Arlene Nelson

Arlene Nelson

Bryant Swanstrom
Arlene Nelson

Arlene Nelson on set of Secrets of Playboy

Courtesy of A&E
Arlene Nelson

Arlene Nelson on set of Secrets of Playboy

Courtesy of A&E
Fill 1
Fill 1
July 01, 2022
In The Mix

Arlene Nelson Brings Secrets to Light

The dark stories she heard while shooting A&E's Secrets of Playboy led the cinematographer to infuse rays of hope. 

Years before she worked on A&E's Secrets of Playboy, Arlene Nelson, ASC, filmed Hugh Hefner for the 2012 documentary Sunset Strip.

"He was very polite, very gentlemanly to me," Nelson says of the Playboy founder. "He complimented me at the end and said what a great experience it was, and that I was the first female cinematographer he had ever worked with."

Hefner's demeanor that day foreshadowed the dichotomy Nelson would explore as codirector and director of photography on codirector-showrunner Alexandra Dean's Secrets of Playboy. Hefner supported civil rights and women's causes, pushing his brand as a road to empowerment, liberation and freedom for women. But abuse that is alleged to have occurred at his homes — Playboy Mansions in Chicago and Los Angeles — led to drug overdoses, suicides and at the very least, PTSD among many of Hefner's girlfriends, employees and the famed Bunnies.

"It's a beloved brand. We knew that we were going to upset a lot of people," says Nelson, a 2011 Emmy nominee for the American Masters "Troubadours" doc. Her many other credits include Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult for Starz and Ava DuVernay's Home Sweet Home for NBC. "But we felt it was important to hear from the women who experienced Playboy in a very different light. They lived through the shame and pain and hurt of that experience and still carry it with them."

Accordingly, Nelson filmed interviews with sixty-three Playboy veterans, including men, in the U.S. and Europe, almost half recorded remotely because of Covid travel restrictions. A&E added an extra two episodes to the original ten.

"We wanted to give both an immersive feeling to the subjects' environments, where we find them now, but also an intimate feeling, as if the viewers were sitting and talking to our subjects themselves," she says. "So we went with two cameras — one that captures their environment and the main one, where we have the subject looking directly into the lens. That's very raw and feels empowering.

"There is a darkness to these stories," she adds. "There are a lot of shadows within the frame. Yet we wanted to convey a hopefulness. We always tried to incorporate a window; that was the lightness coming in. And it was never too dark on the subjects themselves." She also played with those concepts in re-creations — dark images would emerge into light, for instance — and she used a camera that could match the look of each decade.

In January, Nelson experienced some lightness of her own: admission to the prestigious American Society of Cinematographers. "I'm honored and humbled," she says. "I truly look forward to participating within the cinematography community. I'm very excited about it."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #6, 2022, under the title, "Secrets to Light."

Browser Requirements
The sites look and perform best when using a modern browser.

We suggest you use the latest version of any of these browsers:


Visiting the site with Internet Explorer or other browsers may not provide the best viewing experience.

Close Window