The American Society of Cinematographers

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Reframing the Wild West

The director discusses his work on the docu-style miniseries The American West with cinematographer Kevin M. Graves.



Photos by Kris Connor and Michael Moriatis, courtesy of AMC


The eight-part AMC miniseries The American West recounts how, in the aftermath of the Civil War, the United States conquered and settled the American frontier, transforming the vast western lands into “the land of opportunity.” The show focuses on little-known personal stories of such legendary historical figures as Jesse James, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, George Armstrong Custer, Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid.

This series marks my fifth directorial collaboration with executive producer Stephen David on a “hybrid” documentary — a form David pioneered that fuses the power of nonfiction with the immersive appeal of scripted entertainment. David’s earlier hybrid-documentary series include The Men Who Built America, The World Wars and The Making of the Mob: New York, and although I’d worked with him on each of those projects, I found The American West to be the most challenging of all our productions.


Unlike other documentaries, these shows are much more than just re-creations. We’re doing a full historical narrative that needs to connect seamlessly with traditional documentary elements such as talking-head interviews and archival materials. With The American West, we were also basically making an action movie, complete with gunfights, cavalry battles and train robberies — and we were doing it all on a 25-day shooting schedule, with the shoot split between West Virginia and Utah.

To meet the challenge, I turned to a longtime collaborator, cinematographer Kevin M. Graves. “Working with John can be described in one word: intense,” Graves acknowledges. “He often wants to move at a startling pace, but he never loses sight of the look we’ve created. So, going into this, I knew it was going to be a fun but challenging shoot, and that my background in documentary would be a huge help.”

For this project, Graves chose Arri’s Amira documentary-style camera with the Premium license. “These shows have one foot in the documentary world and one foot in the scripted space,” Graves explains. “The Amira seemed to balance those needs perfectly.” The camera’s light weight, small form factor, built-in NDs, and ability to shoot at a maximum frame rate of 200 fps were all important features.

For Graves, an even more important consideration was the Amira’s workflow for creating and maintaining looks. “In preproduction,” he says, “I spent many hours working in the Amira Color Tool [which has since been renamed the Arri Color Tool]. The power and simplicity of the application made it possible to test dozens of looks on a laptop before presenting them to John for discussion. After we found what fit the feel of our show, an .aml file was created for the A and B cameras, and a copy was also given to Johnny Saint Ours, our second-unit director-cinematographer.”

Digital-imaging technician Bradley Crane created H.264 dailies using the LUT Graves had made, adjusting it as necessary so the compressed footage would more closely match the on-set viewing LUT. “On set, the look would be applied to the viewing monitors, and it would be attached to the ProRes 4:4:4:4 camera files as non-destructive metadata while the cameras were actually recording in Log C gamma,” Graves explains. “No additional hardware or LUT boxes were required on set. The editors could then access this look info with ease for the offline edit.”

Offline editing was done on Avid Media Composer using the DNxHD 36 codec, under the supervision of co-executive producer Tim Kelly. Tim’s oversight was critical to the finished show; he’s an amazing storyteller, and he worked tirelessly with Final Frame Post colorists Charlie Rokosny and Sandy Patch to ensure continuity with the looks Kevin and I established in the field.

Having this ability to track looks throughout 30 years of story time — from Civil War-era Missouri to Tombstone, Ariz. — and have those looks follow all the way through postproduction was critical, especially given how fast we had to move on set. To further facilitate post and finishing, we used the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, capturing 1920x1080-resolution files. Final masters were delivered to AMC as 1920x1080 ProRes 4:2:2 QuickTime files.

To move quickly between setups, we relied on Angenieux Optimo 24-290mm (T2.8) and 17-80mm (T2.2) zooms for our dolly work, and Optimo 15-40mm (T2.6) and 28-76mm (T2.6) for handheld and Steadicam. For his 2nd-unit work, Saint Ours utilized Cooke S4s. Schneider Hollywood Black Magic filters in 1⁄8 and 1⁄4 densities were used throughout the production by both units.

The Amira’s form factor and workflow, as well as our use of zooms, further enabled an improvisational approach throughout the production. The actors and I would frequently adjust the script on the fly, which kept Graves — who operated the A camera — and B-camera operator Tom Inskeep on their toes. There were times during the production when the set felt more like a live event than a narrative set, as I called shots to the camera operators over IFB radios.

The improvisation also made lighting particularly challenging for Graves, chief lighting technician Justin Stroh and key grip Chuck Smallwood. “Early on,” says Graves, “I realized it was best to approach lighting in terms of spaces and sets, and not target areas for actors to hit.” This resulted in a naturalistic yet dramatic look that emphasized window sources and practicals, minimizing the time required for relights and helping the actors stay in character.

Further complicating the lighting, I have a tendency to position the A and B cameras at 90-degree angles to one another instead of stacking them side-by-side. When you’re doing a hybrid show like this, you can’t just think about covering the scene; you always have to think about how you can get a variety of shots that can be used in another scene or even another episode. Yes, it makes lighting tricky, but it also opens up some interesting aesthetic opportunities. A lot of beautiful images with silhouettes came out of our need to work this way.

“The great thing about these shows,” says Graves, “is that you get to be so creative so much of the time. There’s a lot of pressure, but also a lot of freedom. I think it really forced us to think outside the box, especially for the action sequences.”

We had to be particularly creative about how we approached the show’s centerpiece set: a two-story saloon that played for multiple locations. Production designer Ernesto Solo, art director Eric Whitney and construction foreman Damian Sarno showed incredible ingenuity that enabled us to change up the look of the set on the fly; my favorite feature was the bar itself, which was reversible and on wheels, and could be repositioned to give us a completely new look within minutes.

Despite the scheduling magic of 1st AD Michael Meador, we also had to turn this set around from day to night with very little time for relights. “The saloon looked great, but it was big and had dark wood walls and furnishings, so it really soaked up the light,” says Graves. “Chuck and Justin had everything pre-rigged overhead and on dimmers, enabling us to change from a day look to a night look — and back — very quickly.”

Throughout the production, I relied extensively on Saint Ours’ remarkable creativity to help tell the story of The American West. I would constantly ask him and his tight-knit unit — whom we deferentially referred to as the “X unit” because of their special-teams-like ability to move quickly and with precision — to shoot critical dramatic scenes, not just wide shots and inserts. One of the most important scenes we asked him to shoot was the moment when Jesse James (David H. Stevens) learns that his little brother Archie has been killed by Pinkerton agents.

 

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