Muppetry and misery in Manhattan: the recipe for new Netflix drama Eric explained by DP Benedict Spence.

A script about a missing child, a TV show puppeteer and a giant monster puppet set in the seedy underbelly of 1980s New York “sounded incredibly exciting and bats**t - in a good way,” to cinematographer Benedict Spence, “There was no way I wouldn’t do that.”


Behind the Scenes: Eric

Spence had received the script by award-winning screenwriter Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady, Shame) from director Lucy Forbes and production company SISTER with whom he had just made This Is Going To Hurt.

That was in summer 2022, and six months later Spence was in Budapest with star Benedict Cumberbatch as bereaved father Vincent and larger-than-life puppet, Eric, a creature of his imagination.

Real deal

“It’s a psychological thriller bordering on a fantasy with a lot of world-building because of its period setting,” says Spence who shot all six episodes with Forbes directing. “The puppetry scenes were incredibly rewarding and very complicated.”

Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch in Eric

The Netflix production designed two versions of Eric: a suit that fitted the design parameters of a Sesame Street-style children’s television show, and a hallucinatory Eric that would interact with Vincent and look more grounded in a public world.

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Experienced puppeteer Olly Taylor is mostly inside the hallucinatory Eric suit performing the body, face and left arm. Yet he couldn’t see from outside the 20kg suit except via video piped into first-person-view drone goggles. Nor could he see his hands and feet. The goggles were fed with four camera feeds, three from lipstick cameras trained on Olly/Eric from the set plus a fourth view from the main camera monitor.

An external operator remotely controlled the animatronic eyes and mouth of Eric’s head with a third operator handling the right arm of Eric’s suit for times when he needed to be multi-dexterous.

“He and Benedict would rehearse the scene on set,” Spence explains. “Benedict would perform the scene and Eric would mimic it.

“When the suit was on, Eric would come to life. It was amazing to be able to integrate this giant puppet monster with practical lighting rather than working with a shiny ball on a stick.”

Evoking nostalgia

Films like Taxi Driver and The French Connection were early references but their aim was not to make it look like it was shot in the ‘80s so much as wanting the story to feel as if it was from the past.


Eric, a limited series

“We wanted to give the impression of something from the past but nothing explicitly vintage; a feeling of something gently out of time,” Spence says. “New York is a place that I grew up with in my mind’s eye. Dozens of films and TV shows have been shot there. As we went deeper into the script it was obvious the scope of our story included family apartments, a police station, dark clubs, an underground village populated by homeless people.”

A particular still photograph that Forbes found of a subway with a graffiti-covered train with a man inside holding brightly coloured balloons summed up the essence of the show as a pure, joyful and colourful bubble encased in the rusty, gritty and dangerous world outside.

It was never going to be an option to shoot a production that extensive in New York because of its expense. In addition to which very little of Manhattan resembles the city of half a century ago. Budapest on the other hand had an existing New York backlot originally built for Hellboy II in 2008 which they were able to adapt, plus the city has several kilometres of underground beer tunnels.

After four months in Budapest shooting interiors at Korda Studios and Astra Film Studio as well as a number of civic buildings doubling for 1980s Manhattan they shot another five weeks in New Jersey and one week in Manhattan itself.

“Lucy and I like to shoot on wider lenses and to put the camera in the middle of the action. The image had to have both immediacy and a roughness to it. All our characters are broken in some way so we wanted to inject that.”

But with so many characters and plotlines to juggle across six hours, attempting a single style felt too much of a straitjacket.

“It would have done the show a disservice to be too strict when we have raw handheld scenes, lots of Technocrane and Steadicam, large sets, green screen and some virtual production work for a subway train scene.”

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Fit for purpose

ARRI Alexa tends to be Spence’s go-to camera and Eric was his first use of the Alexa 35. “I trust Arri to make a good camera,” he says. “The main thing for me on this show was the highlights protection. When shooting with lots of practicals and lighting faces, the extra latitude of the Alexa 35 means you’re not burning out [overexposing] the image but retaining all the information.


Behind the Scenes: Eric

“You can get most cameras to look like each other in the grade but being able to shoot and light the way I want on set without having to worry about it was a bonus.”

For example, scenes in the Lux nightclub were lit with a red colour wash. “Normally I’d be worried about clipping the colour channel but I had complete confidence that the Alexa 35 would hold all the detail.”

A set of Zeis Supreme Primes offered the speed (T1.5), focal lengths and compact build suitable for his camera plan. “This is a mystery thriller and a police procedural so to show clues in addition to misdirection we wanted a visual motif to draw people’s attention. The simple answer was a zoom.”

He put on a Fujinon ZK19-90mm to draw attention to real clues or red herrings and sometimes extended the optical zoom in post: “Using a zoom is also a cool retro thing that echoes eighties movies.”

Good Day Sunshine, the kid’s TV puppet show in Eric, was shot using older Ikegami studio cameras. Broadcast TV news segments at the opening to episode 2 were shot on DigiBeta tape.

Colour and contrast

Stitches & Glue, who also built creatures for Stranger Things and The Last of Us, built the puppets from initial designs by illustrator Poppy Kay based on Forbes’ vision. Since Eric had to exist in Vincent’s imagination but had to feel like he belonged in the Good Day Sunshine world, there was a lot of thought about his colouring.


Behind the Scenes: Eric

Burgundy, browns, cornflower blue and buttery yellow seemed to populate the New York landscape which is why Eric has a buttery hair colour combined with cornflower blue. His eyes are direct copies of Cumberbatch’s.

It’s a first major Netflix commission for SISTER which Spence admits made for a degree of tension at the outset.

“I’m a great believer in screen tests so the week before we started principal photography we took the main cast in costume and lit them on set. We graded that and sent it off to Netflix. That reel was a validation for everyone. We could see this show come to life.”

That test reel was used as the basis for the show LUT designed in concert with Spence’s long-term collaborator Toby Tomkins at Harbor Picture Company.

Having shot all interiors in Budapest in the winter they shot exteriors in New York in late Spring. Marrying those two was a matter of skill and luck.

“You can’t predict the weather that far ahead so do you light interiors for weather which may or may not be sunny or overcast or do you light more neutrally? There’s no right answer so I lit interiors for the mood I felt was right for character and story. We got lucky in that for the most part the exteriors matched what we had already shot.”

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