The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents December 2015 Return to Table of Contents
Martin Ahlgren
Pierre Gill
James Hawkinson
Jeffrey Jur
Romain Lacourbas
ASC Close-Up

Marco Polo (Pilot)

Cinematographer: Romain Lacourbas

This marks the first ASC nomination for cinematographer Romain Lacourbas, who was behind the camera on the pilot for the ambitious Netflix project Marco Polo.

Netflix requires that its original programming originate in 4K, and Lacourbas recalls, “When we were starting prep, there weren’t many choices in 4K cameras. I did some testing with the Sony F65 and F55 and the Red Dragon. Knowing the conditions we would be shooting in, especially the extreme cold of Kazakhstan, I wasn’t very confident in the Red. I felt Sony was a more reliable source, so it came down to the F65 and the F55. I was very impressed with the F65, but it proved to be too heavy for the postproduction work; it required twice as much hard-drive space for the footage. So, we went with the smaller model.

“The production designer, Lilly Kilvert, and I were a bit worried about the high resolution and extreme sharpness that comes with 4K, because all of the backgrounds in Marco Polo are painted backdrops — we never shot greenscreen onstage,” he continues. “When the image is very sharp, painted backdrops start to look a lot less realistic.”

To combat the sharpness, Lacourbas chose Panavision PVintage lenses, rehoused Panavision Ultra Speed lenses from the late 1970s. He also conducted extensive filtration testing, and determined that the 1/4 Schneider Hollywood Black Magic was his key for fighting the sharpness. (He added a Classic Soft HD for some close-up work.)

“I found that the F55 was quite impressive in its retention of color in low-light areas,” he notes. “It maintains color saturation in underexposure really well, and I enjoyed working with the camera overall.”

Lacourbas, who went on to shoot some episodes of Marco Polo, chose to submit the pilot for ASC consideration for practical and sentimental reasons. “I’m a bit more attached to this one because it was the pilot. We shot it in Kazakhstan, Malaysia and Venice, Italy, and I feel it’s the episode that makes the audience travel the most.”

The production’s primary location was the stages at Pinewood Studios, Malaysia. “We were completely packed in there,” Lacourbas recalls. “We had five stages completely full. I had to have them lit and ready to shoot before we got back from shooting in Kazakhstan and Italy, but the sets were barely started when we had to leave, so I had to design all the lighting plots on paper and finalize them from the road over the phone and Skype.”

Lacourbas likes to maintain color separation on all of his sets. For daylight sequences, he’ll work with a mixture of HMI and tungsten to get that color contrast. “One of the biggest challenges was that there are only three sources of light in the world of Marco Polo: sun, moon and fire. I wanted to do something different with my moonlight and go less blue and more cyan. I also felt that would be easier to separate out from the natural color of fire. So many scenes are lit with candlelight or firelight, and I wanted that to be a good, deep orange, so we shot those scenes at 4,300K — one of three Kelvin temperature options on the F55.”

To create his cyan moonlight, Lacourbas used HMI fixtures with Lee 242 Fluorescent 4300K gel. “I also made sure that all of our HMIs were completely calibrated to the exact same color temperature, with no green or magenta shift. Then that gel created a beautiful greenish-cyan moonlight.

“This show was truly an amazing adventure,” the cinematographer concludes. “There were about 35 different nationalities involved in the production. It was a huge melting pot where everyone learned from each other. I think this also gave the show a unique quality. When everyone is from different places and has different life experiences, you end up making something better because you share unexpected thoughts about how to make images.”

Here is the 4-minute clip reel Lacourbas submitted with the pilot:


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