The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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TV Series
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Robert F. Liu, ASC
Isidore Mankofsky, ASC
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
 

Morgenthau, Di Bona and Prinzi all praise Hendrickson’s production design for bringing 1970s New York to life. When he wasn’t designing studio sets, he was on location, dressing entire blocks of downtown Manhattan to look like Richard Nixon was still in office. “I had to find an architectural vernacular to represent the age and decay of New York in 1973,” says Hendrickson. “I did it by using architecture from the 19th century as a jumping-off point.” The city of the series is layered with brick, cast iron, old stucco and plaster, all chipped and distressed. Hendrickson tended toward darker settings, including basements and cellars, “because that’s rich and gives the cinematographers textures to light,” he says. 

The filmmakers were so clever in their efforts to avoid anachronisms that almost no digital effects were required to remove physical traces of 2008. (CG work is more often used to add buildings, such as the World Trade Center, to backgrounds.) For a scene set on a rooftop, Di Bona’s methods included shooting the actors against the dark night sky and cheating shots around telling parts of the skyline. Prinzi found that backlighting or using an extremely long lens to throw the background out of focus allowed him to shoot safely in almost any direction. It helped that both cinematographers are longtime New Yorkers and remember what the show’s neighborhoods looked like back then.  

At its core, Life on Mars is a science-fiction story, and when a “burp” in reality sends Tyler into a different dimension, the production’s modern Panavision cameras are swapped for hand-cranked 35mm and Super 8mm cameras. (Most of the show is shot with Panaflex Platinums and Millennium XLs.) 

When Tyler first awakens in 1973, there’s a 360-degree camera move around him as he tries to process what has happened. Fleder had Morgenthau shoot the move with a Platinum and a Panavision-modified hand-cranked Arri 2-C mounted side by side. “There’s some hand-cranked double-exposure stuff in that scene as well,” recalls Morgenthau. “I was thrilled that some of that stuff made it into the show.” The recurring flashbacks that show Tyler chasing a girl wearing a red dress through a forest are intended to be disorienting to the audience, so they were shot handheld in Super 8 on Fuji Reala 500D 8592 that had been re-cartridged by Pro8mm in Burbank.  

The final color for Life on Mars is set in the dailies by colorist Chris Gennarelli at Technicolor New York, and then taken a step further in the online by colorist Mike Sowa at LaserPacific in Hollywood. “Color is one of the things that gives away period,” notes Morgenthau. “Modern color stocks are vibrant, and if you look at color photographs from the 1970s, you’ll notice that the separation of colors was not as clean. I wanted color bleeding into the blacks.” Morgenthau took digital stills of his lighting setups and colored them in Adobe Lightroom before passing them on to Gennarelli. Prinzi and Di Bona work hand-in-hand with Technicolor to get the dailies as close as possible, but a lot of the final decisions are out of their hands; the production schedule often prevents them from giving notes on every shot. 

In the series’ second episode, Tyler made a list of 12 possible explanations for his mysterious predicament, and they included injury-induced coma and extraterrestrials. No one who spoke to AC knows which answer is the right one, or how long it will take Tyler to figure it out, but they don’t seem to be too bothered. They’re having such a good time they’re in no rush to spoil the mystery of the Martian Way.

 

TECHNICAL SPECS
1.78:1
35mm, Super 8mm
Panavision and Arri cameras
Panavision Primo lenses
Kodak Vision3 500T 5219, Vision 500T 5279, Vision2 500T 5260;
Fuji Reala 500D 8592

True Blood
by Jay Holben

When writer/director Alan Ball hired Checco Varese, AMC to shoot the pilot for HBO’s horror fantasy True Blood, the cinematographer spent the next several nights “doing my homework,” he says. “I watched everything I could that was on TV at 10 p.m. I flipped to one channel, and it looked fantastic; the show was moody and had lots of camera energy and a bit of a blue tone. Then I flipped the channel, and that show looked great, but it looked just like the first one. Then I flipped again, and again, and saw that most of the shows looked the same. That’s not the case now — there are a lot of great shows with a lot of great looks — but at the time, they all looked the same to me! I thought True Blood merited a very different look, something sweaty, hot and sexy, which is what Louisiana feels like. Alan, [production designer] Suzuki Ingerslev and I decided to make it a saturated show, with red reds and green greens.” 

Another key component of the look is humidity, which had to be artificially created for the Los Angeles-based production. “When you’re in a very humid climate, there isn’t any dust,” notes Varese. “So whenever we shot an exterior, I made sure every inch was wet down.” Fire hoses were used to wet down the vegetation in the background and Hudson sprayers were used to saturate the closer greens. “I was obsessed with that detail because I think it really refines the look,” says Varese. “When you see those details in the trees in the background and the sheen in the foreground, it really looks like Louisiana. The constant wetness was tough on the actors, but it really enhanced the look.” 

Set in the sleepy town of Bon Temps, La., True Blood is based on Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Series, which was begun in 2001 with the publication of Dead Until Dark. The invention of synthetic blood has enabled vampires to integrate themselves into human society, but the transition has not been smooth. Tensions in town reach a boiling point when a comely local, Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), takes up with a vampire, Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), and Sookie’s associates and loved ones begin turning up dead. 

Varese achieved his night-exterior look by pushing Kodak Vision2 Expression 500T 5229 by 1 1/2 stops (to 1,500 ISO) and overexposing his highlights and deeply underexposing the shadows while maintaining skin tones right at key. “I wanted the night look to have a rough-around-the-edges feeling, and pushing the stock a stop and a half gave it more texture and grain without making it grainy. You have to control your tones, however.” 

To create overall ambience for night exteriors, key grip Miguel Benavides and gaffer Jonathon Bradley strung lines of aircraft cable 40' above the ground, just over the trees, in a small section of the Warner Bros. backlot in Burbank. From the cables, they hung rows of 6K space lights. Then Varese incorporated an LRX Piranha, an 80' boom arm with three remote-controlled fixtures, a 12K HMI and a 12K tungsten as his moonlight backlight.  

Varese always made sure the “good guys” had an eyelight. For “bad guys” and ambiguous characters, he eliminated any reflections in their eyes, ensuring they had a dull-eyed look. He even went as far as blocking out windows and masking set items to eliminate any reflective sparkle in the characters’ eyes.
 

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