The American Society of Cinematographers

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The Borgias
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Presidents Desk
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In general, Sarossy worked with tungsten lighting wherever possible. “From a philosophical point of view, I try to work with tungsten lights because you can dim them and use them at different levels. But also, in the smaller situations, I find that tungsten lighting is far more articulate, with more choice in terms of small fixtures. I only go to HMI when there’s an obligation to do so — when we’re outside or on location.”

Although most lighting was done from the grid, Sarossy took advantage of any opportunity to light from the floor. He notes, “Whenever we could afford to have lighting nearer to the situation, we’d have lights on the floor or on towers that could be moved around. We had a handful of different approaches depending on the scene or situation.”

The smaller fixtures in Sarossy’s lighting package allowed him to react swiftly to those situations. Vákár recalls, “Paul would come in and say he wanted a little floor bounce here or there, so we’d use a 300-watt or 650-watt fixture with white muslin that could be set up and then taken away very quickly.”

The windows running down the side of the St. Peter’s set were made up of small, opaque panes of glass in leaded frames. “It was fairly early days for glass technology at that time, so a lot of the windows would have been made of hand-blown glass,” notes McKinstry. “We used real glass for a few close-ups, but we couldn’t afford to do that throughout the set. Weight was also a factor, so we had them made out of resin or clear acetate.”

These types of windows were prevalent in many of the sets, and they presented certain photographic challenges during the first season, which Sarossy shot with Sony’s F35 digital camera. “Very often we couldn’t use the windows as a source if they were in shot, because they would be too bright to look at,” he recalls. “We’d have to dim them down, and the irony was that we were then adding another light somewhere off screen to [simulate] the window.

“But in season two, we’ve benefited greatly from using the Arri Alexa,” he continues. “Its dynamic range is far closer to that of film, so we can have a window in shot that is actually lighting the characters. What started as a problem in terms of design and historical accuracy became something we could embrace.”

“It was really interesting how the technology changed between the first and second seasons,” adds Jordan. “With the Sony camera, it was almost like working with a film stock from 10 or 15 years ago, in that a lot of light was needed just to get a basic exposure for certain scenes. The Alexa is quite extraordinary; the sensitivity and tolerance of what I was seeing was just amazing.”

Because of its recommended base sensitivity of EI 800, the Alexa has also made a significant difference in low-light situations. “When we had characters carrying lanterns through scenes in the first season, the lanterns had to be electrified,” says Sarossy. “This year, we discovered through testing that a real candle provided enough light to not just be seen, but also to light the actor. It’s really a watershed moment for cinematography. The increased sensitivity opens up all sorts of possibilities, particularly for a story whose palette is limited to flame-based sources and natural light. We found there were situations where we could shoot with a minimum of lighting intruding on the scene and the performances.”

However, the camera’s added sensitivity meant that more thought had to be given to achieving true blacks. “We have a story that involves clandestine conversations and secret plots, so what you don’t see is as important as what you do see,” says Sarossy. “We were almost obliged to find new ways of making people disappear in the dark because the Alexa sees so far into the shadows!

“You have to retrain your eye,” he continues. “Very often you’ll think there can’t possibly be enough light for an exposure, when in fact it’s more than enough. So do you accept the light that’s there, or find ways of improving it? It’s the difference between illumination and lighting. With the increased sensitivity, lighting becomes like finding the sculpture in the stone: you’re reducing rather than adding.”

The cameras recorded ProRes 4:4:4 files to SxS Pro cards, which were then dispatched to Colorfront, a digital lab in Budapest. Sarossy kept look-up tables to a minimum, combining in-camera color tweaking with tools such as 85 filters and polarizers. “Colorfront was absolutely amazing in terms of giving us immediate access to the images and the color work,” says Sarossy. “They provide the cinematographer with an iPad that has been calibrated to the lab, so first thing in the morning I was seeing graded images from each setup the day before. I could even change the grade on the iPad and send it back to them, which allowed them to incorporate that new information.”

Because of the tight schedule, two cameras were often run simultaneously, and for action sequences still more were employed, sometimes capturing in different formats. “We had a wonderful sequence in season two where we re-created a Palio horserace on the back lot, and we generated a lot of different angles with the Alexas and Canon 5D and 7D DSLRs,” says Sarossy. “One thing that was particularly surprising and wonderful was that the stuntman supervising the horse wrangling did a lot of rehearsals using a tiny Drift HD video camera. That camera is typically used for extreme sports, and we used it to get some great shots for the sequence. We put it on a boom pole, and while the horses are racing the camera is right in there among them, pretty much at belly level. Those are shots we couldn’t have done any other way.” The mix of formats also included 35mm film, which was used in an Arri 435 housed in a splash bag for a few underwater situations.

Postproduction for The Borgias was based in Toronto, where Sarossy worked with colorist Ross Cole at Technicolor. “I did as much in-camera as I could,” notes the cinematographer. “We’re now in an age where you can do all your flagging and netting in the DI suite, but I prefer to do it there and then [on set] and then just tweak the look [in post].” Cole had access to DVD copies of the offline edit, but he worked from the camera’s original ProRes files for his grade. He notes, “Having previously finished all four seasons of The Tudors, I’d witnessed the cinematographer’s challenge to use and/or emulate completely natural light sources for a period piece. For The Borgias, I strove to render a color balance that yielded the best look from Paul’s remarkable photography.”

Sarossy and Jordan agree that their firmly established style, the additional sets and the Alexa’s performance have added scope and texture to the storytelling this season. “I think the second season is superior to the first in all respects,” Sarossy maintains. “On one level, we were trying to maintain consistency with the look that had been established, but we were far subtler. We were able to exploit the successes of the first season and avoid the failings. Within that mix, the Alexa has allowed us to do so much more. We could revisit [certain aspects of the story], and the camera just brought them to life in a way that was quite wonderful and unexpected.”

 

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