The American Society of Cinematographers

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The Borgias
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Neil Jordan and Paul Sarossy, BSC, CSC use digital capture to achieve Renaissance textures for Showtime’s The Borgias.

Photos by Jonathan Hession, courtesy of Showtime
Sex, murder, bribery, simony and theft: not the usual pastimes of a pope, but Rodrigo Borgia, also known as Pope Alexander VI, was head of a family whose lust for power inspired Machiavelli’s The Prince and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. Emerging at the height of the Renaissance, the Borgias rose to become one of the most prominent and notorious families in Europe, with Rodrigo’s occupancy of the papal office between 1492 and 1503 representing a high-water mark of Vatican corruption and greed.

Director/writer Neil Jordan spent a decade developing The Borgias as a feature film, but he eventually decided its scope and complexity would better suit a series format, so he struck a deal with DreamWorks Television. He then approached director of photography Paul Sarossy, BSC, CSC, whose work with director Atom Egoyan he greatly admired. Sarossy earned an Emmy nomination for his work on the first season of The Borgias, which saw Rodrigo (Jeremy Irons) come to power and establish his iron rule, and the cinematographer has returned for the second season as well.

Jordan directed the first two episodes of both seasons, setting the tone for the rest of the narrative. “It was my job to provide a visual guideline for all the directors who would come afterwards by establishing a style with Paul and then leaving it in his hands to maintain through the whole thing,” says Jordan. “The style basically demanded that directors commit to the dramatic dynamic of a shot and make that work, rather than gather loads of coverage.”

Jordan’s decisive approach suited Sarossy perfectly. “Neil’s method was to shoot with prime lenses, as though he was shooting a movie — we’d set up a shot with the viewfinder, and that’s what we’d shoot,” says the cinematographer. “On TV projects, many directors love the idea of shooting with zoom lenses and adjusting the frame between takes. My ideal way of working is the way Neil does it, where we’re constantly making very committed choices for the scene.”

Set during an era famed for extraordinary artistic achievements, The Borgias could not help but be influenced by Renaissance art. “We made as much reference as we could to the paintings of the period,” says Jordan. “If you look at a lot of Renaissance compositions, you notice these serried arrangements of heads, generally of angels and saints, so I tried to stack compositions with just the heads and the cardinal’s birettas when I was shooting things like the cardinals in conclave. In paintings of that time, you also often see people’s feet; you see people in long shot rather than chopped off at the knees, so when we were photographing Rodrigo and various cardinals walking down those magnificent corridors, I made sure we could see their feet and their costumes trailing behind them.”

Another aspect of incorporating Renaissance paintings and frescoes into the look of the show was recognizing the differences made by the passage of time. “There was a scene in a church that we tried to light entirely with candles,” Sarossy recalls. “As we were shooting, it was getting progressively darker. I wondered if there was something wrong with the camera or generator, but it became clear that it was actually the smoke given off by the candles. It made me realize how much pollution must have been in the air at the time, and how our collective impression of Renaissance artwork is affected by the aging of those artworks. There are so many instances of paintings being restored and shocking people with how colorful and bright they originally were. So in terms of a look, we had to decide between colorful and bright or the grime of centuries. Ultimately, we tried to strike a happy balance between the two.”

Smoke was an effective tool for achieving that balance: it was historically appropriate, it could be adjusted for each scene, and it helped obscure some details in the sets. Sarossy explains, “A lot of the Vatican apartments had frescoes, which we had to re-create with photo murals in the background. Neil was worried about whether they would work, so he was eager to use smoke in order to help mitigate the clarity of the [image]. As it turned out, they actually read quite well, but smoke became established as an ever-present factor. We used it to soften things and prevent too much examination of elements like the frescoes. You can control the amount of visibility and contrast by the degree to which you backlight the smoke.”

Much of the Vatican was rebuilt just after Rodrigo Borgia’s death, most notably St. Peter’s Basilica. To create the locations as they would have appeared during Borgia’s reign, the production built sets at Korda Studios in Hungary. The budget precluded the construction of each individual location, however, so an innovative, modular solution was devised. Jonathan McKinstry, who served as supervising art director on the first season and assumed François Séguin’s duties as production designer on the second, explains, “There were some sets that were fairly fixed because they were so distinctive, but for St. Peter’s we designed the modules in such a way that they could become grand corridors, libraries or other spaces within the Vatican. We also had two other stages with modular sets where the rooms could be reconfigured, walls could be moved around, and decorations could be applied or removed to create different locations.”

With sets continually being moved around, it was necessary to put most of the lights and cabling up on a lighting grid, with everything wired to a dimmer board. “The most important thing was flexibility in terms of lighting direction and intensity,” says Hungarian gaffer Balázs Vákár. “Essentially, we put up enough lights to cover every type of shot so we could quickly change between them. Day by day, we’d check with the art department about which walls they intended to move, and then we’d make the necessary adjustments. We sent lighting diagrams to all the electricians, and when we needed to switch from one setup to another, I could speak to them over the walkie-talkie from the dimmer board and tell them which drawing to reference.”

For Jordan, the modular sets had one significant downside. “The big problem with The Borgias is that you’ve got these absolutely magnificent sets, but there are very few ceilings because the lighting rigs have to be in place all the time,” he says. “Even though I absolutely love the wealth of detail that we’ve accumulated in the sets and costumes, I do long for a ceiling, because a lot of the detail and beauty of Renaissance architecture was in the ceilings.”

Though they are largely unseen, the fact that most of these ceilings would have been toweringly high played into Sarossy’s hands, as it gave him greater scope to invent sources for the light coming from above. “We always had to remind ourselves that although our set ended at a certain point, the [ceiling] might actually be two or three times as high in reality,” says the cinematographer. “The conundrum is always that you don’t want to take more advantage of the absence of ceilings than would be natural, but the realities of the architecture meant we could use a lot of clerestory lighting. You might have a solid wall in the background, but it was reasonable, and very useful, to assume that a high window was letting light in.”

Using simulated clerestory lighting necessitated a great deal of thought about the positioning of imaginary windows, though this was aided by Jordan’s predilection for historical accuracy and extensive research. Sarossy notes, “We did a fair amount of study on the original architecture of Old St. Peter’s Basilica, which helped a lot in terms of determining the direction of the light. For the interior, there was always a base lighting situation for day and for night, and most of those fixtures were hung from the grid. We had Molebeams coming through the side windows to produce a sun effect. Inside we had 10Ks preset to create various hits of sunshine and a big array of overhead spacelights reproducing the clerestory lighting.”


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