The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents December 2015 Return to Table of Contents
Vanja Černjul
David Greene
Christopher Norr
Crescenzo Notarile
Fabian Wagner
ASC Close-Up

Marco Polo, "The Fourth Step"

Cinematographer: Vanja Černjul, ASC, HFS

This is the second ASC Award nomination for Croatian cinematographer Vanja Černjul, ASC, HFS, who was previously nominated for the pilot Bored to Death.

Černjul’s work on the first season of the acclaimed Netflix series Orange is the New Black helped him land the job shooting the company’s ambitious series Marco Polo. “In addition to my previous relationship with Netflix, I had worked with [Marco Polo] producer Daniel Minahan the year before in New York,” says the cinematographer. “I was very excited when they offered me the show because it was very different from anything I’d done previously. Created by John Fusco, it’s a big costume drama with a lot of action, including martial arts.”

Though Černjul is partial to the Arri Alexa, he shot Marco Polo with the Sony F55, mainly because of Netflix’s requirement that its productions originate in 4K. “This was my first time working with the F55, and at the time it was the only camera on the market that we felt was viable for the show,” he recalls. “We had to shoot 4K, and we also knew we wanted to shoot a lot of high-speed work for the martial-arts sequences. The F55 can do both. The [Sony] F65 is a great camera, but its size is prohibitive for handheld, and we felt we would benefit from the smaller camera.

“It was a bit of a learning curve for me,” he continues. “We spent a good deal of time coming up with the right LUTs for the F55, working with colorist Dado Valantic from My Therapy in London. Specifically, my fellow cinematographer Romain Lacourbas [nominated for the Marco Polo pilot] and I wanted to emulate a Kodachrome look; we wanted that high contrast in both the highlights and shadows, and that very sharp color saturation. Kodachrome had a beautiful look, like something out of a National Geographic pictorial, and that’s what we wanted for Marco Polo. The LUTs we came up with, one for interiors and one for exteriors, emulated that Kodachrome feel but allowed us to light in our normal way without having to fill more because of the high contrast.”

Černjul chose to submit “The Fourth Step” for ASC Award consideration because “it was one of my favorite episodes of the season, and there’s a wonderful montage at the end of the episode that shows a great variety of looks. Also, it was directed by Alik Sakharov [ASC], and collaborating with a director who truly understands a cinematographer’s point of view is a wonderful experience.”

Production designer Lilly Kilvert’s contributions to the episode are another reason it’s a favorite, he adds. “Lilly’s work is unlike anything I have seen before. There is very little greenscreen in the episode. Almost everything was built by Lilly and her team, and it’s so wonderful to be able to work on such finely detailed sets. That doesn’t happen so often anymore.”

The climax of “The Fourth Step” is a nighttime battle set in a thick jungle. “It’s an ambush attack at night, and the jungle location was very dense,” Černjul recalls. “At first I thought it was ideal for a day-for-night approach because there was no sky to be seen, and we could do that work quickly and easily. But after discussing it with the writers, we determined that it was very important for the characters on horseback to be carrying torches, so night-for-night was our only choice.

“The jungle was so thick that it was difficult to know whether the backlight would penetrate the trees at all once we placed it. There was no time to properly test, and there were only two positions we could get our Condors into with 18K HMIs. So, we had to just put them up and hope we’d get enough light through the trees to shoot! It ended up being one of my favorite scenes in the episode. I guess that proves that when you’re confronted with a situation that scares you, you generally come up with the best solution when you face your fears head-on!”

Here is the 4-minute clip reel Černjul submitted with the episode:


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