ‘precious’ IP and change things. But there are some changes you have to make for live-action, such as Luffy wearing shoes [instead of sandals]. It’s just not practical for the actor, otherwise. You’re never going to be able to please everyone, but we hope that as well as catering to old fans, this version will bring in new ones, too.
Did you draw inspiration from any other similar adaptations?
Nicole: Oh yeah: Scott Pilgrim, Kick-Ass, Deadpool, Guardians Of The Galaxy… anything where the creators did a really good job.
Did you have visual reference points beyond the source material to guide you?
Nicole: Yes, they were very broad. We looked at Slumdog Millionaire, for colour and the sort of ‘whimsy’ the kids in that have. We also looked at different films in terms of moving the camera – using wide lenses and being very close to people’s faces, which is what manga and anime does. If you’re too wide and there’s too much scope, you don’t get intimate with the characters.
For the water work, we looked at Life Of Pi, Pirates Of The Caribbean, Goonies… classic adventure stories. Marc comes from a theatre background, so there was a lot of lighting from off the floor or from windows. We actually mostly shot in daylight which is unusual for [the] fantasy [genre]. Usually, you shoot things at night because it looks more dramatic.
You’re probably sworn to secrecy, but can you tell me anything about the show’s future if it continues – how many seasons may happen, etc?
Nicole: I don’t know! I hope we make enough seasons to make people happy, but not so much that it drags for too long.
The manga has been going on for a long time – 15 years, I think?
Nicole: Twenty-five! It just had its anniversary. So yes, there’s definitely enough story there. But I think if the live-action version did continue for a while, it’d be interesting to see which characters audiences really relate to, and maybe there could be solo adventures, like prequels or spinoffs.
OK, the most important question so far: who is your favourite character?
Nicole: Oooh, I don’t know if I can choose. From a cinematographer’s perspective, I’d say Buggy because he was just so fun to light and film. That whole set – his circus tent – was designed from scratch so we had to work out how to light it from above. We ended up giving Jeff [Ward, who plays Buggy] and other people lights to have in their hands, so that as they moved away from fellow actors, we could still follow them.
Was there much improv on set?
Nicole: [Nicole shakes her head a lot] Not at all. But the actors all had a lot of freedom of movement.
Your reaction there makes me wonder how strict things were regarding getting certain things right. Did you need approval on a lot of things?
Nicole: We did need approval but it wasn’t super strict. That was more during the writing process though, which I wasn’t part of. The main thing is that [Eiichiro] Oda [One Piece’s author] likes it! There were certain canons we had to hit on, and visually, certain frames – like when Shanks passes on the straw hat to Luffy; when he, Zoro and Nami are in the [Navy base] yard, some shots of Alvida and Gol. D Roger at the start…
Lastly, another important question: If you could have a Devil Fruit power, what would it be and why?
Nicole: I get that you kind of need one to survive in that world, and every power has a positive and negative, but I wouldn’t want one.
So you’d want to be someone like Nami?
Nicole: Yes, someone who is incredibly powerful even without one.
That’s what’s great about Nami: she’s powerless but that doesn’t mean she’s weak.
One Piece is currently streaming on Netflix.
words HANNAH COLLINS